Monday, January 19, 2009

Monday Movie Day Reviews

Shotgun Stories (2008): Ever since Cain murdered Abel, violent conflict has been the constant theme of human history. Two sides are formed, each viewing the other as its evil nemesis. (Sidenote: Chuck Klosterman's essay on the difference between a "nemesis" and an "arch-enemy" is a hilariously insightful read). This is simply what we do. It is Axis vs. Allies, Democrats vs. Republicans, Pepsi vs. Coke, Celtics vs. Lakers, Superman vs. Lex Luthor, Palestinians vs Israelis, etc. It is this final conflict that is most directly connected to the film Shotgun Stories for two reasons: a) the Gaza conflict is immediate and relevant to our current cultural climate, and b) both conflicts stem from a father's choice and the consequences between sibling rivalry (see Genesis 16-17).

The title for Shotgun Stories gives a false pretense; you get the impression that there will be lots of shootouts or violence. This isn't the case, and I think the film is better for it (though shotguns and violence do play a significant role). The basic premise of the film is that two sets of half-brothers are reunited at their father's funeral. One set of brothers was born to a violent and angry man who abandoned them with their hateful mother. The other set of brothers was born after that man reformed his life, found religion, and became a decent human being. The consequences of the father's decision is clearly evident in both family's lives. The latter siblings are relatively wealthy, have land to farm, and marriages that work. The former brothers don't even have names in the film--they are simply called "Son," "Boy," and "Kid." Their lack of identity is like a badge of shame throughout the film; these guys aren't going anywhere in life, and they know it. They've been doomed from the start, yet the film does offer hope for these woebegone characters (you'll have to watch it to see what I mean). The two families are brought together and hostile words are exchanged; the hostility escalates to vengeance, then vengeance into unreasonable rage.

First-time director Jeff Nichols has made an incredible debut film that Jeffrey Overstreet has dubbed his favorite film of 2008. It feels a bit like David Gordon Green (who produced, in fact), with its pensive pacing and picturesque visuals. The film slowly plods along, showing wide shots of the beautiful Arkansas horizon. There is little dialogue in the film, but much is communicated through the brothers' silent faces. It's almost like a present-day Western, where honor and violence clash in an epic feud that leaves no one unscathed. There's a bit of humor and plenty of tension. It's a timely meditation on where enmity between people leads; by the end of the film, we've nearly forgotten why they're fighting in the first place (and perhaps they don't even know). But isn't that true with nearly every epic conflict? When does the only option come to genocide? How can we allow violence to go that far? Who started it all? Who will finish it?

Perhaps the best question is, who will have the courage to choose another path?

Chop Shop (2008): Alejandro is a pre-adolescent orphan living and working in a grimy auto shop near Queens, N.Y. Finding a home in a tiny room in the shop, he does his best to create the best possible life for him and his teenage sister, Isamar. Ale has to grow up fast in this environment; from the opening shot of him jumping into the back of a truck for hired workers, he embodies ambition. He's a tough little guy, protective of his older sister, and a bit more responsible than at first glance. He's got a plan too: scrounge up enough money to buy a vending-truck so he and Isamar can sell meals in the neighborhood. Like I said, ambitious.

Filmed with a gritty realism, the film feels incredibly authentic, showing the darker side of the American dream from the view of the marginalized. There are shots of dreary junkyards, vacant concrete lots, and busy freeways, all existing in the shadow of Shea Stadium. You never learn anything about Alejandro's parents or past, as if his present survival and future plans are far more prevalent on his mind. The actors do a great job of creating the realistic atmosphere through their honest interactions (though there are brief moments when the realism is lost when some lines are delivered a bit flatly).

While I found myself fascinated with the character of Alejandro--this is the youth minister coming out in me, wishing this kid had a mentor or loving parent--and I was impressed with the handheld camerawork of director Ramin Bahrani, I wasn't particularly inspired by Chop Shop. The film does a good job of revealing what life in the margins might look like for an adolescent, but it still didn't emotionally engage me like similar films have done (think Slumdog Millionaire or Paranoid Park). Even the almost-documentary cinematography has been done better this year (Rachel Getting Married and 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days). There wasn't much of a story arc, just scenes of Alejandro's interactions with people in his neighborhood. It kind of felt like the film just sort of happened. Perhaps this was the director's intent--to create a film that felt like watching a documentary of two siblings that could never afford a video camera. It's more like catching brief glimpses into a person's life rather than following a traditional storyline. 

So if you'd like a glimpse into the life of an ambitious orphan doing his best to make it in this world, check out Slumdog Millionaire. Oh, I mean, Chop Shop. :)

Both of the above films were in Roger Ebert's best films of 2008.

The Duchess (2008): For the past few years, Keira Knightley's career has consisted mostly of a) pirates, and b) period pieces. For every Pirates of the Caribbean film (which I kinda liked), there was also an Atonement (which I loved). So I expected nothing less from The Duchess, a film based on the true story of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. Sadly, the film isn't up to par with her past films. Seventeen-year-old Georgiana (Knightley) is excitedly married off to the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), only to find that her husband is only interested in her giving birth to a male offspring. She quickly learns that the Duke is cold, aloof, and sleeps around almost constantly. She begins to fully understand the consequences of this when his illegitimate daughter is brought into the home for her to raise. After giving birth to two daughters, the tension in their marriage continues to build. She finds a friend in Bess, a woman abandoned by her own abusive husband. But the relationship between Georgiana, Bess, and the Duke prove to become volatile after Bess moves into their home. Things become even more complicated when parliament member Charles Grey and Georgiana begin an affair.

And it goes downhill from there. The film is pretty bleak and feels overly long (though it's less than two hours). When it's not reveling in its bleakness, it's sex scene after sex scene (including an awkward scene between Bess and Georgiana). There's really no love in these scenes--one is a rape, the others are affairs or the Duke doing his thing--and none promote any sort of redemptive quality. The only redemptive aspect can only been seen in hindsight--the film reveals how far we've come with women's rights. These women seem absolutely miserable. Yet the film drives this idea in such a preachy manner (there are repeated lines about freedom and how "if women only could..." throughout the film) that it loses the vibrance and truthfulness of its message. Knightley and Fiennes do give solid performances in the title roles, but it's far from their best films.

Overall, if you're interested in period-piece films with Miss Knightley, might I suggest Pride and Prejudice or Atonement? The former is the much more gleeful of the two, but both are excellent films in their own unique ways. Even Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette was more visually and emotionally engaging. The Duchess simply slides into the background compared to films in the same genre. Let's hope Miss Knightley does better with Shakespeare; she's rumored to be Cordelia in a future production of King Lear. I have faith in her.

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