Bluebeard (2009) Catherine Breillat - Recommended
I am eternally grateful that Catherine Breillat's films are becoming less and less painful. And by painful, I certainly don't mean 'bad' (Breillat's films don't exactly insight such simplistic judgements), but painful because of their unflinching, brutal honesty. The provocation that Breillat was content to hand out has given way to something a little more playful but no less thought provoking with The Last Mistress and her most recent film Bluebeard. The thing that is most striking about Bluebeard is its simplicity. The story of Bluebeard is told from duel perspectives: the first is a literal depiction of the 17th century fairytale in period regalia, and the second is a contemporary reaction to the macabre story as two young sisters read it from a book. The set up is nothing short of brilliant, balancing the then and the now. The then: the sexual allure and curiosity of a rebellious girl who volunteers to marry a 'monster.' The now: the cautionary and moral lessons in the form of fiction to a puritanical society. The period portion is enchanting and is every much the folk tale it should be. Bluebeard is a gruff but gentle man whose physical grotesqueness and murdering tendencies are covert. His young bride is dwarfed by his size, but not by his personality. In many ways, she is more bold than the notorious Bluebeard, foreshadowing a fate that he has yet to realize. The lasting image of the young bride stoking the hair on Bluebeard's decapitated head is haunting. But so is the odd and abrupt ending for the two young girls innocently reading the story. There was a woman on hand at the beginning of the screening who was reading passages from a forthcoming book from U of M professor Jack Zipes entitled The Enchanted Screen: A History of Fairy Tales on Film. Breillat's Bluebeard is included in the book.
Videocracy (2009) Erik Gandini - Highly Recommended
From the standpoint of the material it dissects, Videocracy was the best documentary I saw during the fest. An absorbing look at Italy's celebrity culture, Videocracy starts at the top with Silvio Berlusconi's media empire and works its way down the spiraling staircase of a fame mongering society. Berlusconi laid the groundwork for his future when he bought a television station in the 70s that was made famous by a quiz show in which an ordinary housewife would take off a piece of clothing with each correct answer from the audience. Sowing the seeds for trash television, Italy now has a population of young women obsessed with become a veline, or a host who dances and generally acts like a slutty Vanna White to the numerous Pat Sejack's of news and entertainment on Italian television. Somehow director Erik Gandini was able to immerse himself inside the thinly veiled Berlusconi machine. From the fame-controlling paparazzi to the mousy mega-producer who idolizes Benito Mussolini, Gandini draws out a fascinating and insidious cycle of the beautiful and rich steering both the demand and the consumption of celebrity drivel. Our moral center is a man who is a mechanic but who desperately wants in on his 15 seconds of Italian fame. American culture as it is, you would think that this type of mania is nothing new, but what is revealed in Videocracy is a creature of another kind, hopelessly intertwined with politics. I've spent the last year associating everything I see or hear about Italy with Matteo Garrone's film and Roberto Saviano's book Gamorrah. Now I will be combining that with what I have seen in Videocracy, including the bizarre campaign song for Berlusconi where the refrain is "Thank God Silvio exists."
Night Catches Us (2010) Tanya Hamilton - Recommended
Receiving ample buzz at Sundance, Night Catches Us is a highly anticipated entry in American independent film, and rightly so. Tanya Hamilton's feature debut is a powerful yet low-key drama that smolders with subtlety in the hands of the two leads, Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington. The fact that Night Catches Us is skirting the margins of festival screenings with no wide release date in sight is a crime. Set in Philadelphia 1976, Marcus (Mackie) returns home for his father's funeral after an extended exile. Tensions are high between Marcus and his brother, who believes he abandoned his family, and between Marcus and his former Black Panther brothers who believe Marcus betrayed them. The only kind face Marcus finds is his friend Patty (Washington), now an up-and-coming lawyer trying to make a difference in the courts and the community. In the mix is a secret about why Marcus left town and why most of his former friends feel betrayed. Although Jimmy Carter's voice in present in the background and the struggle for racial equality simmers on the periphery, Hamilton's film focuses on the characters and the inner anguish of trying to move on. Night Catches Us is handsome in its period depiction of 1970s Philly. Everything seems cast with a golden light of a tarnished bygone era meticulously recreated. And it certainly doesn't hurt that the Roots turns in most of the music for the soundtrack (with Tariq Trotter playing the role of Marcus's brother.) Night Catches Us is not flawless however. The girl who plays Patty's young daughter is handed some lines she can't really pull off, and some of the various narrative off-shoots feel halfhearted. That being said, Night Catches Us is far better than average and feels like it should be enjoying a larger stage than it currently has.
The Revenant (2009) D. Kerry Prior - Not Recommended
The Revenant was the best film I saw out of the late night series MSPIFF programed, which isn't saying much. Although I didn't see Red White & Blue, the other three in the series (The Forbidden Door, The Wild Hunt, and this one) barely tripped the entertainment meter and were all too self-conscious in their attempts to be edgy. In the case of The Revenant, a so-called zombie buddy movie, it is trying too hard to be ironic. Bart comes back from the dead, not as a zombie, not as a vampire, but as a revenant. His friend Joey attempts to help him navigate his undead lifestyle in the most harmless way possible. Vomiting and blood sucking hijinks ensue with a little partying in between. The Revenant is good for some laughs, but most of the jokes get pretty stale by the end of the movie and you really just want all the characters to be dead and stay dead. Give any horror film enough time and it becomes satirical all by itself. Shaun of the Dead was a unique film at the time, but is ultimately a one trick pony. Parodies, like The Revenant, now feel self-reflexive simply for the sake of being self-reflexive.