Saturday, June 30, 2012

Into the Wild

INTO THE WILD             B+            
USA  (140 mi)  2007  ‘Scope  d:  Sean Penn

Rather than Love, than Money, than Fame, give me Truth.   
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854)

For all of Chris McCandless’s philosophical musings downplaying the human interactions in life, believing the essence of the natural world around us is the truth that will liberate us from our social confinements, it is the social interactions in the film that work best.  While there is still plenty of artistic pretension to this film, which could have lopped off a good twenty minutes or so, not the least of which is some of the self-centered poetic soliloquies found in McCandless’s own prose, this is an extremely effective film because of how it compresses all the places he visits into such a short period of time, leaving behind quite a powerful impact.  Emile Hirsch plays the college graduate McCandless who still has $25,000 left in his college account after he graduates from Emory University, believing he’ll probably use it to attend Harvard Law School.  But that is his parent’s dream, not his, and over the course of a summer visit to the west coast in 1990, it redefines him as a person, having major ramifications over the next two years of his life, as he pretty much drops out of the society he endlessly rails against, gives his money to charity, and charts a course for himself hitchhiking on the road, kayaking through the Grand Canyon all the way to Mexico before he embarks on his dream to live a great Alaskan adventure into the wild.     

Using a series of voices as the narration, many of which are literary references, but also choice musical passages throughout by Eddie Vedder as well as yellow writings onscreen made to resemble letters he composed, he also reads from his own poetic diary entries, which has the effect of being too heavy handed, as the language is oblique and unclear, closer to an internal rant than anything defining, and at least initially it diminishes the power of the immense imagery that accompanies his journeys.  But after he disappears off the face of the earth on his journeys, when his sister and his parents begin to realize he’s intentionally leaving no trace of himself, his sister’s voice continues the narration, which is more heartfelt and does a better job of describing who he is, including the family he’s leaving behind.  Everything that leads to his Alaskan adventure is stunning in its depiction of life on the edge, whereas when he finally arrives in the great vast unknown, there is no one left to talk to other than himself, and one does scratch their head wondering what this is all about, thinking how Werner Herzog might have interpreted this differently, as this idealistic guy alone in the wilderness bears a strange resemblance to one of Herzog’s last films, GRIZZLY MAN (2005).  Thankfully, Penn decides to interrupt his Alaskan adventure with flashback sequences of earlier picturesque human stories that fortified his intentions to make his Don Quixote-like (though it was not on his reading list) single-minded quest, filled with a satchel of precious books from Jack London, Henry David Thoreau, Boris Pasternak, to Leo Tolstoy. 

Filled with a natural curiosity about life, an appealing smile, but a fairly morbid view of humans, McCandless weaves his way across the country, working in the wheatfields of South Dakota, traveling for a brief period with a hippie couple that is undergoing serious relationship issues, a liberated Swedish couple listening to a blaring MC Hammer at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, a kind and helpful woman working at a homeless shelter, which offers unique imagery of the loneliness of disconnected souls in Los Angeles, rediscovering the hippie couple again at their trailer home in the desert, where he befriends an eerily sorrowful young singer (Kirsten Stewart), which leads to his connection with an aging veteran (Hal Holbrook) who poignantly takes him under his wing before reluctantly setting him free.  The time he spends with each is invaluable, as it gives him a perspective that is otherwise missing from his all too sheltered life from the Virginia suburbs, but he’s still too young to know what to make of it.  All he can think about is Alaska.  But for the viewers in the audience who have other things in mind, this is a real treat, as the characters are beautifully constructed within their worlds and they actually hold the meaning of the film, as within the interconnectedness of things, the time we share with others holds the greatest meaning in our lives.  But McCandless is hell-bent on making his journey alone, finding an old abandoned Fairbanks commuter bus for shelter, where he finds a spot with a vantage point of Mt. McKinley including a panoramic mountainous view near Denali National Park.  It’s exactly what he was looking for, calling it his Magic Bus, where he continues to make diary entries of significant events.  But as Herzog discovered before him, nature is not always the idealistic paradise of our dreams, as it contains both birth and death in equal numbers, and a beautiful soul does not give anyone an advantage when attempting to survive the elements.  Some of the imagery of the film is breathtaking, shot by Eric Gautier, but some of the staged shots of McCandless are literally parodies of the art form and the film would have been better served without them.  Despite the signature Penn overdramatic staginess on occasion, most of this film is well constructed, somber, hauntingly beautiful and packs a powerful punch.  Great film to sit through, even in its longevity…

While not as detailed as Jon Krakauer’s terrific book by the same name, one can’t help but value the movie version, despite overall aspects that are admittedly disconcerting.  This is another sumptuously gorgeous film shot on 'Scope by Eric Gautier (no slouch) that looks great on a big screen, shot using a mix of digital and Super 35 blown up to 35 mm.  I would wager this is a better depiction of Kerouac's On the Road than Walter Salles's yet to be seen 2012 Cannes version, as I felt it did an excellent job observing the road, and how disconnected from mainstream existence you feel on the road, developing abstract theories of existence, singular interest in books and philosophies, where a book is as valuable as any friend, and where the detached nature of how you feel comes to mean so much more especially because of the disconnection to society.  The singular obsession of this guy to experience an adventure "into the wild" goes through a lot of stages, where the people aspect before he heads to Alaska is invaluable, as for all practical purposes, he's already there.  He just doesn't realize it.  "Into the wild" is really a state of mind that exists in your head, not a vast wilderness in Alaska, as it turns out, which is really only icing on the cake.  McCandless on the road really underestimates the value of his earlier experiences, which I thought Penn handled very well.  Hal Holbrook received plenty of accolades for his performance here, and it's an unusual portrayal, especially in a "youth movie," where the elderly are usually stereotypical and/or fodder for comic relief.  Not so here, as he presents the very heart and core of the film, namely posing the question:  what do people mean to each other?  Is this at least as significant as the worth of nature?  Because the people aspect is so heavily punctuated with detail, it balances the film's eventual love affair with Alaska. 

Penn can be obnoxious onscreen as he is in life, so there is that, but this film isn't so much about Penn as what he can bring to a young man's idyllic journey.  The fact that McCandless is headstrong and careless seems to be part of his psychic dimension that Penn can appreciate, or perhaps even relate to, where you get the feeling he was young and impulsive, also prone to fixation, where throughout his ordeal he remains just a kid, making reckless decisions in haste without having the wisdom to think them through, where acting on impulse often leads to disastrous results.  But that is youth.  More to the point it is the obsession of youth, where they get their mind made up on something and won't let go, where he becomes infatuated with the *idea* of the wild, much like people fall in love with the idea of love.  It is a film about personal ideas, growth, and exploration, a far cry from most of what's onscreen these days.  While I could never say it is a complete success, but the ambitious nature of the project took some guts and I felt much of that translated to the screen.  It did succeed in planting the seeds of curiosity and exploration, the love of the journey and the idea of wanting to be *on your own.*  

This is a special time of life, post college, pre career, compare this to THE GRADUATE (1967), for instance, which quickly veers towards romance, where discovering yourself, much as the Beats did, is rarely given any kind of unique understanding, as it has here.   

