Once more the week in VOD brings good news for those deep in the throes of a 2012 catch-up, some key films of the year being brought to our streaming screens in the last seven days. It’s a particularly strong week for documentary, one of this year’s most acclaimed joining one of 2011’s as the two finest offerings of this batch of releases to tout the merits of actuality in the face of some—to put it mildly—lacking fiction. Two of Europe’s most critically acclaimed auteurs and a newcomer from down under bring us the best of the rest this week, and it’s a good thing they do: if we’re to gauge by the ignominy of the worst on offer, this might well be the worst week we’ve yet had.
Clearly inspired by the winning formula of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset—and no doubt aided by sharing one of the pair’s writers—Julie Delpy’s 2007 2 Days in Paris was a mostly pleasant emulation of those films’ naturalistic style of romantic comedy. She returns to the role of Marion for 2 Days in New York, transplanting the character and her socially inappropriate family to the United States, where they have come to visit her and new boyfriend Mingus. Mostly indistinct from Adam Goldberg’s character in the first film, Chris Rock gives a welcome low-key performance opposite the over-the-top antics of the wacky French, decidedly stereotypical despite their writer. Such broadness, though fun from time to time, serves only to make more tedious a film so unimaginatively in-line with its predecessor that it seems less a sequel than a thinly-veiled remake. With 2 Days in Paris available to stream already, little reason remains to visit New York. SO-SO.
How wonderful a coincidence that the year which gave us both Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter should also bring us Hyde Park on Hudson and FDR: American Badass, earning 2012 a place as the year of the alternative presidential biopic. Damned as it was in our own Jason McKiernan’s review, there’s no chance Hyde Park could be as despicably loathsome as FDR, a film so poisonously unfunny and moronically juvenile as to somehow waste the concept of Roosevelt’s polio as the result of a werewolf attack. Nice as it is to see the veteran supporting actor Barry Bostwick afforded a leading role, it’s sad and embarrassing to see the cost of the part as he drenches himself in milk, touches people about the genitalia, and speaks some of the most wretched dreck ever to pose as dialogue. How such unrelenting childishness can hope to find an appreciative audience with its hard R rating is as much a mystery as why an idea so fun yields a movie so painful. UNWATCHABLE.
Convenient though it is to combatting the problems of world hunger, genetically modified food might not be entirely a good thing. Such is the essential argument of Genetic Chile, an achingly lifeless documentary that takes an unbearably long sixty minutes to arrive at this simple conclusion. Look, it’s great to see people using the medium of film to explore prominent issues in the world, but to do so in such an inherently cinematic way—much of the film consists of a droll voiceover reading extend passages of text as they appear onscreen—does a disservice to the issue and the audience both. Director Christopher Dudley’s sole noteworthy aesthetic contribution to the film is a bizarre change of aspect ratio at certain points in one interview, a move that’s not only visually irritating, but blatantly indicative of a bias that wholly undermines the purported objectivity on which this very interview was conducted. It’s is an interesting topic. Shame about the film. AVOID IT.
Released only this year in the United States after opening in its native Australia all the way back in 2009, Last Ride is an intriguing father-son drama anchored by a terrific performance by Hugo Weaving. He plays Kev, a man mysteriously on the run with son Chook in tow, desperate to be a better father yet dominated by his violent tendencies. Tom Russell does a commendable job as the confused youth, but the film’s true star is cinematographer Greig Fraser, a striking talent who should go far—and indeed already has, in Killing Them Softly and Zero Dark Thirty. His impeccable compositions lend visual majesty to a story susceptible to the occasional lull, its relaxed pacing often restraining its emotional effect. It’s no surprise to learn that Mac Gudgeon’s script is based on a novel, the difficult relationship at its centre built slowly over nights upon nights out in the wilderness, revealed to us gradually, if never entirely. RECOMMENDED.
Disillusioned by the manner in which the system seemed stacked against him as a three-time felon, Andrew “Lemon” Andersen took to poetry as a means of self-expression, eventually penning and presenting a one-man show through The American Place Theatre. Lemon traces the production’s difficulties in finding funding and venues, as well as exploring Andersen’s life and the way his work has allowed him to escape the ghosts of his past. Never entirely overcoming his seeming ability to accept responsibility for the actions that led him to his multiple-incarcerations, it’s a documentary that’s guilty of being too much on the side of its subject, accepting his viewpoint without ever probing deeper into his own culpability. It fares better when exploring his relationships with his family—his show details his home life and the loss of his mothers to AIDS—and the pivotal ways that art acts as a venue of escape from the pressures of everyday life. WORTH WATCHING.
