28 June 2011

Viewing Journal: Week of 27 Jun-3 Jul

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.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964, Byron Haskin): 40

Just because it doesn't feature the era's usual bug-eyed monsters doesn't mean it isn't a dopey schlockfest. I can forgive Mars looking exactly like Death Valley, especially since Mariner 4 didn't launch until a few months after the film's release. Even in 1964, however, there was no reason to believe that extraterrestrial beings would be 100% humanoid and dress like ancient Egyptians. And I'm pretty sure astronomers already understood that if you ask one how long he's been a slave, he's not gonna answer in Earth years, a concept that would be nearly impossible to explain unless you knew the orbital period of his home planet and did a conversion. (Remember, these guys can barely communicate at all.) Harping on scientific inaccuracies in a movie made nearly 50 years ago may seem churlish, but there's just nothing else to address—Haskin (whose classic War of the Worlds I like even less, incidentally, 37), intent on what he perceived as realism, deliberately eschews all of the genre's usual exciting trappings, and so this really is just, well, Robinson Crusoe on a thoroughly fake-looking Mars, and I'm more of a Swift man than a Defoe man. (Also, as a solitary camera subject for most of the movie—Friday doesn't turn up for more than an hour, surprisingly—Paul Mantee ain't exactly Tom Hanks. And that frickin' monkey is no Wilson, either.) All the same, it was worth watching just for the priceless moment when Draper, exasperated in the best Ugly American tradition by Friday's failure to pick up English overnight, finally snaps "Listen, retarded." I guess "retard" came later?

Curling (2010, Denis Côté): W/O

(Pedigree: Locarno '10; TIFF Visions; ND/NF.)

Lost me when the protagonist offered to play some music as a special treat for his daughter, who's evidently being raised in near-total isolation à la Hanna for reasons about which Côté is painstakingly coy, and the song turned out to be "I Think We're Alone Now." Not sure if that's supposed to be "subtext" or a "subtle hint"; either way, next!

/Don't Look Now/ (1973, Nicolas Roeg): 69

Found this a huge disappointment when I first saw it 16 years ago—mostly, I think, because so many people call it a horror film, which it isn't even remotely (unless you find rationalism horrifying). Evidently my sensibility has changed since then, as this time, rather than bemoaning the film's many shortcomings as a narrative, I found myself wishing that Du Maurier's storyline would just go away and leave the characters to wander Venice unimpeded. Synchronistic editing style seems especially dazzling today, when every single art film eschews montage for mise-en-scène; Roeg and editor Graeme Clifford employ rhyming cuts that function almost like double-tracked vocals, deriving power from the sense of same-but-different. (Specifically, to take this dubious analogy all the way, Don't Look Now achieves the slightly uncanny effect of Prince's "Pop Life," in which one of the tracks lags a fraction of a second behind the other. Jesus I sound like Armond KILL ME NOW.) As a portrait of warring modes of parental grief, furthermore, it eclipses the theatrical literalism of Rabbit Hole, not least in its recognition that not every waking moment in the marriage will be informed by loss. And yet, I gotta say: This movie is kinda stupid. I still cannot take the ending seriously, no matter how hard I try—the snorts of incredulous derision bust right through my carefully constructed wall o' solemnity. It's as if The New World ended with the twist from The Village. And because of how the film is constructed, the sense that it's been badly cheapened travels backward, permeating the whole.

The Majority (2010, Seren Yüce): W/O

(Pedigree: Venice '10 Days [Best First Film]; TIFF City to City; ND/NF.)

Frustrating, because Yüce clearly has talent, evident both in his work with actors and in his slightly claustrophobic compositions. But the movie seems permanently stuck in second gear. Hate to just quote another critic, but I can't improve on Leslie Felperin's Variety slam: "Auds wait in vain for some catalyzing event to set some proper drama in motion." (Actually, I could improve it by not using "some" twice in close succession, but never mind.) Looked to me like it was shaping up to be the Turkish Late Marriage, albeit with a stronger emphasis on regional racism (the girlfriend is labelled a "gypsy," which apparently means Kurdish), but Kosashvili's film has fire in its belly, whereas this one just sort of schlumps along, as straightforward as its title.

