They've traded more for cigarettes than I've managed to express.
05 June 2012
Viewing Journal: Cannes, post-fest decompression
Having written 1000+ words per day at Cannes, I needed to take a few days off. Here's an abbreviated rundown of the films I saw there (and just beforehand, in cases where I was under embargo) that weren't covered in my blog posts for the A.V. Club, plus stuff I watched last week at home. The journal proper will now recommence.
Gimme the Loot (2012, Adam Leon): W/O. People seem to like this mostly because it's "plucky," even if nobody actually uses that particular word. (I did find one review calling it "scrappy.") Blatantly amateurish performances quickly put me off, and that was before the introduction of the Rich Bored White Stoner Chick.
Villegas (2012, Gonzalo Tobal): W/O. Utterly generic road movie featuring cousins with opposing personalities, though they reached their destination just as I turned it off so maybe it goes somewhere more interesting later. Given that I saw no inkling whatsoever of talent or inspiration, I highly doubt it.
Dark Shadows (2012, Tim Burton): 50. Crap, there were aspects of this that I kinda liked but I no longer remember what they were. Nothing to do with Chloë Grace Moretz, that's for sure. ("Annoying the mighty fuck out of you with my precocious simulation of childlike behavior since 2009.") Depp is intermittently funny, I guess? Maybe just the Victorian elocution in a '70s context, in scenes where that isn't overwhelmed by music cues passing for comedy? (Sex scene between witch and vampire: Barry White!) I distinctly recall thinking "that wasn't so bad," but three weeks later I'm at a loss. Sorry, folks. Hopefully things will get less hazy as we proceed toward the present.
Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir (2011, Laurent Bouzereau): W/O. "Roman, tell me about your experiences as a persecuted genius. Is it frustrating to be so relentlessly misunderstood? I see that you've paused for a moment, perhaps overcome by emotion—allow me, your longtime close friend, to finish your sentence for you. I can complete that thought. In fact I know everything you're going to say. We all do, really."
Sister (2012, Ursula Meier): 68. Her least distinctive film so far, at times threatening to join the legion of vague Dardennes imitators. She's got a fantastic milieu here, though, which is one reason why it's too bad nobody could think up a good English translation for the film's original title—something along the lines of The Child Up High. ("Sister" also immediately foregrounds something that's meant to emerge gradually. Could say more but shouldn't.) Familiar but accomplished, with expert attention to detail, fine performances all around (including the best use of Léa Seydoux to date without making her a professional assassin), and an ending so unexpectedly perfect it stops your heart.
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012, Colin Trevorrow): 56. Romance-as-risk metaphor's right in the title, but the obviousness doesn't completely negate the charm. My guess is that both Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass will have fairly short shelf lives, as neither one is exactly a chameleon, but for now I still find them both fresh and exciting, and their rapport makes the goofy meme-derived conceit work. I could however have lived entirely without Jake Johnson's douchebag boss and Karan Soni's painfully nerdy fellow intern, both of whom seem to be on hand strictly as a means of getting this slender story to feature length. And okay, Vadim, also without the zither.
38 Witnesses (2012, Lucas Belvaux): 55. A rare case in which I desperately want to recut the film myself, as it would be a simple matter to snip out the stuff that doesn't work—mostly some over-explicit dialogue that's hell-bent on ensuring that the story's moral import doesn't escape us. Maybe the fact that I knew about Kitty Genovese going in (though the story's been thoroughly fictionalized, is now set in present-day France) made me particularly sensitive to being spoon-fed, but even the matter-of-fact final line made me wince...which is a shame, as it slightly spoiled what is otherwise one of the most powerful, gut-wrenching culminations of a narrative I've ever experienced—truly a case in which the entire movie builds to and exists for the sake of a single unforgettable moment. And whatever this particular film's failings, Belvaux's lack of support among American cinephiles is just insane. There's a lengthy monologue here, followed by an abrupt cut to the reverse angle hours later, that I'd happily place alongside any coup de cinéma by Wong or Desplechin or PTA or anybody else you'd care to cite. This guy is major.
Our Children (2012, Joachim Lafosse): W/O. Some random stranger on Twitter (who didn't even follow me at the time, though he now does; must have done a search) got very annoyed that I bailed on this, and it's true that (a) it's one of the few highly acclaimed UCR entries this year, and (b) it's a slow-fuse narrative that deliberately takes its time accumulating a toxic atmosphere. But that's the problem: movies just don't excel at slow, subtle emotional breakdowns spanning many years. Even if you can pull it off, you need to introduce discord either more quickly or less glancingly than Lafosse does here. Two full reels of relative happiness (with just a few off notes) is way too much.
Aquí y allá (2012, Antonio Méndez Esparza): W/O. Dutifully trotted out to see the Critics' Week grand prizewinner, which turned out to be the eminently worthy (read: dull) tale of a Mexican dude who has trouble readjusting to life back home after spending years working illegally in the U.S. Not even his attempt to form a band in his spare time spikes the EKG. Look for it in next year's edition of New Directors/New Films.
