Friday, March 27, 2009

3 From the Art House


"Hunger", the visually striking first film from British director Steve McQueen, has been getting raves since popping up on the festival circuit last year. Unrelentingly brutal from start to finish, McQueen (who hails from an installation artist background) chose as his subject a group of IRA prisoners sentenced to incarceration in 1981 and the ensuing hunger strike that eventually forced minimal changes on the political status of IRA prisoners. The first half of "Hunger" is virtually a silent combination of harsh images (feces smeared walls, the brutality of the guards onto the prisoners) and a wandering mosaic of life in and around the prison. Initially focusing on two prisoners (Brian Milligan and Liam McMahon) and a prison guard (Stuart Graham) whose bloody knuckles speak to a deeper level of seething hatred, "Hunger" almost feels too messy and too avant garde for its own good. Then, we're introduced to Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) in a 15 minute long take as he has a conversation with a priest about the reasons for his decision to go on a hunger strike. While that scene alone is a magnificent piece of acting that digs deep into the religious and political motivations for Sands' desperate and suicidal plea, there's a three minute scene immediately following that discussion that packs the real punch. The final third of "Hunger" narrows its focus on the visceral and visual depletion of Sands' body as he limps through the stages of dehydration, starvation and complete physical collapse. It's harrowing stuff, even if we do tend to forget that these guys were convicted terrorists who killed and maimed in service of a belief. No, "Hunger" doesn't go the route of Jim Sheridan and "In the Name of the Father", giving us a protagonist who is seemingly innocent in his confined battles over 'the troubles'. Sands makes no case for his innocence. If one can put those feelings on hold and listen to the discussion between Sands and the priest, "Hunger" does present this murky collision of ideas with intelligence and multi-faceted openness.

The Great Buck Howard

Sean McGinly's "The Great Buck Howard" is a brisk, breezy movie- yet also inconsequential, as if it was made for the small screen. Based on the life of the Amazing Kreskin and McGinly's own job as his personal assistant, Colin Hanks fills in the autobiographical shoes and perhaps this strikes at the heart of the film's "meh" attitude. I've seen Hanks in a couple different films now, and he feels blank, bland and boring. Sprucing up the affair, though, is Emily Blunt as a press agent who looks incredible and there's always John Malkovich as the titular character (or mentalist) who imbues Buck Howard with just the right amount of zaniness and quirkiness to gain some nice mileage out of the film's shaggy-dog take on low-rent showbiz. Nothing special here, but not a bad film either.


Matteo Garrone's "Gomorra" deserves some credit for attempting to dislodge the usual perception American viewers have of the Mafia in Italy. La Cosa Nostra's black hand does pulse through most of this film's background, but Garrone has accomplished something altogether different- presenting the mob as customary and as indistinguishable as the lowly street gangs and hoods that populate our urban city streets. Sure, I suppose one could call the layers of low-life kids, bumbling thieves, waste disposal honchos and sweat shop managers 'criminals' in the loosest sense of the word, but "Gomorra" wallows in the intermingled slums of several Italian barrios with causal dis-regard for anything resembling "organized crime". There are random shootings and two guys straight out of "Dumb and Dumber" who play act Tony Montana, but the crumbling decay of crime on everyone is front and center... hence Garrone's symbolic title. Circling around five distinct stories, "Gomorra" is intriguing for its detached, static tone. There's not much to care about here, but technically, "Gomorra" is worth seeing.

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