Parts of House of Gold are thrillingly innovative, so it’s disheartening when its dialogue and thematic content remain hollow. Director Sarah Benson created an ambitious set, one that finds new ways to present on-stage action, and on this level it’s easy to give the play a hearty recommendation. But the characters have one too many screws loose and their obsessions are too skewed, so they lose personalities and become unwanted caricatures. I suspect this approach is deliberate. Playwright Gregory S. Moss clearly has a bone to pick with childhood beauty pageants, an aspect of Americana that was a hot-button issue over a decade ago. Some actors fill their roles nicely, but with a dearth of chemistry, it gets uncomfortable when supposedly funny lines don’t even elicit a chuckle.
With audacious imagery and sound, Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void hammers away at traditional narrative until it becomes pure experience. Noé will never, ever be known for his subtlety, and his self-described “psychedelic melodrama” takes risks that few directors would dare even imagine. There are long stretches of fantastical imagery that have the real potential of altering one’s consciousness. There are moments where Noé and his international team deconstruct everyday events so they’re felt in revelatory ways. And in the middle of all the splendid visuals, a heartfelt core keeps us engaged with the admittedly half-baked characters. Noé’s hypnotic work is more potent than most narcotics, so Enter the Void negates the need to take drugs beforehand.
Festival buzz sometimes has a way of getting a movie’s reputation out of hand, and that’s certainly the case with Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours. With rumors of audience members vomiting or passing out during its gruesome climax, focus has shifted from Aron Ralston’s remarkable true-life story to sensationalistic reports that do the movie a disservice. Once again, Boyle and co-screenwriter Simon Beaufoy comfortably traverse the middle-ground between experimentation and mainstream appeal. Through inventive editing and camera work, Boyle takes an otherwise-unfilmable story and imbues it with infectious style and energy. Coupled with a strong performance from James Franco, 127 Hours is full of cathartic, life-affirming excitement.
When ominous title cards describe extraterrestrial visitors to Earth, it’s usually a good sign that what follows is rife with action and otherworldly viscera. Gareth Edwards, the writer/director of Monsters, must be aware of this expectation, as his feature debut embraces basic tenets of creature features while subverting others. Made on a shoestring budget of $20,000, his special effects are nonetheless polished. I have no idea how he accomplished his more eye-grabbing shots, and it’s impressive how he handles them along with the creatures themselves. Still, sci-fi fans may be disappointed to that the crux of Edwards’ movie is not an alien versus human battle, but a budding romance amidst heavy-handed symbolism.
Doug Liman may have made a splash with Swingers, but for the better part of a decade, he’s been nose-deep in spycraft. With The Bourne Identity, he jump-started one of Hollywood’s more reliable spy franchises. With Mr. and Mrs. Smith, he helped jump-start Brangelina. Most recently, Liman directed Fair Game, a real-life spy thriller about former ambassador Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn) and his wife Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts), the latter of which worked as a covert CIA operative until Washington Post columnist Robert Novak revealed her identity. When Liman was in town to debut Fair Game before an audience at the DC Labor Film Festival, I had chance to talk with him about his latest movie, as well as his past projects.
How closely did you work with Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame?
Because of the top secret nature of the work portrayed, the film is an inverse of how these stories are told. Valerie and Joe shared the more intimate details, the scenes that took place behind closed doors. Those scenes, not the historical facts, are the ones a filmmaker usually makes up. We were given access to the emotional scenes, how things felt, but we had to get the facts elsewhere: [Valerie’s] peers, the CIA, various journalists.
Set almost entirely in a Spanish prison, Daniel Monzón’s Cell 211 adds layer upon layer of suspense. No scenes stand out, which is not to say the movie is a bore; rather, the story builds itself in such a cohesive way, the final scenes are devastatingly inexorable. Moreover, characters are intelligent and not without values. There is criticism of the prison system amidst the deadly confrontations, but like the brilliant improvisations made by the movie’s hero, the script by Monzón and Jorge Guerricaechevarría sees no need to over-explain itself. The emotional arcs would be undeserved in a lesser thriller, but here it’s easy to empathize with the characters’ anger. It’s rare for a movie to engage your emotions and mind in an understated way, and Cell 211 does both while remaining a superb example of its genre.