While the book may be better, largely because the author has his own worldly insights that he continually interjects throughout, and also because it better explains what happened to the poor kid stranded out there alone.  The movie does a good job, however, in describing the path he took to get there. 

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Color Wheel

THE COLOR WHEEL            B                     
USA  (83 mi)  2011  d:  Alex Ross Perry               Official site

A misery-loves-company film where the venom feels as if laced with steroids, introducing two of the more atrociously unlikable leads who just happen to be the co-writers, Alex Ross Perry (the director, editor, lead actor, and producer) as Colin and Carlen Altman as JR, a brother and sister act that couldn’t be more uniquely despicable.  From the outset, this film is designed to alienate as many people as possible, to frustrate and completely alter one’s expectations through a theater of discomfort that reaches epic proportions of such absurd heights that one actually starts developing a begrudging respect for just how narcissistically unpleasant these two individuals really are.  Shot over 18 days on grainy 16 mm Black and White film by Sean Price Williams, working with as small a crew as possible, this is a throwback to a different kind of film, not really Mumblecore, which features aimless and often unemployed characters ambivalent about their seemingly non-existent future, which this most certainly is, but it’s more a cage match of blistering verbal assaults, highlighting a competitive sibling rivalry where one remains profoundly shocked at the depths one is willing to stoop to in order to insult and eviscerate the others character with viciously personal attacks.  This kind of take-no-prisoners mentality breaks new territory for brother and sister films, suggesting an inner rage and hostility heretofore unseen in movies.  One can think of the family dysfunction and outrageous dark comedy of Mark Waters directing Wendy MacLeod’s play The House of Yes (1997), where Parker Posey steals the show as a mentally challenged sister who dresses up as Jackie-O while she has incestuous relations with her brother (Josh Hamilton) as JFK.  But the stinging remarks of that film are both more comical and more tragically poignant, bearing little resemblance to this flamboyantly eccentric but more emotionally shallow effort. The real interest in this film lies in the audacious style-over-substance presentation, a free-for-all of anything goes for the sake of honesty, fuck the consequences, so to speak, almost exclusively shown through attack mode dialogue by two friendless characters who are obviously no threat to anyone but themselves, whose self-esteem apparently couldn’t be lower, whose only claim to fame is a kind of pathetic, mouse-that-roared, stream-of-conscious ability to hurl insults, but overall, outside the brash performances, one wonders what impact, if any, this film might have. 

Chosen by IndieWire (Indiewire's 2011 end-of-year poll for best undistributed film) and The Village Voice (New York Film Poll - Village Voice) as the best film of the year without a distributor, rejected by both Sundance and the South by Southwest Film Festivals, the tone of the film may remind viewers of Vince Gallo’s men-behaving-badly movies, BUFFALO ’66 (1998) and THE BROWN BUNNY (2003), where Gallo is one of the driving forces behind the film, also Philip Roth’s scathingly brutal literary portrayal of family life is a model for the dialogue heavy fireworks in the screenplay.  Despite the obvious discomfort factor, where characters bludgeon one another throughout, including others they meet along the way who may be even more screwed up than they are, this is a bare-bones project immersed in a sea of unpleasantness, but given a dark, comical edge.  The bookended opening and closing scenes suggest there are recurring elements of wish fulfillment, which are not only rejected but harshly denounced, leaving one with nothing else to do except offer equally bitter personal recriminations in response.  When life with his girlfriend is going nowhere, where she’s seen turning the pages of a magazine using boredom as a means of thwarting all sexual advances, Colin’s sister arrives out of nowhere asking for his help, turning this into a road movie through the turnpikes of the Northeast where each is soon confronted by the horrors of their pasts, namely each other, where they bicker endlessly about everything under the sun, but that’s not nearly as sad as JR having to confront her ex, a pompous college professor (Bob Byington, also a producer) with a near Warholian deluded sense of grandeur and sadistic self-importance, where his idea of feeling good about himself is stepping on the self-esteem of others, kicking them and stomping on them while they are down.  One wonders why anybody would put up with this nonsense, but the audience quickly realizes nobody else in the world can stand these two except each other, yet even their lives together are a constant stream of insults and fights. 

With John Bosch creating the original music and the sound design, there’s a blur of images streaming by as their road trip takes them through a series of diners, cheap motels, and thrift stores, where they’re forced to revisit shallow people they grew up with but have no interest in whatsoever, where JR in particular has to continually lie and exaggerate what she’s doing with her life in order to appear to be a success in their eyes, afraid to be seen as the pathetic loser she really is to feeble-minded former friends whose narrow view of the world hasn’t changed much since high school, who are now little more than ghosts from her past, completely disconnected from her life, unable to see her for who she is.  Why it should matter what they think is an open question, as it’s clear neither one of them has any intentions of ever seeing any of them again.  This sense of outright humiliation and self delusion runs throughout the film, where clearly they relish selfishly telling others how they hold them in complete contempt, but towards the end the focus shifts into a strange interior world where illusion begins receiving greater embellishment than reality, suggesting possible dreamlike effects.  With both collapsed on the sofa in a state of road weary exhaustion afterwards JR goes on a long, rambling monologue that starts out imagining innocently enough what her brother would do in a certain situation, probably make a fool out of himself, but her soliloquy becomes more and more autobiographical, eventually feeling intensely confessional, where it’s clear that while she’s talking about him, she’s interjecting thoughts and feelings about herself, where the two, at least for the moment, intersect, realizing they only have each other, becoming jointly intertwined in illicitly compromising incestual behavior that may or may not be real, as it all may be imagined, where the truth, hard as it is to decipher, never reveals itself when you’re constantly inventing a substitute version to replace your real self.  By the end of the film, it feels like delusion has taken over and reality has left the building.  Feeling a bit like Sartre’s theatrical play No Exit, one wonders what could be worse than the thought of never being able to see past your own view.   

