EDINBURGH 2007 : page four (Tue 21 Aug) ‘Rocket Science’, ‘The Last Dining Table’, ‘WAZ’

Published on: August 22nd, 2007

ROCKET SCIENCE   : [5/10] : US 07 (copyright-dated 2006) : Jeffrey Blitz : 97m : seen CW 21.8 (public – paid  £6.36)
   Though not without interest and some moments of charm, this must count as a disappointing fiction-feature debut from the director of the terrific spelling-bee documentary Spellbound. Blitz hasn't exactly tried to break new ground for himself in terms of subject-matter, his focus here being on another type of geeky competition among precocious schoolchildren: high school debating contests.
   In the USA, such contests apparently require the participants to deliver their comments with the speed of an ice-hockey commentator on amphetamines – rendering them all but incomprehensible to the ear, and surely doing little to help youngsters properly explore the hot-button subjects they've been asked to discuss.
   Nevertheless, the children themselves soon become fluent at this bizarre form of speech… with the exception of Rocket Science's eager-to-please young hero Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson), whose ambition to excel in this particular form of polite gladiatorial combat – and thus impress the girl of his dreams, star-debater Ginny (Anna Kendrick) – is hampered by a pronounced stutter.
   It's a cutesy enough premise, but Blitz makes it feel even more precious with the copious use of the kind of omniscient, authorial narration which marred Little Children. A bigger problem is that writer-director Blitz, having gone to the trouble of creating a vivid gallery of characters, places one of the least interesting at the centre of the narrative.
   This means that vivid supporting turns from Vincent Piazza (as Hal's loutish brother) and Nicholas d'Agosto (as the former debating champ Hal turns to in order to boost his own skills) are frustratingly sidelined: Blitz might have been better advised to aim for more of an ensemble-type piece. Instead, what we end up with is a kind of Rushmore lite – the derivative and over-familiar air of quirky-indieness all the more ironic coming from a picture which is supposedly all about finding the confidence to express one's own individual voice.

THE LAST DINING TABLE   : [5/10] : Majimak babsang : S.Korea 06 : Gyong-tae ROH : 94m : seen CW 21.8 (public – paid  £6.36)
   The vast majority of film-makers down the decades have borrowed from, and paid dutiful homage to, their predecessors in the medium – but there comes a point when respectful tribute reaches such strenuous and slavish levels of emulation that it feels unhealthy for the "apprentice" and unproductive for any viewer familiar with the "master." The Last Dining Table is a case in point: an end title-card informing us that the film is dedicated to Swedish veteran Roy Andersson is distinctly superfluous, considering the way nearly everything before it has so plainly been inspired by Andersson's acclaimed 2000 feature Songs from the Second Floor.
   For those of us unconvinced by Second Floor's greatness – for this observer, Andersson himself was guilty of excessive emulation (most obviously of Andrei Tarkovsky) – Dining Table is a rather bemusing experience. That said, the reaction of most viewers, whether aware of Andersson's film or not, is likely to be a mixture of bemusement, bafflement and mounting impatience.
   Writer-director Roh has assembled a series of gnomic vignettes, seemingly set in and around an unnamed South Korean metropolis. Dialogue is sparse, characterisation enigmatic, plot minimal – the audience is left to make their own connections between scenes, and Roh keeps returning again and again to the same characters. We're in a post-narrative realm of dream-logic, experiencing a rather glum form of arch, knowing surrealism.
   Certain themes recur – most obviously and repetitively, the inescapability of death: 'Human being is destined to die' reads a piece of graffiti towards the end of the film, this rather bald memento mori handily translated in the English-language subtitles. Roh also handily provides a full translation for the poem (by Yun-Suk Chung) which provides the film with its ostentatiously mysterious title – and features lines such as "a yearly exorcism of desire / on the hereditary sharp-edged knife."
   Anomie and ennui are the order of the day, dissatisfaction with the general state-of-things crossing boundaries of gender and generation in what's clearly intended as an oblique psychological cross-section view of a nation's soul in crisis. There's no shortage of intriguing ideas, and Roh's eye for composition sugars the fundamental sourness of his vision – but in the end his philosophy seems uncomfortably close to that of the character we see, ranting "fuck this shitty world!" in a barren car-park.
   The only solution suggested is somewhat impractical: we see two characters separately perusing a booklet entitled Immigration Guide to Mars for the Exhausted Soul. Or rather, given the geographical context, "exhausted Seoul." 
WAZ   : [5/10] : aka W∆Z : UK (UK/US) 07 (copyright-dated 2006) : Tom Shankland : 104m : seen CW 21.8 (public – paid  £7.95)
  It's tempting to describe WAZ (to be pedantic, W-delta-Z) as Pi to the power of Se7en, although such an "equation" doesn't really fit this uneven, ostentatiously nasty serial-killer thriller: there's more than an element of Saw in there also, and it's surely no coincidence that WAZ is, sort-of kind-of, Saw spelled backwards.
   As in the Saw sequels, there's little attempt to hide the identity of the killer – and, as with the diabolically inventive Jigsaw, WAZ's Jean Learner (Selma Blair) doesn't actually perform the killings herself, although to say any more would be to spoil what meagre suspense and mystery the picture manages to generate.
   For most of its running-time, WAZ is a pseudo-gritty police-procedural in the hand-held-camera, hard-boiled-dialogue traditions of recent American television. The focus is on yet another pair of mismatched cops: grizzled veteran Eddie (Stellan Skarsgard) and glamorous greenhorn Helen (Melissa George), who form an uneasy partnership as they try to work out a chain of messy killings among New York's drug-and-gun infested underworld – all of the victims turning up with the eponymous equation carved into their flesh. Crucial to the case is strutting street-thug Daniel (Ashley Walters) – whom Eddie seems unusually keen to shelter from both the authorities and the murderously vengeful Jean… 
   WAZ takes a little getting used to at first - the cameraman seems to have a bad case of ADHD, while the cast's "American" accents are a constant distraction (only Blair is a genuine Yank), with Skarsgard growling out his lines like some kind of semi-Scandinavian Nick Nolte. The dialogue is also something of an obstacle to effectiveness, veering between hand-me-down tough-guy top talk and cod-scientific verbiage as the intricacies of the case start to emerge. And the plot is somewhat over-complicated – the killer's underlying revenge motive would have been enough on its own, without dragging in behavioural psychology and blackboards full of equations.
   For all that, WAZ – though fundamentally straight-to-video fare – does remain surprisingly watchable throughout. Skarsgard, when we can hear what he's saying, invests his chain-smoking character with a persuasively grave world-weariness; Belfast doubles unexpectedly convincingly for Manhattan, and there's a rather deft final "twist" that concludes the bloody shenanigans on a reasonably effective and thought-provoking note.

Neil Young
August 2007

TITLE : rating : country / year : director : running time : where seen (press or public show; ticket price if public show)

* all timings are hand-timed unless stated otherwise
* cinemas : FH = Filmhouse; CM = Cameo; CW = Cineworld

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