Sep 21, 2011


Largely inspired by the aesthetics of Disney's Silly Symphonies, the barely-feature-length Dumbo is essentially an epic cartoon, albeit one whose sensibilities are less exaggerated than they are a witty and fanciful caricaturization of reality (an early image, in which the United States appears in illustrated map form from the viewpoint of the clouds, is indicative), evoking the playful perspective of a child.

Sep 15, 2011

Silent Souls (2010): B+

Water and death are the two most recurring objects in the thematically dense Silent Souls, a film that suggests the final ripples of a forgotten culture but nevertheless unfolds with ethereal, quotidian ease. Miron (Yuriy Tsurilo) and Aist (Igor Sergeev) remember and continue the ways of the Merja people, a group that was assimilated into larger Russia centuries ago; when Miron's wife, Tanya (Yuliya Aug), passes away, the two prepare her body and embark on a trip to deliver her back to the earth: first by fire, then by water. Aist narrates throughout, often contextualizing the events with cultural footnotes, but frequently the time passes silently (Andrei Karasyov's score seems to exist outside the film, like an emotional shock absorber), the deliberately unfolding events acting as a kind of mental fishing net in which ten different viewers might find ten different experiences of equally profound worth. Handheld, inobtrusive long takes readily accrue a dreamlike quality, and the film invites as much as it packs the mysteries of the universe into a brief running time; the fluidity is as musical as it is visual. A pair of birds - buntings, small, like sparrows - accompany this frequently spontaneous journey, in which past and present converge in ways both odd and oddly fitting. In an unforgiving, unfriendly world (the wet browns and dull greys of winter are so entrenched that a cut to sunshine-tinged scenery is positively jarring), loves stands above all, from the intimate wedding practices around a bride to a moving flashback in which Miron bathes Tanya in vodka. An elusive, poignantly earthbound odyssey.

Sep 10, 2011

Where Soldiers Come From (2011): B-

Heather Courtney's personal, journal-like Where Soldiers Come From doesn't get us any closer to comprehending the magnitude of the conflicts the United States has involved itself in over the past decade, but in its own manner of accomplished modesty, it aims for the arguably more important task of understanding what these wars have come to mean to the people fighting them -- the soldiers having gone (and still gone) abroad, and the citizens supporting them in their absence and (sometimes even more difficult) presence. $20,000 and college tuition support is enough to lure a tightly knit circle of Michigan friends to join the National Guard after high school, a decision they'd likely alter if they knew what they'd be in for (says one, "fucking stupid"). Courtney, a fellow Michigan native who wanted to counter stereotypes of small town America, follows these young men stateside and abroad, from their training to eventual deployment and return home. A family member likens their posse to the characters of The Deer Hunter, although tragedy here is of the long-term, low-key brand; lingering traumas, silent brain injuries, and the damning realization by many that they still don't know what to do with their lives.

What Where Soldiers Come From lacks in distinction it makes up for in heartfelt sincerity, although it acts - if only incidentally - as an expose of military incompetence. (A standout moment of zen: soldiers are briefed via PowerPoint with information that hasn't been updated in over four years, and their instructor can hardly pronounce Hamid Karzai, let alone verify if he's still president.) Director Courtney's self-consciousness about the meaning of it all lends the film a distinctively picturesque beauty (better natural scenery couldn't be asked for, from the abandoned building that functions as a graffiti art gallery to the lighthouse that overlooks Lake Superior) that's at once engaging and slightly distracting from the core of the matter. Functionality is the key word here: some combination of public funding mandates and deliberately overly-assessible cinema renders Where Soldiers Come From both astute and slightly vacant. The film can't help but feel unfinished, but perhaps it might've lent more privacy to these individual's demons (the difference between looking and seeing) and found more cause in their roots.

Sep 8, 2011

One Day (2011): B-

I felt that there was something rotten in the roots of An Education from very early on in that film, although the performances (particularly Carey Mulligan's) were so good that I'm tempted to return to it, perhaps to find something more inept than with actual malice. Lone Sherfig's stateside debut follow-up One Day further urges me in that direction. This anticipated adaptation bears some of the same weaknesses as that previous film, namely a handling of emotional highways that lacks any sense of human existence I can conceive of; through awkward blocking and the performances director Sherfig susses out of her cast (also awkward, but with more purpose), things always seem just a bit off. These baffling scenes are fortunately isolated, and as the progressing story eventually culminates in what I'd describe as an emotional web worth getting tangled in, I'm willing to write them off as either relative flaws worth overlooking or a result of the fact that I'm 26 and male and the director is twice my age and female. One Day is the indie equivalent of an event film, and it's central device - twenty years between two friends with a thing for the other, one day, the same day, every year - is tantamount to a high concept or the villain in a sequel, yet Sherfig and writer/screenwriter David Nicholls (who adapted his own 2009 novel) manage to avoid overly synthesizing emotions; the breath of real life, genuine pain and pent-up desires come creeping through. Ultimately, it's probably the two leads - Anne Hathaway, doing "not beautiful" (in the sickening sense that word is supposed to mean) so beautifully, and Jim Sturgess, Harry to her Sally - that keep things worthwhile. To the film's detriment, life's punches come with some predictability, and the years might seem to pass more naturally but for the decision to indicate such via an annoying text device. Sherfig's visual knack is better than she realizes; she should stop dressing it up within an inch of its life.

MST3K vs. Gamera

While the movie segments of these episodes left this junkie craving more, they're rather accomplished works when one focuses on the writing and sharp comedic timing displayed in the host segments. Tom Servo's love song to a turtle is an early high-water mark, Crow T. Robot's impersonation of Ed Sullivan has rarely been surpassed by human or puppet alike, and fans of Wagner will appreciate the production of "Gameradamerung."