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

USA  Singapore  Malaysia  Indonesia  (101 mi)  2012  ‘Scope  d:  Lorene Scafaria 

Another end of the world, apocalyptic fantasia, which are all the rage nowadays, usually offering *a big setting* to cover up for surprisingly banal human interest stories, and this one written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, is no exception.  Certainly one problem is that the risks that used to represent indie films, both in subject matter and casting choices, have been replaced by standard, Hollywood formats that are simply cheaper and less expensive to make.  Fewer risks means more conventionally safe choices, like the casting decisions to star the ever downbeat Steve Carell, once again playing a somewhat embittered, anti-social character with few friends, and Keira Knightley as the more gregarious, overly friendly neighbor, where the two bump into one another with only a matter of days left on earth, as an approaching asteroid is expected to collide, all but guaranteeing the end of life on earth.  But this bit of news is treated comically, where Carell’s wife runs out of the car upon hearing the news, as she can’t wait another second to leave him.  Television news updates remind us of the planet’s impending doom, where airports, railways, and other needed services quickly shut down, where rioters and looters fill the streets, causing mayhem, but Carell barely flinches, continuing to lead his miserablist life exactly as he did before.  Where’s the fun in that?  While there may be a few scenes that reach for some dramatic moment, Carell and Knightley barely scratch the surface in delivering any degree of emotional complexity.  And therein lies the problem, if the stars of the film are known entities, where the audience sees them in another familiar role where they continue to play themselves, it’s hard to believe them as anyone else, which this storyline most desperately needs.  Fresh faces would have helped, but the film would likely have remained unfunded without the Hollywood star power. 

There are quirky moments of clever writing, where inventive set-ups or unexpectedly off-beat characters might have energized the film, like the sequence at Friendly’s Restaurant, still open for business while everything else is closed, where the loosey-goosey atmosphere of exotic drinks, affectionately friendly wait staff, open pot smoking, and an everpresent conga line turns into a delightful end of the world orgy sequence, which really only gets started when our more straight-laced couple flees the scene in disgust.  One can imagine Thomas Hayden Church in the role, and he would not be running out the door.  It is precisely this mainstream element of moral conservatism that ruins the movie, as the film itself, and especially Carell, take themselves so seriously that it is nearly entirely personality free.  So the film isn’t half as much fun as it was originally intended to be.  Failing miserably is an early party sequence where Carell’s friends try to hook him up with an attractive girl, Melanie Lynskey, but he’s too self-absorbed to notice or care.  Instead, the focus becomes how absurdly ridiculous the party is itself, where since it’s the end of the world, people break out into shooting heroin, “Oh, I want to do heroin to Radiohead.”  In an out of the blue moment, Carell finds Knightley crying outside his windowsill, where she throws her arms around him when he asks if everything is all right, where he offers temporary consolation for her break-up with a dumbheaded boyfriend.  But as the streets rage out of control with more services shutting down, Carell grows ever more reclusive and morose, as he literally has nobody, which is a depressing way to spend your final days.  What alters this tailspin is Knightley actually giving him several months worth of misdirected mail, one of which is a plea to see him from an old high school girlfriend.  This sets into motion a new chain of events, as this gives him a targeted goal, along with Knightley who misses her family.

Leaving the flaming streets behind, Carell and Knightley embark on a road trip together, but of course, as there’s no gas stations open, they don’t get very far.  Not to worry, as William Peterson, in a hilarious cameo, stops to pick them up in his truck, telling them the entire story of his life en route, which takes a sudden unexpected turn that is among the best moments of the film.  The rest is a series of what are supposed to be kooky or eccentric moments together, where they get arrested by a zealously over-ambitious officer (Bob Stephenson), run into a over-controlling survivalist (Derek Luke), and then go on a house hunting chase where they continually seek out people in upscale mansions or expensive estates which, if no one is at home, they can use as their short-term living quarters.  This bit of pretense is not lost on the audience, as while the world is coming to an end, where water and electric power are in short supply, these two are living in an aristocratic style of luxury, showing little to no regard to the actual day to day horrors of staying alive, where people around them are likely already dying in droves, but instead they’re lost in a dreamworld about how to spend their final days, as if planning a vacation, wondering how they might want to fill their final hours, checking off activities as if they were passengers on a cruise ship.  While the director tries to keep it personal, where the story is and has always been between these two people, using the dire apocalyptic surroundings simply for a diversion, the lack of spark between the two leads never adds up.  This script itself likely attracted this cast, as it’s not without merit, while the cinematographer is David Gordon Green’s longtime friend Tim Orr, so there’s plenty to like, but the direction itself never rises to the occasion, maintaining its position as an occasionally offbeat, but overly predictable mainstream Hollywood movie disguised as an indie film.    

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Your Sister's Sister

YOUR SISTER’S SISTER          C+              
USA  (90 mi)  2011  d:  Lynn Shelton 

Think of this as a Mumblecore version of ON GOLDEN POND (1981), where younger twenty-somethings seek out the remote tranquility of the Pacific Northwest region to work out their personal issues, while the most prominent feature of the film is the exquisite use of locations in Seattle’s Puget Sound region, especially the isolation of the nearby islands which is beautifully photographed by Benjamin Kasulke.  Shot very quickly over the course of 12 days, the film is extremely well directed, as the carefully composed shots couldn’t be more intimate, where the changing focus between the three main characters is kept in fluid motion, where the camera is always at the center of attention.  The film is almost completely improvised, where what one hopes for is a certain artistic freshness, a feeling of naturalness and authenticity, which to its credit is certainly there, but the downside is the characters continue to talk in circular motion, continually repeating the same themes, never really getting under the surface of any of the characters.  Often it’s painful to listen to the characters struggle for some semblance of having something important to say, where more often than not they never really find it.  Unlike the Mike Leigh improvisational method, this story does not evolve out of rehearsals, where characters are already comfortable in their skin, instead all remain skittishly uncomfortable, where the main storyline is imposed upon them rather than developed from them.  In this case, it makes all the difference in the world, as the basic outline of the overall narrative structure remains in place, where the characters simply attempt to navigate their way through the emotional issues. 

Mark Duplass from Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) and Shelton’s earlier HUMPDAY (2009) is Jack, the perennial unemployed drifter who remains dissatisfied with the emptiness and moral vacuum of whatever hand he’s dealt, yet who finds others equally as pathetic, even as they tout their successes.  Emily Blunt is Iris, his best friend, never better than in Pawel Pawlikowski’s MY SUMMER OF LOVE (2004), but her European accent and manner feel woefully out of place here, where she ruins the chemistry in nearly every scene, often in the way she uncomfortably needs to be the center of attention, where she obviously needs to work out her own issues, as she couldn’t be more of a sourpuss, draining whatever life or energy is in the air.  Rosemarie DeWitt, from Jonathan Demme’s RACHEL GETTING MARRIED (2008), is the revelation as Iris’s sister Hannah, a last minute fill-in for Rachel Weisz who was forced to drop out due to scheduling delays and ends up being the most appealingly honest of the three characters.  The story begins with an all too familiar example of theater of discomfort, where a small gathering meets to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the death of Jack’s brother, where after the typical laudatory words, Jack’s had enough and sets the record straight, sending a chilling silence through the room.  Iris thinks the best thing he needs is some space to clear his head and recommends her family’s lakeside cabin on a nearby island, just a bike ride and ferry boat crossing away.  The idyllic, heavily forested island location couldn’t be more picture perfect, including the glass widows overlooking the lake, where the musical score by Vince Smith elegantly underscores the captivating beauty, but Jack’s arrival in the middle of the night is more than a little awkward, as someone’s already there.  It turns out to be Hannah, where both appear to be more pissed off than annoyed at the unexpected arrival of someone else, as each seemed to be looking forward to a little soul searching in the solitude of the moment.

