Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Here are Three Short Reviews

I'm going to very quickly review three movies I saw recently. There's no time to explain why!

The Messengers - d. the Pang Brothers - I can understand why, in horror films, babies are frequently the only people who can see the ghosts. Babies are innocent, and ghosts feed on innocence, and babies believe in wonder and magic and so forth. That all makes perfect sense to me. But why is it the babies are never scared? In this movie, the family getting haunted find themselves in that particular mess because, like so many troubled people before them, they chose to deal with a family trauma by buying an abandoned farm, and Ben, their baby, sees dessiccated, corpse-like people crawling along the ceiling like spiders. What does Ben do? He smiles and points. Yeah, okay the Pang Brothers, I got news for you: babies and other young children scare really easily. My niece became terrified one time when I took her into a corn maze and she saw a teenager dressed in a gorilla suit. So why does this Ben kid have such superhuman courage? Anyway, there was more to the movie, but I didn't like any of that stuff, either.

Paranoid Park - d. Gus Van Sant - I've written elsewhere about my admiration for Van Sant's Elephant, so I had reasonably high hopes for this film, about a teenage skateboard punk who accidentally kills a railroad security guard, and has to weather the guilt and panic that follows. Paranoid Park shares many of the same stylistic and thematic interests as Elephant, and also has much of the earlier film's power to spellbind with minimalist acting and the treatment of the mundane in classical terms. But I have a hard time with a film that deals with a young man who has killed another human being, which then ends up being about that young man ridding himself of guilt, as opposed to owning up to what he's done. Oh, so you purged your soul by writing down your feelings, did you? Perhaps the family of the man you killed would like to read them. Oh, you burned the pages? Well, never mind! Can't be helped!

Gomorra - d. Matteo Garrone - Described simply, this film comes across as a mix of Rome, Open City and City of God -- and I'll bet that's just how they pitched it, too! -- but in truth Gomorra is too well-observed, too quietly disturbing and moving to be quickly tossed off like that. It tells three stories about people within or on the fringes of Italy's Camorra criminal organization: two young, idiotic scumbags who want to take a piece of Camorra's slum turf for themselves; an old-time bagman used to the peaceful aspects of his job who finds himself in the middle of the violence when everything becomes unhinged; and a tailor and entrepeneur, one of whom tries to make too much of himself outside of Camorra's control. Violent, shocking, often beautifully acted, and featuring some of the most striking photography of slums and tenements I've seen -- the buildings where these characters live look like state prisons that have been opened to the public -- this is an excellent film, made by Garrone at great personal risk. If you can catch this in theaters, do it. Otherwise, it's currently On Demand as well, so check it out. This is mesmerizing stuff.

18 comments:

Fox said...

I liked The Messengers a little bit more than you did (well, you DIDN'T like it at all, but you knowhutimean...), but I remember scrunching my eyebrows about that little kid being A-OK with the ghosts. And it wasn't that he was just ok with them, he seemed to be goo-goo ga-ga giddy about them!!!

I would understand if they were the color of the Teletubbies, but they have skin that looks like the super-sick distended belly of the Octo-Mom!

bill r. said...

I didn't actually HATE The Messengers -- I actually like all the actors; even though they weren't great, they made me root for them -- it was just so ordinary and run of the mill. There was nothing to distinguish it from all the other ambient-music-sting ghost movies from the past decade.

And hey, no comment on Paranoid Park???

Jonathan Lapper said...

I'll comment on Paranoid Park. I haven't seen it. Nor of any of these others. There's my comment.

Ed Howard said...

I didn't think Fox could resist such a perfect chance to throw down some more Van Sant hate.

I thought Paranoid Park was one of Van Sant's very best films, though. Here's some of what I had to say in my review about the treatment of death in the film:

"Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days can all be thought of as journeys towards death, documents of the time spent leading up to death, and ruminations on the sensationalist treatment of death in the media. They are truly films about death, about mortality, about violence, in a way that Paranoid Park is not. The film's one act of violence is harrowing and narratively important, but it does not have the same thematic central place that violence and death hold in the other films. Moreover, Alex reacts to this death in much the same way as he reacts to a lot of the other confusing, scary, unfathomable things he encounters on a daily basis: schoolwork, his parents' impending divorce, the prospect of losing his virginity with a girl he barely even likes, the uncomfortableness he obviously feels around other people ... In this context, the death Alex causes is an extension of his general teenage insecurity, just one more thing to worry about. In an inversion of the usual priorities, death has become a metaphor for the trials of puberty, a distortion of scale that is wholly in keeping with the high schooler's outsized sense of his personal troubles."

In short, it's not a film about a kid who accidentally kills someone so much as a film about puberty.

Fox said...

Ok... you reeled me in...

