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What Else I’m Watching: November 2013

prince-avalanche-movie


Because you can’t review them all.

Sadly, life gets in the way of writing about everything I see, so this space is as much for keeping track of what I’m watching as it is for you to share your thoughts on what are, with any luck, a group of high-quality films.

Having too many screeners is hardly something I’d call a problem, but trying to catch up with everything makes it tricky to write full-length reviews as often as I’d like. Every “problem” presents an opportunity, however. Where I might not have published as many reviews as I would have liked this month, this particular column is busier and more interesting than any I’ve put out so far, I’d argue. And December should be even better.

Miami Vice

RATING:
(2006, 3 viewings)

Not everything I took in was a screener, however. An impromptu Michael Mann weekend that began last month with Collateral continued into November with a viewing—my third overall and first in six years or so—of Michael Mann’s better-than-it-has-any-right-being big-screen Miami Vice incarnation. An action film in only the loosest sense of the word, the film is quintessential Mann with formal precision trumping story, character, and everything else. But it’s a case in which he uses crisp cinematography and some insane sound work to build this world, not merely show off. As a result, we’re whisked away to a place that’s a far cry from the pastel-tinted domain of Don Johnson. Miami Vice is this film’s title, but don’t mistake it for commercial fluff. It’s dark, unpredictable, and totally engrossing.

Prince Avalanche

RATING:
(2013, 1 viewing)

The best movie ever made about guys who paint lines on roads. That’s pretty simplistic reading of a film worthy of something deeper, and while I still haven’t totally wrapped my head around Prince Avalanche, I can say with confidence it’s David Gordon Green’s best effort in a long time. Two boys enter, two men leave, and their journey—despite taking place along a road hardly traveled (and for good reason)—is just the right mix of enigmatic and wholly present.

Computer Chess

RATING:
(2013, 1 viewing)

What in the name of Mike Papageorge is going on here? Andrew Bujalski’s comedy of time, place, and temperament is among the most unique films of the year. Set at a 1980s chess tournament by which bulky machines and their nebbish masters try to outsmart one another scores baffled laughs for its characters (including the aforementioned Papageorge, a perplexing figure if I’ve ever seen one), their self-seriousness, and the predictive nature of their work. The film’s style, too, makes it stand out with its home video look, 4:3 aspect ratio, and model-M-keyboard-style intertitles. The surrealism didn’t work quite as well for me, and unfortunately, that’s the stuff the film hit hardest as it trekked toward its conclusion, but there’s enough here for me to recommend Computer Chess, if only to the most adventurous viewer.

Our Nixon

RATING:
(2013, 1 viewing)

The Nixon story has been told so many times—on film and otherwise—but rarely with this type of intimacy. Our Nixon comes from the Senna school of documentary filmmaking insofar as it’s constructed almost exclusively from Nixon’s infamous White House recordings and Nixon advisor H.R. Haldeman’s Super 8 tapes. As such, it’s an excellent case of editing, but it really doesn’t till any new ground. For someone as interested in the rise and fall of Nixon as I am, you’ll find Our Nixon perfectly watchable but far from essential.

White House Down

RATING:
(2013, 1 viewing)

A double feature of Our Nixon and this Roland Emmerich disaster of a disaster flick made me ponder, “Which White House is more frightening: one under siege by right-wing militants or one under siege by Nixon?”

Putting that aside, White House Down was a major disappointment. And shame on me, I guess, for expecting the film to deliver, but Olympus Has Fallen gripped me back in March, and this take on the same story seemed to have a more enjoyable, playful bend to it. It uses a playful tone, however, to mask a total lack of control over character and choreography. Die Hard in the White House this is not.

Gimme the Loot

RATING:
(2013, 1 viewing)

My main complaint after taking in Adam Leon’s sensation out of SXSW 2012 was that it wasn’t four hours long. It’s unfair because he tells a satisfying and complete tale about two joyful graffiti artists trying—and hilariously failing—to scrape together $500, which would give them a chance to tag Citi Field’s home run apple, the Holy Grail of New York graffiti. It’s a dialogue-heavy piece with luminous stars Ty Hickson and Tashiana Washington—in between well-constructed, small-time-crooks set pieces—trying to navigate the tricky waters between friendship and something more. But I jealously wanted more. It’s merely 80 minutes long. I wanted to spend more time in this world.

It’s a Disaster

RATING:
(2013, 1 viewing)

A comedy of manners set at the end of it all, It’s a Disaster features a killer premise and some excellent comedic moments. It’s problem: these aren’t the eight people you’d want to spend the end of the world with. That’s kind of the point; in fact, even they don’t want to spend their final hours with each other. Every couple has its issue, and the cross-couple relationships are tenuous at best. Still, the disintegration of their carefully constructed social order is sickly enjoyable, and director Todd Berger spares not one of them on their way out.

Narco Cultura

RATING:
(2013, 1 viewing)

This cinema verite doc covers a slice of the Mexican cartel scene that’s rarely talked about. It cross-cuts between the law enforcement of Juarez and Mexican singers in America who glorify murdering drug lords. Director Shaul Schwarz’s thesis is clear—that the drug trade/culture relationship is dangerously symbiotic, i.e. young Mexicans see these two routes as the only ways to escape a life of poverty in the murder capital of the world, so bad men become heroes worth looking up to. It’s a tragic notion, and the film itself is tragically open-ended. Narco Cultura presents questions, not answers, which I suppose is a minor criticism. Ultimately, however, it’s a skillfully put together documentary that’s enlightening and emotionally present.

A Teacher

RATING:
(2013, 1 viewing)

And in the category of “Exactly the Movie You’d Think It Is” comes Hannah Fidell’s A Teacher. We’ve seen movies about covert student-teacher relationships before—Notes on a Scandal comes to mind—so you’d think a new one would try to put its own twist on the tale. Not so with A Teacher, which is almost hilariously content to stick to the well-worn script. As such, there’s no compelling reason to bother. Lindsay Burdge gives a fine performance as the teacher, but you’ll spend the film’s 75 minutes waiting for something unexpected to happen before the credits start rolling.

These Birds Walk

RATING:
(2013, 1 viewing)

In Karachi, Pakistan, there’s a home for boys run by a massive charitable organization called the Edhi Foundation, which provides services for the city’s ill, hungry, homeless, and otherwise afflicted. It’s the subject of this fantastic, very observational documentary from directors Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq, who introduce us to vulnerable, fascinating young boys and a culture that’s almost impossible to fathom from your couch or a darkened movie theater. These Birds Walk is poetic, but the circumstances playing out on camera are anything but. These kids have great soul, but they’re living life behind the eight ball, and your heart goes out to them. Spending 80 minutes with them is a real joy, however, and Mullick and Tariq deserve a great deal of credit for going above and beyond in crafting a film that’s organically powerful and improbably entertaining.

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