28 September 2011

Viewing Journal: Week of 26 Sep–2 Oct

LEST YOU BE CONFUSED: Films in /brackets/ I had previously seen. The ratings are on a 100-point scale that merely signifies my personal and highly subjective degree of enthusiasm, and I use the entire damn scale, e.g. 65 is equivalent to 6.5/10, a mild thumbs-up. Anything 70+ I really liked, and 80+ is generally top ten for any given non-phenomenal year.

/The Arbor/ (2010, Clio Barnard): 81

It's not a gimmick. Or, I dunno, maybe it was something of a gimmick at first (given that Barnard had previously created theater pieces using the same technique), but its use here is so brilliantly conceived that it transcends gimmickry. Dunbar's work was intensely autobiographical and yet also (at least in the case of the titular play) deliberately artificial, and this film walks the same arresting tightrope—not just in terms of having actors lip-sync the interviews, and the cognitive dissonance created thereby, but in the juxtaposition of those performances with excerpts from The Arbor itself, performed on location (as the actors from the lip-sync sections observe, in character, thereby quasi-fictionalizing the neighborhood), as well as...man, I'm getting kinda dizzy here...archival footage of the real Dunbar and her family, shot for television during her initial burst of success. How many freakin' layers of representation is that, I lost count. To be sure, it's a weird push-pull on the emotions and intellect: Lorraine's history in particular is unrelentingly bleak, yet our constant awareness that we're hearing the actual woman and watching an actor makes it almost impossible to either fully empathize or fully detach. Which of course is the entire point, and I've been waiting my whole life for someone to bulldoze the notion of documentary authenticity/objectivity with this degree of mind-altering flair. In fact, all that holds The Arbor back from my personal canon are the glimpses it occasionally affords of how it could have been even more stunning, viz. by combining separate interviews into a single overtly theatrical text of Barnard's own devising—think of Lorraine and Lisa standing side by side as each recounts her memory of the fire that broke out in their childhood bedroom, or (especially) of the camera circling Lisa and others in their seats as each in turn recalls the premiere of A State Affair. Something about seeing these "characters" in close proximity yet not quite interacting hits even harder than does the lip-sync process alone, and I wish Barnard had found more occasions to go that route; also wish the play didn't recede quite so much in the latter half, even though finding parallels between its narrative and Lorraine's plight must have been tricky. Quibbles, quibbles. Just imagine me lip-syncing to Johnny Depp as Ed Wood: "This story's gonna grab people. It's about this guy, he's crazy about this girl, but he likes to wear dresses. Should he tell her? Should he not tell her? He's torn, Georgie. This is drama." (Hmm, bit of a reach, isn't it? Now that's a gimmick.)

/Straw Dogs/ (1971, Sam Peckinpah): 30

Lots of smart folks, including Peckinpah himself, have attempted to make a case for this as something other than vile misogynistic Neanderthal bullshit, but I remain unconvinced. If his intention was to make David the movie's stealth villain, I think he completely whiffed; Hoffman was then a formidable enough actor to provide the character with multiple shadings (and the moment where David doesn't warn Amy that her cat is hanging in the closet does suggest a sadistic streak), but his actions in the finale are too well-justified to provoke any real discomfort in those inclined to cheer him on. (Also, I was surprised and disheartened by how closely the final act conforms to what would become Hollywood thriller convention, what with the carefully planted trap that dispatches the final marauder in unexpectedly gruesome fashion and the weary sigh of denouement-heralding relief followed by SURPRISE! STILL ONE DUDE LEFT! The line between this film and something like Pacific Heights—anyone remember that one?—is alarmingly thin.) At best, we're talking about a painfully reductive view of masculinity as sheer poison, which no thanks as far as I'm concerned. But then there's the rape scene, which I gather it's no longer fashionable to find grotesque and appalling and frankly indefensible, but which I consider roughly 1000x more offensive than its far more hideous counterpart in Irreversible—say what you will about Noé, he's not suggesting for an instant that women secretly dig being brutalized. Obviously one could write a book on this subject, but let me just quickly say: (1) I am aware that many women (and men) have rape fantasies and/or get off on submission—that does not mean they'll wind up tenderly kissing someone who actually assaults them, ex- or no; (2) there's a huge difference between genuinely tackling the thorny potential reality of a rape victim responding sexually even as she's terrorized (which would really demand an entire film unto itself, and for all I know there is one—surely there's a novel) and what Peckinpah does here, which is depict a decisive moment where Amy's switch flips and she completely welcomes what's happening to her, rising to meet him and caressing his face with her hands, etc. (There's also a cut to her smoking a cigarette afterwards that has to have been intended as a sick joke.) Anyway, I could go on, but bottom line: superbly made does not trump hateful.

