Words and Pictures, recently released on home video, is the kind of small-scale dramatic comedy tailor-made for the cozy screen of the empty nester’s home cinema. It features the sexily rumpled Clive Owen and the beautifully tart Juliette Binoche engaging in a spirited debate about language and art, two cerebral topics unsuited to both the multiplex and the increasingly myopic arena of the art house. As an added bonus the picture is directed by Fred Schepisi, whom devoted cinephiles will remember for the galvanizing Australian New Wave classic, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, the baby-eating dingo thriller, A Cry in the Dark, and the supremely well-acted Six Degrees of Separation. Two smart, imminently watchable actors, a sophisticated director, and a story about ideas. There is only one thing souring this perfect scenario: the movie is awful.
Just when you thought the found-footage gimmick had finally been pounded into eternal irrelevance by the half-dozen Paranormal Activity sequels, which were inspired by countless horror films riffing on unearthed VHS tapes, which themselves were the evil spawn of The Blair Witch Project, along comes a micro-budgeted little surprise called Willow Creek. Directed by renegade provocateur Bobcat Goldthwaite, set in the wilderness of Northern California, and centered around the silliest of modern-day monsters, Sasquatch, Willow Creek turns out to be a truly frightening, intensely unforgiving experience. The fact that it accomplishes this, not by applying a new twist to the found-footage cliché, but by polishing the cliché with gripping effectiveness, makes this video-on-demand thriller one of the “finds” of the decade.
January may have two faces, but the faces Viggo Mortensen tries on in this film are legion. He smirks, smiles, grimaces, gloats, pouts, frowns, laughs, cries, and sleeps. And all this in the service of a character who could be an expert con man, a desperate swindler, or a cuckold in the making, but instead turns out to be someone much less interesting, a rather unlikeable fool. The Two Faces of January is that kind of film. Varnished with the gloss of a high-toned thriller, teasing us with a serpentine plot that implies it will turn around to bite all of the characters on the ass, it is actually only a mildly diverting, ultimately simplistic bauble. One in which none of the more tantalizing story possibilities ever come to pass.
The Rover is a post-apocalyptic, outback western that barely arrived in local theaters before vanishing into the dust. It is now on home video, where one can perhaps better appreciate the film’s somber pacing, moody soundtrack, and grimly compelling atmosphere. Its two main characters, however, remain stubbornly inscrutable; motivated by an unconvincing alliance that leaves nothing but bullet-ridden bodies and unanswered questions in their wake.
An atmosphere of seething violence permeates every frame of Starred Up, a brutal drama about an angry young man’s near deadly indoctrination into the mayhem of the adult British prison system. The film is certainly tough to watch and even harder to understand, given the inmates’ working class argot, but these qualities help contribute to its gripping authenticity. Director David Mackenzie also refuses (mostly) to indulge any need we might have for a feel-good ending, depicting a world in which redemption is non-existent, rehabilitation comes in slivers, and survival is the only reason to get up in the morning.
Palo Alto breaks no new ground in its group portrayal of distracted Bay Area teens drifting through druggy parties and sexual fumblings, but first-time director Gia Coppola (granddaughter of Francis) tills this well-trod soil with a delicate, assured touch. She has an intuitive eye and a patient attention to composition, allowing moments to linger long enough to resonate, but short enough to avoid pretension. She also is granted a fine performance from Emma Roberts (niece of Julia, daughter of Eric) whose pensive intelligence keeps the movie from descending into a standard-issue teen drama.
(This review contains spoilers).
The Congress begins with a tantalizing set-up. Robin Wright plays herself, or at least a once-famous actress named Robin Wright who starred in The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump. She is living with her teenage daughter and younger son in a sprawling desert compound next to an airfield. She is past her acting prime, or so her agent (played with surprising compassion by a noticeably aging Harvey Keitel) tells her. She has walked out on too many contracts and made too many career-killing decisions. When he informs her a major studio (called, sneakily, Miramount) wants to digitally clone her body, her expressions, and even her personality on the condition she never acts in anything, anywhere, ever again, she understandably refuses. But her son suffers from a rare syndrome, one with dire and expensive consequences. Reluctantly, she takes the money. It’s a fascinating premise, and as directed by Ari Folman, a thoroughly mesmerizing one. Filmed with a startling grip on scraps of visual shorthand that convey setting and tone in striking, emotionally fraught imagery, you might allow yourself to think you’re watching the most compelling and brilliantly directed film of the year. But you’d be so wrong.