Sunday, February 28, 2010

68) Greenberg (2010)

68) Greenberg (2010) Dir: Noah Baumbach Date Released: March 2010 Date Seen: February 24, 2010 Rating: 3.75/5

Since Greenberg indulges its titular’s protagonist’s creative slump, it’s hard not to judge it as a victim of its own indulgence. Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s recent films, including his collaborations with Wes Anderson, have all leaned one way or another in favor of their wracked protagonists’ precious neuroses. But somehow Greenberg feels different. Baumbach’s latest directorial effort does not gravitate around the tug-of-war struggle between dissolution or unification of a singular relationship like The Life Aquatic (father and son), The Squid and the Whale (father and mother), Margot at the Wedding (sister and sister) or Fantastic Mr. Fox (husband and wife). It presents Roger Greenberg’s (Ben Stiller) visit to LA as a paradigm-shifting event. The characters that enter and exit his life are meant to be taken as symptomatic of how he lost his mojo. As with Baumbach’s last two directorial efforts, the moment for decisive, radical, life-changing action has already passed, leaving Greenberg to figure out what he still can do. Being self-indulgent in this instance is not just defensible—it’s a function of Greenberg’s story.

At this stage of his life, Roger Greenberg, a New York refugee, does not know how to treat people like people anymore. Instead, he obliviously projects his own irrational assumptions onto them and winds up suffering for it. Now, house-sitting for his wealthy brother (Chris Messina), Greenberg struggles to break out of a years-long rut by building a dog house, rekindling his old friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans) and flirting with Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother’s assistant/baby-sitter/on-call intern. But it’s in Greenberg’s character to not be able to establish a lasting connection with any of these things or people. This is less irksome in the film’s rocky beginning, when his character-defining traits are overwhelmed by affected tics, like his tendency to write but never send letters of complaint to faceless corporate entities like Starbucks or his nervous habit of over-applying chap stick. When it comes time for him to realize that he can and should get serious about the possibilities that L.A. presents him, it’s obvious that Greenberg’s still using people to get his shit together.

This is especially disconcerting when it comes to Greenberg’s relationship with Florence. As a character, she’s not developed beyond her equally limited understanding of Greenberg and is treated strictly as a function of his story. Gerwig’s unassuming performance matches Stiller’s constant ebb-and-flow histrionics but that only confirms her character’s role as a foil to Stiller’s. Even Ifans’s characteristically exhausted expression of pained serenity only serves to give Greenberg everything he wants now that he’s finally started to realize that he’s never known what he wants. Greenberg has the sting and the wit of Margot at the Wedding and The Squid and the Whale but its much too soft around the edges to have a lasting impact.

Note: James Murphy, of LCD Soundsystem fame, supplies a soundtrack comprised mostly of three or four main leitmotifs that, like Gerwig and Ifans’s performances, is incredibly distracting. It draws too much attention to itself and, in a film that continually gravitates in and around Stiller’s character, that’s more than a little frustrating.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

67) The Crazies (2010)

67) The Crazies (2010) Dir: Breck Eisner Date Released: February 2010 Date Seen: February 24, 2010 Rating: 4/5

Really strong popcorn flick. See me fall for it hard at Slant Magazine.

65) Brooklyn's Finest (2009)

65) Brooklyn's Finest (2009) Dir: Antoine Fuqua Date Released: March 2010 Date Seen: February 23, 2010 Rating: 3.5/5

It was aight. See my review for the New York Press.

64) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

64) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) Dir: Niels Arden Oplev Date Released: March 2010 Date Seen: February 22, 2010 Rating: 2/5

That's Sexist! See my review for Ugo.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

61) Survival of the Dead (2009), 62) The Revenge: A Visit from Fate (1997), 63) The Revenge: A Scar That Never Fades (1997) and 66) Morphia (2009)

61) Survival of the Dead (2009) Dir: George Romero Not Yet Released Date Seen: February 20, 2010 Rating: 2.5/5

62) The Revenge: A Visit from Fate (1997) Dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa Not Yet Released Date Seen: February 21, 2010 Rating: 3.75/5

63) The Revenge: A Scar That Never Fades (1997) Dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa Not Yet Released Date Seen: February 21, 2010 Rating: 3.5/5

66) Morphia (2009) Dir: Aleksey Balabanov Not Yet Released Date Seen: February 23, 2010 Rating: 4/5

Really confusing, very thoughtful and fun genre exercises and a surprisingly nuanced political cartoon. See me review all these things in my third dispatch for the New York Press on FSLC's "Film Comment Selects" 2010.

59) The Lady Vanishes (1938), RV!: Spellbound (1945) and 60) Rope (1948)

59) The Lady Vanishes (1938) Dir: Alfred Hitchcock Date Released: November 1938 Date Seen: February 19, 2010

RV!: Spellbound (1945) Dir: Alfred Hitchcock Date Released: December 1945 Date Seen: February 19, 2010

60) Rope (1948) Dir: Alfred Hitchcock Date Released: August 1948 Date Seen: February 20, 2010 Rating: 4/5

When I watch any of Hitchcock's monolithic films, it's impossible to ignore his consummate playfulness. The thematic cruxes of his films--the emphasis on national pride in The Lady Vanishes, the amateur psychology in Notorious or the morally dubious notion of an ethical application of murder in Rope--are all played to the hilt but that's all that can be said about them. They're just the means by which Hitchcock can tinker around with cinematic form. His film's central ideas are, at times, borderline incoherent in the double standards they create. For example, the dramatic rigor with which Hitch's camera snakes around its subjects in Rope suggests a persistence of vision, or in this case a pre-deterministic certainty that the truth/corpse will out, that is absent in any of the film's characters. In Notorious, a double standard that smacks of involuntary misogyny is created when a feminine curative touch is emphasized as Peck's character's only hope of becoming cured while Bergman's continually dismissed as just a weak-minded female in the eyes of her superiors and her mentor, who considers her only fit to make his coffee.

This puts the viewer in the unique position of seeing the world from the eyes of an omniscient and sometimes tyrannical authorial god. Hitchcock sees all and treats his stories like wonderful games whose rules he can bend or ignore the consequences of so long as they achieve their intended effect. Its hard to argue with the seductive nature of the screwball banter in The Lady Vanishes or the tracking shots in Rope. And for that, these films, as purely formal exercises, are somehow able to sustain themselves as accomplished cinematic works, even if they are so impressive because they have more skill than soul.

58) OSS 117: Rio Ne Repond Plus (2009)

58) OSS 117: Rio Ne Repond Plus (2009) Dir: Michel Hazanavicius Not Yet Released Date Seen: February 19, 2010 Rating: 3/5

More of the same in every way (ie: overtaxed and one-note jokes deliverd by a superb Jean Dujardin). See my review for Slant Magazine.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

55) Like You Know it All (2009), 56) The Time That Remains (2009) and 57) Air Doll

55) Like You Know it All (2009) Dir: Hong Sang-Soo Not Yet Released Date Seen: February 17, 2010 Rating: 4/5

56) The Time That Remains (2009) Dir: Elia Suleiman Not Yet Released Date Seen: February 17, 2010

57) Air Doll (2009) Dir: Hirokazu Koreeda Not Yet Released Date Seen: February 18, 2010 Rating: 2.5/5

This batch perfectly exemplifies why I love the risk-taking programming at "Film Comment Selects." See my capsule reviews of these three in my second dispatch on the fest for The New York Press.

54) Stolen (2009)

54) Stolen (2009) Dir: Anders Anderson Date Released: March 2010 Date Seen: February 17, 2010 Rating: 1.75/5

Bland. Bland! BLAAAAAND! See my review for the NY Press.