Nonetheless, Hannah’s outspoken nature is immediately appealing, where she’s made some major, life-altering decisions of late, yet she doesn’t wallow in her misfortunes and whine and bitch, like Iris, instead she brings out a bottle of tequila and starts downing shots.  She and Jack are instant chemistry, where alcohol and inappropriate sex make perfect sense to these characters, only to regret it in the morning when Emily arrives.  While Jack is for hiding the obvious, Hannah is not so sure, as keeping secrets from sisters is usually not advisable.  The different accents between sisters needs to be narratively explained, as Blunt’s British accent as well as her overly needy, self-centeredness takes some getting used to, as her presence instantly changes the dynamic for the worse.  The refreshing openness of the first night spontaneity is immediately evaporated, replaced by Iris’s indulgent inclination to dramatically overact, showing no sense of humor whatsoever, taking herself so seriously, altering the previously understated, often comical balance.  By the time she finds out what happened, she mopes around in an extended pout, feeling sorry for herself, basically unable to speak, perhaps most upset that she was actually upstaged by her older sister.  Despite the casting imbalance issue and the improvisational meandering, the fluid pace never wavers, even as the characters occasionally flounder in their self-imposed misery.  The ultimate irony in these misery-loves-company movies is the stunning absence of work, where these characters have all the time in the world to live in such an idyllic natural paradise, and then have the nerve to grumble and moan about their lives, usually starting with each other.  The structure of the filming couldn’t be more solid, as each sequence progresses naturally into the next, weaving in and out of each others pitiful lives, where the stillness of the gorgeous landscape stands in stark contrast to the muddled lives of small-minded humans.  

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed

SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED         B                     
USA  (86 mi)  2012  ‘Scope  d:  Colin Trevorrow                    Official site

Another example of what you can do with a sense of humor and a bare-bones budget, this is a Sundance film released with very little fanfare, so little was expected out of this surprisingly obscure film, playing in very few theater outlets.  Set in the Pacific Northwest, editors for Seattle magazine are taken aback by the near absent response for story ideas from new interns, so one of the writers pitches his idea.  Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) suggests checking out the guy who ran a classified ad searching for a possibly armed time traveling partner, claiming he’s done it once before, but “safety not guaranteed.”  Grabbing two new interns, “the lesbian and the Indian,” Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni), they’re off on a road journey examining the implications of the existence of time travel, while really undergoing potential shifts in their own cosmic existence.  As is, Jeff is an obnoxious, overbearing frat boy guy, Arnau is a geek never without his laptop, while Darius is an internally damaged Goth girl where morose and downbeat are her regular moods.  Their destination is an oceanside town halfway to the Oregon border (actually shot in Ocean Shores, Washington), a sleepy community that thrives on an equal balance of timeshare condos and endless miles of commercially undeveloped beach, a place with enough sand that you’re allowed to drive your car on the beach.  Staking out the post office box (where the first man to enter the Post Office is the actual man who originally placed the ad), it’s here they track down Kenneth, Mark Duplass, actor and producer of Mumblecore films, known for playing less than fully mature characters, which suits him just fine here, as he’s an ordinary grocery store clerk hiding the fact that he’s really a paranoid recluse who believes the government is always after him.  After Jeff makes an ass of himself trying to convey a feigned interest in the ad, it’s clear he’s really just an ass, so Kenneth tells him to take a hike.  As Arnau needs constant guidance and instruction and is incapable of doing anything on his own, it should have been obvious that Darius was the right choice all along, as clearly her edgy sneer towards anything mainstream suggests she’s more inclined to accept someone off the fringe.     
Darius’s uncanny, laser beam focus on the mission at hand not only grabs Kenneth’s attention Safety Not Guaranteed - film clip "Grocery store ... YouTube (1:21), but establishes the gutsy, somewhat off the wall tone of the film, where the viewer doesn’t really know what to expect.  What is evident is Jeff’s intention to let the interns do all the work while he scopes out an old high school flame (Jenica Bergere) living in the vicinity, where he lets slip that his idea behind this trip is more a vacation than a work assignment, as he’s never once seen writing anything.  This opens the door for side trips, where each character ends up chasing some ambiguous, still undefined dream, perhaps overcoming some past regret that has remained stuck, frozen in time, forever locked in adolescent secrecy due to the complications of adulthood.  For Jeff, his misogynist, womanizing behavior brings him quickies but no real satisfaction, where he secretly dreams of more than just a short term relationship.  To this end, he’s bound and determined to pry that laptop out of Arnau’s hands and get him laid, as that’s the first step to adulthood.  The magic cure?—ply the poor bastard with plenty of alcohol to get his nerve up, as that’s apparently the American way if you follow the drunken misadventures of the HANGOVER movies, where the collective IQ of the American male is continually plunging lower and lower.  But in the La-La Land of movies, there’s always women game for this kind of fun, where sure enough, Jeff and Arnau find some underage girls standing outside the liquor store, apparently all that’s needed, that and a few recreation drugs on hand, to put all of them together in a trippy montage through an amusement park, where life is a fun-filled adventure, culminating with first-time sex where Arnau is likely too blitzed to even remember anything.   

Darius, meanwhile, stays on point, taking an interest in both Kenneth and his wild-eyed project, where he continually gets sidetracked and takes a strangely meandering route to an ever-elusive dream of his own that seems fragile, tentative, hindering on so many undisclosed tangibles that it could just as easily be slipping away. Aubrey Plaza played a minor role as Depressed Debbie, the girl in tap dancing therapy for suicide intervention in Damsels in Distress (2011), but here she carries this picture as the most interesting character in the film, which doesn’t become apparent right away.  First, Darius and Kenneth have to undergo serious time traveling basic training, which resembles a visit to a paintball arcade, but they practice shooting and stamina techniques, becoming more in synch with one another, until lo and behold, to her surprise she quickly discovers there really are government agent guys following Kenneth.  While the boys are convinced the guy is delusional, cut and dry, she begins seeing certain truths about him that lead to a bigger picture, where what he really keeps so hidden away from others is his friendly nature and overall likeability, as he’s a sweet guy that appears to take great pains not to place her or anybody else in harm’s way.  Because that’s so difficult, as people get hurt so easily, he tends to shy away into a reclusive world.  For a girl that tends to believe in the worst, having been let down so often in her life, Kenneth seems much the same way, where the whole idea behind this mission all along was perhaps to fix something that might have made a difference, where really his intentions are motivated by the best in human nature, where feelings of faith take on a science fiction aspect, as they are so foreign to how some human beings operate.  What it really comes down to is the capacity to trust someone, something neither have never been able to feel in their short lifetimes, for good reasons apparently, but the conditions are never ideal or perfect, just like a time travel liftoff, where the question becomes:  are they ready for it now?  This clever narrative written by Derrek Connolly delves into the insecurities that both keep people apart and also join them together, as they’re part and parcel of the same thing, where in this film time traveling becomes the integral part of taking that leap of faith in being human.   

