Sunday, November 6, 2011

2011 In Review

I've gotten behind a bit on my reviews, so I thought I might just do a few quick reviews for some of the 2011 films I've seen recently.

El Velador:

A solid documentary from this year's Milwaukee Film Fest. This semi-experimental documentary doesn't tell much of a conventional story. It instead follows the coming and goings of the night watchman (El Velador) at a Mexican cemetary - pairing these images with audio from heinous news stories chronicling cartel violence. In it we witness the brutal daily reality of our neighbors to the south that often seems to be swept under the rug. One of the year's best documentaries.

A -


Another entry from this year's Milwaukee Film Fest - I give this Shakespearean-update a lot of credit for its ambition. Set in a war-torn modern Rome, director Ralph Fiennes presents a well-formed and visually interesting translation of the Bard. Fiennes is also spectacular in his performance as the titular character, which is doubly-impressive considering that Shakespearean dialogue can reap havok on even the most seasoned of actors. Vanessa Redgrave is solid in her role as Coriolanus' mother as is James Nesbitt in his supporting role, but everyone somewhat lacks a command of the language.

This film might be too much of a true adaptation to really make its mark, however. The final act seems stunted, but that's probably just because the film is following the play so closely. I was so memorized by Fiennes' performance that I wanted to see more of him, but his involvement in the plot seems to fall off right when it hits its peak. Subtle changes might have been just enough to really make this impressive. Still a decent film, however.



The trailers for this film made it look horrendous. I'm a fan of the Pegg/Frost duo and even more a fan of director Greg Mottola, so I was disappointed in what was being advertised to me. However, after finally catching Paul on dvd, I had to eat my words. Sure, Seth Rogan is slightly irritating as the voice of the alien, but he's also funny on occasion. There's so much heart-felt nostalgia here as well that it becomes really hard to dislike. Though they are much different in tone, I saw a lot of similarities to Abrams' Super 8, but found Paul to be the much better tribute to Amblin-era sci-fi.


Red State:

I caught this film on the Netflix instant-queue recently and I must say - it's not Kevin Smith's worst film. Some of it is lame, childish and nonsensical (three friends wind up in the hands of militant Jesus-freaks because they are lured by the prospect of a four-way with Melissa Leo??!), but it's interesting enough when it counts, occasionally funny and highly unpredictable.

However, My primary issue with the film is in the treatment of the religious fanatics. I know from following Smith's Twitter account that he has a real problem with their real-life counterparts - Fred Phelps and his lot. Why then is there a need to up the volume so much on these characters? They're such caricatures of the real thing that it's hard to take them seriously and the film comes off as a condemnation of no-one because of it. A much more interesting film by a much more clever filmmaker might have been about how these people are in real-life and it would have been a lot scarier for it.



Lars von Trier's latest won't be getting a wide-release until later this year, but you can catch it On Demand through various outlets. Was it worth the $10 I spent on it? Probably not. Melancholia is an OK film on the overall, but had the potential to be much more. It has some beautiful imagery and uses the impending apocalypse appropriately to say something about depression and the place of women in a male-dominated world, but ultimately falls flat.

The major issue is that the film is just too damn long - 135 minutes split into two parts. The first half focusing on Justine's (Dunst) wedding is interminable, feeling drawn out with seemingly little purpose. By the time I got to part two about Justine's sister Claire (Gainsbourg), I had a hard time caring about what was going on, which is a shame considering it's definitely the more interesting half of the film. I believe Melancholia could have been a tighter, more affecting film with a runtime under 100 minutes. It's not that I don't like longer films- quite the contrary in fact - it's just that so much of the film feels like wasted time.

Another issue I have - not necessarily with the film itself - is how much attention Kirsten Dunst is getting for her performance. It's OK, sure, she's an OK actress. But when Charlotte Gainsbourg (and pretty much everyone else in the cast) is acting circles around her, it's hard to see what exactly was so memorable about her time on screen.


Now Playing - Take Shelter

Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols' sophomore feature, is one of the year's best films. (His debut, Shotgun Stories, also features Michael Shannon in the lead and is likewise also fantastic.) Take Shelter possesses a heavy atmosphere, leading us through Curtis' (Shannon) delusions, paranoia and compulsions about a potential and impending apocalyptic event.

Clues along the way point towards him being schizophrenic (his mother was diagnosed when she was around his age), however, the real strength of the film is that it provides no easy answers. Yes, Curtis is having hallucinations, but many of his symptoms, such as his vivid, frequent nightmares don't necessarily mesh with the mental illness hypothesis.

The film ultimately ends up at a grand conclusion that also provides few definitive answers. Our protagonist is obviously unreliable, so being able to decipher truth from events happening to him is difficult, if not impossible, so we are left somewhat in his shoes - not knowing what is reality and what is delusion.

Shannon delivers a powerful performance. He's known for taking on peculiar roles, such as his part in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire", but he never goes overboard like he does there. Despite Curtis' difficulties, Shannon is able to play them with reserved horror and frustration, before his major, chilling blowup in the third act. Not considering him highly for a Best Actor Oscar here would be a crime.

Shea Whigham, also of "Boardwalk Empire" fame, gives a solid supporting performance as Curtis' friend and co-worker. Also of note is Jessica Chastain, who plays Curtis' concerned, yet supporting wife. Chastain's has really become quite a sought-after actress of late, but until Take Shelter I never  really got a sense of her abilities. She's shot beautifully in Tree of Life and there's evidence of a good actress there, but the performance is minimal. I saw her in Coriolanus, but she doesn't have the best command of Shakespeare to make for a good showing. Take Shelter sold me on her - I wouldn't protest if she garnered some sort of nomination here.

The score is also solid. It's unique, eerie, persistent and matched the film perfectly, really driving home the semi-classic-horror aspects. In some ways, Take Shelter reminding me of Peter Weir's The Last Wave. I think that when I read the description of the film some years ago before viewing it, Take Shelter is, in a lot of ways, similar to the film I'd imagined The Last Wave would be. That's not a knock against it - it's still a great film - but something more akin to Take Shelter is what I really wanted. Now I have it and I'm satisfied.