By Steve Greene | Criticwire December 7, 2012 at 11:22AM
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" came out on DVD this week, but it isn't the only film from this year to use the youth of greater New Orleans area as a vehicle for artistic defiance of a genre. Our Criticwire Pick of the Week is an ideal companion piece.
The Pick: Where the story of Hushpuppy and Co. aimed for epic storytelling, the sibling filmmaker duo Bill and Turner Ross' latest documentary "Tchoupitoulas" opts for a tale told in microcosm, following three boys on their journey through the streets of a moonlit New Orleanss. Critics generally appreciate that this is a chronicle of an evening less concerned with a conventional plot than immersing the audience in an overload of sensory experiences. One way that the film blends subject and setting is in the conversations between these brothers. Katie Walsh describes in her review for The Playlist that "dialogue is relegated to a background element. You’re listening to the boys talk but what they say is not important to understanding the plot." Instead, their words are merely part of the "patchwork quilt of the uniquely aural experience New Orleans offers."
Beyond its merits as a chronicle of a city (and its assualts on our spellcheck function), "Tchoupitoulas" also adds to the debate over the definition of a documentary. The film's central conceit requires that the Ross brothers capture the missed ferry ride that forces the trio of youngsters to travel by foot instead. Writing for the Washingtonian, Ian Buckwalter posits that this element of artifice does little, if anything, to distract from the overall effectiveness of the film. "All documentaries work on a sliding scale of truth, most of it created in the editing suite," Buckwalter explains. "The filmmakers’ decision to capture the city using the wandering trail of the boys as their guide is a stroke of genius...This is an impressionistic take on New Orleans, with no narrative apart from the path through the night."
The result? A documentary that invites the viewer into the proceedings more than most others would. PopMatters' Cynthia Fuchs concludes her review with this explanation: "As the Zanders make their way from night to morning, from city back to suburb, their adventure is both yours and theirs. You watch them as you imagine they watch you, looking into the camera, their eyes knowing and unknown, aware of its presence and working with it, but also apart."
New Netflix Doc of the Week: When "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" premiered in theaters back in late July, it faced some steep competition. "Searching for Sugar Man" boxed out all other releases to obtain critical supremacy -- and not only among documentaries. Now that "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" is widely available on Netflix, there's been a slight resurgence of interest along with a new wave of feedback.
Regardless of whether critics have responded to the rest of the film in a similarly enthusiastic manner, all of them concede that Ai himself, a Chinese artist whose pursuits have morphed into government watchdog activism, is a fascinating subject. Where most seem split is in the way that Ai's recent struggles become incorporated into the overall film. Mark Jenkins' review for NPR notes that director Alison Klayman enjoys generous access to the artist's international exploits, which only serve to grow his mythos more over the film's running time. Jenkins concludes with "Ai is a great movie subject for many reasons, but one is that he understands the power of appearing larger than life on the silver screen."
Smells Like Screen Spirit's Don Simpson echoes the prevalence of Weiwei as a performer, writing, "It is clear that Ai, by agreeing to allow Klayman to record his every move, intends to shape Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry into a piece of political theater. The resulting Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is not a biography of the conceptual artist, it is a diatribe about one man’s battle against the censorship and repression of an authoritative regime." Though Simpson views this development as a success, there are those like Jonathan Lack that look at Weiwei's involvement as a possible reason for the film's unwieldiness. Lack's review asserts that "by failing to hone in on the parts of Weiwei’s story that translate best to the cinematic medium, much of the material rings hollow, and fails to hold the viewer’s attention."
(Note: This week's release "Waiting for Lightning" might just be the pick for this category if/when it eventually makes its way to a VOD platform of some kind. Reviews are somewhat mixed so far, but it might take off with the presumed intended audience among the skateboarding faithful.)
Fan Pick Portension?: Peter Strickland's "Berberian Sound Studio" has opened to general success across the Atlantic, where the film is out in limited release and available on demand. Those European cinephiles, in addition to those who may have had the opportunity to catch the film at festivals around North America, have made the film a "Fan Pick," with a B+ average. (Add your own grade by using the green button on the film page.) While some critics have decried the film's third act, arguing that it descends into narrative chaos without a full grasp on the story, this might be the one to capture audience attention and adulation in a midnight movie environment. (Think "Beyond the Black Rainbow" in a post-production setting, but with some "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" sensibilities mixed in.) It'll be one for moveigoers to dissect, and it looks as if some have already enjoyed doing so.
This Week's Underachievers (And Why They Might Be Faring Thusly):
"Deadfall": "Bana and Wilde have equally slippery grasps on an Alabama accent, while Williams seems as if neither he nor his character has completely defrosted after coming in from the cold. That the characters will converge in a single, bloody set piece is foreordained, but it doesn’t feel like much of a culmination, since the movie’s theme hasn’t been developed so much as simply reiterated." - Sam Adams
"Lay the Favorite": "What could be moments of dramatic tension or that advance the plot are instead headache-inducing symphonies of cacophony. Of the leads, only Willis gives anything resembling a coherent performance as Dink's carved-in-stone neuroses and obsessions and ultimatums soften, but it's not enough to redeem the film." - James Rocchi
Continued Canon Entries: First, the Criterion release of "Rosemary's Baby" became the first vintage film to grab and maintain the seemingly unattainable "A+" rating. Then, after a few weeks of experimentation, classics from Tarantino, Godard and Ridley Scott also joined the ranks. This week, we induct a new member: Woody Allen's gem, "Annie Hall."
To see a list of this week's new releases and grade averages, including those for the films previously mentioned, click through to the next page.