The more weeks go by, the more convinced I become that the true beneficiaries of an increasingly online movie-watching public are documentary filmmakers. Released this week are two remarkable films that, without the benefit of streaming services, I dare say I might never have known existed. After the dizzying stampede of titles that gushed forth last week, we have here very few high profile movies to speak of, a disappointing outing for Jason Statham and an even less impressive one for Dario Argento probably the most immediately familiar of the nine films below. You know the drill by now: read on to find what’s worth your time, and don’t forget to report back with your own findings.
Take a film. Strip away the action, the sheen, the dialogue, the narrative even, what do you have left? The humans beneath. Such is Cristi Puiu’s modus operandi as he himself stars in his long awaited follow-up to the acclaimed The Death of Mr Lazarescu. Describing Aurora as a slow minimalist piece doesn’t even begin to summate its patience-testing pace, Puiu’s strict adherence to the realism that has characterised most of the films of the Romanian New Wave seeing the majority of his scenes composed of silent observations of everyday actions, albeit lushly and detachedly so through door and window frames. A story eventually evolves through the daily drudgery, and the care taken to avoid any deal of theatricality that might make the central character seem more false is absolutely admirable. With an eventual running time of just over three hours, even viewers who appreciate this frill-less style may find themselves wanting of a greater emotional involvement. RECOMMENDED.
A poisonously bad combination of unanimously awful performances, mind-numbing dialogue, and a narrative as stupid as it thinks it is smart, Dirty Little Trick was co-authored by its producer and a writer whose odd experience on the way to a pitch was chosen as the basis for an entirely new story. Awful in every way imaginable, the convoluted story of a teenage girl double-crossing three unrelated men is a draining viewing experience for all the wrong reasons, every last aspect of the pitiful production lacking even the slightest indication of talent or skill. Michael Madsen shows up to not just chew the scenery but, like a ravenous animal too long starved of nutrients, to wolf it down so rapidly that he makes himself sick, thus spewing a hideous cocktail of stomach acid and half-digested scenery over everybody, which he then proceeds to lap up with unrestrained bovine rapacity. It’s almost sad to see him sunk so low. Almost. UNWATCHABLE.
More like the pilot episode for a run-of-the-mill police procedural TV series than the output of an established great of the horror genre, Dario Argento’s latest is so bogged down with familiar narrative and visual aspects that it’s hard to fathom how it could possibly have come from the mind of such a master. Evidently eager to work with the Italian director, Adrien Brody takes the role of producer as well as that of Enzo Avolfi, a brilliant detective haunted by past trauma who must find a brutal serial killer before his latest victim runs out of time, all while putting up with the stubborn interference of her determined sister. If it sounds familiar that’s most likely because you’ve seen it a thousand times before on CSI and its many derivatives. What possessed Argento to pursue so bland a storyline and never think to infuse it with even a single original thought will remain a mystery; it’s certainly a much more interesting one than that of the plot. AVOID IT.
I have to wonder if Robert De Niro hasn’t just decided that he’s done enough, that his days of great performances in landmark films are well beyond him. After all, acting is hard, and when you’ve produced as many iconic characters as he shouldn’t you be allowed to sit back and simply select whichever role comes with the largest paycheck? He joins this, the latest action-packed Jason Statham vehicle, alongside Clive Owen, the only one of the three who seems to be actually trying. Its bland attempts at widening Statham’s emotional spectrum come courtesy of Rambo, giving him a smattering of laughably contrived philosophical lines—“killing’s easy, living with it’s the hard part”—to spout. Additionally contributing a completely cursory romance that follows to the letter the arc of Statham’s character in The Expendables—you have to wonder if Stallone hasn’t come looking for royalties—Killer Elite is a dumb and dull sequence of bullets and bombs, dressed up in the garb of a political thriller. AVOID IT.
Ricardo de Montreuil’s second feature film takes the classic formula of the road movie and, without deviating in any large part from its set course, invests it with such striking humanistic compassion that it transcends generic constraints. Angelo Milli’s score is the real saviour, its every note a lugubrious reminder of the difficult emotional circumstances of 21 year-old protagonist Santiago, whose father’s suicide opens the film. Visited in his native Peru by a step-sister from the other side of the family and her new husband, Santiago allows the two to accompany him on his voyage to the titular town where he and his parents holidayed in his youth. With typical scenes of self-discovery through various intoxicants and sexual congresses, Máncora has little to offer in the way of narrative innovation, but it’s the strength of the characters and the legitimacy of their relationships which carry the film through such recognisable scenes to genuine impact. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Streaming services have provided a great new means of distribution for smaller independent features that might otherwise have never managed to find an audience at all, offering filmmakers who really need it the platform to market their product. It’s nice to see directors working outside of the system given a shot, and it’s precisely because of this that it always feels cruel and unkind to criticise them. Even so, no amount of nicety can cover up the fact that Playing House just isn’t a very good movie, its initially interesting characters quickly stilted by questionable performances and even more questionable motivations. The script—following a newly married couple who allow the husband’s best friend to move in with them but find tensions quickly growing when his new girlfriend joins the household—admirably attempts a slow built before unleashing a strange horror plot, but it’s so weighed down by the underwritten dialogue that it grows tedious and trying within mere minutes. AVOID IT.
Examining the tumultuous history of puppetry as a publicly accepted art form rather than merely a form of children’s entertainment, David Soll’s magisterially composed documentary uses the 3 year journey of Dan Hurlin’s show Disfarmer to the stage as a window into this wonderful world. Hurlin’s (true) story of a photographer who changed his birth name and invented an entirely new backstory in order to distance himself from his agrarian roots is compelling enough in itself, but when combined with a balanced evaluation of arguments for and against puppets as art and the inherent drama of the production being brought to life it becomes an almost inescapably engrossing film. With a sharp eye for visually representing exactly what his interviewees find themselves unable to verbally express, Soll adds to an already deep exploration of art’s potential. Aided by its mesmeric score, Puppet is a profound rumination on humanity by way of puppetry, on us by way of our art. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Set in a dystopian future where international borders are locked and the more powerful nations outsource remotely-delivered manpower from the weaker via “bio-ports”, Alex Rivera’s Mexican sci-fi suffers for its significant similarities to eXistenZ. Cronenberg’s film might better and more profoundly explore questions of relative reality, but Rivera still manages to espouse valuable social comment within the framework of his narrative, the exploitation of his homeland for labour but one of the issues he tackles with this story. His unfortunate and unnecessary reliance on unimpressive CGI cheapens the film’s aesthetic, detracting from the impact of some well-shot desert vistas. A fine performance from lead Leonor Varela infuses a particularly unoriginal central romance with an emotional genuineness, adding a human element to the theoretical discourse that is the film’s backbone. Not quite the success its promising premise ought to have produced, Sleep Dealer still does enough with its themes to warrant an audience. WORTH WATCHING.
A fantasy fulfilled for all who hold language dear, Vadim Jendreyko’s affecting documentary joins Ukrainian expatriate Svetlana Geier as she nears completion of her momentous journey to translate five of Dostoyevsky’s great works (the elephants of the title) into German, a task she views as her debt to the country which gave her a life she could never have dreamed of under Soviet rule. The vivid exploration of Svetlana’s past is carried out in rather a typical manner, but it’s courtesy of her candid and erudite interviews that we care to listen in the first place. To hear her speak is to be held in the throes of a master storyteller, her remarkable recollections of war-torn times equally as interesting as her learned relations of Dostoyevsky’s narratives to the very fabric of human civilisation. Variously hilarious, humbling, and hurtful, this is a film just as sublime and special as the wonderful woman it pays tribute to. MUST SEE.