Monday, October 31, 2011

TV on DVD: The Shield (Season Five, Disc Three)

Episodes covered:  Smoked, Of Mice and Lem, Post Partum

The trick to writing The Shield is to keep painting Vic and his Strike Team into an increasingly tighter corner while still leaving them with believable ways to exist in that corner.  Since the Strike Team are the main characters of a show that was apparently always designed to go on indefinitely (or at least for more than a handful of seasons), they can’t simply be brought to justice (or killed), but having Vic maneuver his way out of too many impossible situations would strain credibility.  For the show’s plotting to be truly effective, the writers have to turn every one of Vic’s temporary solutions into a new problem that further tests the Team’s loyalty to each other, while also pushing the limits of their corruption. 

Shawn Ryan and his writing staff haven’t always been great at keeping the pressure on their lead characters.  The Terry Crowley murder was barely mentioned in seasons two through four, with two of those seasons being devoted to the Armenian Money Train plot and the fourth season deepening the show’s themes without making any major progress in the series’ master plot.  This stalling didn’t prevent the writers from producing a lot of entertaining television (season four was pretty great), and it’s entirely possible that some plot elements that seem inconsequential now will have a major impact on the series’ final episodes; after all, the Money Train plot that seemed to be completely wrapped up at the end of season three has become a potentially important part of Kavanaugh’s investigation.  The show has come up with some fairly logical reasons for avoiding steady progression of the plot, from creating a number of compelling side plots for the Barn’s other detectives to occasionally reminding viewers that the events of the first five seasons have taken place over only about two years.

Still, no matter how clever the writers have been about dragging their story out without losing the audience’s attention, there has always been a background feeling that they are also actively holding the plot momentum back in order to allow the show to continue for as long as it was a success for FX.  So a big part of what has made season five the best season of The Shield to date is that it has finally brought some real consequences for the Strike Team’s past actions.  Kavanaugh’s investigation has been plotted brilliantly – and is surprisingly still ongoing by the end of “Post Partum” (though apparently he’ll have less administrative support going forward)  - and his largely successful pressuring of Lem has confirmed that he is the greatest threat to the Strike Team’s operations thus far.  Past seasons would have likely ended with Vic finding a way to definitively discredit his Kavanaugh (as he attempts to by sleeping with the investigator’s estranged wife, thereby making the investigation look like part of a petty personal grudge) while slightly alienating the other Strike Team members with his actions.  Season five ends with Vic still under investigation by Kavanaugh as the no-bullshit Claudette assumes the Captain’s chair (apparently for real this time), and with Shane panicking under the pressure of potential arrest and murdering Lem.

While the writers have left room for the plot to move forward (there are still two seasons to go), they won’t be telling the exact same story that we’ve been watching for the past five seasons.  Vic will surely find out sooner rather than later who is responsible for Lem’s murder, which will obviously fracture the Team even more than it already has been, and we seem to moving toward the Claudette and Dutch (plus Kavanaugh) versus Vic endgame that I’ve been waiting for since season three.  Vic has proven himself to be extremely crafty in the past, but it seems unlikely that he’ll be having too many more definitive successes as The Shield gears up for its final episodes.  Watching the man who used to get away with everything gradually lose his grip promises a very satisfying ending to this uneven yet increasingly gripping series.

Quick Thoughts:

-  While the confirmation that Vic is in fact the father of Danny’s child (who is born in “Post Partum”) is an underwhelming resolution to that subplot, the scene where Vic quietly agrees that the child doesn’t need to know its father’s identity is a great acting moment for Michael Chiklis.

-  The street brawl between Vic and Kavanaugh was a smart way to bring their season-long conflict to a head while still leaving room for that plot to develop.  I can’t imagine anyone complaining about Forest Whitaker remaining part of the show, as his performance has been riveting and his unpredictable character has been fascinating.

-  The non-Kavanaugh new characters had more of a mixed season.  Tina’s unprepared rookie storyline has provided a lot of interesting moments, but she has been so far removed from the master plot that it’s hard to tell at this point how relevant she’ll wind up being to the show overall.  Her promotion to detective (thanks entirely to some bureaucratic stupidity outlined in “Smoked”) should put her even more at odds with the rest of the Barn.  Meanwhile, I still never caught the name of the Strike Team’s lawyer, who never became more than a plot device despite the best efforts of Laura Harring.  At least she played an integral role in the season finale, which is more than can be said for Michael Pena’s character from season four.

