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Which is my way of saying “Get ready for some bite-sized morsel reviews” because I’ve been busy playing quite a bit of catch-up on the decade. And with that, away we go! Not to be confused with the Sam Mendes film which has already topped one of my lists so far–Worst Films of 2009, but that’s a story for another article.

Irreversible

Irreversible

Irreversible (Gaspar Noe, 2003 – 1st viewing): This controversial French film is a tough sit. It is a film that hits the ground running with an extreme act of violence (more on that later) and whose notorious centerpiece is a 9-minute, unbroken shot of the brutal rape and beating of a woman. Having Monica Belluci in this role is almost a perverse test on Noe’s part–it’s as if he dares any guy in the audience to be excited by the scene, by mere fact of it featuring one of the most beautiful women in the world. But as Roger Ebert observed, it’s really like porn in reverse–sex and violence is our jump-off point for the rest of the story rather than the payoff. If you can get past the frightening violence, the main character’s raging homophobia in the first 20 minutes, and the wholly disorienting camerawork, you’ll find a fascinating study on revenge and, more importantly, grief. It doesn’t take multiple viewings to see two concurrent stories: Marcus’ story of stopping at nothing to punish the man who attacked Alex, and Pierre’s story of trying everything in his power not to give into that primal urge to avenge her (though Marcus is dating Alex when we enter the story, she used to date Pierre).

Zodiac

Zodiac

Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007 – 1st viewing): Every rave I’d read talks about the way the film deals with obsession, and that is handled brilliantly. Fewer had made a point of singling out DP Harris Savides for his astounding work (the use of the color in the film is particularly commendable–I saw colors in this film that look almost truer than life). I was only a bit surprised by the way Fincher catches you trying to think like the killer, forcing you to examine your own (and your society’s) fascination with serial murderers. But the real shock of Zodiac, Fincher’s finest film since Fight Club? How funny it is. Robert Downey, Jr. steals every scene he’s in. Some of the victims that the Zodiac takes his time with make absurd pleas (“If there’s anything else I can do for you, maybe I can write you a check.”). And a back-and-forth over whether to mail or fax something employs an exquisite deadpan in its send-up of bureaucracy where recent critical darling In The Loop would have opted for screaming a string of obscenities. Of my decade retrospective, Zodiac towers above the rest as my greatest find.

The Hangover

The Hangover

The Hangover (Todd Phillips, 2009 – 3rd viewing): Hey, every once in a while, you need some comfort food. But to say that The Hangover was less demanding after watching Zodiac isn’t to say it’s not interesting. Todd Phillips gives us a rarely offered glimpse of Las Vegas after the lights go out and the hot desert sun beats down across your forehead. It’s a film with two brilliant bait-and-switch moments. The first happens before the opening credits, where we’re offered the scene of a wedding being set up, something out of your typical romantic comedy. Then, with one cut, Phillips turns the entire visual language on its ear. The fullness of a crowded room is replaced by the vastness of an empty desert. Browns and greens and whites are washed out into a burned out tan and orange. Immobile cameras can’t stop shaking. It’s jarring and a wonderful kick-start to the film. The second comes after the guys’ toast on the roof. Just when we expect the film to be a bevy of amoral hedonistic delights, the party’s already over, and the boys must pay for their indulgences. On top of being a movie of impeccable timing, exciting physical humor, and clever language-based jokes (Alan’s reference to Rain Man as a “re-TARD” is particularly smart), it’s a movie that revels in debauchery, but shows that debauchery has its consequences (and in many cases, they are life and death). These men go through a major change. The film may not spell it out blatantly, but if you think that the Phil we see at the end cradling his son and being charmingly flirtatious with his wife is the same Phil at the beginning who says “I fucking hate my life,” then I can’t help you.