Black Moon (1975, Louis Malle): 24

Man, few things are more painful than bad surrealism. Starts out promisingly, in part because Black Moon rivals The Mechanic (original version) and There Will Be Blood for sustained introductory wordlessness—for 16 minutes, it's just Sven Nykvist's gorgeously overcast photography and extremely vague intimations of unease, most notably what appears to be a civil war between the male and female genders. Once our pseudo-Alice reaches the banal Wonderland that is Malle's country house, however, stupidity reigns; imagine the talking, self-disemboweling Antichrist fox not as a startling aberration but a movie's normative baseline. I could roll with the laughably blunt Freudian symbolism—elusive unicorn, snakes up her skirt, etc.—were Malle's sense of the absurd not so impoverished and feeble, but there's virtually nothing here to either delight or disconcert. Just a bunch of naked children running wild, an old lady jabbering nonsense into a wireless radio (the English version's post-sync dialogue rivals spaghetti Westerns for constant distracting mismatch, even when the actors are clearly speaking English), the occasional "talking" animal (mostly indecipherable grunting and squeaking), and Joe Dallesandro's presence as counterculture Ken doll in un film de Louis Malle. Dream logic has rarely been so prosaic, and if there's a less sensuous film about a young girl's sexual awakening (metaphorical or otherwise), may it thud right on past.

The Dish and the Spoon (2011, Alison Bagnall): 52

(Pedigree: SxSW '11.)

Bagnall co-wrote Buffalo '66, which is such a nakedly personal film, and so intensely Gallo, that I've always wondered exactly what she brought to it. And lo! this turns out to be a distaff take on the same basic idea, with Greta Gerwig as the aggressor seeking revenge (in this case against the woman who's been fucking her husband) and Olly Alexander as the passive quasi-victim she hijacks into being her pretend lover. Gerwig hits the ground running—our first view of her is smack in the middle of an hysterical wail—and she's not afraid to take incoherent rage way over the top, often to hilarious effect; the film's high point, which I strongly suspect she largely improvised, is the lengthy voicemail message she leaves the other woman in the voice of her husband, which starts off merely sarcastic but gradually turns into a genuinely discomfiting aria of self-loathing. Her relationship with the young Brit she stumbles upon, however, fluctuates wildly between jaggedly offbeat and obnoxiously quirky. It's one thing to have characters play a game we don't even realize is in progress, as when the boy (he has no name) tells a horrific anecdote about his childhood, followed by a story too bizarre to be believed, and Gerwig, flustered, asks "One of those is true?" It's another thing to have one of your characters ask "What are you gonna do to her?" and have the other answer "Kill the bitch" by way of a game of Hangman played in lipstick on the underside of a brewery vat. (Don't ask.) By the time Bagnall reaches her version of "Heart of the Sunrise," set at a dance where everyone is dressed in colonial garb, any emotional resonance has been largely overwhelmed by random whimsy, and the conclusion proper just plain fizzles. But I'd still almost recommend seeing it just for Gerwig, who in places here nearly out-Gallos Gallo.

/Boys Don't Cry/ (1999, Kimberly Peirce): 64

Still proud of the Skandies for giving our Best Actress prize to Reese Witherspoon that year (for Election—did she have any awards traction at all elsewhere?), but Swank's performance seems less stunt-y to me now, her perpetual aw-shucks demeanor more patently anxious. (She still clearly couldn't pass for male, even in the most dimly lit dive bar, but if I can suspend my disbelief for Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis looking 2% XX in a comedy, I can surely accept 40% XY in a drama.) If only Peirce had been drawn to Brandon Teena out of something other than pity, reimagined his/her story as more than just another tragedy of intolerance. Boys Don't Cry goes to the trouble of creating vivid, multi-dimensional characters and an evocative downscale milieu, then settles for tabloid headlines; it's a solid, expertly-made film crippled, as so many are, by misguided fidelity to What Actually Happened. Speaking of which: What actually happened to Chloë Sevigny? At this point in her career, she seemed incapable of not being astonishing—I can't think of another actor of her generation, either gender, who was so fully, breathtakingly alive at every instant, so effortlessly transparent. Revisiting her Lana (for which she deservedly won Supporting Actress in the '99 Skandies) only confirmed that. And yet she hasn't been great since, despite appearing in a number of good-to-terrific movies: demonlover, Dogville, Shattered Glass, Zodiac. Not even swallowing Gallo's horse cock could restore the magic (though in that case I blame his adolescent notion of femininity). It's as if walking the red carpet at that year's Oscar ceremony transformed her from an uncanny phenomenon into an ordinary, reliable pro. Or maybe falling in love with an actress is just like falling in love with an actual person, and the infatuation phase can only last so long.

The Joy (2010, Felipe Bragança & Marina Meliande): W/O

(Pedigree: Cannes '10 Fortnight.)

Never knew incestuous ghosts could be so tedious. Briefly perked up during one marvelous scene, which I'd like to airlift into a more interesting film: Girl's cell phone rings in class (on vibrate), teacher confiscates phone, entire class starts making the vibrating sound as a gesture of solidarity, teacher walks around placing his hands on the kids' shoulders in an attempt to determine by feel just who's fucking with him. (Of course they just stop when he does.) But that was the only spark of wit or life I encountered.

