While writer-director Ramin Bahrani has continued to explore the dark underbelly of the American dream, he didn’t quite nail the shift from his acclaimed, gritty early films (“Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop”), known for their casts of unknowns and shot-on-the-streets aesthetic, to 2012’s “At Any Price,” which suffered from the miscasting of Zac Efron as a hard-drinking stock-car racer in a glossy drama about failing farms.
With “99 Homes,” Bahrani finds the right mix of the two phases of his career to date, mainly on the face of Michael Shannon, who’s a known Hollywood quantity while also thoroughly believable as a Florida swamp rat who traded in his mullet for a shiny suit. Shannon’s Rick Carver is a sharp-dressed vulture of an Orlando real estate agent, filling his coffers from the general misery of the bursting of the housing bubble.
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Set in 2010, the film offers Carver as a bad guy (smoking an e-cigarette rather than twirling his mustache) cashing in on bad times and bad policies. In an early scene, he’s coldly evicting construction worker Dennis Nash (an effective Andrew Garfield) and his family from the home they tried futilely to save via the courts; not long thereafter, Nash becomes Carver’s employee, since there’s more work to be found repossessing homes than there is building them.
“99 Homes” works best when Nash enters into his Faustian bargain and learns the tricks of the trade from his shady new boss. (Carver warns a hedge fund manager that he’s weeks away from eviction, then buys his fancy kitchen cabinets and appliances off him for $5,000 before charging Fannie Mae more than $30,000 to install that stuff into the kitchen of another house Carver is selling on the government’s behalf.)
Nash’s eventual crisis of conscience leads the film to more conventional ground, but it’s hard to buy a dramatic moral in a world of too-big-to-fail, where bailouts turn into bonuses for bankers who should, by rights, be behind bars. Bahrani (and co-writer Amir Naderi) want the audience to go to the dark side with them without losing their faith in the system. To anyone who has watched this crisis unfold over the last decade, it will feel like a cheat.
Life is but a dream in Quentin Dupieux’s “Reality,” a film that plays around with dream logic without ever falling back on smoke machines or costumed little people. These aren’t Akira Kurosawa’s dreams, or even David Lynch‘s, but there’s a droll absurdity and circular logic that will win over viewers patient enough to ride it all out to the finish.
This oddball tale ties together a would-be director (Alain Chabat), a young girl (Kyla Kenedy), a temperamental filmmaker (John Glover), a hypochondriacal TV host (Jon Heder), and a number of other characters in overlapping vignettes that might be dreams, might be reality, or might be parts of one of several films-within-the-film.
Dupieux (the man who made a tire the protagonist of the cult horror fave “Rubber”) keeps dangling clues to the audience, but nothing in “Reality” is supposed to make any more sense than dreams do, even though the film does follow rigorous sleepytime logic. Still, with dry humor coming from a cast that includes dramatic actors (including Élodie Bouchez) and stiff-upper-lipped comics (Patrick Bristow, Eric Wareheim), “Reality” remains engaging all the way until the lights come up.
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‘The Look of Silence’
Director Joshua Oppenheimer brought his eagerly-anticipated follow-up to “The Act of Killing” to Venice, but “The Look of Silence” feels more like an extended DVD extra to his genre-defying previous film than a stand-alone documentary. Once again exploring the perpetrators of the mass killings in 1960s Indonesia — in which millions of farmers, union members and intellectuals were all branded “communists” and thus subject to execution — Oppenheimer mostly retells the same story through a much more conventional focus.
This time around, his protagonist is an optometrist born in 1968 whose life has nonetheless been haunted by the murders, since his mother still feels grief over his older brother’s death. We see the man confront various politicians and members of the death squads — at the risk of his own life, and that of his wife and children — as well as some widows and children of the chief perpetrators.
“The Act of Killing” took a new angle at historical tragedy, giving the executioners enough rope to hang themselves, as it were, by encouraging them to boast of their accomplishments. “Silence” comes off as a less effective approach, covering the same ground with few new personal revelations.
There are some powerful moments — a killer’s sons balk at watching footage of their father bragging about slaughter, a 1960s NBC News report in which reporter Ted Yates credulously listens to a government official describing communists who have asked to be executed — but overall, “The Look of Silence” won’t generate the excitement of its predecessor.