Monday, February 15, 2010

52) Persecution (2009) and 53) Tales from the Golden Age (2009)

52) Persecution (2009) Dir: Patrice Chereau Not Yet Released Date Seen: February 14, 2010 Rating: 3.75/5

53) Tales from the Golden Age (2009) Dir: Hanno Höfer, Razvan Marculescu, Cristian Mungiu, Constantin Popescu, Ioana Uricaru Not Yet Released Date Seen: February 15, 2010 Rating: 3/5

Surprised by how much I got into the former film in spite of myself and yet was left cold by the latter film. Hm. Something's off here. See my capsule reviews for my coverage of Film Comment Selects 2010 for the New York Press.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

RV!: In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

RV!: In the Mouth of Madness (1994) Dir: John Carpenter Date Released: February 1995 Date Seen: February 14, 2010 Rating: 4/5

I am so glad this movie holds up to a second viewing. Even smarter than I remember. See me gush about it unapologetically for the next entry in my "The Deep Cut" column at Ugo.

RV!: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

RV!: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) Dir: Jim Jarmusch Date Released: March 2000 Date Seen: February 14, 2010 Rating: 3.5/5

I used to have such a crush on this film but now I can't get over the bratty way that Jarmusch expresses his philosophy of universal acceptance here. The Limits of Control has spoiled me. See my comments from the #ghostdog live-tweet.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

51) Wolf Creek (2005)

51) Wolf Creek (2005) Dir: Greg Mclean Date Released: December 2005 Date Seen: February 12, 2010 Rating: 2.75/5

It's fitting that filmmaker and genre enthusiast Mark Hartley (Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!) is quick to point to young Aussie writer/director Greg Mclean as the leader of a non-existent resurgence in "Ozploitation" cinema. Mclean's Wolf Creek exploits the exoticism of its outback setting so mercilessly that he sucks the terror out of his sporadically gripping slasher film at almost every turn. Wolf Creek guilelessly announces the fetishistic nature of its kind of nationalism in a type-set prologue that rattles off statistics about how many people go missing without a trace every year in Australia. This is the first sign that we're not in the land of Beck's and Crocodile Dundee. The second is not coincidentally also the film's second most memorable variation on the unwritten Mad Libs slasher formula: Mick Taylor (Jed Jarett), its Bowie knife-wielding, wide-brim hat-wearing bushman killer. He refuses to be pigeonholed by the film's trio of giggly, punch-drunk and gratingly acquiescent young things he stalks and tortures over the course of the film. Mick spits back "Now this is a knife," when he's got one of them good and cornered but earlier on is more than content to obliviously babble endlessly about how to kill 'roos and pigs, joking that it has to be done, just like killing tourists. This out-of-work, down-on-his-luck sadist is as Australian as a vegemite sandwich but don't antagonize him by saying so or else you'll vanish like all the other statistics.

That kind of brainless self-othering is frankly more than a little tedious. We're meant to jump to the same conclusions as the ill-fated tourists because, well, the shoe fits and Mick walks, talks, stabs and drives around like a murderous Dundee look-alike. Mclean panders to foreigners and then punishes their onscreen proxies for making the simple mistake of connecting the dots. Unlike the hillbillies in The Devil's Rejects, Rob Zombie's superior contemporary grindhouse throwback, Mick never convincingly reveals his persona to be a sarcastic mirror of the assumptions that are projected onto him. He is genuinely affronted when Ben Mitchell (Nathan Phillips), the one native among the young victim and hence naturally the sole survivor, mentions that he reminds the group of Paul Hogan's benevolent macho. He's not even a semi-thoughtful manifestation of foreigners' loaded, naively sleazy dreams of the land down under. He's just a nasty tourist trap.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

49) Videocracy (2009) and 50) To Die for Tano (1997)

49) Videocracy (2009) Dir: Erik Grandini Date Released: February 2010 Date Seen: February 11, 2010 Rating: 1/5

50) To Die for Tano (1997) Dir: Roberta Torre Date Released: February 2010 Date Seen: February 11, 2010 Rating: 4/5

Two portraits of macho Italian egos, one thoroughly enervating for its shallow probing and the other completely absorbed in its absurd premise of not only denying its subject valorization but of turning his life story into a violently disorienting, quasi-mystical, persona-absorbing hallucinatory celebration of his impenetrability. See my comparative piece for The New York Press.

