Monday, February 28, 2011

The Oscars, Nic Cage's Hell Ride, More 'Gods'

No, no. I wasn't quite late to the party on this year's Academy Awards. Click here to read my thoughts on last night's show and Oscar winners.

The story also contains some (slightly) further thoughts on Xavier Beauvois's "Of Gods and Men" as well as my take on "Drive Angry."

Later this week, check back for my reviews on "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," "The Adjustment Bureau" and, yes, "Take Me Home Tonight."

Friday, February 25, 2011

Sticking With It: 'Of Gods and Men' and 'Public Speaking'

My cinematic cup runneth over this weekend. 

Tonight, I finally caught Fritz Lang's very, very dark "Scarlet Street," while Sunday will find me (and several others crammed into my apartment) watching the 83rd Academy Awards - that is, following a quick run to the local multiplex to catch the (apparently) super-trashy, supernatural 3-D Nic Cage film, "Drive Angry." More on that later.

For now, I'm glad to report I thoroughly enjoyed two new films, both of which are odes to perseverance, although the heroes of neither film actually benefit from doing so. The first is Xavier Beauvois's Cannes favorite, "Of Gods and Men," which is based on a true story about a group of monks who decide to stay in an impoverished mountainous area of Algeria, despite increased threats by fundamentalist terrorists.

The film, thankfully, takes a completely nonpolitical approach to the material. Rather, it's a quiet, sobering picture about faith in the face of horror and Beauvois does a nice job of fleshing out each of the seven monks - not so much through words, but via facial expressions, the silences in between words and some solid performances.

It's a powerful film. In a key scene, an Algerian official pleads with the monks to leave, arguing that their fate at the hands of the fundamentalists will likely justify to outsiders all the negative traits they associate with Islam. Fortunately, Beauvois's film escapes that same fate.

Also struggling to keep on keepin' on is the heroine of Martin Scorsese's new film, which just happens to be a documentary about Fran Lebowitz. The writer and acerbic wit, whose first two books of essays - "Metropolitan Life" and "Social Studies" - were a sensation in the 1970s, has not published a book in 16 years.

In Scorsese's film, Lebowitz is candid about her "writer's block" and tackles everything from her childhood to America's dumbed down popular culture. Author Toni Morrison notes that Lebowitz "seems to [me] almost always right but never fair." It's hard to argue with that description as you listen to Lebowitz's spot-on and frequently hilarious takes on publishing, art and "cultural elitism," a phrase in which, for my money she puts the final nail in the coffin.

Scorsese steps back as director of the film and lets Lebowitz run the show. Most of the picture is made up of one-on-one interviews between the filmmaker and the writer at Ye Waverly Inn. Some stock footage is well-placed, including sequences from Scorsese's own "Taxi Driver." It's a low key, side project for the filmmaker and a fitting tribute to its subject.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

My Oscar Picks

Best Picture: The Social Network
Best Director: David Fincher, The Social Network
Best Actor: Colin Firth, The King's Speech
Best Actress: Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale, The Fighter
Best Supporting Actress: Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Best Animated Film: Toy Story 3
Best Art Direction: Inception
Best Cinematography: Black Swan
Best Costume Design: Alice in Wonderland
Best Documentary: Exit Through the Gift Shop
Best Editing: The Social Network
Best Foreign Film: Dogtooth
Best Makeup: Barney's Version
Best Original Score: The Social Network
Best Original Song: "We Belong Together," Toy Story 3
Best Sound Editing: Inception
Best Sound Mixing: The Social Network
Best Visual Effects: Inception
Best Screenplay (Adapted): Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network
Best Screenplay (Original): Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, The Kids Are All Right

The Horror, The Horror: 'Vanishing on 7th Street' and 'We Are What We Are'

The socially conscious horror film has been a mainstay in the genre in the 43 years since George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” blended the undead and potent social commentary.

Two films – Brad Anderson’s creepy “Vanishing on 7th Street” and Jorge Michel Grau’s grim “We Are What We Are” – opening this week keep this tradition alive.

In Anderson’s picture, the world ends with not a bang, but a flicker. The film gives more than a few nods to Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone,” right down to Hayden Christensen’s newsman stepping on a pair of glasses as did Burgess Meredith in the legendary “Time Enough At Last” episode.

Christensen’s character, a woman in a hospital (Thandie Newtown), a young kid (Jacob Latimore) and a movie projectionist (John Leguizamo) find that the denizens of Detroit have all disappeared, their clothes strewn about the street, following a sudden blackout.

The survivors soon realize they must stay in the light to avoid being swallowed up by the looming, whispering shadows that follow their every step. But the sun keeps rising later and later each day and goes down earlier and earlier.

Anderson does not take great pains to explain the cause of the power outage nor the disappearances. There are a few passing references to the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke Island in the 16th century and the cryptic message - “Croatoan” – that missing group left behind.

The director also does not beat his audience over the head thematically. A scene in which a jukebox, complete with 1950s nuggets, and various other electrical appliances light up a bar in which the film’s four characters are holed up may drive home the point of how much we, as humans, depend on electricity to survive. But a chide from one character to another to save energy enforces plot more than the film's raison d'etre.