-  I could’ve done without the mousetraps-in-glory holes subplot that played out over the last several episodes, but Julien’s scene interrogating the homophobic Christian perpetrator was very intense, and the first major reminder since season three of the officer’s personal struggles.

-  A grenade hardly seems like the most dramatically logical murder weapon, but the scene where Shane tears up while preparing to drop the explosive into Lem’s car is very effective.  Though the conception and development of Shane’s character has been somewhat problematic, Walton Goggins has always given one of the show’s best performances, and this may have been his best moment to date – though I expect many even better ones to come, considering how prominent his character is going to have to be in season six.  Lem had been given even less depth than Shane in the first few seasons, but Kenneth Johnson always managed to deliver in the rare times when he was given big moments, and he was very compelling as a major part of his fifth and final season.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Understanding Auteurs: Hayao Miyazaki (Kiki's Delivery Service and Porco Rosso)

Originally this post was going to focus exclusively on Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Hayao Miyazaki’s fifth feature and the spiritual sister of My Neighbor Totoro (1988).  But while Kiki is a pleasant enough follow-up to Miyazaki’s artistic breakthrough, and boasts gorgeous animation from the reliably excellent Studio Ghibli team, it strikes me as a relatively minor work and I’m not sure how much I really have to say about it.  And since I didn’t get around to writing anything about Miyazaki last month, this post will also include a look at the great Japanese animator’s sixth feature, Porco Rosso (1992), an entertaining film that finds Studio Ghibli making a confident return to the action genre.

Despite their kid-friendly cartoon surfaces, Miyazaki’s films have tended to be a little too eccentric and surreal to fit comfortably in the children’s section at video stores.  The situation changes somewhat with Kiki’s Delivery Service, a lighthearted tale about a young witch who gradually learns to overcome her insecurities and become a self-sufficient, mature individual.  Kiki is our first (and possibly only) chance to see how Miyazaki would handle a relatively straightforward family film – the streamlining most likely due to the fact that he took over for a different director part way through the film’s pre-production – and he handles it very well.  It would be disappointing to see Miyazaki make too many films with simple morals and few dark edges, but Kiki’s pro-independence message is treated with appropriate sincerity, and the Totoro-style lack of villains and contrived conflict prevents Kiki from becoming just another children’s film.  With its utter lack of urgency, Kiki may qualify as “Miyazaki light,” but it is genuinely sweet and charming in a way that far too few family films are.

While Kiki finds Miyazaki reigning himself in a bit for a mass audience, the wild action-adventure film Porco Rosso is probably the strangest thing to come out of Studio Ghibli up to this point.  In fact, Porco may be the most eccentric film set during the World War II era this side of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009).  The plot revolves around the titular character, an ace Italian pilot who inexplicably turned into a pig after emerging as the sole survivor of a skirmish in the first World War.  Porco simply wants to fly his plane for fun and adventure (and the occasional quick injection of cash to pay off some of his many debts), but he is constantly interrupted by various gangs of sky pirates and by a cocky U.S. pilot who wants to compare skills.  The story borders on being incoherent and a little shapeless – which is perhaps due to the project’s origins as a short film meant to be shown during commercial flights, though it’s also true that plotting has never really been Miyazaki’s strong suit – and while setting the film in Italy during the initial stages of WWII is an interesting choice (and it is amusing to see the hero of the film tell a soldier that “it’s better to be a pig than a fascist”), Miyazaki doesn’t seem terribly interested in making any sort of grand statement about the war. 

Still, this is Miyazaki’s most energetic and purely exciting film since his feature debut, The Castle of Cagliostro (1979).  Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Castle in the Sky (1986) seemed to be adventure films mostly because Miyazaki couldn’t come up with any other structure to hang his fantastical animation on, but Porco finds the director really digging into his action scenes, and coming up with dynamic and visceral ways to film Porco’s many dangerous and daring flights.  The climactic action scene that finds Porco and the U.S. pilot engaging in a dog fight before landing in the sea and having a surprisingly gory (albeit cartoonish) fist fight in the water is particularly impressive.