And that’s just a little under half of what I’ve taken in in the past week. Be on the lookout for Vol. 2, folks.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Laura Vasiliu and Anamaria Marinca in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker is a science fiction classic notable for its unflinching camerawork. The average shot length is about one minute, with some shots lasting more than four, and for a nearly three-hour film, the rhythm can be staggering. Particularly when being viewed today, where the belief in the power of the cut over the shot (from the schools of Eisenstein and Hitchcock) and frenetic editing (from the school of MTV) is the norm, it can be an uncomfortable sit. But the world of Stalker is a perilous landscape (referred to as, simply, The Zone), where certain rules and procedures must be followed. Any attempt to defy The Zone can end in treacherous consequences.

The world of two Romanian college students in 1987, shortly before the fall of Communism, is not that different in Cristian Mungiu’s 2007 film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. And one need not look far to find Tarkovsky’s influence on Mungiu’s Palme d’Or-winning abortion drama. Most of the film’s shots could easily challenge Stalker in length, and Mungiu, DP Oleg Mutu, and editor Dana Bunescu work tirelessly to transform the camera into an unblinking, uncommenting eye. Much like Tarkovsky’s film, though, the camera works in varying degrees of caution and voyeurism. The lens will follow Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) as far as an archway, only to let her walk off to the bus on her own, as if it knows that there are certain places we cannot go with her. We see the story with an outsider’s eye, and in those moments, you can’t help but wonder if perhaps this could just as easily be one of a thousand stories just like it going on at the same time. Then, later in the film, the camera will track right up to Otilia’s face as she waits patiently in the car, waiting for Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), the man who will perform the illegal abortion for her friend Gabriela (Laura Vasiliu).

Mungiu’s aesthetic is full of grit and stays mostly within muted hues, shades of browns and grays (all too fitting for the film’s moral ambiguity), but his defining characteristic is the very specific choice of what you need to see and what you don’t. When she and Gabriela are short on the money to pay him, Otilia is forced to have sex with Mr. Bebe. The camera waits outside of the hotel room with Gabriela, eventually moving with Gabriela to the bathroom (where Otilia and Bebe are heard, but not seen). The only things we see linked to the act are Otilia and Bebe beginning to undress, and Otilia immediately coming into the bathroom after they’ve finished–the power of that act, that she must immediately wash herself is a striking and haunting one.

And 4 Months concentrates heavily on the power and importance of acts. This is a world where intentions and promises mean nothing, and only what you do matters. It is a world where the Communist regime forces rogue capitalists underground, breeding a landscape where human lives are treated or cast aside with the cold detachment of a business transaction. Even in genial jokes exchanged over a birthday dinner, women are second-class citizens to men. A woman is only introduced as the doctor’s wife, not as a successful chemist in her own right. A girl tells her boyfriend to be safer when they have sex, but he ignores her. The entire environment of the film is one where women suffer in silence because of the wishes of men. They are only given an extremely dangerous option that only ends in regret.

Which is not to say that 4 Months is a strictly pro-choice film. The image of the tiny aborted fetus lying on a bloodstained towel in the middle of the bathroom floor gives one pause. The way that Otilia must break her promise to Gabriela–instead of burying the fetus, she stuffs it in a plastic bag and tosses it down a garbage chute–is heartbreaking. In the end, these two young women are left sitting in the hotel restaurant, with nothing to say to each other, and no idea what to do next. 2007 saw another film that dealt with the issue of abortion in a singular way–Lake of Fire, Tony Kaye’s magnum opus of a documentary. Lake of Fire, like 4 Months, leaves the audience with no easy answers. These films display a raw power that cannot be found in typical partisan cinema. Whereas most films like to see the political world as flat, with two opposing sides to every story, 4 Months shows the world for its roundness and depth–that the sides of each story bleed together and are, in fact, the same.

Mungiu accomplishes a film of quiet, ferocious power through his ambiguity. Much like Tony Kaye (a narrative filmmaker turned documentarian), Mungiu has no interest in drawing clear moral distinctions (the only character that comes off even close to all bad is Mr. Bebe), and he prefers to show the events as they happen, plain and simple. He doesn’t cut away from a moment, thereby forcing you to face it, and challenging his actors to remain open and vulnerable for that much time on camera. His is an aesthetic that would make Tarkovsky proud, and a courage of tackling tough issues in “shades of grey” terms that would make Brecht long to see how far the dramatic art form has come.

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