For a while there, I thought we were in trouble. Courtesy of the last-minute addition of a nice selection of international features, this week on demand has some reasonable recommendations to offer; their arrival came just at the right time to prevent the publication of one of the worst batches of Netflix releases we’ve ever seen. Those films—from Mexico, Japan, and Thailand—offer enough merit to excuse the various atrocities the remainder of the selection bring to bear, if only just about.
A farcical matrimonial adventure through the back roads of rural Iceland, Country Wedding sees writer/director Valdís Óskarsdóttir—better known, perhaps, as the editor of films from Festen to Eternal Sunshine and Finding Forrester—explore the oddities of family, sexuality, and ceremony as her wide cast of characters vainly strive to find the countryside church chosen as alternate wedding venue by the betrothed Inga and Barði. Though playing with concepts the like of infidelity and homosexuality, Country Wedding’s a film all too mannerly to make much of an impact, its mild humour ill-suited to the full exploitation of these often bizarre scenarios for maximum comic effect. Óskarsdóttir at least assembles an adept cast who bring ripe life to her script, but hers is dialogue far more worthy of mild chuckles than wild hoots. Though falling short of the acerbically incisive aims it clearly bears, this genteel humour makes for a viewing that’s pleasant, if a little slight. WORTH WATCHING.
Guns, Girls and Gambling
Considering its poster, title, plot, and leading role for Christian Slater, it might almost be called a miracle that Girls, Guns and Gambling somehow stands by its closing credits a movie that’s not all that bad. Make no mistake: nor is it all that good, but it’s agreeable enough in its overall averageness to provide a nice surprise to overturn the expectations these aspects of it invite. Concerning five entrants of an Elvis lookalike contest in a Native American casino, the film follows their individual intersecting efforts to make off with a valuable war mask housed in the building, a shapelessly sprawling plot that allows for a loose procession of low-rent action set pieces. Sprinklings of impressive gore and a surprising handful of decent gags bring what little merit there is to this primarily dull and uninspired sequence of events, so familiar and unimpressive that not even Gary Oldman can elevate proceedings much beyond the bounds of middling mediocrity. SO-SO.
My Sucky Teen Romance
Is it grounds for going easy on My Sucky Teen Romance that writer/director Emily Hagins was just 18 at the time of the film’s premiere, it the third feature film she had by then completed? It’s one of the film’s finest accomplishments that it doesn’t need any such excusing, the production value Hagins and team manage easily matching that of the competition. Intended, as the title may suggest, for a primarily teen audience, the film explores an outbreak of vampirism at a Comic-Con-esque convention, its tongue-in-cheek parody of its target audience’s obsession with bloodsuckers the chief source of its comedy. Managing one moment of sheer, hysterical hilarity, Hagins has a sharp sense of humour, with plentiful moments of lighter comedy keeping the relatively short feature moving on nicely. Patches of dullness aren’t uncommon though, and the half-baked relationships between its able but inexperienced cast do much to deprive My Sucky Teen Romance of the fluidity to better land its gags. SO-SO.
A measured meditation on the corruptive force of extended isolation, Enrique Rivero’s striking debut feature immediately heralds him a talent to watch in Mexican cinema, this engrossing study of an elderly caretaker on the cusp of losing the mansion-tending job he has held for almost three decades a powerful take on the human psyche entrenched in ripe socio-political context. Notable foremost in aesthetic terms, Parque Via represents the routine monotony of this man’s life by a number of astonishing multi-storey tracking shots, Rivero at once visually manifesting the solitary tedium of his existence and establishing the space that will become so essential as the film plays out. What first-timer Nolberto Coria lacks in acting chops he makes up for in the sad resignation of his time-worn face, his buried warmth holding our attention through the film’s more redundant and repetitive sequences right through to the sharp, smart punch packed in its unexpected, upsetting, and unforgettable final sequence. RECOMMENDED.
Director of four of Thailand’s submissions to the Academy Awards since the turn of the century—including last year’s Headshot—Pen-Ek Ratanaruang stands among the nation’s most respected and revered filmmaking talents. Concerning a married Thai couple who return to Bangkok after seven years in America to attend a friend’s funeral, Ploy is a narratively effusive puzzle of a film: a strange, beguiling mediation on the nature of reality, dreams, and fantasy. Ratanaruang’s beautifully framed scenes, largely devoid of excess colour, present all with a distinctly realist aesthetic, making the distinction between reality and fantasy all but impossible to detect. A layered rumination on the nature of love and its gradual dissolution over the course of time, Ploy uses its indeterminate reality to explore multiple iterations of this central relationship and its future. The complex script structure, never allowing us full certainty of whether what we see is real, ensures an entrancing—even transcendant—viewing experience. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
A gradually mounting ode to unspoken love, Naoto Kumazawa’s Rainbow Song is a powerfully poetic piece of romantic cinema, a movie tender and touching without ever resorting to saccharine sentiment. Beginning with the announcement of the death of budding young director Aoi, the film takes the form of the recollections of her best friend Tomoya as he relives their original meeting, the production of a short film, and the tumultuous on-off relationship they shared before she departed in pursuit of her dream. It’s a testament not just to the strengths of leads Hayato Ichihara and Juri Ueno but also to Kumazawa’s emotionally engaging direction that the film’s conclusion—of course known from its beginning—still manages to be so painful. Indeed, such is the stunning resonance of Rainbow Song’s final act that the issues of pacing encountered throughout fast seem irrelevant, the pain so beautifully realised in Ichihara’s performance felt by us ever more strongly than any such minor storytelling qualms. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
The Casserole Club
Not content enough with its eye-straining editing, hugely underwhelming cast, and awkwardly raunchy dialogue, The Casserole Club elects to add to the mix a loathsome abundance of debauchery in some stunningly misguided effort to pass comment on damaged people; or at least such is the claim of the film’s promotional material, never once substantiated in the movie itself. That the over-the-top performance of Kevin Scott Richardson, a singer better known for his membership of The Backstreet Boys, might well be the film’s finest point should effectively indicate the miniscule peaks pitted amidst the pits of astonishing depth to which the film—in terms technical as well as moral—repeatedly sinks. So assured of its own importance as a social text, The Casserole Club has the gall—or perhaps just the delusion—to compare itself to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and American Beauty, a horrid exhibition of self-serving flattery that says as much about the utter wrongheadedness of the production as the film itself. UNWATCHABLE.
Vigilante Vigilante: The Battle for Expression
Shining a light on a lesser-known aspect of graffiti subculture, Max Good’s participatory documentary Vigilante Vigilante: The Battle for Expression distinguishes itself by focusing not on the actions of graffiti artists, but rather on those “vigilante” citizens who dedicate their own spare time to the removal of these blemishes on their community. An intriguing concept, it’s a side of society given comprehensive treatment in Good’s interviews with artists and these so-called “buffers”, the differing arguments of the two groups together forming an informative overview of the issue. It’s when Good and co-writer Julien de Benedictis elect to involve themselves in unmasking the mysterious buffers, though, that Vigilante Vigilante begins to fall apart, their eventual alignment to one side of the debate fine in theory, but less so when they begin to harass their subjects for greatly misjudged comic effect. It might fall at the last hurdle, but there’s enough well-presented information herein to encompass an educational documentary, if not an essential one. WORTH WATCHING.