Better still are the bizarre details that fill every scene and contribute greatly to the movie’s rowdy atmosphere.  An early highpoint has sky pirates kidnapping a group of children who wind up annoying the villains by reacting to the situations as an audience excited to be rescued by Porco rather than as terrified hostages.  Later scenes feature the apparently foul-smelling pirates ganging up on Porco only to become bashful and giggly when confronted by the hero’s female repairs specialist, who encourages them to take a bath.  This kind of enjoyable broad humor is matched to a dry, surrealist wit that provides continuously amusing tropes like Porco’s inexplicable appeal as a ladies man despite being an obese pig, and a straight-faced flashback to the moment that Porco transformed into a pig that hilariously winds up making the situation more baffling rather than explaining anything.  While My Neighbor Totoro found Miyazaki fully developing his own distinct style, and Kiki’s Delivery Service put that unique aesthetic into a somewhat more crowd-pleasing context, it is the seemingly throwaway Porco Rosso that finds Miyazaki finally pulling all of the divergent strands of his filmmaking into one messy yet potently unmistakable aesthetic. 

UP NEXT  Princess Mononoke

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Shield: Season Five (Discs One & Two)

Episodes covered:  Extraction, The Enemy of Good, Jailbait, Tapa Boca, Trophy, Rap Payback, Man Inside, Kavanaugh

Forest Whitaker is blessed with a magnetic screen presence, a completely distinctive blend of imposing physicality and wounded sensitivity.  But the prolific actor’s abilities have rarely been put to use in projects that seem worthy of his talents.  Even his own directorial efforts – which include such completely forgettable titles as First Daughter and Hope Floats – betray either a poor judgment in finding worthwhile scripts or a curious lack of opportunities for a talent of Whitaker’s caliber.  Perhaps the only movie roles that have put Whitaker to full use are his lead parts in Ghost Dog:  the Way of the Samurai and his Oscar-nominated turn as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. 

After the first two-thirds of the fifth season of The Shield, we can add Lt. Jon Kavanaugh to the list of Whitaker’s best roles.  Kavanaugh works for Internal Affairs, and he’s looking into the Strike Team and the various allegations of corruption against them.  Though Kavanaugh initially gains leverage by threatening Lem with jail time for a brick of heroin he confiscated but didn’t report in season four, his real interest is in Vic’s role in the murder of Terry Crowley, which stretches back all the way to the pilot episode.  Whitaker makes Kavanaugh seem like the first legit threat to the Strike Team’s future, with his crazy eyes and his sudden shifts from almost-whispered pleasantries to focused rage making him a highly unpredictable match for Vic and his cronies.  The “investigator obsessed to the point of madness” character has been done many times before, but rarely with this much conviction.  And since we know just how guilty Vic is – and how many loose threads the Strike Team has left behind in previous seasons – Kavanaugh seems not only like a worthy opponent for the series’ protagonist, but like the closest thing to a hero that The Shield currently has.

The writers have done an excellent job integrating Kavanaugh into the series’ major storylines and steadily progressing his investigation while also slowly doling out backstory about Kavanaugh’s history.  After storming onto the scene by turning Lem into an unwilling informant in “Extraction,” Kavanaugh shows his hand by personally appearing to prevent Vic from harming a C.I. at the conclusion of “Tapa Boca.”  Kavanaugh responds to the unsuccessful wiretapping of Lem by bugging the Strike Team’s office in ”Trophy,” but when he attempts to bust up Vic’s under the table deal with the Russian mafia, the Internal Affairs Lt. finds that he is in fact disrupting an undercover operation meant to bring the mafia down.  (For this twist alone – which is as much a surprise to the audience as it is to Kavanaugh – “Trophy” may be the most cunningly plotted episode of The Shield to date).  Flustered yet undeterred, Kavanaugh sets up an office in the Barn, posting crime scene photos of Terry Crowley’s murdered body in full view of the detectives, taking the door off of the Strike Team’s office, and interrogating anyone and everyone with a connection to the Team’s operations.