“What does it mean?” I wondered, as dancers danced across my screen at the beginning of Pina, a documentary exploring the work of the late, reputedly great, German choreographer Pina Bausch. Dance is not an art I “get”, not one whose formal or aesthetic aspects I feel equipped to appreciate. My realm of understanding is restricted to cinema, a medium so wholly different. The genius of Pina is its blending of both as a true master of one transmutes the masterpieces of another. Wim Wenders renders Bausch’s pieces with such stunning cinematic power that it’s easy to appreciate their own inherent artistic potency; his camera captures the vivacious urgency of her work with devout faithfulness, turning screen to stage and love of one toward the other. Further boosted by multilingual ruminations from Bausch’s troupe that attest the universal language of every art, Pina is an awe-inspiring ode to an extraordinary body of work that anyone can “get”. MUST SEE.
It takes a bad movie indeed to make one doubt the talents of a favourite performer; watching Julianne Moore in The Forgotten, it’s difficult not to wonder if the rest of her work really is all that good. It’s not her fault, to be fair, her hapless performance more the result of imbecilic scripting and incomprehensible plotting that gradually pollutes all around it. Outdoing even the atrocities of The Good Son, a masterpiece by comparison, director Joseph Ruben adds insult to injury as he captures this dreadful story of a mother told her dead son never existed with a nauseating array of off-kilter angles and zooms, making The Forgotten as repulsive visually as it is narratively. Moore has moments where she makes the drama tolerable, believable even, but they’re so few in a film so riddled with nonsense that they do nothing to excuse the incessant barrage of brainless tedium. UNWATCHABLE.
Opting to follow his yoga guru on a journey through the highest passable road in the world, Adam Schomer narrates The Highest Pass, Jon Fitzgerald’s visually impressive yet structurally inane chronicle of this soul-searching adventure. The guru, Anand, is obsessed with a prediction made upon his birth that he would die in an accident at his current age; one would think a person lending credence to such prophesy would steer clear of so dangerous a journey. Indeed, it’s this foolishness that makes inaccessible so much of the documentary, Adam and his companions spending much of it asking why they’ve elected to do this, a question to which there seems no sensible answer outside their contrived conviction that they will find themselves. It’s near-impossible to engage with The Highest Pass on a meaningful level, so convinced is it of its subjects’ ludicrous New Age hokum. Call me a cynic if you like; I am, but it doesn’t change this film’s pointlessness. SO-SO.
The latest from Cannes darlings Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, The Kid with a Bike continues the brothers’ focus on the fringes of Belgian society, following the titular Cyril, a young boy abandoned by his father and taken in by a kindly hairdresser. A naturalistic delight, it’s a beautifully shot film with a spirit of optimism as relentless as that of its central character. Newcomer Thomas Doret gives a marvellous performance as Cyril, imbuing the boy with the quiet sadness that makes tolerable—and, crucially, understandable—his crueller, more ungrateful side. Cécile De France is perfect as the compassionate yet strong foster mother, whose stubborn stance against the absentee father together with her unwavering patience with her troubled charge defines her character. The film’s clear echoes of The 400 Blows, though, only do it a disservice; delightful as it is, The Kid with a Bike hasn’t the punch of Truffaut’s film and can seem, for all its merits, only a little slight in comparison. RECOMMENDED.
Real estate magnate David Siegel was only too happy to allow documentarian Lauren Greenfield access to his personal and professional lives when he launched construction on Versailles, a recreation of the French palace and the largest single-family home in the United States, in 2008. By 2010, his fortune in startling decline in the aftermath of the financial crisis and his palace—not to mention his business—about to be lost, he was not quite so keen. Greenfield rises to the challenge of this extraordinary opportunity, adapting her film to the winds of chance and making of The Queen of Versailles a succinct microcosmic encapsulation of the America of today. Expertly edited to cheekily juxtapose the Siegel’s new “modest” lifestyle with that of their Filipino nanny and the 6000 lost employees of David’s company, it’s a documentary that never allows the seriousness of its issues stand in the way of audacious fun, blending stirring social commentary with appreciable ironic comedy. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.