Wednesday, April 25, 2007


L’Iceberg inhabits the quirky fantasy world of comedy films populated by the likes of The Life Aquatic and Amélie, barely keeping one foot in reality while stepping far out into its highly stylized fictional realm. It’s the kind of film where a suburban character on a quest to live on an iceberg makes perfect sense, although the payoff is entirely derived from the antics during trip to get there.

Fiona (Fiona Gordon) is a mousy manager of a fast food restaurant stuck in the rut of her monotonous daily routine and family life in Belgium. After she accidentally locks herself in the restaurant’s freezer room overnight, she’s shocked to find that her husband and children didn’t even notice she was missing. She subsequently develops a fondness for the cold that leads her to stow away on a freezer truck as she runs away from her normal life. Upon reaching a remote coastal town, she spots a mysterious stranger with a small sailboat and sets out to convince him to transport her to an iceberg where she can presumably enter a solitary seclusion since she doesn’t feel appreciated at home. It’s a funny setup, but an even more ambitious and amusing production.

The film propels itself forward with nearly wordless physical comedy and intricate staging that brings to mind the earliest silent film comedies. When Fiona’s husband tracks her down in the coastal town, there are no words spoken, and the meeting is observed by a group of the town’s residents tightly clustered together in a bunch between them. The entire scene takes place as a static wide angle shot with the husband on the left, the unaware Fiona on the right, and the bunch of observers in the middle, slowly shuffling back and forth en masse to observe the principals like spectators at a tennis match. At another point, the always strange Fiona finds her gallant sailor René (Phillipe Martz) pretending to swim on the prow of their boat (the aptly named Le Titaniqué) and proceeds to place a bucket of water directly under his face to simulate swimming in the sea. It’s unexpected, wildly eccentric moments like these that contribute to making this such a refreshing and enjoyable comedy.

The film was co-written and directed by the triumvirate of Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, and Bruno Romy, first time feature film creators but longtime collaborators in theater and short film productions. It’s no surprise that the film’s creators/stars have an extensive background in circus performance, as they constantly exhibit a flair for prolonged physical comedy that seems more rooted in the big top than the cinema. More surprising is the effective dramatic staging that expertly conveys that this is fantasy tale set within in the real world. The suburbs and restaurant are completely sterile and uniform, while the seaside town and sailboat are ramshackle and charming, and all are captured in beautifully composed static shots that allow viewers to fully enter their world.

L’Iceberg opens in New York on May 4th and is currently playing in limited release in various other US markets over the next few months. For additional information, locations, and a trailer, visit the First Run Features website here.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Born To Fight

An unexpected paradigm shift hit the world of action movies in the past few years, resulting in the emergence of Thailand as an important player. The Thai martial arts wave first hit our shores with Tony Jaa’s two impressive hits Ong-Bak and The Protector (aka Tom Yum Goong). Now this new Thai film has arrived on our DVD shelves with the reminder that it’s from “the creators of The Protector and Ong-Bak”, although it doesn’t feature breakout star Tony Jaa. Surprisingly, Born to Fight isn’t just a cheap knockoff designed to cash in on the goodwill Jaa’s films have established here, instead it’s a thrilling achievement completely capable of standing on its own merits.

Since Tony Jaa doesn’t appear in this film, the principal artistic connection to Ong-Bak and The Protector is this film’s director, Panna Rittikrai, a veteran stunt coordinator who worked on both of those films. This time the leading man role is filled by Dan Chupong, a Rittikrai protégé who lacks even Jaa’s modest charisma but dazzles in his acrobatic stunt work. Thankfully, the film is extremely heavy on action with only minimal dramatic requirements from Chupong, so his acting limitations aren’t a liability. Chupong is joined by a largely anonymous cast of supporting players who all contribute a few memorable stunts without really calling any attention to themselves.

After the ridiculous and occasionally nonsensical plots of the Tony Jaa vehicles (“where is my elephant?” anyone?), the biggest surprise of this film is its solid plot. It won’t win any awards, but it actually makes a bit of sense, throws in an unexpected and successful twist, and never bogs down in needless exposition or melodrama.

As the film opens, Chupong’s character is a junior officer named Deaw participating in a police task force that takes down a major crime lord named General Yang after a heady action sequence. Unfortunately, his superior officer loses his life in the raid, driving Deaw into depression. His sister asks him to accompany her and her athlete friends on a charity mission to a poor rural village, taking him out of his regular routine and allowing him to get his mind off the loss of his boss.