Two thoughts on Paranoid Park:

1. I've respectfully disagreed with Ed on this before but I really dislike the teen actors in this film. I don't think Van Sant went for natural non-actors as much as he he went for some bad actors that happened to be cute.

I contrast that with the little girl in The Fall who is a totally natural non-actor. Her reactions are genuine and it plays in the movie well. The kids in PP remind me of Wiley Wiggins in Dazed and Confused, and that bugs me.

2. What did you think of the shot of the man crawling towards the skater boy post-accident? Was it appropriate? Gratuitous?

WORD VERIFICATION: "boriated" - when something is perforated and boring at the same time.

Fox said...

ahh, Ed! I got my shot in right at midnight! :)

bill r. said...

I gotta be honest, Ed: if you're correct, and Van Sant wanted to make a movie where the accidental death of a human being is a metaphor for frickin' puberty, then I like the film less than I do already. The "nothing's more important than ME" aspect of so many teenager movies (and, well, teenagers) is obnoxious, but at least I've come to expect it. When a guy getting cut in half is presented as just another thing a poor teenager has to deal with, then I think everything's probably going to hell faster than we thought.

By the way, I thought the one shot of violence was very appropriate, at least when I thought the film was heading in a good direction.

Ed Howard said...

I had a feeling you'd say something like that. Oh well. Personally, I like that the film presents such a subjective view of the world of teenagers, where everything is exaggerated and blown out of proportion, values skewed. The kid's like a raw nerve with the whole world out to push his buttons. Even the man crawling towards him could be read this way: did it really happen like that or is that just the way his guilt-ridden mind remembers it, its horror amplified?

bill r. said...

It's solipsistic, is what it is, to a laughable degree (hey everyone, I just used "solipsistic" in a sentence!!). I don't care about a kid who feels guilt over a terrible deed, but doesn't feel guilty enough to take responsibility -- who obviously never even considers doing so -- and while I agree that some teenagers have a very rough go of it, the idea that teenagers have it harder than anyone else is one that needs to die. That idea needs to be run over by a train.

Hell, The Messengers had more perspective!

bill r. said...

Yes, of course. Don't you think so?

bill r. said...

Oh, you deleted your comment... Hurm...

Ed Howard said...

So it would have been better if he'd turned himself in to the police at the end?

Ed Howard said...

Damn, that got screwed up. No, I don't think so. I think that sounds like the old Hays Code-era Hollywood where no criminal could ever be allowed to get away with his crime. It's a film about a kid struggling with feelings of guilt and isolation in a complete vacuum of support, with no one to really help him or guide him. Why would the film be better if he gets punished at the end?

bill r. said...

Okay, let me put it another way: if he's going to get away with it, then the film needs to not back him up. I feel like we're supposed to be cool with the idea that he doesn't get punished. Do you disagree with that? And do you think it's okay that he gets off scot free?

bill r. said...

And if you DO think it's okay, then how is a kid going to turn into anything but garbage if he refuses to take responsibility for his actions? He killed a man. The fact that it was an accident is irrelevant. Isn't the dead man's family owed anything?

And what's with this "no support" idea? Who says? His parents are getting a divorce, but we're given no evidence that they don't support him. They seemed like good people to me. His dad needed to think before he spoke a little more, but he seemed like a good enough person, and his mom was desperate for her son to talk to her.

Ed Howard said...

I don't think Alex's parents are bad people, at all, but they're certainly disconnected from their son, unable to talk to him or get through to him in any meaningful way. The conversation between him and his dad is painful, because it sounds like the dad is making a business proposal rather than chatting with his son. It's probably not uncommon for perfectly decent people to be kinda lousy parents in this way.

Van Sant's sympathy and compassion clearly align with Alex throughout the film. I'm not watching the film morally judging the character or rooting for him to "take responsibility" -- I see a confused, guilt-ridden kid who has no idea what he should do, who's just trying to deal with the enormity of what happened. Should he probably have taken responsibility for what he did? Yes. But it seems irrelevant to the quality of the film that he didn't. It's not that Van Sant is either supportive or disapproving of the fact that Alex doesn't go to jail: it's simply outside the purview of the film's concerns.

bill r. said...

If Van Sant was hovering above it all, then I might agree with you, but I don't think he is. When you realize why Alex is writing this stuff down, and who told him to do so, and what he does with it afterwards, I got the sense the audience is meant to sigh and think, "This kid's gonna be okay."

And I don't see anything wrong with judging the morals of characters when the film places them in a moral quandary. There is a right thing to do and a wrong thing to do in Alex's situation, and I don't think it's a plus to view that situation and not care if he does the wrong thing. If we don't care about that, then we don't really care about the character, and if we don't care about the character, then why are we watching the movie?

jryan said...

I'm going to go hit a teenager now.

...they think they have it so bad.

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