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Short Takes: The Wide Shots and the Close-Ups

Short Takes: The Wide Shots and the Close-Ups

New Release of the Month: Apocalypto (2006)
As a director, Mel Gibson is a sadist. He revels in blood and gore, happy to provide us with three beheadings when one is probably enough. He has an antediluvian view of civilization: Life is nasty and brutish and shorter than the running time of his films. He is a simplistic storyteller, with a moral view as blunt as a caveman’s club. But as a cineaste, he is a savage lover of film, and Apocalypto is a forceful and powerful piece of moviemaking. Gibson is committed to a vision so uncompromising and vividly realized that you are willingly transported to the vanished world that he and his crew have created. Apocalypto is a spellbinding adventure tale, a journey filled with heart-stopping action and suspense and a final climax that involves you completely in the fate of the main character, a Mayan warrior named Jaguar Paw.

Favorite of the Month: The Good German (2006)
This picture is a dazzling exercise in style, and, for much of the movie’s running time, a crackerjack film noir. It’s another example of how Steven Soderbergh is one of the few directors working today willing to experiment with the formal process of moviemaking and storytelling. The experiments sometimes fail (just watch, if you can, last summer’s hideous Bubble). Some critics called The Good German a disaster as well but in nearly every way the movie accomplishes exactly what Soderbergh set out to do, which was to recreate a 1945 post-war black and white thriller, shot on studio back lots with rear projection exteriors, inserted newsreel footage, glamorous stars and a complex plot involving a femme fatale, a morally compromised hero and the early rumblings of the Cold War.
 
Under-the-Radar Movie of the Month: In This World (2002)
British moviemaker Michael Winterbottom took a small crew and two even smaller digital cameras to Pakistan shortly after 9/11 to make this breathless, poignant true-to-life story of two Afghan teenagers who embark on a cross-country journey from the refugee fields of Pakistan to the slums of London. Even though the story is a set-up, and the two boys are “acting,” everything else feels real and immediate in this picture. It’s a gripping, exhilarating example of how the tools of digital moviemaking, used with care and without the baggage of demanding big studio budgets, can result in bracing, topical cinema.

Documentary of the Month: Touching the Void (2003)
This is an absorbing, almost physically wrenching viewing experience. It’s the tale of two men mountaineering in the Andes and what happens when one of them has an accident that results in a life-and-death decision made by his climbing partner. And that’s just the beginning of the story! Normally the mixing of present-day, real-life interviews with dramatic reenactments results in a cheesy, unfulfilling attempt by moviemakers to cover up what should have remained an article in Outside magazine. But the technique works thrillingly in this documentary, a film about friendship and survival that evolves into a philosophical consideration of regret.
 
Classic Movie of the Month: Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Director Stanley Kubrick was often criticized for the cold, malevolent view of humanity presented in his films. But does the diabolical media brainwashing in A Clockwork Orange or the mechanical soldiers conditioned by a brutal boot camp sergeant in Full Metal Jacket seem so farfetched? How about a group of white male politicians planning their post-apocalyptic utopia in an underground bunker? Kubrick first intended Dr. Strangelove to be played as straight drama, but he thought the plot was too outlandish for audiences to believe it. What would he think now, with a current American administration that is, to quote Martin Scorsese, “beyond parody?” Satire seems an ancient lost art in comedies these days, since it requires a world-weary wit and performers with finesse and timing. Watch Peter Sellers in this timeless masterpiece and you’ll see what I mean.
 
Give this a Miss: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Pan’s Labyrinth is a cold and grim piece of work. It feels mechanically assembled rather than crafted. All spontaneity seems ground out of the plot. Its motive as allegory is obvious, and the film’s fantasy elements, including a grotesque talking faun, a giant bullfrog and twittering, shape shifting, flying fairies are—if you’re not into these kinds of things—too repulsive to look at. Fans of horror and fantasy will love this, but reality-based audiences are likely to blink more than once at director Guillermo del Toro’s self-indulgent sadism and creepiness. The story, set in a Spanish forest during Franco’s repressive regime, is the kind of metaphorical fairy tale that contains its own synthetic and malleable logic, so it doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly profound task to bend the fantasy creatures to the necessities of the plot. This makes del Toro’s reliance on shock effects such as the gnawing off of tiny fairy heads and a mandrake root that transforms into an infant seem random and beside the point.  

Check back in July for Rustin Thompson’s next edition of “Short Takes.” Read more about Rustin Thompson at www.rustinthompson.com.

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