Unfortunately, General Yang’s paramilitary friends aren’t happy about his incarceration, so they decide to take over the same rural village Deaw is visiting. They execute many of the locals and make hostages out of the rest, threatening to kill all of them unless General Yang is released. Meanwhile, they also secretly point a nuclear missile at the heart of Bangkok, planning to launch it whether or not they’re successful in their primary mission. The Thai government attempts to send in troops, but that only forces the rebels to execute more hostages until they back off. That leaves only Deaw, his sister’s athlete friends, and the remaining villagers to save the day.

Once the athletes leap into action, the film gets a lot of mileage out of innovative combat uses for soccer balls and gymnastics equipment, presenting a plethora of unique stunts. There’s also some gunplay and bone-crushing martial arts work that will leave viewers as breathless as the performers. Everything wraps up nicely in the end, and then we’re treated to some behind-the-scenes views of the more eye-popping stunts while the credits roll, proving that there was no CGI or wire work involved in this death-defying work. At all times, Rittikrai keeps the action coherent and moving along smoothly, taking time to slow-mo the most dramatic moments and capturing great angles on all of the stunts. It’s a satisfying, distinctive martial arts film that will leave the audience longing for more work from both Rittikrai and Chupong.

In addition to the fun feature film, this lush DVD release includes a second disc with an hour-long documentary on the making of the film, trailers, and some additional behind-the-scenes footage. The DVD is now available, check your local retailer for additional information.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Red Road

Red Road paints a disturbing picture of our security-obsessed culture, demonstrating the inherent abuse of power made possible by widespread deployment of security cameras. The film is based in Glasgow, Scotland, but could easily be transported to any other metropolis equipped with a sophisticated web of security cameras. We’re now accustomed to cameras filming us in public at all times, whether by freeway and street cameras monitoring traffic and accidents, store surveillance, or even security cameras in our workplace, but the film may cause viewers to question their complacency about this spread of Orwellian omnipresence.

Jackie is a CCTV operator in Glasgow, tasked with monitoring suspicious activity and reporting to the police as needed. Her job consists of sitting behind a massive array of monitors that allows her to track her subjects by security cameras across her assigned corner of the city. One day, she spots a man who is clearly familiar to her for some reason, then begins to meticulously track his movements and actions even though he isn’t committing any crimes. Eventually, she plots to insert herself into his life, stepping from behind the cameras to embark on personal interaction with him. She also meets his volatile flatmate and the flatmate’s girlfriend, although they remain peripheral characters for the duration of the film.

We don’t know much about Jackie, and we’re consistently kept at arm’s length for nearly the entire film. We know she’s a loner, we know she has occasional loveless trysts with a local van driver, but we have no idea why she’s trailing her target or the nature of their history. Unfortunately, this works as a detriment to the film, as we’re given little narrative reason to care about Jackie or her quest other than to stick around for the final reveal. Jackie exhibits extreme distaste for her target but doggedly continues her pursuit until she’s able to put herself in a position of power over him to get to her true objective. Suffice it to say that her ends may justify her extreme and morally ambiguous means, but the journey to get there becomes somewhat tedious.

Feature film newcomer Kate Dickie plays the role of Jackie with an icy detachment that expertly conveys the damaged state of her character. Although we’re given no initial signals whether to root for her or fear her, her performance commands attention until we learn the nature of her plan. Jackie’s emotional isolation is an interesting counterpoint to her job as the all-seeing eye of Glasgow, where she’s tasked with caring about complete strangers even though she has completely shut herself off from relationships in her personal life.

Red Road is the debut feature effort by British writer/director Andrea Arnold, a previous Oscar winner (short film Wasp). It has garnered significant acclaim in advance of its US release, including the 2006 Cannes Grand Jury Prize and an armful of Scottish BAFTA awards. It’s also part of a unique plan called the Advance Party Concept involving three directors developing individual films based on the same characters. All characters must appear in all of the films, so if the plan continues it seems likely that the next act will more prominently feature the supporting couple from this film.