Note – the original ad ran exactly as is in a survivalist magazine Backwoods Home in the mid 1990’s, eventually discovered on the Internet, giving rise to parodies and jokes.  Screenwriter Derek Connolly is a former intern on Saturday Night Live, where he discovered the ad in 2007, growing curious ever since about what kind of person would place such an ad, and also who would answer it?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Nothing But the Truth

NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH              C                  
South Africa  France  (108 mi)  2008  d:  John Kani

Award winning South African playwright John Kani takes his first play (2002) and moves both behind and in front of the camera, directing and playing the lead role in the film.  Unfortunately he gives a somewhat wooden performance, standing around and reading the lines as if sitting on a stool, attempting to enunciate as best as possible using perfect diction.  As an older man, he couldn’t be less spontaneous and more predictable, so he feels like a lecturer, as if we’re being read and lectured to.  Since this is about history, it all but dulls the otherwise searing subject matter.  Much of this feels force fed, made easy to digest through elaborate explanations in a near one-man play, growing ridiculously simplistic at times.  The problem is the unlikability factor, as the lead character who dominates the screen time spends way too much time selfishly thinking of himself, and not in flashbacks in a WILD STRAWBERRIES (1957) revelry, as if he’s painfully looking back at himself with moments of admiration as well as regret, but his resentment is expressed through his current outrage where he believes people have done him a major injustice.  In an intimate theater this may work, but on film, this self-centered tone of personal squabbles pales against the reality of the nation’s policy of forgiveness, which is nothing less than a transcendent moment in history.  The film never gets on track and with barely a hint at soul searching, where the characters are never fleshed out.  Unfortunately everything is wrapped in a package where the harsh edges are smoothed clean that makes it all too palatable for the viewers, who needn’t do any heavy lifting in this film.   

He’s worked in his South African village library since the early days before apartheid when blacks were not allowed to enter the library, and met his wife there.  He expects to be named the library director in the next few days, a position he feels he’s earned, and at age 63, one he’s paid his dues to qualify for.  We hear him freely express his thoughts as Sipho, the narrator and lead character, while also seeing newsreel shots of Archbishop Desmond Tutu heading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings.  He’s received news that his younger brother Themba died while living in London, a social activist and exile from the anti-apartheid movement, a man who could generate energy and enthusiasm into an audience through his gift of speech.  As his body is being shipped back to South Africa for burial, Sipho has mixed feelings about his brother, and other exiles who received such favorable treatment upon their return while others who worked hard for the struggle were often overlooked.  Themba was the one who always received favorable treatment from his family and special recognition from his country while Sipho labored hard and arduously to generate the money to support him for most of his adult life, including the college career that he could never obtain for himself as his family never had the money.  Sipho’s troublesome memories about his brother parallel the country’s difficulties in coming to terms with the reconciliation trials, as horrendous offenses are being admitted to, yet the white perpetrators receive amnesty and are not held accountable for brutal murders, torture, and other acts of violence.  Those are the terms of the hearings, as otherwise no one would step forward to admit to these crimes.   Still, when the nation hears the full extent of the organized criminal acts directed against its own black citizens, it’s easy to associate justice with revenge.

This subject is further explored when the differences between the two brothers is exacerbated by the behavior of their children.  Themba’s body is brought back by his grown daughter Thando (Motshabi Tyelele), an insufferably spoiled brat who carries more luggage than can fit into most people’s homes, and who is bringing back the cremated ashes instead of the body they were expecting.  Already set in her ways, she has little respect or interest in African ways, as she’s used to doing exactly as she pleases.  While Mandisa (Rosie Motene) on the other hand is Sipho’s daughter, who looks after him daily, and lives her life in accordance with the blessings of her father.  Everything comes to a head when Sipho receives notice that he does not get the job, which sends him on a drunken bender.  When the two girls find him in the corner of a notorious bar, the night is still young, as Sipho will spend the night railing against the injustices of his life, including the recollections of his brother’s atrocious behavior.  When Thando thinks he’s just jealous because his brother was a movement hero, Sipho lays out what sacrifices are needed to be a responsible man, something his brother could never be, as he never worked a day in his life, yet he accepted all the hero worship adulation while continually receiving support from his family.  Sipho describes his day of reckoning, where he will demand that he be installed as director of the library on the grounds that he is entitled to it, threatening to burn the place down if they don’t honor his wishes, after which he can claim amnesty by admitting his crime.  Again, his vow of revenge is his criteria for obtaining justice.  In the morning when he sobers up, it’s just another day, but it’s also the day he lays to rest his brother’s ashes and with it the enormous resentment he has carried around with him for years.  

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Medium Cool

MEDIUM COOL        A                    
USA  (111 mi)  1969  d:  Haskell Wexler

"There is a basic principle that distinguishes a hot medium like radio from a cool one like the telephone, or a hot medium like the movie from a cool one like TV. A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in 'high definition.' High definition is the state of being well filled with data.... Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience."
—Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964

A historic mile marker when viewed as either cinema or history, a time capsule of a different era, seen here as a specific time and place, adding a fictional dramatic story among actual footage of the street violence erupting at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago where protesters gathered to demonstrate against the continuing war in Vietnam, but shown through a distinctively radical style not only for its day but of any era.  Wexler, a superlative Oscar winning cinematographer, winning the award twice in five nominations, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and BOUND FOR GLORY (1996), though his uncredited work in Terrence Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978) while eventual award winner Nestor Almendros was losing his eyesight should not go unnoticed, has crafted a monumental film that challenges the public’s ability to challenge and decipher truth through the oftentimes distorted lens from the mass medium of television, defined by Marshall McLuhan (McLuhan, Marshall) as a “cool medium.”  From this day forward, as the film proclaims, “The whole world is watching,” but how accurate is our judgment about what we are seeing?  Robert Forster, who made a career in made-for-TV movies before being offered to play a leading role in Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN (1997), plays a hardened local news cameraman (in a role originally offered to John Cassavetes), a guy who gets the money shots for the ten o’clock news but is shown little flexibility from his employer to examine human interest stories, believing the public has a short attention span and all they’re interested in are murders, accidents, or other acts of violence that leave a city reeling under a perception of neverending turmoil, where the only black people (other than athletes) to make the news are violent offenders.  After the deaths of President Kennedy (November 1963), candidate Bobby Kennedy (June 1968), and social activist Reverend Martin Luther King Jr (April 1968), urban cities like Chicago erupted in a firestorm of uncontrolled violence, all of which played right into the hands of white television producers who had a field day providing video coverage, all of which fanned the flames of racial hostility, as ever since blacks have been disproportionately viewed on TV as dangerous criminals.  The film opens with Forster getting the shot of an accident on a highway, Medium Cool opening sequence (1969) - YouTube (4:12), never even bothering to help the victim, simply phoning it in as is the usual routine—interesting that a similar shot bookends the end of the film, only under a completely different contextualization by that time.  Interesting also that Peter Bonerz, the dentist on the long-running Bob Newhart TV show, plays the sound man who accompanies Forster on his news stories.  Also, it was unusual to hear so much of the Martin Luther King “I Have a Dream” speech a year after his death, a complete departure from other films from that time, as he was not commemorated with a holiday until 1983, nearly 15 years later, and not officially observed in all 50 states until the year 2000.  His speeches have become synonymous with that holiday.    

