"Not much happened in Matthew Porterfield's first film, Hamilton, which was sort of the point," writes Paul Schrodt in Slant. "The characters, lower-middle-class Baltimore suburbanites, moved in static compositions, going about their chores, and neither they nor the audience seemed to have much idea where it was going or what it meant. What set Hamilton apart, if anything, was its acuity of observation — the way small moments, like someone waiting for his laundry, took on the rhythms of everyday life. Porterfield's latest, Putty Hill, follows the same basic template, but narratively and formally, it's a subtle but confident step forward."
For Andrew Schenker, writing in the L, "Putty Hill is American regionalism done (mostly) right… Centered on the family members and acquaintances of a recently deceased (fictional) twentysomething, this docu-fiction hybrid jumps from character to character, observing the youthful locals — most of whom are embodied by non-professionals enacting versions of themselves — as they play paintball, watch television or do nothing in particular. Opening up new lines of inquiry, Porterfield acts as an offscreen interviewer who conducts a series of partly improvised Q-and-As with each character, both establishing the nature of their relationship with the deceased and probing their personality through the litmus test of abstract questioning."
"The cast just tells little stories, which feel true even when they aren't," observers the AV Club's Noel Murray. "The film is reminiscent of the best parts of River's Edge, Paranoid Park, and Wassup Rockers, as Porterfield and cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier focus on the vibe of their locations: a creek where the kids gather to swim, a retirement home where the deceased's grandmother watches Reba, a library where a little girl listens to a reading of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, and so on… This is a movie about the casual ways people know each other, even when their relationships are hard to explain — or perhaps even justify."
"Thankfully, this indie filmmaker isn't one for dogmatic message-mongering, but he's not too keen on structure or meaning, either," writes Time Out New York's David Fear. "[I]t's as if go-nowhere observationalism alone somehow equals 'reality' and a higher truth. (Not quite.) Occasional moments, such as an extended inking sequence set to Auto-Tuned R&B, have a mesmerizing effect, only to meander into open-ended messiness. Porterfield has proved he can do grit and atmosphere. Should the young director ever decide to channel this talent into storytelling with purpose and a point, he might be someone to watch out for."
More from Cullen Gallagher (Hammer to Nail), Mark Holcomb (Voice), Stephen Holden (New York Times) and Ella Taylor (NPR). Interviews with Porterfield: Ricky D'Ambrose (Slant), Dennis Lim (NYT), Elise Nakhnikian (L), Andrew O'Hehir (Salon), Nicolas Rapold (Artforum) and Nigel M Smith (indieWIRE). The New Yorker's Richard Brody notes that the "opening weekend will be graced by a plethora of special events and discussions; I'll have the privilege of interviewing Porterfield after the 7 pm screening on Saturday."
Tom Shone: "Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella circle each other warily, like panthers, or movie stars who know they shouldn't occupy the same frame, like Travolta and Willis in Pulp Fiction, or Pacino and De Niro in Heat. They play old cold war warriors picking up the scent again, and their scene together — beginning with a handshake and ending with cyanide — is one of the passing pleasures of the new Neesploitation thriller, Unknown."
"Unknown has some easily quantifiable pleasures," agrees Glenn Kenny at MSN Movies. "Particularly if you're a moviegoer currently enjoying Liam Neeson's career renaissance as a not-nearly-as-cerebral-as-you-might-have-expected action hero of a certain age. As in Taken, his 2008 sleeper you-bet-your-ass-vengeance-is-mine hit, Neeson plays a character who gets to demonstrate certain lethal skills with some frequency, and with a similar attendant righteousness. So there's that… However. As you may have noticed from the ads, the whole enterprise seems to hinge on a plot hook — that is, who are the bad people who have robbed poor ticked-off Liam Neeson of his identity and of his hot wife from Mad Men? — the resolution of which, if you don't guess it right off the bat, is likely to annoy the heck out of all but the most tolerant and serene of action/suspense thriller fans."
"The director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, a hoot of a horror flick) knows his way around multilane roadways, and he and his stunt team squeeze in a few slick car chases," notes Manohla Dargis in the NYT. "Unknown is based on a 2003 French novel by Didier van Cauwelaert, published in English as Out of My Head, though its truer inspirations are those films noirs of the 1940s and 50s in which an Everyman wakes up with a lump on his head and asks the great essential question, Who am I? That same existential cry fuels the first Bourne movie (2002), which Unknown apes in large and small ways, from its international setting to its friendly, tag-along Euro-chick; conspiratorial web; and paranoia. Yet despite its A-movie aspirations, as the chases continue and the plot holes widen, Unknown quickly settles into the familiar B-movie comfort zone, with mano-a-mano fights, missed phone calls, running and more running and a twist that keeps twisting until it breaks."
More from Jeannette Catsoulis (NPR), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 2/4), David Edelstein (New York), Ed Gonzalez (Slant, 1.5, 4), Jonathan Kiefer (Faster Times), Elvis Mitchell (Movieline, 4/10), Wesley Morris (Boston Globe, 2.5/5), Andrew O'Hehir (Salon), Joshua Rothkopf (TONY, 3/5), Nick Schager (Voice), Drew Taylor (Playlist) and Scott Tobias (AV Club, C). Tom Chiarella profiles Neeson for Esquire.
Kihachi Okamoto's Sword of Doom (1966) screens this evening at the Japan Society in New York, prompting Wendell Jamieson to look back on his love for samurai movies in the NYT: "The Sword of Doom features three examples of that greatest of samurai movie confections, the all-against-one battle. In the first, [Tatsuya] Nakadai slays a score or so of swordsmen who are seeking to avenge a friend. In the second, Toshiro Mifune, playing a fencing instructor, cuts down a larger group that had mistaken him for someone else in a swirling snowstorm. And in the final fight — well, it's got to be seen to be believed."
