It seems death, destruction, and disorder are the primary constituents of this week’s latest streams, from a pair of documentaries on the folly of human brutality to a smattering of indie dramas tackling the end of life, or indeed of all life. Fret not, though, it’s not entirely doom and gloom, and there are even a couple of comedies to brighten your day at the end of it all. With the latest from veterans like Werner Herzog and Robert Redford, award-winning fare from Cannes, and tales of latter-day sexual liberation, there really is something for everyone this week, so read on to discover what tickles your fancy, and be sure to let us know your thoughts afterward.
“Please describe an encounter with a squirrel” is the finest Herzogian moment in a film oddly lacking in the great documentarian’s bursts of eccentric Bavarian mania. Into the Abyss is a very fine film indeed, make no mistake, but the lack of the same breed of extraordinarily dry-witted voiceover that worked so beautifully in Encounters at the End of the World and Grizzly Man deprives it of the personality that might have made it that much finer. In attempting to encompass all aspects of capital punishment and the lives it affects, the focus feels stretched, with many elements of the issue explored but none with any great profundity. With the little moments of inspired visual awe and Herzog’s brilliantly persuasive interview tactics, though, Into the Abyss is still miles better than any other death row documentary you’re likely to find. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Not a wise choice for those looking to have positive hopes for humankind affirmed, Ian Palmer’s sickeningly engrossing exposé of bare-knuckle boxing feuds in the Irish travelling community uses this crazy subcultural fixture as a means to espouse views on our placing as a species of familial pride over logical sense. A tough watch that’s sure to leave you ruing the more ridiculous aspects of human social interaction, it shows a side of life few will be familiar with. Shot across 12 years of intertwining feuds between three key families, it follows one of these in particular but gives each equal platform to have their say. What’s so sad is that almost all agree that their actions are senseless and dangerous, yet the suggestion that they all make amends is greeted with riotous laughter. As twistedly fascinating as it is painfully frustrating. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
With two young Japanese protagonists in America to visit Manzanar, where their grandfather was interred along with over 100,000 other Japanese Americans during World War II, one would expect Littlerock’s narrative of these teens’ integration with the local youths to in some way reflect the contentious race relations of the period. Sadly it isn’t so despite clear potential for just that; Ott’s exploration of this unjust imprisonment of so many comes merely in the form of a shoddily constructed tacked-on epilogue that feels more of a museum tour than a meaningful take on the issue. It’s a shame given the humanity on display in the story itself; the ideas of communication and language barriers complement the realistic characters and relationships well, but they’re never delved into in as much detail as necessary. Further hampered by an often unconvincing performance from Cory Zacharia in a role that demands a strong actor, Littlerock is a mixed bag of squandered opportunities. SO-SO.
A visually stunning masterwork from the Danish controversy-courter par excellence, Melancholia was a deserved occupant of the 2011 top 10 of any rational filmgoer. Drawing on his own experience of depression and a vast array of phobias and neuroses—not to mention the work of Bergman, particularly Persona—von Trier crafts a work that is at once decidedly personal and abundantly universal. An operatic look at a newlywed bride’s inability to shake her feelings of inescapable desolation much to the chagrin of her family, Melancholia uses the collision course of the titular planet with earth as a grand metaphor to introduce the uninitiated to just how such feelings overpower one’s life. Overwhelming and at times excruciatingly difficult to watch, Dunst’s performance puts her miles above even the talents of a sympathetic Gainsbourg and a scene-stealing Udo Kier. An absolute masterpiece. MUST SEE.
Touted as the first fully dramatic role from Jet Li, Xue Xiaolu’s first outing as a filmmaker casts the renowned martial artist as a terminally ill widower struggling to teach his 21-year old autistic son how to survive in the world without him. Filled with heartfelt moments of frustration and fatherly love, it’s an engaging work of raw emotion that succeeds despite its inability to ever really nail the darker moments of this tale. A clumsy script with an infirm grasp of exposition never quite allows the film to take its full effect, and what might have been a greater emotional impact tends to get a little lost under the weight of weak dialogue. The strength of Li and an excellent Wen Zhang as his son are the real centrepieces here though, completely carrying the story through its less convincing moments. WORTH WATCHING.
Blessed though it is with a passionate lead actress and a pleasantly detached visual scheme, Julia Leigh’s directorial debut substitutes a sense of odd mystery for any deal of characterisation whatsoever. Following a college student whose inexplicable sense of sexual adventure draws her to take on a job as an unconscious plaything for sexually deprived men, it’s a concept loaded with potential that falls down in Leigh’s failure to ever explain a thing about a character who’s never even remotely likeable from the get-go. Browning’s performance is raw and reckonable, yet Leigh mishandles her ferocity, seeming to think a few simple scenes of crying will stand in lieu of any exploration of this character’s motivations. Aesthetically pleasing but narratively staid and stagnant, this is a bizarre mess of a film that will likely captivate few but aggravate many. AVOID IT.
Wright is on top form as Mary Surratt, the owner of the boarding house in which the Lincoln assassination plot was watched, while McAvoy delivers as her court-appointed defence attorney himself originally convinced of her guilt. A well-stocked supporting cast finds particular strength in Colm Meaney and Stephen Root, though Justin Long is an unbelievable stretch as a 19th Century soldier. Redford understands the inertia of courtroom scenes, and frames his uniquely, casting pools of light into the proceedings to make it seem almost overexposed. It’s hard not to draw comparisons between the unlawfulness of the court proceedings in the wake of a national tragedy and the America of today, many of the plot aspects wryly drawing our attention to the unconstitutional treatment of alleged conspirators in a modern context. Victim to pacing issues, its imperfections are clear, but it’s never uninteresting. WORTH WATCHING.
When it has the sense to allow its charismatic leads free reign to fully work off each other, The Rebound finds a surprising amount of success, Zeta-Jones and Bartha managing a serviceable partnership that actually makes us care about these people. Excessive adherence to conformity, though, kills the flow of their relationship, and the plot segues are less realistic character developments than excuses to showcase a shoddy montage. Bartha’s relative success as a comic lead is commendable, managing more laughs then the entire cast of The Hangover Part II (though that’s hardly saying much), but the film’s odd insistence that having children spout rude words and sexual dialogue is hilarious makes it the victim of a serious mismanagement of taste. Some painfully unfunny scenes and a frank refusal to stray from the rom-com formula hardly help either. RISKY.
More likeable than loveable, Philippe Le Guay’s coquettish class comedy excels in establishing a cheery atmosphere of light humour, though loses its way whenever it attempts to hit upon something more meaningful. Setting itself in 1960s Paris, it says far less about the treatment of Spanish housemaids by bourgeoisie society than it sets out to, consigning a sense of injustice singularly to one character and thereby making her seem wildly out of place. Its success rests entirely on the shoulders of an exquisitely animated Fabrice Luchini as the wealthy employer of one of these women who finds their life of quiet contentment infinitely more appealing than his stately routine of observing tradition. It’s a very mild and exorbitantly pacifistic humour, but in Luchini’s hands it’s invested with a contagious liveliness that can’t help but make you crack a smile. WORTH WATCHING.