Simultaneous to a look at the news coverage is the actual news story, featuring previously unseen documentary footage of the National Guard undergoing riot preparation before the convention, complete with battle formations, tanks, tear gas, and night sticks in simulated rehearsals designed to maintain control of the situation, in anticipation of what was expected to be plenty of arrests, leading to actual footage of police releasing tear gas, where one of Wexler’s assistants can be heard yelling out “Look out Haskell, it’s real!” Look out Haskell, it's real! - YouTube (30 seconds).  In another fictionally dramatized thread, Verna Bloom plays a recently displaced single mother from Appalachia living in the overcrowded slums of Uptown along with her 13-year old son, Harold Blankenship.  Both offer standout performances where the degree of realism displayed contributes to the authenticity of a documentary feel.  Blankenship, especially, in his personal, evocative portrayal plays a vital role in this film, becoming the overlooked human interest story that news crews routinely ignore.  This film does an excellent job in establishing perspective.  There are flashbacks to spending time with his father in West Virginia, where he is given the misguided, sexist advice that only a man can rule his home environment, a theme that seems to parallel the response by Mayor Daley in Chicago, who felt only he could protect the citizens of Chicago from outside agitators, overreacting badly to a perceived threat that largely never happened.  In hindsight, most of the violence in Chicago was initiated by the misguided actions of a police force that nightly stormed what were relatively quiet and peaceful parks with tanks, tear gas, and night sticks in order to enforce arbitrary curfew violations, even though the city had no provisions for where these protesters could go.  After three nights of getting their heads bashed, by the fourth night of the convention the students fought back in bloody retaliation, most of it captured by TV news crews filming live on the streets as the Democrats were nominating Hubert Humphrey for President, a man whose aspirations were derailed on that very night.  1968 DNC: Democratic nightmare in Chicago YouTube (1:15).

Perhaps the best sequence in the film is the occasionally humorous aftermath of a black cab driver who finds $10,000 lying on the floor of his cab and turns it over to authorities, who immediately question the man’s sanity, as do his own friends and family.  Forster is part of a news crew that puts his face on the nightly news.  Smelling a larger story, perhaps a connection to drugs, Forster pays the young man a visit in his home on the South side of Chicago the next day, where he is immediately put on the defensive by the shark infested waters of black activists who smell blood on their turf, challenging the very essence of what this man does for a living, asking what business he has coming to the black community, a part of the city that is routinely lied about and distorted night after night by guys just like him.  In reality, none other than Studs Terkel, listed in the credits as “our man in Chicago,” helped mediate a safe passage by the film crew into that neighborhood for a scathing, oftentimes hilarious exposé on racism.  Mike Bloomfield, one of the driving forces of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, provides much of the guitar-heavy soundtrack, where vintage songs by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention appear as well poking fun at the fickle youth playing hippies for a day, such as “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” america is wonderful (from "medium cool" by ...  YouTube (2:57), footage likely shot at the Electric Theater/Kinetic Playground at 4812 N. Clark Street in Chicago, opening April 5, 1968, the day after the Martin Luther King assassination.  There are some extended wordless sequences and brilliant edits in this film, not the least of which is using Wild Man Fischer’s highly unorthodox song “Merry-Go-Round” Merry Go Round by Wild Man Fischer - YouTube (1:56) during an extended roller derby brawl, segued to a sex scene by a couple (including Forster) sitting in the front row, or a long shot from the inside of the convention where the tone shifts radically by the use of the song “Happy Days Are Here Again,” which continues to play over footage of the riots outside as bloodied heads keep getting bashed in by the police.  Wexler places himself in the historic final shot as the audio track of the riots rolls through the end credits.  This film has serious political overtones that are just as appropriate today, feverishly asking more questions than it can answer about the unchallenged power television has in our lives, featuring constantly in motion camerawork that is nothing less than spectacular, and remains one of the best films ever shot in the city of Chicago.     

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Come Back, Africa

COME BACK, AFRICA            B                 
USA  South Africa  (95 mi)  1959  d:  Lionel Rogosin         Official site

I will look for you until I find you.
When the sun sets
and the cattle come back,
I think about you.
—Miriam Makeba, Lakutshon Ilanga YouTube (2:21)

COME BACK, AFRICA is a curious film, as it’s really a composite of at least two films, one black and one white, also one shot outside on the streets, using a guerrilla, shot-on-the-fly, cinéma vérité style that couldn’t be more vibrant and alive, and another rather amateurishly shot indoors with a fictionalized script written by two young anti-apartheid South African writers Lewis Nkosi and William Bloke Modisane (who also appear in the film as Lewis and Bloke) set in the harsh, historical reality of apartheid in Johannesburg, South Africa.  While this may exhibit initial signs of Haskell Wexler’s distinctive style developed later in Medium Cool (1969), a much more successful attempt to blend history into cinema, the existence of apartheid remained largely unseen by most of the international world, so shining a spotlight directly upon a matter of national secrecy is of major historical importance.  Supposedly filmed in secret using lightweight and portable equipment by a white American filmmaker on a tourist visa, Rogosin, who lived in the country for a year, obtained permits to shoot travelogue style footage promoting South African tourism and the celebratory music in the country.  Inspired by Italian neorealism, Flaherty’s NANOOK OF THE NORTH (1922), and ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930), Rogosin decided to make films that expressed his political activism, dramatizing the plight of the oppressed.  Despite winning the Critic’s Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1960, this film could find no distribution in America, the same problem he encountered after the release of his first film ON THE BOWERY (1956), which documents New York’s skid row, forcing the director to actually purchase a New York City theater, which he re-named the Bleeker Street Cinema in order to exhibit controversial films, including his own works.  The documentary style time capsule photos shot by Ernst Artaria and Emil Knebel are what makes this film so historically riveting, as they strip away any dramatic pretense and instead offer a vivid sense of urgency, magnifying the contrast between the squalor of the endlessly flat, dilapidated, all-black shantytown of Sophiatown and the prosperous and economically booming, skyscraper filled all-white city of Johannesburg.