48) After Hours (1985)

48) After Hours (1985) Dir: Martin Scorsese Date Released: September 1985 Date Seen: February 10, 2010 Rating: 3.75/5

I really wanted to love this film but the "and then" structure of it made the film's preposterous caricature of SoHo stereotypes oddly grating. I love the ending though. Makes me think the film is an influence on Haruki Murakami's fiction. See my mention of it in my upcoming Marty's New York: Then and Now feature for The Onion NY AV Club.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

47) Valentine's Day (2010)

47) Valentine's Day (2010) Dir: Garry Marshall Date Released: February 2010 Date Seen: February 9, 2010 Rating: 1.75/5

Kill me. See my review for Slant Magazine.

46) The Wolfman (2010

46) The Wolfman (2010) Dir: Joe Johnston Date Released: February 2010 Date Seen: February 8, 2010 Rating: 3/5

At the end of the second act of Joe Johnston's The Wolfman, Anthony Hopkins's crusty Byronic father figure teaches his son how to cope with being a shape-shifting man-eater, specifically that life is worth living that much more now that he's more than a little bit, er, abby-something. "Life is too glorious, especially for the cursed and the damned." Those choice flamboyant words could easily sum up why it's not such a bad thing that Johnston (Jurassic Park III, The Rocketeer) pinch-hit for music video and One Hour Photo director Mark Romanek, who famously stepped-down from helming The Wolfman due to creative differences. Considering the modest but sufficient momentum Johnston brings to what is otherwise a straight-jacketed and ultimately pointless reboot, the film nicely clears the low bar the film's troubled production history set for its director, one of the more consistent and thankfully unpretentious of Hollywood's B-movie-maker.

The bulk of The Wolfman's troubles plague its tepid first act. Johnston makes far too many conservative creative decisions for his own good, which makes the relatively unfettered second act such a gratifying change of pace. The film's stacked cast, which includes Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaving, are clearly giving it their all in spite of the simultaneously skimpy and broad dialogue they're given, especially Benicio Del Toro, who initially seems like he's phoning it in but in fact has gone farther into his morose character than one might expect him to. Then again, the reason why Hopkins comes out on top in the film is because he not only gets a fun, scenery-chewing role to play around with but he clearly is having a blast with it. Much of The Wolfman feels like a dour and aesthetically unmemorable set-up to chase scenes full of leaping werewolves and dismembered limbs. But when Johnston settles his characters into place and manages to finally cut loose, the film works.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

44) Without Anesthesia (1978) and 45) Camouflage (1977)

45) Without Anesthesia (1978) Dir: Andrzej Wajda Date Released: February 1982 Date Seen: February 8, 2010 Rating: 3.75/5

46) Camouflage (1977) Dir: Krzystof Zanussi Date Released: August 1981 Date Seen: February 8, 2010 Rating: 3.75/5

Both are effective in achieving emotional resonance despite being both rather stunted in their despairing POV. See my article for the New York Press.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

43) Mutants (2009)

43) Mutants (2009) Dir: David Morlet Date Released (VOD): February 2010 Date Seen: February 7, 2010 Rating: 3/5

Engaging up to a point. See my review for Ugo.

RV!: Society (1989)

RV!: Society (1989) Dir: Brian Yuzna Date Released: June 1992 Date Seen: February 6, 2010 Rating: 3.75/5

My affection for this film still holds true upon second viewing. Bully. See me canonize it in my "The Deep Cut" column for Ugo.

42) Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)

42) Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem (2007) Dir: Colin Strause and Greg Strause Date Released: December 2007 Date Seen: February 6, 2010 Rating: 1.75/5

Not as terrible as I would have thought but close enough to want to avoid actively. See my live-tweet with Steve Carlson by looking up #avp2makeitstop on Twitter.

41) Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009)

41) Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009) Dir: Ti West Date Released (DTV): February 2010 Date Seen: February 6, 2010 Rating: 3.25/5

I prefer it to House of the Devil, but not by much. See my review for Ugo.

40) Frozen (2010)

40) Frozen (2010) Dir: Adam Green Date Released: February 2010 Date Seen: February 5, 2010 Rating: 3/5

Pretty heartless and stupid in parts but effective for the most part in spite of itself. See my review for Slant Magazine.

39) From Paris with Love (2010)

39) From Paris with Love (2010) Dir: Pierre Morel Date Released: February 2010 Date Seen: February 5, 2010 Rating: 3.75/5

Cinematographer Pierre Morel has always known how to shoot an action scene but it's taken him a few films in the director's chair to figure out what to do with them. His directorial debut District 13, scripted and produced by benefactor and frequent collaborator Luc Besson, benefited a great deal from having Cyril Raffaelli, one of the film's two stuntman stars, choreograph the film's fight scenes. But that project didn't have the proper material or more importantly the daft energy to build up and around its wonderfully tactile action montages. Morel just couldn't sustain a mood to build up to those scenes. Taken, his second feature, put him on the right path with a sap-happy, thoroughly generic, bare-bones revenge plot. Morel allowed himself to get a little more messy, siccing an appropriately grim, frothing-mad Liam Nesson on a group of Albanian terrorists that have kidnapped his teen daughter. It lagged in stretches but was nevertheless a noted improvement. Now with From Paris with Love Morel has turned out the best expression of his broad but amiably cartoonish sensibility.

In US Agent Charlie Wax (John Travolta with a bald swimming cap and a Homer Simpson ring of facial fuzz) and French liaison James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) he's found two of his most pointed caricatures, one a boorish, scrupleless all-American meathead and the other a mousy, pencil-moustache-wearing frog with no spine. They complement each other nicely, the one shoveling cocaine up the other's nose while they launch down fire poles like strippers and shoot Pakistani terrorists over bottles of beau vin (red, of course). There's no need for a discernible plot here apart from a "follow that lout and do as he says" logic that makes the film's low-brow humor, which relies largely on a series of quick shocks and loud explosions (lookit that Escalade blow, I mean, go!), blast ahead heedlessly without the aid of truly memorable choreography or fully-formed characters. Morel's finally found his footing, careening forward at a berserker's pace with no sign of stopping. Go man go!

Morel selectively beefs up From Paris with Love's goofy attitude more than its narrative scaffold because he understands that the U.S. vs. them friction between Wax and Reese is the film's real engine. He readily provides enough cursory and even a fair amount of embellishing details in their spats to make an otherwise sloppy actioner a real treat. Reece, the less manly man of the two, is such a wimp that his fiance has to propose to him. When Wax tries to engage his effeminate nerdiness by asking him whether he prefers Kirk or Spock, Reece replies sheepishly "Uhura." Meyers in that sense is deviously well cast, a milquetoast pushover of a supporting actor that frequently plays unmemorable, weak-at-the-knees Don Juans.

Travolta's Wax is his perfect counterpoint, necking with French prostitutes one minute then making a tacky Pulp Fiction joke the next. As with his amped-up performance in Tony Scott's slight but underrated The Taking of Pelham 123 remake, Travolta's inimitable desperation recalls his Face/Off co-star Nicolas Cage's looser, infinitely more self-indulgent performances. He's going far out on a limb here and even if what he's saying doesn't always stick, it feels good to hear him mouth off like he's contracted a steroid-fueled strain of Tourettes. That kind of over-zealous presence is essential to Morel's brand of cinema, one which has only improved with an increased reliance on scene-stealing character actors. Morel's next film will hopefully star Cage as a schizophrenic private investigator that uses his multiple personalities to solve crime. It'll be his best yet.

