Red Road (Tartan)
In a contemporary Glasgow where surveillance cameras seem to be trained on every square meter of public real estate, Jackie (Kate Dickie) is a CCTV operator — she watches the cameras, looking for suspicious activity — who turns stalker when she spies a recently released ex-con (Tony Curran) on one of her umpteen video screens. Director Andrea Arnold’s feature debut is a subdued but tense character study placed in the framework of a thriller. The suspense is generated by the film’s close scrutiny of Dickie herself: her previous relationship with the man is unclear, as is her ultimate motive in tracking him down at a dingy flat on Red Road. And Arnold makes something interesting out of the repeated transitions from public spaces, where urban interactions can be observed and preserved via videotape, to private ones where relations can turn dicier and more intense. The result is an engrossing study of ambiguity, and human lives frustrated by circumstance, that turns unexpectedly provocative — and sexually explicit — before beating a hasty retreat. The film feels more ordinary as it progresses, leaving behind the intriguing bank of video screens with its implications of Rear Window-style voyeurism, and eventually overexplaining itself. There’s a deliberate indie-film cleverness to the psychology and a tidiness to the emotions that lessens the essential mystery at the heart of Jackie’s behavior. Still, it’s satisfyingly unsettling viewing.
Buy it from Amazon.com: Red Road
Heroes: Season 1 (Universal); Friday Night Lights: The First Season (Universal)
I don’t have a great eye for TV. In general, I’ve found the episodic format too constraining, the whims of network standards and practices departments too restrictive. It’s not exactly news that these limitations are becoming less troublesome. With the advent of the DVD boxed set, a season-spanning narrative arc is less an eccentricity to be discouraged than an eventual sales hook. And as FX, HBO and, increasingly, Showtime get in on the act, TV dramas feel a little less bowdlerized than they once did. And if it’s still the archetypal “writer’s medium,” the visual grammar employed by TV’s directors and cinematographers seems to be getting more sophisticated, and, especially with the arrival of HD, more superficially dazzling. I still don’t watch much TV, but I try to keep an open mind — especially since more and more cinephiles are claiming that television drama is the new home of intricate storytelling and expansive character development.
Now I know lots of smart folks who eat Heroes right up, but when I finally had a chance to watch the first three episodes, I was a bit underwhelmed. I admire it in a purely narrative sense — the relentless foreshadowing gives you reason to anticipate the next episode before you’re even done watching the current one, and the out-and-out cliffhanger endings are nicely executed — but I feel like I should be applauding series creator Tim Kring for his organizational skills rather than his screenwriting abilities. The blandly expository dialogue is stilted, the situations are generally derivative, and it doesn’t help that, three hours in, the only really appealing character is the bubbly Japanese cubicle worker Hiro, who discovers that he has the ability to bend space and time. I like the comic-book-style storytelling, and there are occasional bursts of genuine weirdness (like the autopsy scene that concludes episode three) that make up for lowbrow gaffes like shameless product placement or the borderline sexism (not once but twice we see fed-up women leaving their men because they can’t see that the guys are Meant For Something Greater). But I’m really irritated by the combination of the trite connected-destinies theme, bland, New Age-y music (by Wendy and Lisa!), and the pretentious voiceovers that open and close each episode — it feels like Heroes is trying hard to sell me something I have no interest in buying. (Also, TV dudes, please stop pretending that Los Angeles looks anything like New York City. Thanks.) I couldn’t care much less about the politician and his brother, the junkie comic-book artist, or the blonde vixen who will fuck your shit up — all of them, superpowers notwithstanding, stock characters on loan from Cliché Central. But do I retain a vague rooting interest in the indestructible cheerleader and the mind-reading cop, not to mention crazy Hiro embarking on a road trip from L.A. to New York? Sure. I mean, I’m only human.
What’s missing from Heroes may be what’s evident in the Texas-high-school football drama Friday Night Lights, or at least in the pilot episode I watched after deciding the critical hosannas are too numerous and breathless to dismiss. Where Heroes seems dedicated to its story points above all else, Friday Night Lights is largely about environment and atmosphere from square one, with a faux-documentary approach that sees the handheld camera moving in short darts to bring characters into focus, complemented by a quick, occasionally lyrical editorial style. In contrast to the magazine-model-shoot cast of Heroes, the guys of Friday Night Lights look like real small-town dudes, some of them fairly chiseled, others kinda funny-looking. (The women may be a little overly glossy.) That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with populating your network TV show with beautiful people — but it’s tantalizing to think of how a similarly naturalistic approach might have benefited Heroes, which purports to be all about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Friday Night Lights plays like it takes place inside a soap-opera pressure-cooker, where the imperative for its young athletes as well their untested, high-profile coach is performance — sexually as well as athletically — and God is on the side of the home team. Standards and practices is still standing watch — at one point, the coach improbably gripes at a ref, “Ed, that was horse crud,” and actually gets a “Watch yourself, coach” in rebuke — but mostly this episode avoids phoniness. And, while it’s never condescending toward its characters, it’s not completely unquestioning of their smalltown mindset, either. (“Do you think God loves football?” one little kid, suited up for practice, asks star quarterback Jason Street. “I think that everybody loves football,” Street responds, artfully dodging the question.) Even the action scenes set on the football field have a straightforward authenticity to them. I have no idea how this holds up across another 20 hours or so, but the pilot is very strong TV indeed. Who knew Peter Berg, who kicked off his career with the very off-putting Very Bad Things, had Americana this stirring somewhere within him? (Does this mean should have made time for the movie version of this one?)
Great African Films: Volume 2 (Facets)
If you’re hoping to read a review by someone who actually knows thing one about the two films included here (Tasuma, the Fighter, directed by Kollo Sanou and Sia, the Dream of the Python, directed by Dani Kouyate), you’ll have to go elsewhere. Writing in The New York Times, Dave Kehr calls Tasuma “innocuous,” like that’s the best compliment he can muster, but Fred Camper calls it “a charming and gentle … comedy.” Considering Sia in the Village Voice, Edward Crouse wrote, intriguingly, “Its sure sense of landscape and myth, and elliptical, nigh slapstick violence owes something to John Ford.” Finally, Glenn Erickson, writing at DVD Talk, rated both of the movies in Volume 1 of this series “excellent.” Hard as it can be to find African films on DVD, this set may be worth a look.
Buy it from Amazon.com: Great African Films, Vol. 2: Tasuma, The Fighter and Sia, The Dream Of the Python
Masters of Horror: Season One Boxed Set (Starz/Anchor Bay)
Well, it sounded like a good idea on paper. Funded by Starz Media (the parent of DVD distributor Anchor Bay) and telecast by cable channel Showtime to garner wide exposure before the eventual DVD release, Masters of Horror impresario Mick Garris brought together a slew of well-loved genre directors, including Stuart Gordon, Dario Argento, John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper, to direct one-hour installments of a horror anthology series. For some reason — budgets? scripts? — there was a weary, check-cashing blandness to the execution. The bulk of these episodes can best be described as mediocre, and a couple of them are out-and-out terrible. The only stand-outs in the first season are Joe Dante’s “Homecoming,” an ambitious anti-neocon parable that had dead Iraq War soldiers returning as zombies to vote the current administration out of office, and Takashi Miike’s “Imprint,” which reliably brings the goods (true to form, Miike delivered an episode so fundamentally twisted that even Showtime declined to air it). Both of those are flawed, but they’re the best this series has to offer — and they’re available separate for less than $15 each.