Red Road is now playing in limited release in select markets, check your local listings for additional information.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

My Father The Genius

It’s fitting that this documentary opens with a quote from Ayn Rand’s landmark novel, The Fountainhead, especially because the central subject is so closely similar to Rand’s creation. Like Rand’s character Howard Roark, Glen Small is an architect with a singular vision, completely devoted to pursuing his unique passion in spite of its direct opposition to the mainstream architecture of the day. He cares nothing about financial gain or impressing potential clients, he only longs to fulfill his innovative designs. That the documentary so closely captures his ambitions and failures is clearly aided by the long history he has with its director, his daughter.

The film bears unavoidable comparisons to the similar documentary, My Architect, but where that work was a reverential study of a famous architect by his mostly enraptured son, this film takes pains to show the negative impact Glen’s passion had on his family relationships and career aspirations. Director Lucia Small also acts as narrator, describing her personal experiences with the distant father who was always more interested in his architecture than he was in his family. She also puts her father on the spot with pointed questions about his abandonment of her mother and sisters, and records completely candid confessions from her father in return. He recognizes that he made errors in his personal and professional relationships, but he really doesn’t care, his only interest is pursuing his art.

The film also tracks the deconstruction of the traditional American family unit, introducing us to Glen’s conservative first wife and sharing clean-cut family pictures that look like something out of Leave It To Beaver, then progressing through Glen’s gradual removal from his family, adoption of hippie hair and clothes, and his subsequent mind-expanding architectural designs that bear the stamp of far too many nights spent with Fumo Verde. He went on to marry again and start another family, before also leaving them behind to continue his artistic pursuits.

Glen Small never became a success, theoretically because he refused to play the political game of winning favor with influential colleagues and clients. There’s some amusing footage from the ‘70s where he verbally attacks his contemporaries in a public forum, including now-famous Frank Gehry. He shows no regret for the negative impact of his actions, or the paltry financial existence he managed to eke out through the years, consistently maintaining faith in his vision. While Lucia struggles with her own ambivalence about her father throughout the making of the film, her compelling documentary paints a memorable portrait of this largely unknown artist.

The DVD is packed with extras including a lengthy “filmmaker and father” interview, a short ‘70s film about one of Glen’s favorite projects, and a preview of what might be Glen’s second act, a planned sequel to this film. The DVD is now available, for more information visit the website or view the trailer here.

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Page Turner

Although the innocuous title makes this French revenge drama sound about as thrilling as “The Tax Guy” or “The Librarian”, its subtle psychological terror makes it a winning composition.

As the film opens, a gifted young pianist named Mélanie is auditioning for admittance to a prestigious Conservatory when her concentration is broken by a thoughtless act by one of the judges. Bitterly disappointed by her failure, she gives up the piano forever.

A decade later, Mélanie is working at a law firm where she meets the husband of the judge who wronged her. She has grown into a poised, lovely young lady who appears to be completely normal and well-balanced. She finds an opportunity to work her way into his home, where she begins to form a close bond with the former Conservatory judge, a famous but emotionally fragile concert pianist.

Since viewers aren’t given any insight into Mélanie’s mindset before she enters the household, it’s not entirely clear at first whether she’s possibly acting out of goodwill or if she’s still carrying a grudge. That’s where the charms of this film kick in, as we’re taken for a ride along with the family, never sure if we should trust her or run for the hills. This sense of uneasiness adds to the viewing experience as the former student gradually becomes the master of the judge’s destiny. Those with a low threshold for gore need not fear, as Mélanie’s eventual grand plan carries great psychological weight for the judge’s family but never descends into gruesome physical payback.

Mélanie is played by relative newcomer Déborah Francois, a striking young beauty who keeps her character’s emotions buried beneath a beatific façade save the occasional sly hint of a smile. The judge is played by veteran Catherine Frot in a difficult role that forces her to convey all of the psychological impact of Mélanie’s actions. The production is presented in an economical, straight-forward style, keeping the focus firmly on the mental game of cat and mouse played out by its two leads.

Admittedly, a pianist out for revenge isn’t exactly the most terrifying idea, but the film is an interesting take on the dangers of pushing children to excel and the resulting psychological risks if they fail. Rather than relying on horrific acts of violence to drive home its theme, the film’s modest thrills show that in this case, revenge is a dish best served luke-warm.

The Page Turner is now playing in limited release in select cities across the country; check the film’s website for additional details.

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