Those interrogations provide some of the most intense moments to date on this always full-throttle series, with Whitaker’s livewire performance and the tightening screws of the ongoing storylines propelling several cast members to new heights.  Cathy Cahlin Ryan has always been good as Vic’s estranged wife Corrine, but she hasn’t previously had an opportunity to come unglued in the way that she does in Kavanaugh’s office, where she is confronted with insinuations about Vic’s crimes and infidelities.  It seems fully credible that she would tell Kavanaugh about the $65,000 that Vic gave her, and even the staunchest supporter of Vic would have to feel sympathy for her in that moment.  Shane and Lem both seem on the verge of cracking under Kavanaugh’s gaze, with the former being more likely to accidentally reveal something through sheer incompetence and the latter clearly feeling the moral weight of his past actions.  Even Ronnie has had something to do in this season, with Kavanaugh cleverly planting the idea in the detective’s mind that he is the only member of the Strike Team who has been careful enough to cover his tracks, and that the other guys are going to bring him down.

Kavanaugh doesn’t seem quite as competent on the field as he does in the interrogation room.  When he tags along with the Strike Team on an undercover investigation in “Kavanaugh,” the Internal Investigator nearly blows the cover of a C.I. and winds up having his life saved by the Strike Team.  It doesn’t help that Kavanaugh is simultaneously trying to deal with that case and the return of his estranged wife (played by Gina Torres), a mentally unstable woman who files a false criminal report saying that she was raped as a way to get back in touch with her husband.  The scene where Kavanaugh has to tell his wife that he’s going to have to charge her with a false report and put her back in a mental facility is one of the most brutally intimate moments on the show to date – which makes it all the more devastating when Kavanaugh discovers that Vic has been watching the whole thing unfold from one of the Barn’s many security monitors.  It’s almost understandable when Kavanaugh, overcome with emotion and frustration, abruptly decides to place Lem under arrest, staking all of his hopes on the man who is now his most reliable informant – Antwan Mitchell, who is willing to give up everything he knows about the Strike Team if Kavanaugh can promise to put the Team in the same jail facility as him.

Something bad is going to happen.

Quick Thoughts:

- Dutch and Claudette’s big case for the season involves yet another rapist-murderer.  While the subplot isn’t all that interesting in and of itself, it does provide for some interesting moments between Wagenbach and Wyms, with the latter struggling to hide her ailing health from her long-time partner.  At the end of “Man Inside,” Wyms collapses down the Barn’s winding staircase, apparently from exhaustion.  It will be interesting to see where this is all going.

- Other new characters this season:  Tina Hanlon (Paula Garces), a rookie detective who often finds herself on the wrong side of her training officer, Julien.  She is also clearly an object of lust for the never-smooth Dutch.  Vic has also hired a lawyer for the Strike Team played by Laura Harring; I’ve failed to catch the character’s name thus far, as she mostly seems like a plot device at this point.

- Danny is pregnant, and her refusal to disclose the father of the baby has led the other members of the Barn to open a bet on the identity of the daddy.  While most people are betting on Vic, my money’s on the increasingly troubled Lem; since he seems likely to end the season in jail (or worse), the dramatic irony seems too good to pass up.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

2011 Milwaukee Film Festival

The third annual Milwaukee Film Festival offered up a typically diverse selection of international and local films, most of which would otherwise not have made it to area theatres.  Though work commitments, a wedding, the sheer breadth of films on offer, and a poorly-timed head cold prevented me from catching several of the things I was hoping to see – most notably Raul Ruiz’s four-hour period piece Mysteries of Lisbon – I still managed to see a wide variety of interesting and engaging films.  Below are brief reviews of all of the movies that I saw in theatres at this year’s festival, as well as several of the most notable films that I saw through other means.