Margaret (2011, Kenneth Lonergan): 80

So sad that this became such a post-production nightmare—not just because we probably lost the three-hour masterpiece Lonergan intended, but because now people are having trouble distinguishing (or are just not bothering to distinguish) the ways in which the film is kind of a mess from the ways in which it deliberately employs messiness as a worldview. Practically every scene has half a dozen things happening at once, some of them irrelevant; entire conversations exist solely to demonstrate the difficulty of navigating competing agendas. At the center of it all is one of the least romantic or sentimental portraits of adolescence ever filmed, embodied by Paquin in a courageously off-putting performance that never once flinches from Lisa's misdirected self-absorption. Some folks have complained about the various shouting matches (between Lisa and her mom, during classroom discussions), but one of the things Lonergan so expertly depicts here is people not listening, too focused on their own narrow perspective to pay attention to anything else (which is of course what causes the accident in the first place). He's made great strides as a filmmaker, too—nothing theatrical about the dazzling cut from Joan having her entire life summarily dismissed by a pissy Lisa to Joan having to hold her opening line until the audience stops applauding her entrance (and then a brisk cut elsewhere before she speaks). I could go on forever citing things I adored: Janney snapping at the bystanders struggling to apply a tourniquet to her severed leg ("Are they doctors? Then get them the fuck away from me!"); an awkward ritual deflowering straight out of Breillat ("You sound insane"); then-unknown Rosemarie DeWitt's epic struggle between suspicion and solicitousness; Lisa firing off a blunt exit line and then having the moment killed when not one but two deadbolts prevent her from swiftly exiting; etc. etc. etc. Only in the last 20 minutes or so does the movie really kind of lose its way—partly because of the scenes involving Matt Damon, whose character never really works as intended (he seems weirdly lost); partly because Lonergan does what I was praying he wouldn't do and actually has Lisa state aloud her true reason for persecuting the bus driver, which was already abundantly clear to any viewer with an ounce of perception and is the kind of Grand Underlying Behavioral Dysfunction that needs to remain unspoken, lest it seem too tidy. Also, the final scene, though apropos, didn't quite wallop me—I wanted to be crying with them, and wasn't. But maybe next time. What worries me about Margaret's troubled path is whether or not there'll be a next time for Lonergan. He's too brilliant to lose.

/Planes, Trains & Automobiles/ (1987, John Hughes): 66

Think I might devote a Scenic Routes column to the hotel-room tirade, which is truly extraordinary—not just because it takes Del's pain seriously, but because it allows Neal's outburst to be viciously funny at the same time, so that you're identifying with both men simultaneously. "Not everything is an anecdote," I've longed to tell certain people over the last 24 years. "You have to discriminate." But then I imagine their faces falling and falling and falling like John Candy's (what a loss that was—he was only 43), and I keep my mouth shut. Nothing that follows is anywhere near as potent, but the residue of that confrontation informs their dynamic throughout, making them more than just a generic odd couple and giving subsequent squabbles a little extra edge. Actual comedy tends to be hit-and-miss for me, with a bit too much emphasis on plot mechanics (i.e., giving them a new setback every 5-10 minutes); Midnight Run found a stronger balance between story and character the following year. I would have preferred more stuff like Del grooving to "Mess Around," less stuff like that leading to him accidentally setting the car on fire. (Though even there you get Candy + McKean. "You got no outside mirror." "No, we lost that." "You have no functioning gauges." "No, not a one.") But I'd kill for a contemporary studio comedy with two characters whose mere company I so much enjoy.

Circumstance (2011, Maryam Keshavarz): 46

Still catching up with Toronto capsules, so I'm just gonna give you the Las Vegas Weekly review and leave it at that. But this really is identical to the glut of mediocre gay-struggle movies that opened at the Quad every week throughout the '90s (and beyond), except in Farsi.

/Dressed to Kill/ (1980, Brian De Palma): 58

It all boils down to one question, really: Do you find De Palma's purely visual setpieces so intensely thrilling that nothing else much matters? Philistine that I am, I still can't get past the idiocies that surface every time this movie stops to attend to its moronic plot; there's something almost literal about the way the magnificent museum sequence—an unsettling, supercharged minuet of erotic possibility—leads to the words YOU HAVE CONTRACTED A VENEREAL DISEASE! That's just how most De Palma films make me feel: seduced by a leper. For every moment like the one in which Caine, asked by Dickinson why he doesn't go ahead and sleep with her if that's what he wants, glances up at the mirror on the wall opposite, motivating a cut to its reflection (hardly subtle, but powerful nonetheless), there's a small eternity of e.g. Dennis Franz's brusque Noo Yawk cop routine, or a pathetic attempt to make Nancy Allen's hooker "well-rounded" by showing her on the phone with her stockbroker. And that's not even touching the stuff that riled up special-interest groups at the time, though I'm more troubled by the film's moralism (libido = death) than by the nature of its psycho killer. Final ten minutes seal the deal for skeptics, confirming that De Palma has zero interest in anything except goosing the audience by whatever means necessary. Which if that's your plan you might want to avoid deliberately and repeatedly inviting comparison to a masterpiece like Psycho that's as interested in people as it is in elegant camerawork and shock effects.