"The tale of a disoriented cannibal family trying to survive in the lower depths of Mexico City, Jorge Michel Grau's We Are What We Are is a darkly comic social allegory as well as an atmospheric little genre flick," writes the Voice's J Hoberman. "This promising first feature is nearly as apt to use the power of suggestion as to ladle up the gore, triumphantly creepy, and just arty enough to have secured a slot in last year's New York Film Festival." And here's that roundup. Interviews with Grau: Brandon Harris (Filmmaker) and Kimber Myers (Playlist). At the IFC Center.
At the AV Club, Sam Adams gives Even the Rain a B+: "Set against the backdrop of the anti-water-privatization protests that took place in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2000, Icíar Bollaín's sharp satire casts Gael García Bernal as a filmmaker whose critical portrait of Columbus's Caribbean voyage is beset by external strife and internal contradictions… In broad terms, there's a facile irony to the juxtaposition between the production's ends and its means, but Bollaín and screenwriter Paul Laverty, a frequent Ken Loach collaborator, don't hang their fellow cineastes out to dry. There's a rueful, knowing quality to the moments when Bernal's character puts the film above all else, blinded to the fact that his pursuit jeopardizes the ideals he means to enshrine."
"Brad Anderson may be a poor-man's John Carpenter, but given that there are no rich-man's John Carpenters around these days, that's hardly an insult," writes Nick Schager in Slant. "Anderson may not be a revered auteur, but his fondness for, and reasonable deftness with, the widescreen frame — generally employed for patient horror-ish material — sets him apart from many of his genre-loving peers. And while Vanishing on 7th Street isn't likely to thrust him into the mainstream spotlight, it's another solid, serviceable spooky saga with enough intriguing undercurrents to compensate for both a dearth of spine-tingling tension and uneven lead performances." Halim Cillov talks with Anderson for Cinespect.
"One of the most urgent and certainly among the most beautifully shot documentaries to hit the big screen in recent memory, The Last Lions isn't just another cute and fuzzy encounter session with a different species," writes Manohla Dargis in the NYT. "It's a pulse-quickening, tear-duct milking and outrageously dramatized story about the threats — wildfires, chomping teeth, stampeding hooves and, worst of all, unseen humans — that face a female lion trying to protect her cubs. Here, single motherhood doesn't mean juggling family, work and PTA meetings: it means parking the tots in the bushes and then trying to take down a water buffalo the size of a jeep."
IN THE UK
Opening today and running through March 28, the BFI's François Truffaut season has put the filmmaker on the cover of the new issue of Sight & Sound. At the magazine's site, you'll find Richard Combs's talk with Nicolas Roeg about working as a DP for Truffaut on Fahrenheit 451 (1966), an interview that appeared in the Winter 1984/85. In a new conversation, Tom Dawson talks with Emmanuel Laurent about his portrait of Truffaut's doomed relationship with Godard, Two in the Wave.
The season launches with Day for Night (1973), which Time Out London's David Jenkins calls "a hilarious and informative movie, and in the pantheon of films about filmmaking, it strikes a neat balance between the operatic neuroses of 8½ and the warm, pastel-hued nostalgia of Singin' in the Rain." In the Financial Times, Antonia Quirke notes that "this was the film that drove a permanent wedge between Truffaut and his mucker Jean-Luc Godard, who thought it frivolous and inane, so damn nice it drove him up the wall, and unforgivably dishonest and unpolitical. His own 1963 film about the making of a film was called Contempt. But then who didn't Godard fall out with?"
Alex Cox, writing in the Guardian, notes that "Truffaut is not concerned with reality, certainly not his reality, or his national culture. He is recounting the creation of illusions, and, it must be said, he does this well. In all the 'movies about movies' I have seen, it is the only instance in which the film director is not a monster or a morally bankrupt fool." Update, 2/19: Michael Newton, also in the Guardian: "For all his faults, Truffaut expresses a comprehensive sense of human failings and human fortitude, lessons learned from his heroes, Balzac and Jean Renoir. His is the comedy of misadventure, a hymn to human incompetence."
Also opening in the UK this weekend: "Tetsuya Nakashima's Confessions is a film with a vast number of admirers, for whom it is a super-cool horror to be compared with Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale or Park Chan-wook's Lady Vengeance," writes the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw. "I have to say that, despite its effective opening premise and some interestingly spacey mood-alterations and tonal shifts, I found it overcooked and overwrought, and sometimes quite implausible — a tale oddly recounted often at second hand, and in flashback."
On the other hand, Tom Huddleston in Time Out London: "It's hard to remember a film so bleakly, furiously anti-people, in which almost every character is a vicious tyrant or a deluded, deserving victim, and most of them haven't even graduated from high school… [L]ike all of Nakashima's films, it deserves wider attention: one of the few directors currently working who has intelligence enough to ensure that his films aren't just eye-poppingly stylish but loaded with emotional substance, his is a bold and provocative body of work. Confessions may be too grimly cynical to convince fully, but its combination of visual excess, dark wit, random violence, psychological insight and raw emotional intensity is intoxicating."
Either way, Confessions has just won best film, best screenplay and best director at the 34th Japan Academy Prize ceremony today. Gavin J Blair has more in the Hollywood Reporter. More on the film from Ryan Gilbey (New Statesman) and Emma Simmonds (Arts Desk).
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