Friday, February 5, 2010

36) Chamber of Horrors (1966) and 38) The Hypnotist (1999)

36) Chamber of Horrors (1966) Dir: Hy Averback Date Released: October 1966 Date Seen: February 4, 2010 Rating: 2.75/5

38) The Hypnotist (1999) Dir: Masayuki Ochiai Date Released (DTV): August 2001 Date Seen: February 4, 2010 Rating: 3.75/5

The former is gimmicky as sin and only really memorable as such but the latter is completely tonally cracked and fittingly so. The Hypnotist is generic in large parts but completely bewildering in others, which makes it all the more schizophrenic. See my blurb about both films for my list on serial killers for Ugo.

37) Martin (1977)

37) Martin (1977) Dir: George Romero Date Released: July 1978 Date Seen: February 4, 2010 Rating: 4/5

So close to being my favorite Romero. One of his most pointed, certainly. George doesn't do characters normally and yet here, I actually cared about Martin. See my review for Ugo.

RV!: Hausu (1977)

RV!: Hausu (1977) Dir: Nobuhiko Obayashi Date Released: September 1977, Re-released on January 2010 Date Seen: February 3, 2010 Rating: 4.5/5

It gets better and better and smarter and smarter with each viewing. See my review for Gone Cinema Poaching.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

35) Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai (1963)

35) Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai (1963) Dir: Tadashi Imai Date Released (DVD): February 2010 Rating: 2/5

Bitter, cut-and-dry meta-historical bullshit. See my review for Slant Magazine.

34) The Changeling (1980)

34) The Changeling (1980) Dir: Peter Medak Date Released: March 1980 Date Seen: February 1, 2010 Rating: 3.75/5

Slow and moody: a ghost story about and for senior citizens. Not bad at all. See my review of it for my "The Deep Cut" feature for Ugo.

33) Hatchet (2006)

33) Hatchet (2006) Dir: Adam Green Date Released: September 2007 Date Seen: February 1, 2010 Rating: 2.5/5

It has it's moments but it's pretty much a slasher for the "Broken Lizard" scene. See my teeny-weeny review for Ugo.

32) 35 Shots of Rum (2008)

32) 35 Shots of Rum (2008) Dir: Claire Denis Date Released: September 2009 Date Seen: January 31, 2010 Rating: 3.25/5

The city according to Claire Denis is not an inviting place for people looking for understated humanist drama. As in Friday Night and Trouble Every Day, 35 Shots of Rum has an ostentatious quality to the melodramatic probing it does into the lives and the forgotten moments of its protagonists that seems completely counter-intuitive to the film's ethereal goal. Denis begs us to notice her film's pronounced sensitivity, the way she hones in on moments that would otherwise be forgotten, little make-or-break scenes that mean nothing in terms of establishing a linear narrative but mean everything in terms of capturing the protagonists' moody world. Her frame is over-determined, touched-up-to-death and totally airless. Her stance is the kind whose condescension never lets you forget that you're looking at a frieze and hence never really allows you to adjust to its hyper-real rhythm. There are moments of tenderness in 35 Shots of Rum but that's it. Denis' method is the antithesis of Gaspar Noe's brand of storytelling: while Denis is fixated on dissecting and slowing down time to show the viewer the unseen city, Noe's city is a macro-level psycho-structure, a landscape of mental projection that announces its surreal brutality in every frame as a means of allowing the viewer to worm their way into the protagonist's head. Distance breeds proximity in Noe's I Stand Alone while it just makes no sense here, serving up a knowingly artificial kitchen sink drama with a purely functional plastic heart.

Monday, February 1, 2010

31) From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

31) From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) Dir: Robert Rodriguez Date Released: January 1996 Date Seen: January 31, 2010 Rating: 3/5

From Dusk Till Dawn seems like a can't-miss high-concept film from director Robert Rodriguez and screenwriter Quentin Tarantino--vampire brothel. Nuf said. The film has a stacked cast of character actors ranging in stature from Harvey Keitel to Fred Williamson and make-up special effects by Tom Savini. How do you screw this one up?