Despite its slightly unnecessary ending, “Vanishing” is a creepy delight. It’s a subtle horror film, but it will still make you grateful once the theater returns to being a well-lit room.

“We Are What We Are” could make a vegetarian out of even the most dedicated carnivore.

The film opens with an old man stumbling down a Mexico City street, stopping to glare hungrily at some female mannequins in a store window, foaming black bile and then keeling over dead.

This man, we discover, is the patriarch of a poor clan – grim wife, devious sister, hair-trigger tempered older son and responsible, but depressed younger son – that dwells in a dimly lit basement home and regularly practices “The Ritual.” This involves stealing away prostitutes or destitute children off the street, carving them up and devouring them. The picture is Jonathan Swift by way of Umberto Lenzi.

Once they discover their breadwinner – er, flesh gatherer – is dead, the siblings must decide who will take over as the leader. Thrown into the mix are sibling rivalry, sexual tension and a thirst for parental acceptance. There are also two bumbling cops investigating the case who provide the film’s few comedic moments.

“We Are What We Are” is creepy – its grimy photography and-low key performances are more disturbing than its gory set pieces, which are relatively few and far between.

But the film suffers from its share of problems. There is a history between the characters, but it is hinted at, rather than fully developed. While I’m not sure I can safely say Grau’s sympathies are with the cannibals, we are supposed to be made to feel tension when they come close to getting caught as they bag a prostitute. But the scenes lack suspense.

And there’s something a bit assaultive in the film’s depiction of violence. I know, it’s a film about cannibalism, right? But is it really necessary to show the battered face of a prostitute beaten to death by the clan not just once, but twice? Grau’s movie is just arty enough not to be dismissed as Grand Guignol. Individual scenes – the opening sequence of Papa Cannibal ambling down the street, a character’s wandering around a nightclub - stand on their own but the film, alas, lacks – wait for it – bite.

For a better example of the genre, check out Claire Denis’s gorgeous shocker, “Trouble Every Day.”

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Welcome to Critical Conditions, 2011 Edition

Hey All,

Hope you've found your way over here. My old site,, is still online and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. It's just looking a little 2002, if you know what I mean.

So, welcome. If you want to post a review, an essay or just some ramblings, coherent or incoherent, email them to me at

True Grit

Admittedly, I did not originally understand the purpose of a remake of True Grit, thinking the 1969 film that won John Wayne an Oscar was good enough as is. But leave it to the Coen Brothers - a household name for devoted cineastes if there ever was one - to bring something not only something new to the table, but to completely change the story's tone and presentation. Based upon the 1968 Charles Portis novel of the same name, the Coens' True Grit bares the trademark signatures of the brothers' other films and tweaks the western genre as much The Man Who Wasn't There did film noir and Miller's Crossing did the gangster picture.
This new version of the Portis novel - which it is much more so than a remake of Henry Hathaway's original film - falls into the revisionist western category. It is often funny, but equally bleak; occasionally violent and, eventually, moving. 
Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, whose work rivals that of Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone as the year's breakout performance, is Mattie Ross, a no-nonsense, vengeance-driven 14-year-old who has come to the film's nameless western town to take care of her father's burial, track down his murderer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) and kill him. 
To do so, she enlists the help of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, slurring out of the side of his mouth in a performance that could only be pulled off by the Dude), a quick-to-draw marshal with a questionable past filled with killings, bank robberies and a few rides with notorious Civil War marauder William Quantrill. Also drawn into the chase is Mr. LaBeouf, pronounced "La Beef," a vain, fancy-talkin' (I love his use of the word "remonstrate") Texas ranger portrayed by a mustachioed Matt Damon.
As in much of the Coens' recent work, there is room here for Biblical themes to play out. The brothers' previous film, the brilliant A Serious Man, opened with a quote from Rashi: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." True Grit goes straight for Proverbs at its opening: "The wicked flee when none pursueth." The film is an old-fashioned tale of bloodletting and prairie justice. Its three characters are all seeking something - redemption, another at the end the end to an obsessive quest or to right an unjust wrong. Each of these figures, despite their occasional buffoonery or the flawed natures of their characters, eventually become figures for whom we care.
The picture is dark, indeed, especially a scene in which Mattie comes across a very evil man, another in which a man adorned in a bear costume is selling the remains of a dead man or a moment during which a corpse is found strung from a tree. But the Coens - who have wrongly been accused in the past of not displaying love for their characters - also include sequences that are more emotional than any in their character, including a late-night ride on a tired horse and a coda with an older Mattie that frames the entire picture in a different light.
It is becoming old hat to proclaim a film by the Coens as one of the year's best. It's becoming an inevitability. The brothers have been making movies for 25 years and, in the past three years, have put out several of their best works. True Grit is another feather in their cap. It is my hope that the film revives the western genre, which has long been due for a comeback and has been creaking along with only the occasional masterpiece (most recently, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). I'd say True Grit is a good start.