The Bengali Detective (Philip Cox, India/UK, 101 min.)
Documentarian Philip Cox has found a fascinating subject for a documentary in Rajesh Ji, a private investigator who looks into everything from counterfeit shampoo scandals to triple-homicides, and spends his spare time either caring for his ill wife or practicing dance steps for his upcoming reality show audition.  Unfortunately, the director doesn’t have any sort of angle for this story, leaving the film at the mercy of the success of individual pieces of footage.  This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if, say, the homicide investigation or the reality show audition wound up going anywhere, but since they don’t, the film winds up feeling less like a look at a complicated, multi-faceted individual than a succession of uneven scenes adding up to nothing.  C

A Cat in Paris (Alain Gagnol & Jean-Loup Felicioli, France/Belgium/Netherlands/Switzerland, 65 min.)
This charming, lighthearted action movie for children eschews the frantic pacing, cynical pop culture referencing, pointless celebrity voiceovers and lazy computer animation of most contemporary animated films.  The tale of a polite cat burglar, his feline companion, and the mute young girl who inadvertently gets wrapped up in their adventures boasts a handsome hand-drawn style that looks like a series of oil crayon pictures come to life, a style that taps directly into childlike imagination.  B

The City of Life and Death (Lu Chuan, China, 132 min.)
Lu Chuan’s epic recreation of the Rape of Nanking falls into the same trap as many films about holocausts, with the perpetrators being portrayed as evil, mustache-twirling villains, as if the film is saying “they treated us like animals – those monsters.”  But perhaps we should be glad that the film at least has enough nuance to include one token conflicted Japanese soldier, considering that that small acknowledgement of the “enemy’s” humanity was enough to get the film banned from many Chinese theatres.  What the film lacks in nuance it makes up for in sheer cumulative tragedy.  Few works of art have given such a convincingly brutal depiction of the devastation that an occupying force can have on a nation, and the stunning widescreen black and white cinematography of Cao Yu really puts across the full scale and crushing weight of the tragedy.  B

A Good Man (Bob Hercules & Gordon Quinn, USA, 86 min.)
This in-depth look at the artistic process follows avant-garde modern dance choreographer Bill T. Jones’ efforts to pull together his most ambitious production to date:  a large-scale production about the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.  Jones emerges as a charismatic yet prickly figure whose struggle to express complicated feelings about racial, ethical, and historical issues frequently puts him at odds with his collaborators, most of whom are interesting characters in their own right.  The dance company’s frustrations in pinning down their leader’s careening muse is alternately moving and funny, and the periodic glimpses of the spectacular final product demonstrate why all of the hair-pulling is worth it.  B

The Green Wave (Ali Samadi Ahadi, Iran/Germany, 80 min.)
This documentary about the tragic fallout of Iran’s 2009 presidential elections cuts back and forth between traditional talking heads footage, animated recreations of police brutality, and occasional cellphone footage of shocking human rights violations, with contemporaneous Iranian blog posts providing much of the narration.  Given the nature of the material, The Green Wave is unavoidably powerful, but director Ali Samadi Ahadi’s attempts to capture the “new media” response to the election results feel too one-note, mostly due to an overreliance on the ugly comic book style animation sequences.  C+

 The Interrupters (Steve James, USA, 125 min.)
The latest documentary from socially-minded director Steve James (of Hoop Dreams fame) is a moving look at a Chicago organization that hires former gang members to diffuse violent situations and help current gang members find better opportunities.  Riveting whether it’s showing the interrupters getting in the middle of a hostile scene or simply documenting the progress of people trying to get through the day, the film nevertheless feels less in-depth than expected from a filmmaker of James’ status.  It would be nice to know more about issues like the interrupters’ relationship with the police, and the ending seems a bit too abrupt.  Still, this is trenchant, essential stuff, and one of the highlights of the festival.  B+

 Into Eternity (Michael Madsen, Denmark/Finland/Sweden, 75 min.)
Few of this year’s fiction films were as haunting or as purely cinematic as Michael Madsen’s conceptual documentary about the ongoing construction of Onkalo, an underground Finnish facility that is intended to store nuclear waste for one-hundred thousand years – which would mean that it would have to last ten times longer than any man-made structure ever built.  Madsen uncovers a fascinating and disturbing debate about how to properly warn a theoretical future society to avoid entering Onkalo, and asks scientists and scholars the tough questions about potential problems with the experiment.  Meanwhile, he and cinematographer Heikki Farm capture some of the most beautifully creepy shots of the year from inside the caves where Onkalo is being built.  The filmmakers are working almost entirely inside the Werner Herzog school of documentary-making, but there is no reason to complain when it’s clearly the right approach to the material.  B+