While the alluring images of nearly all-black workers racing from the heavily packed trains into the streets on their way to work in Johannesburg, accompanied by native drum beats on the soundtrack, offer another startling contrast, as this harrowing life in a virtual white city is so alien to the natural inclinations of blacks coming from the townships.  One of the workers is Zacharia Mgabi, an anonymously chosen black from Zululand, who immediately sets out looking for work and attempts to join a massive group of blacks working in the mines, but soon discovers you need a work permit to work as well as live in Johannesburg.  Nonetheless, there are interesting images training the miners how to use pick axes and shovels, where the black instructor literally breaks out into an expressive dance as he attempts to show how it’s all about rhythm and motion.  Zacharia eventually finds a wealthy white couple looking for a “house boy,” where the wife, Myrtle Berman (all the whites in the film are played by political activists), literally harangues him from the start, claiming his name “won’t do,” so she calls him Jack, but soon enough resorts to insults, calling him a dumb and ignorant native, supposedly an educated woman whose merciless hatred becomes the theme of the film, as in a worked up state of venomous rage Zacharia is fired as quickly as he’s hired, where the hostile reflections of the white employer are a stand-in for the nation’s demeaningly racist view of blacks.  Using non-professional actors, the film is not without major flaws, as the fictional dramatizations within the film feel raw and unrehearsed, often uncomfortably out of place with reality, where the lifeless energy saps the mood established from the intensity of the documentary imagery.  Zacharia spends his days moving from mine to dusty mine in nearby Soweto or seeking domestic work in Johannesburg, returning afterwards to Sophiatown, where he’s but one of thousands of others doing exactly the same thing, where he encounters the moral corruption even among blacks, where he’s robbed and hassled and later beat up by gang leaders, discovering people are desperate enough to do anything, it seems, for money.

As vital as the imagery is, it’s the interspersed music by Chatur Lal that energizes the film with a pulsating life, where among the most stunning images are the various street musicians that line the streets of Johannesburg, where often crowds of whites would gather just to watch, as young black children would perform in groups, from drums and penny whistlers to the elaborate choral rhythms and dance movements of township music, to an incredible doo wop version of Elvis Presley’s “Teddy Bear” Elvis Presley - (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear YouTube (1:47).  Zacharia spends his evenings commiserating with others in similar dire predicaments, alone and away from their families, making too little money to send home, which was their purpose in coming there, occasionally leading to late night sessions drinking or arguing about religion, where in one of these sessions a very young Miriam Makeba shows up, also a resident of Sophiatown, and sings two songs in their entirety Come back, Africa : Miriam Makeba, both songs on YouTube (4:45), a haunting lullaby “Lakutshon llanga,” while others join in a more rousing second number providing that rhythmic foundation to her soaring voice Miriam Makeba sings "Into Yam" from COME BACK, AFRICA ... YouTube (2:07). Despite the violence and poverty, Sophiatown was the hub of major black cultural activity, from music to artists and intellectuals, but it was eventually demolished a year after the filming by the government under apartheid, the residents displaced back to the townships, and the name changed to Triomf (Triumph) to make way for the development of white neighborhood housing.  As it turned out, too few whites wanted to live there, becoming something of an embarrassing eyesore, where in another 45 years, the name would be changed back to Sophiatown in 2006.  Eventually Zacharia sends for his wife Vinah (Vinah Bendile) and young son, living in a one-roomed home, where their troubled son tends to hang out with other kids on the street, even if all they do is continually get into fights.  But as work opportunities dry up, where blacks are routinely fired on the word of disgruntled or selfishly cruel whites, their hopes vanish along with them, joining the ranks of the impoverished and the destitute.  It’s hard enough for a man alone in a hostile environment, but this film makes it clear how much more difficult it is to attempt to raise a family while the laws of apartheid make it near impossible to stay together, leading to a finale that is so relentlessly downbeat and hopeless, all that’s left is a seething inner rage about to boil over into uncontrollable violence. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

You and Me (1938)

Fritz Lang

YOU AND ME           B+                  
USA  (90 mi)  1938  d:  Fritz Lang

The big shots aren't little crooks like you. They're politicians.       
—Helen Dennis (Sylvia Sidney)

Fritz Lang is something of a film revelation, where he would be renowned if he was responsible for nothing more than the first science-fiction epic, the German Expressionist silent film masterpiece METROPOLIS (1927), using a cast of thousands, building enormous futuristic sets, utilizing what were at the time state-of-the-art special effects, an arduously difficult film to shoot, lasting over a year, which nearly bankrupted the studio (financed by UFA), culminating in a blistering critique of capitalism and its effects on the future, becoming one of the most influential of all silent films.  Shortly afterwards, Lang’s first sound film M (1931) is a chilling portrait of madness, murder, and vengeance, where the underworld and the police vie for a child murderer, a film way ahead of its time in its methodical, perfectly synchronized, psychological storytelling, where Peter Lorre as the compulsive murderer gives one of the great screen performances.  Lang himself considered this his finest work.  Shortly afterwards, the half-Jewish Lang (who was raised a Roman Catholic) was forced to leave the country once the Nazi’s rose to power, leaving immediately after rejecting propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’ offer to become the new head of UFA, now a Nazi German film industry, becoming instead one of Hollywood’s most outspoken anti-Nazi filmmakers.  Ironically, Lang was eventually blacklisted during the McCarthy era of the late 40’s and 50’s due to his known working relationship with German playwright Bertolt Brecht and other known communists.  Throughout his career, however, Lang thrived on dark themes, including the psychological effects of lies, abuse of power, revenge, a criminal underground, and trapped characters living in a cynical world.  Coming on the heels of FURY (1936), his first American film, a devastating indictment of mob violence, and YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (1937), a boldly fatalistic outlaw couple on the run film (which had a tremendous influence on the later development of postwar film noir, always shooting at night, featuring characters as doomed as the constant pouring of rain, where the intense scrutiny of their dark interior world couldn’t be more bleak), his third film YOU AND ME is instead something of a Brechtian romantic love story, featuring songs and musical numbers written by Brecht collaborator Kurt Weill, considered a critical flop in its day and reportedly Lang’s least favorite of his own films.             