Y Kant Goran Rite said...

I've actually been curious for a while how you feel about De Palma's body of work generally.

md'a said...

This review pretty much sums it up. I recognize his talent but I'm not much of a fan. His films are just too damn stupid. I do like Blow Out (though less than most) and Carlito's Way (ditto), and enjoy The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible as popcorn flicks. Plenty more to revisit, though. Scarface next.

eugene n said...

This is off-topic, but I just saw that you walked out of KILL LIST, which I find so astonishing that I am contemplating the possibility that you've recently arrived from another planet where no one has ever asked "what happens next?"

It's the only movie I've ever gone to see twice at the same film festival, and while I can certainly understand disliking it or finding it unsatisfying, I literally have trouble fathoming the notion that someone could find it boring, or want to leave. I haven't experienced that combination of being riveted and confounded since PRIMER.

md'a said...

I understand that Kill List takes some sort of big unexpected swerve later on, but there's nothing especially mysterious or unfathomable happening in the first two reels, which are largely devoted to the same tedious Mike-Leigh-meets-casual-evil badinage that made me flee Wheatley's Down Terrace as well. I saw the priest who says "thank you," that was pretty much it. And that was literally the only thing in those two reels that remotely interested me. Two seconds out of roughly 35 minutes.

After I bailed I read some descriptions online, and while folks endeavored to avoid spoilers, it's clear that the rest of the film is more memorable, at the very least. But the four reels of Wheatley's oeuvre I've now seen is pretty much nonstop useless chatter. Wondering what would happen next to those banal cretins literally never occurred to me.

dd said...

Everything else aside, some of that seemingly innocuous banter turns out to have a completely different context later on. And Fiona's bathroom trip at the start is certainly a clue something's up.

I share some of yr concerns with Wheatley - he's a loose director in ways that aren't always rewarding, both in his use of improv and what that does to his framing. But part of the power of KILL LIST is how the banality gives way to something very differently, lulling you into something you think you've seen before when in fact it's something very different.

In conclusion, I look forward to your walkout of the very good RABIES which I saw the other day, which takes a similar route from relative banality to deep insanity, and encourage everybody else who sees it to stick around for more than two reels.

Atli Sig said...

What do you think of Carrie?

md'a said...

My problem with the setup of Kill List isn't that it's banal. It's that it's (to my eyes) lame. Miike's Audition likewise begins quite placidly, with only the barest hints of the batshit insanity to come, but those first two reels are nonetheless riveting, totally pleasurable for their own sake. You can tell you're watching a terrific film, even if you don't yet know what kind of terrific film you're actually watching. During Kill List, I could tell that I was watching a mediocre film; the fact that it eventually goes somewhere quite different doesn't give me any confidence whatsoever that Wheatley suddenly develops heretofore unseen(-by-me) talent, and I certainly don't buy that he's made the first part of the film deliberately weak in order to serve some overall purpose...especially since it looks like the same crappy film as Down Terrace.

That's Ed, a lot of people liked Down Terrace. They should have no problem with Kill List whatsoever. Or whatever problems they might have would come later. (Gotta say I read about the hammer scene and I'm really glad I didn't subject myself to that.)

Atli: I saw Carrie so long ago that I don't remember what I thought of it, apart from knowing that I wasn't blown away. It's in the queue.

dd said...

well, I thought DOWN TERRACE was pretty weak. Thankfully, I saw it after KILL LIST, so I didn't have the same bias going in to KILL LIST.

I don't think the remainder of KILL LIST would turn you around on Wheatley's filmmaking per se, but the story and how it unfolds (and how it addresses the exposition around said swerve) is rather audacious in the back half (and a lot more interesting to discuss than AUDITION on story level, even if the filmmaking doesn't compare). If privileging that over the craft makes me some kind of Level-2 philistine, well, then ... guilty. (It probably didn't hurt that I saw it the night after I walked out of THE WOMAN, which is a deeply, deeply inept film.)

I can certainly imagine a version of KILL LIST directed by, say, Polanski in his prime, or K. Kurosawa, that I loved substantially more. But what with that not existing, I'll settle for this one.