Well first of all, to enjoy From Dusk Till Dawn, no matter how low your expectation may be already, you really need to winch 'em down several more notches. From Dusk Till Dawn spends about half of its 106 minute length getting to the vampire brothel in question, during which time Mr. George Clooney, still fresh-faced and short-haired after his recent residency on E.R., and Mr. Tarantino, wanted fugitives both, take Mr.Keitel and his two kids as hostages as they make their way down to Mexico. This is only as enjoyable as Rodriguez's modest reserve of humor allows it to be. Tarantino's script shows his green-ness, which isn't that much more mature than his later seasoned scripts but it's a sight more inept here in its dearth of enlivening detail.

Once they get down to the brothel, Rodriguez's zeal carries the film but even then, one has to keep in mind that his action scenes are only as worthwhile as they are energetic. They're not expertly choreographed and they're not particularly memorable. But they are sufficiently bouncy. The rest you can take or leave pretty easily but for a bit of mindless fun on a cold Sunday afternoon, you could do a lot worse than this cocky little horror-actioner.

29) Birth (2004)

29) Birth (2004) Dir: Jonathan Glazer Date Released: October 2004 Date Seen: January 29, 2010 Rating: 3.75/5

Even as Birth invites the viewer to accept its mysterious premise at a superficial, almost elemental, pseudo-mystical level, it tries very hard to keep the viewer cognizant of just how much the filmmakers are asking of them in doing so. It's an obviously substantial undertaking to suspend one's disbelief in the face of such an incredulous concept: what if a young boy is the reincarnation of a protagonist's dead husband? So many considerations and concessions have to be made for the viewer to keep the film's provocative subject viable for 100 minutes, especially asking a young actor like Cameron Bright to carry the bulk of the film's emotional weight (if you don't buy the kid's performance, there are a myriad of moments where you can emotionally check out).

What I find more egregious about Birth is the way that co-writer/director Jonathan Glazer's seductively immaculate mise en scene and his co-writers' scenario assumes we understand and take on its own terms the film's dubious underlying moral judgment about the characters' difference in class define their personalities. Anna (Nicole Kidman, blatantly done up to look like Mia Farrow from Rosemary's Baby) wants to believe that Sean the boy (Cameron Bright) is actually Sean her dead ex-husband because she's one of the nouvelle riche. Her new fiance Joseph (Danny Huston) on the other hand does not believe because he's an upper-class bourgeois that lives in an apartment that looks like a posh mausoleum. While Nicole's middle-class friends Anna and Clifford (a superb Anne Heche and an equally excellent Peter Stormare), who live in a decidedly more lived-in apartment somewhere that's presumably not Manhattan, show that Anna comes from more humble roots and doesn't belong to Joseph's material world, Joseph simply cannot make the leap of faith that's required of Anna. Probably because he stands to lose his lover if he does but, according to the film, more likely because he's a rich snob.

This film's forced class warfare is at its worst when Joseph is looking at an apartment to let and, because Anna is busy talking with young Sean elsewhere, she stands Joseph up. The real estate agent tells Joseph that there are other tenants interested in the apartment and that she must let them see it too so Joseph angrily storms off to the apartment's nearest window. Glazer then cross-cuts quickly to the new prospective tenants but only long enough to show that they're black and nothing else about them. This is a big condescending slap in the viewer's face. It assumes that because Joseph is losing his grip on his personal life that he, an adult blue-blood Richie Rich, is now losing control over his ability to simply look at a new territory and make it his at a whim. Because reverse gentrification is coming and it's coming in the form of a young black couple. Ooga booga.*

This nagging little detail is not only completely unnecessary but it's the worst kind of liberal low-blow that the film sets up (I say this as a self-described liberal myself so don't think of my use of the term as it's become egregiously oversimplified today as a liberal/conservative political party delineation). It dared me to stopped caring right then and there and it's a sign of the film's considerable strength that I didn't. There's a versatility to Birth's mystery that can't be quashed by idiotic political stereotypes and thank goodness for that.

*This unfortunately makes some kind of perverse sense considering that frequent Bunuel collaborator and bourgeois critic Jean-Claude Carriere was one of the film's three co-writers.