 The Last Circus (Alex de la Iglesia, Spain, 108 min.)
This phantasmagoric, genre-defying sensory explosion recalls the epic patchworks of Terry Gilliam and Emir Kusturica.  The latter director’s Underground is perhaps the closest analogue to The Last Circus’ mix of political allegory and outrageously baroque imagery.  Unfortunately, the new film has a lot less to say about the Franco era than Underground does about the political divides in the Balkans; anything particularly thoughtful or nuanced in writer-director Alex de la Iglesia’s vision is drowned out by his wildly excessive style.  But that style is enough to keep the movie consistently compelling, with every corner of every frame being crammed with things that you haven’t seen before.  B

 Marathon Boy (Gemma Atwal, India/UK, 98 min.)
This look at a four-year old Indian marathon runner is hardly the year’s flashiest or most high-profile documentary, but it may very well be the most gripping.  Far from the faux-inspirational “real-life Slumdog Millionaire” story that it is advertised as, this is a complicated and layered story about the limited opportunities for Indian slum kids, the thin line between exploiting said kids and giving them a chance at a better life, and the political structure that often prevents the poor from improving their situation.  First-time director Gemma Atwal pursues all of these questions to their logical end, never allowing the film to become a conventional sports documentary.  B+

Natural Selection (Robbie Pickering, USA, 90 min.)
There is potential in the odd-couple story of a devoutly Christian housewife (Rachael Harris) meeting up with the escaped convict (Matt O’Leary) who her husband birthed from a sperm bank, but writer-director Robbie Pickering can’t decide if he wants to make a nuanced character study about his lead characters or a broad comedy about the hypocrisies of conservative Christian culture.  What he winds up with is a middle-of-the-road dramedy designed to get the easiest possible laughs and tears from a large audience.  That said, Harris’ lead performance is very strong, displaying a lived-in realism that sadly eludes the rest of the film.  At any rate, this is certainly a step down from last year’s opening night selection, Blue ValentineC

 On Tour (Mathieu Amalric, France, 111 min.)
The great French actor Mathieu Amalric has been directing films on the side since the ‘90s, and the tone of his latest behind-the-camera effort perfectly matches the nervy tone of his best performances.  On Tour follows a group of eccentric American burlesque performers (portrayed by actual practitioners of the craft) as they travel around the homeland of their unreliable French manager (Amalric).  There isn’t much more to it than that – the film is basically divided between bizarre stage performances and scenes of the manager having awkward reunions with people from his past – but there is almost always something interesting happening between the actors, and the boozy, semi-improvised aesthetic compares favorably to late-‘70s Cassavetes.  B

 Outrage (Takeshi Kitano, Japan, 109 min.)
Takeshi Kitano’s films have always been baffling – even his relatively watered-down take on Zatoichi ended with an inexplicable musical number – but this may be the first time that it seems like there’s nothing to “get.”  The prolific writer/director/actor/editor’s latest consists almost entirely of scenes of yakuza members discussing who they are going to kill, followed by scenes of the hits taking place, and with that pattern repeated until virtually every character is dead.  Some of the variations are interestingly staged, but seeing them piled on top of each other with almost literally no time devoted to anything else is ultimately numbing and tedious.  Kitano does manage to wring some pitch-black laughs by contrasting the utter pettiness of the convoluted gang rivalry with the brutal violence of the executions, but he doesn’t even seem to be aiming for any larger point.  C

Page One:  Inside the New York Times (Andrew Rossi, USA, 91 min.)
This documentary about the financial struggles of America’s greatest newspaper sacrifices depth and focus in favor of providing a broad look at various issues affecting the institution.  Considering the sheer breadth of topics covered in 91 minutes – from the blogs vs. print media debate to the controversy over WikiLeaks to the career of crusading journalist David Carr to the massive round of layoffs that the Times has been forced to execute over the last several years – director Andrew Rossi does an impressive job of keeping the movie coherent and lively.  But he might have been better off giving an in-depth look at one of those topics than trying to cram surface-level looks at each of them into one breezily entertaining movie.  B-

