By Eric Plaag
[It’s been a busy couple of months as Matt and I have been getting the website up and balancing the demands of other projects with, well, life. The following are some capsule reviews of films I’ve seen over the past few weeks but have not reviewed in full-length columns. Matt and I typically reserve our longer columns and reviews for discussion of films that have provoked thought beyond just the in-theater response to the film, but we see many more films than what we review at length. Accordingly, we will both employ capsule reviews as an occasional feature on the website.]
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Imagine an outdoor dinner with a stubborn, dying man named Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) and two visiting relatives. Moments into the meal, his dead wife’s ghost (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) materializes, followed by his long-missing son, who emerges the from the jungle appearing as if he scored a bad deal on an ape costume with glowing red LED lights for eyes. What follows is not the in-your-face, openly masturbatory exercise in philosophy that western audiences find comfortable (What the #$*! Do We Know or Mindwalk) but is instead the film equivalent of a Zen koan, the mind-warping riddles to which there are never any rational, only intuitive, solutions. Featuring a long, nearly wordless dinner in which anticipation gives way to an odd sense of melancholy, a mystical journey into a womb-like, star-bathed cave, a fascinating parable (or is it an actual past life?) that turns on a torrid sex scene initiated by a catfish, and a closing sequence that strongly suggests that most “reality” we experience is in fact highly rationalized hallucination, Uncle Boonmee offers little to satisfy conventional expectations about narrative, pacing, or character development, yet it seems persistent and confident in knowing exactly where it wants to take us. Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has been quoted as saying that the film is about recollection and death, not only in a traditional sense, but also in a cinematic one, noting that the industry’s transition to digital provoked this lamentation. Based loosely on a 1983 biography of an actual man from the director’s hometown, Uncle Boonmee at first leaves viewers feeling as though they have been duped by the cinematic equivalent of a Nigerian email scam that promises great bounty in exchange for permission to borrow $8.75 and two hours of the western world’s commoditized sense of time. But after the feeling of being defrauded passes, audiences will find that Uncle Boonmee’s haunting visuals, subtle philosophical riffs, and quirky, surreal scenarios have wheedled their way into the subconscious, taken root, and begun to tickle the soul.
Theaters, 3.5 out of 5 stars
You’ve heard about the “bubble” and the reckless investments in subprime mortgages that brought about the financial meltdown of 2008. What you probably don’t know, though, is exactly why and how it happened, as well as who let it happen with full foreknowledge of the potential consequences. Charles H. Ferguson’s Oscar-winning 2010 documentary bravely corners some of the big players in this mess, confronting them about what they knew, when they knew it, and why they continued to privilege personal gain over fiscal responsibility, even as the system melted down and threatened the financial well-being of billions of people worldwide. While you may have known already that our corporations and government are corrupt, Inside Job brings home in blistering detail the breadth and depth of this systemic greed that also infests our universities and regulatory agencies. Ferguson’s complex analysis reveals that the very people we once counted on to stand as a bulwark against rampant corruption are now those most likely to profit from it. If you weren’t frightened and outraged before, Inside Job makes palpably clear why you should be.
DVD, 5 out of 5 stars
Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is a down-on-his-luck and very angry carpenter suffering from various anxiety and other mental health issues when he leaves New York behind for the chance to housesit at his brother’s place in California. When he isn’t obsessing over his brother’s dog or his brother’s friends who drop in to use the pool, Roger writes long, self-indulgent, and often ridiculous letters of complaint to anyone with a corporate address. Several awkward encounters with Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother’s much younger personal assistant who is just as lost as Roger is, ultimately lead Roger on an odyssey through his past conflicts with friends, lovers, and family, opening old wounds and thereby draining some of the pus. All of this sturm and drang appears set to resolve in what one hopes and assumes will be a conventional catharsis about being human, compassionate, and alive. Instead, Noah Baumbach’s navel-gazing drama dressed up as quirky but uneven black humor demands that we feel moved by the final choices of these two profoundly unlikeable characters and thereby root for them to take a chance on each other. It would have been far more interesting—or at least more believable—in the film’s chaotic final moments to see Florence grow a spine and to watch Roger destroy the remaining fragments of his life by accepting an invitation to run around the world with a couple of coeds.
DVD, 2 out of 5 stars