Beginners (2010, Mike Mills): 75

Couldn't squeeze any reservations into my too-brief review for Las Vegas Weekly, so let me add here that Mills broke my heart in the home stretch, crafting an absolutely exquisite final scene that had me in tears (and flashing on Exotica, believe it or not), then continuing the movie for another 15 minutes. Goofy rapprochement? Really? Part of me worries that I'm resisting his tentatively happy ending due to the same ingrained cynicism/pessimism that cripples his protagonist—do I almost invariably prefer downbeat to upbeat simply because the former confirms my own low expectations? Yet that flashback of young Oliver and his mother driving ("And left again. Going in circles. I like it.") is such an intensely moving crystallization of everything Mills has been deftly dancing around that I longed for the film to end on that note, obliquely bleak though it is. (Then again, I may just have been overwhelmed by the titanic force of Mary Page Keller's astonishingly flinty performance, which boasts the most impressive ratio of complex character detail to screen time I've seen in ages—in just a few fleeting scenes, she somehow manages to convey the sad but self-imposed plight of a fiercely intelligent woman with no outlet for her passions save the inadvertent warping of her only child.) Still, that I genuinely believed Beginners might conclude in such a powerfully indirect way is a testament to how little it resembles the conventional boy-and-his-gay-dad dramedy that I'd expected and kind of dreaded. Mills is working in a radically different register than Terrence Malick, obviously, but his fluid, fragmented treatise on the deceptively gentle weight of personal history would make a superlative double-bill with The Tree of Life. It just wears its ambition more lightly.

The Secret of NIMH (1982, Don Bluth): 43

Just as I feared. Avoided this in first-run and ever since because I loved the book, which despite being written for children is a lot closer to "Flowers for Algernon" than to the usual anthropomorphic-animal guff. And, sure enough, Bluth & Co. all but ignore the scientific angle, condensing the entire NIMH flashback—roughly a third of the novel, and by far the most compelling material—into a brisk three-minute montage, and then introducing a fucking magic amulet that completely undermines the book's sober materialism. And let's turn Jenner into a generic villain, and have Dom DeLuise play the crow as sputtering Comic Relief, and hey, you know what we need at the climax, a big sword fight! All of which is at best mildly diverting (and rarely even that), whereas I've now spent something like 35 years haunted by the memory of a rat who was shown a photo of a tree and the word TREE but looked right past both to read a tiny sign in the background detailing visitor-parking rules. (It was more or less the pre-adolescent equivalent of HAL's lip-reading scene in 2001.) Admittedly, the animation itself is quite lovely, much richer and more detailed than what Disney was doing at the time (and I suppose it's not the movie's fault that I kept flashing on Dragon's Lair during the action sequences—there's definitely a "Bluth look"), but I was just too appalled by the evisceration to be seduced on that level. Now all I have to do is spend the next several decades resisting the temptation to watch Ingrid Bergman as Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler...

Outbound (2010, Bogdan George Apetri): W/O

(Pedigree: Locarno '10 Comp.; TIFF Contemporary World Cinema; ND/NF.)

Wish I'd seen this immediately before The Kid With a Bike, as it surely would have made me more appreciative of what the Dardennes do right even when they're coasting a bit. Apetri apes their style but has nothing to offer except dogged truthfulness, which he clearly thinks will suffice; 40 minutes in (total running time: 87), the film is still plodding along in the same sullen, hard-luck register established from frame one, challenging nothing. By no means bad, just undistinguished.


Nick Duval said...

Oh man, "Outbound" is not undistinguished. What Apetri does with it is unbelievable. Even if I could see see one finding the story familiar, it totally works. Probably one of the best debuts I've seen in a long time. The formal prowess on display is jaw-dropping. The opening shot blew me away, as did a lot of what he and his DP did afterwards. Plus, I thought the acting was really strong. It does reference the style of the Dardennes, but I find that Apetri uses it in a really good way.

md'a said...

Huh. I found Outbound completely predictable formally, to the point where it seemed to be following a fest-circuit template. My jaw never even got a little slack, much less dropped.

goran said...

I'd say most Sevigny fans would point you to Big Love for the best work she's done post-99 - though to me she's the weakest (if still solid) link of that show's four leads.

Outside of Boys Don't Cry, I've always found her very self-conscious as an actress. And in recent years, she can barely last 30 seconds in any scene without bringing out the same rat-a-tat-tat incredulous/confrontational line delivery that constitutes about 40% of every performance she gives.

md'a said...

I can only assume that you haven't seen Trees Lounge, which was the first film in which she bowled me over. I can't imagine anybody thinking that performance self-conscious. But I agree that she often comes across that way nowadays. (I did see a few S1 episodes of "Big Love," and she seemed yeah, solid, as usual. Really didn't care for the show, though.)