 The Redemption of General Butt Naked (Eric Strauss & Daniele Anastasion, USA/Liberia, 85 min.)
The most fascinating character in any film this year was General Butt Naked, formerly a ruthless warlord in Liberia’s civil war and now a Christian preacher hoping to atone for the atrocities he’s committed in the past.  Documentarians Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion follow the newly-christened Joshua Milton Blahyi as he attempts to reunite with, and receive forgiveness from, the people whose lives he’s ruined.  It’s never clear how sincere Blahyi’s quest for redemption is, and the filmmakers avoid any editorializing about whether a man who has committed so many atrocities even deserves to be forgiven.  The film’s neutrality is almost frustrating at times, but with a subject as complicated as Blahyi it may be more important to ask questions than to give answers.  B+

 The Sleeping Beauty (Catherine Breillat, France, 82 min.)
Provocateur Catherine Breillat has been in an enjoyable classical period for a few years now, and her second straight adaptation of a Charles Perrault fairytale would seem to promise more of the same.   While the opening scenes of The Sleeping Beauty seem like a perfectly logical (if slightly safe) follow-up to 2009’s Bluebeard, Breillat begins departing from the original story and wildly defying expectations as soon as the princess’ finger is pricked.  The film turns into a ramblingly episodic, and frequently baffling, essay on puberty, the battle of the sexes, and aging.  Perhaps Breillat could’ve made a more coherent film about all of those themes by sticking closer to her source material, but it is exciting to watch her follow her muse down the least predictable paths, and it is truly impressive to see her capture so many magnificent images without ever breaking the film’s casually surreal tone.  B

 El Velador (Natalia Almada, Mexico/USA, 72 min.)
Natalia Almada’s film about the night watchman of a Mexican cemetery plays more like an experimental short film than a conventional documentary.  Long, static shots observe the watchman’s banal workplace rituals, as he tends to the elegant mausoleums that house some of his nation’s most brutal drug lords.  The largely silent scenes are punctuated by aural reminders of the violence that keeps the titular figure in business, with muffled gun shots interrupting distant musical performances and news reports occasionally filling us in on the latest murder.  Almada certainly knows how to build a creepy atmosphere, and her shot compositions are truly impressive.  But El Velador suffers from being in such close proximity to the similarly moody Into Eternity, which not only creates a creepy atmosphere but also leaves you with something to think about long after the credits role.  That said, El Velador is a very assured stylistic exercise.  B-

 Viva Riva! (Djo Tunda Wa Munga, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 96 min.)
This energetic modern blacksploitation film about small-time Congolese hoods battling for oil drums suggests what Mad Max would be like if it took place in the real world – and also disturbingly suggests through its gritty cinematography and location shooting that we may already be living in such a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  First-time writer-director Djo Tunda Wa Munga keeps the plot unpredictable and the pace lively, and also shows a good instinct for dismantling potentially sensationalistic moments with shocking moments of brutally realistic violence.  It seems unlikely that there will be a better action film this year.  B+

 We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, UK, 112 min.)
We Need to Talk About Kevin demonstrates that director Lynne Ramsay hasn’t lost a step in the near-decade gap since her last film, 2002’s Morvern Callar.  She handles the new film’s nonlinear structure with grace, and maintains a consistently creepy aural and visual atmosphere that really puts the viewer inside the head of Tilda Swinton’s main character, the mother of the perpetrator of a Columbine-style massacre.  Unfortunately, Ramsay’s portrayal of the violent offender as a born sociopath is a shade too purple for this otherwise impeccably crafted film.  She mostly gets away with it because the film is a psychodrama told entirely from the point of view of Swinton’s character, and the son more or less functions as a manifestation of her fears of motherhood (in the scenes set before the tragedy) and her failings as a parent (in the scenes set after).  But the film’s depiction of Kevin as pure evil prevents it from having anything substantive to say about school killings, even as it powerfully captures the fears and neurosis of his mother.  B

 The White Meadows (Mohammed Rasoulof, Iran, 93 min.)
Mohammed Rasoulof’s ravishingly beautiful mix of folklore and poetic surrealism has less in common with the films of fellow Iranian New Wave masters Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi (who is credited as an editor on this film) than it does with the ecstatically personal ethnography of Sergei Paradjanov.  The quasi-documentary, self-reflexive style of many modern Iranian films is replaced here with a series of lovely tableaus that have the primal force and potency of fairytales.  Though the film is a bit too episodic for its good, its most beautiful moments more than make up for its brief periods of downtime.  B