Forget 300. That's a crib toy, a musical mobile, a distraction, a pacifier. 300 is for babies. The film that will test your Spartan hardihood goes by the name of Into Great Silence, Philip Gröning's nearly three-hour documentary on a Carthusian monastery in the French Alps, covering a space of time from winter to winter. (Since the German filmmaker, a one-man crew, spent but five months in the monastery, one must presume a bit of editing-room illusionism at work.) Evocative rather than instructive, lyrical rather than factual, it offers precious little in the way of verbal communication of any type: the formulaic speech of a vow-taking ceremony; a solo monk's breaking of silence when feeding the cats and trying to get them to play with a ghastly blue teddy bear (the cats do not appear to appreciate the disruption); an out-of-doors procedural powwow on the policy of pre-meal hand washing; an exuberant unbuttoning of lips during a sledding expedition in the new-fallen snow; a brief formal interview with an old blind monk; the periodic printed scripture on screen; no narration whatsoever. Nor is there any music beyond the men's a cappella chant, for strictly liturgical purposes, and the occasional unmelodic bells. Yet the film is rich in sound, all the more vivid for its isolation: the creak of a wooden prayer bench, the snick of scissors in the tailor shop, the buzz of the electric hair clippers, the rasp of a handsaw converting logs into firewood. The passing jets over this otherworldly refuge are blessedly out of earshot.
The film, to a degree that should not seem so rare in films, has to do with observing: the elegant austerity of the external architecture, in harmonious tones of gray-blue and ivory; the soothing rhythms of the dark interiors; the pattern of light and shade on the grain of wood; the glisten of melting, dripping, trickling ice. Your thoughts as well might often roam to the art museum: the chiaroscuro on the folds of a monk's robe bringing to mind Zurburán, the cool white sheets of light bringing to mind Vermeer, the dim warm pools of it bringing to mind Rembrandt, the splashes of pointillism bringing to mind Seurat. Except, in this last instance anyhow, the medium of film is not quite like that of painting, and when you're looking at Seurat you are not thinking about technical or budgetary limitations in the way you might think of them when looking at a bad video transfer, a bad 35mm blowup, cheap film stock, insufficient lighting. Gröning, in the intermittent grainy images that look to be plagued by clouds of dust or locusts, is probably trying to give an idea of seeing more deeply along the lines of the French Impressionists. For me, at least, those images did not work. And the time-lapse skies seemed to me hackneyed. But if the visual quality could be termed uneven, this can only be on purpose and by design. Clearly, the filmmaker is capable of seeing clearly. The breathlessly held shot of wind-ruffled treetops, undercut by the drifting sounds of bells and an electric saw, is worthy of Hou Hsiao-hsien. And the visual effervescence of a rain shower develops into a sustained high point, practically a plateau. Singly, the shots, the scenes, do not last long, do not drag. But they mount up. And up and up and up. A labor of love, with the accent on labor, this one-of-a-kind documentary is marked not so much by any great technical facility or stylistic flair as by its fundamental tact and restraint, a respect for its subject, not quite a reverence.
Character interest is minimal. We do not really get to "know" any of the monks, although, in individual portraits interspersed throughout, we get to look straight into the eyes of each of them, who endure the examination with differing degrees of forbearance and comfort. These men are most often observed in solitary activities, reflective of their daily regimen: praying, reading, gardening, preparing or delivering or consuming food, and so on. We see a lot of the old bearded monk, and it's always easy to pick out the young novice from Africa, but there is no narrative thread. No one dies. No one quits. No one gets expelled. Nothing "happens." The film in a sense is irreducible: impossible to encapsulate, impossible to summarize. Could it not, though, have been reduced in length? Possibly. Slightly. But who's to say by how much? Gröning was granted -- and he grants us in turn -- a privileged view inside a private world, and it is not a world for the tourist on a tight schedule. It is a world for life. (Permission to film in the monastery, so we're informed at the final curtain, came to Gröning sixteen years after his initial request.) Our guide has not attempted to make that world palatable to the idle bystander, has not attempted unduly to process it and package it. The queue of people who will want access to it is bound to be miles shorter than a queue for the private world of, let's say, the football locker room or the rock-group tour bus. But whomever this film is for, however few they may be, they are lucky to have it and lucky to find it. (For the following week at the Ken, continuing as the cinematic hot spot after a week of Mafioso and three weeks of The Host.) The gravest danger in the length of the thing is the temptation, by the end of it, to flatter yourself that you've become one of the boys, that you've grown "close." Even at almost three hours, it is still only a glimpse.
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Meanwhile... down in the valley... the valley so low....
Meet the Robinsons is a dizzying Disney computer cartoon in 3-D. The startling spatial effects, technically unimpeachable, really do add another dimension. But maybe another dimension is not what's wanted when you are already juggling a mind-tangling time machine, a domestic nuthouse descended from You Can't Take It with You, a Victorian villain of Neanderthal intellect, a displaced dinosaur, a tipped hat to surrealism (Magritte's bowler), an hommage to HAL 9000 in 2001, and more. It's all a bit much. Make that, more than a bit. The motto and moral of the movie -- "Keep moving forward" -- will be revealed in the printed epilogue to have come straight from the mouth of Uncle Walt himself, a sweet piece of lip service.
The Lookout is a respectable directing debut by the veteran screenwriter of The Interpreter, Minority Report, Out of Sight, Get Shorty, Malice, etc., Scott Frank. Suffering brain damage in a car wreck four years earlier, still having trouble with his memory and his "sequencing" and his "disinhibition," writing memos to himself like the protagonist of Memento, holding down a dead-end job as the night custodian in a podunk Kansas bank, and replaying past glories on the high-school hockey rink with a "urinal puck" and a floor mop, the shaky young hero is preyed upon by a vamp-for-hire (stage name: Luvlee Lemons) at the bidding of a mangy gang of bank robbers. The only apparent obstacle in their way is the affable deputy who, like clockwork, stops by on his rounds with a box of donuts, and whose wife is ready to give birth any minute. (What odds would you take on him making it through alive?) Not overly contrived or clever, just sufficiently; no extraneous action to tide you over till hell breaks loose; well acted by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeff Daniels (as a wise and witty blind man), Matthew Goode, Isla Fisher, Bruce McGill, pretty much everyone.
First Snow is another directing debut by a screenwriter, albeit one with fewer credits to his name, Mark Fergus, about the futile struggle against fate of an unnecessarily unsympathetic hero, a fast-talking flooring salesman who wants to transition to jukeboxes. Belabored, unbelievable, but sizzlingly photographed in the Southwest desert by Eric Edwards, and played with strong conviction by Guy Pearce, Piper Perabo, William Fichtner, Rick Gonzalez, Jackie Burroughs, and especially, as an unshowy roadside fortune-teller, J.K. Simmons. Almost in spite of itself it works up some nice paranoiac suspense, stopping short of the hammy climax.
The Hoax, directed by Lasse Hallstrom, spins a tall tale about a tall tale, the bogus "authorized autobiography" of Howard Hughes, peddled by Clifford Irving to McGraw-Hill in the early Seventies. Richard Gere, as the hungering writer ("The middle of my life is at hand. I don't have a couch"), has some funny bits imitating Hughes's speech patterns from tapes of his appearance before the U.S. Senate, as you might recall from The Aviator. And the richly embroidered account of how the charade was set in motion, and then kept in motion even as it began to disintegrate, will serve as either a reminder or an appetizer, depending on your level of familiarity. It is not to be trusted beyond that.