La Noche de enfrente (2012, Raúl Ruiz): 56. Didn't address this in my A.V. Club coverage because I felt largely unqualified to tackle it, and still do. It's quintessentially Ruizian, which from my perhaps blinkered perspective means that it alternates between being sensually pleasurable, intellectually fizzy and maddeningly enervating; Ruiz always seemed to approach his films from a lofty, Borges-like distance better suited to literature than to the immediacy of cinema. I gave three of the last four films by him that I saw this same 56 rating (also That Day and Mysteries of Lisbon), and Comedy of Innocence was a B- that might well have been a 56 too. If you're a bigger fan than I am, though, you probably couldn't ask for a better swan song.
Maniac (2012, Franck Khalfoun): W/O. First-person camera is never not stupid. (To the extent that I like Lady in the Lake, it's in spite of the gimmick, not because of it.) Even had it been shot normally, however—thereby providing a reason for casting Elijah Wood against type in the first place—this looks like a real barrel-scraper, strictly an excuse for some repulsively gruesome set pieces. DISCLAIMER: Never seen the original.
The Taste of Money (2012, Im Sangsoo): 39. Almost exactly the same movie as his Housemaid remake, which I didn't like at all to begin with. He just switches the housemaid's gender and makes him a general gofer, seduced/raped by the matriarch rather than the patriarch. (Meanwhile, the production design is so outlandishly familiar that Im might as well have titled it Insane Fireplace II.) If I don't hate it quite as much as everyone else seems to, that's mostly because I found myself genuinely touched by the doomed relationship between the husband and his Filipino...housemaid, okay yeah let's just toss both of these flicks in the dumpster and move on.
/Body Heat/ (1981, Lawrence Kasdan): 69. Hadn't yet seen Double Indemnity when I first encountered this somewhere in my teens, so I didn't realize then how shamelessly derivative it is. Still, Hurt's Ned Racine is a very different specimen of cocksure patsy than Walter Neff, and few actresses in movie history have been given a screen debut as galvanizing as Kathleen Turner's; their dynamic is their own, sheer neo-noir bliss. Wish Kasdan had come up with a more satisfying Big Reveal, though—having Ned just bolt awake in prison with the sudden realization that he's been had, and only then start digging for evidence, leaves something to be desired, viz. everything.
The Jayhawkers! (1959, Melvin Frank): 58. Most of us identify the Western with white hats and black hats, yet no other genre—not even the cop flick—so consistently blurs the line between hero and villain. Even in this forgotten, tin-eared, oft-rote picture, sympathy fluctuates wildly between Fess Parker's stalwart escaped con and Jeff Chandler's compassionate robber baron, to the point where the climax hinges not upon which one will prevail but upon whether the one who must die will be allowed to die with dignity. Nothing else is that gratifyingly knotty, and there's a lot of clunkity-clunk (Melvin Frank ain't exactly Anthony Mann), but at least there's also some memorable historical detail, e.g. the requisite love interest and her kids being French immigrants. Exclamation point not really earned!
/L.A. Confidential/ (1997, Curtis Hanson): 81. Bizarrely Panglossian ending still kinda kills it, alas—Bud and Lynn driving off to Bisbee, AZ to become Decent Folks was what made me cringe hardest in '97, but now I'm equally disappointed by Ed's audience-friendly line "They're using me, so for a little while I'm using them," which serves mostly to undermine the pragmatic careerism that motivates him as much as do his precious ideals. That aside, though, it's hard to think of many better adaptations; Hanson and Helgeland not only pare the novel way down without sacrificing much complexity or (denouement notwithstanding) betraying its essence, they also introduce fantastic new material that's entirely worthy of their source. I bet Ellroy wishes he'd thought of Rollo Tomasi.
/Being John Malkovich/ (1999, Spike Jonze): 85. Not hard to make a case for its profundity, but part of what's so magnificent is how completely, hilariously random many elements are. The portal into Malkovich's head is crazy and inspired, but also serves a narrative/thematic purpose, obviously; that those who enter it are eventually ejected about six feet in the air on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike does not. An early shot of Derek Mantini and his 60-foot Emily Dickinson puppet seems to promise a climactic showdown (and apparently there was one in Kaufman's early drafts), but the gimmicky bastard is never heard from again. And while Charlie Sheen's cameo is arguably even funnier today, that's only because we know how unmotivated his appearance was at the time. (It would seem like pandering were the film being made now, and I'm sure neither Kaufman nor Jonze would even consider it.) Really, though, everything pales beside the mystery of the closing-credits sequence, which makes me erupt into tears every time for no reason that I can consciously discern. Something about Burwell's plangent score + slo-mo underwater imagery + that little girl's face.
Walking Tall (1973, Phil Karlson): 50. Not exactly my favorite genre—I was nodding along with the allegedly corrupt judge we're meant to hate as he insisted that obtaining proper warrants and reading suspects their Miranda rights are not just "little technicalities." And Karlson's penchant for the lurid, which can be electrifying in the trashy context of e.g. Scandal Sheet, seems ill-suited to fact-based social-justice tales (see also The Phenix City Story). For all the film's blunt hamhandedness, however, it's still a startling example of what mainstream American movies could get away with in the '70s. I didn't see the Rock-star remake, but there's no conceivable way that it sports a "happy ending" this grimly downbeat.