Yet somehow, YOU AND ME remains one of Lang’s most personal works, especially the way it combines disparate elements of ill-fated romance with the deviant criminal underworld and the outward extravagance of Brecht’s musical theater into a kind of melodramatic B-movie setting that actually endorses capitalism as a way out of the Depression, becoming one of the more ambitiously experimental Hollywood films of the 30’s, even if the whole never equals the sum of its parts.  If it’s not one of Lang’s greatest works, it is among his most unusual efforts, where it’s a jumbled mix of something you just don’t see everyday.  Set during the Depression, the opening sequence itself is a scathing indictment of capitalism set to song, Kurt Weill’s “Song of the Cash Register,” where the uncredited tenor sounds thunderously dramatic like Jan Peerce, leading to an impressive montage of cash registers, retail items and consumer goods, driving home the point that nothing in life is free, everything has a price tag, set to an abstract set of images that are deeply comical, accentuating flamboyant hairstyles of the 30’s, where customers must pay for everything from the most ridiculous and sublime to the most common ordinary needs.  If one gets their hopes up that the suggested anti-capitalist theme will pervade throughout, you’d be sadly disappointed, as instead the unsung hero behind the scenes is the capitalist owner of a successful chain of department stores, Mr. Morris (Harry Carey), whose philanthropist leanings, much to his wife’s displeasure, includes the unusual habit of hiring ex-cons who have successfully served their time, where a job offering allows them a new start and a sense of moral renewal.  The convicts are sales clerks scattered throughout the store, amusingly shown still exhibiting signs of their criminal expertise in making their sales pitch, where tough talking gangster George Raft as Joe tells a perspective customer “There isn’t a racket I haven’t tried.”  But as the camera pulls back, he’s selling tennis rackets in the sporting good section.  Instead of taking an interest in the attractive blond (Joyce Compton), the film alters course with a superbly constructed, fleeting moment, hand holding scene on escalators moving in opposite directions INSTANTES: You and Me (1938, Fritz Lang) - YouTube (28 seconds), a sexy lead-in to his sweetheart Helen (Sylvia Sidney).

Wasting no time, they quickly get married, seen mostly through the transformative eyes of Joe, perhaps motivated by a strangely curious date with Helen where the downbeat, melancholic torch singer Carol Paige pays weary tribute to falling for the wrong kind of guys (another Weill effort conjuring up Pabst’s down and out THE THREE PENNY OPERA [1931] images of Berlin in the 20’s), never dreaming his days as a convict in jail would somehow lead to newfound respectability, though what he doesn’t know is Helen is herself an ex-con.  In an unusual gesture rarely seen in American films of the era that often reflect a prevailing anti-Semitic sentiment, Lang includes sympathetic Jewish characters, Helen’s nosy yet overly affectionate landlady and her husband (Vera Gordon and Egon Brecher).  But when Joe discovers the truth about Helen’s hidden secret, he dovetails back into the criminal underworld, where in a priceless sequence, all the ex-cons from the store have been waiting for him in a mob bar, where they reminisce through jail chatter in song, inventing a kind of percussive, rhythmic chant, a numerical code that inmates use to communicate with one another while incarcerated, imitating knocking on the walls, a stupefyingly euphoric number called “Stick to the Mob,” where once you’re in, you’re never out, where the boys decide to do what they do best, rob Morris’s department store.  Morris captures them red-handed, however, alerted by inside information forwarded to Helen, where he agrees not to send them back to jail if they can sit through Helen’s reformative, on-the-spot, midnight chalkboard lecture (in the Toy section, no less!) on why Crime Does Not Pay.  Using a Brechtian underworld socioeconomic critique, it becomes a cost analysis on the detrimental effects of living a life of crime, where the hidden costs to pay off all the crooks involved outweigh the benefits, where capitalism is subversively expressed as a Ponzi pyramid scheme, where only the ones at the top survive, where Number One (a bribed politician acting on someone’s behalf) always gets their cut, staying out of jail by paying for the best lawyers in town, while the disposable foot soldiers taking all the risks end up fighting among themselves over the remaining crumbs.  In this oddly charming vision of the ever elusive American Dream, Morris’s investment in corporate ownership succeeds while the low paying foot soldiers falter, criminal or otherwise, where even moral redemption, paying your debt to society, comes at a high cost, as the only choice the working stiffs of the world have is to become slaves working for the Man.  “No I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more.”  Bob Dylan - Maggie's Farm YouTube (3:58).

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

MOONRISE KINGDOM           A               
USA  (94 mi)  2012  d:  Wes Anderson                       Official site

A candidate for the most delightful and thoroughly enjoyable film of the year, much of which feels autobiographical and is curiously fascinating from the opening few shots, showing a doll’s house view of a comfortable old home (a converted lighthouse), with various inhabitants seemingly occupying each individual room, with kids keeping separate from the parents, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, who are themselves seen in separate rooms, the camera quickly moving from room to room in an inquisitive fashion, where one can only marvel at the meticulous detail.  Each shot is perfectly composed and color coordinated, which continues throughout the entire picture, shot on 16 mm by cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman in what is surely one of the most gorgeously composed films seen in awhile.  In addition, what is immediately noticeable is how perfectly edited each shot is, all in tempo with the music, which is the narrator’s version of Leonard Bernstein playing Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” Moonrise Kingdom Soundtrack 01. The Young Person's Guide To .. YouTube (3:24).  This highly structured musical piece provides a leitmotif for the film, continually interjecting itself throughout, adding variations on a theme, which becomes the working narrative for the film, a simple children’s story accompanied by changing variations in music.  Set in 1965, supposedly simpler times, on the fictional New Penzance Island off the coast of New England, with blown up maps provided for the audience’s assistance, Anderson has really outdone himself here in providing such a layered texture, as his two 12-year old leads, escaped Khaki Scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and local girl Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) run away together, becoming a child’s version of BADLANDS (1973) constantly seen and experienced through the eyes of the kids, featuring outlaw children on the run from their parents, a Scout Master, and the law.  The moral reverberations resound through the ears of the highly impressionable and active imaginations of other kids, most all of whom think Sam is so different he must be mentally deranged.

Accordingly, Sam leaves a note for his Scout Master (Edward Norton, wonderfully buttoned-down and straight-laced) resigning from the Khaki Scouts, claiming none of the other scouts liked him much anyway, placing a poster over the hole in his tent where he escapes, in an obvious nod to THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994).  His escape is all part of an elaborate plan that has been carefully choreographed with Suzy ahead of time, mostly by correspondence through the U.S. Mail agreeing to meet at a designated spot and then hike into secret oblivion, hoping no one will ever find them.  What’s apparent is that both kids are viewed as troublesome because they’re the smartest kids around, immune to typical conformity measures used by authority figures to make kids act alike, making them both outcasts where they’re easily drawn to one another.  The two are a marvel of casting, as they’re probably smarter than the adults around them as well, making them undeniably appealing characters for their beguiling ingenuity, where Sam shows a surprising outdoorsman scouting aptitude for taking care of Suzy in the wild.  Interestingly, they meet backstage at the town church during a performance of Benjamin Britten’s Noye's Fludde, Moonrise Kingdom Soundtrack 18. Noye's Fludde, Op.59 - Noye, take thy wife anone YouTube (2:13) which includes a children's chorus of colorfully costumed animals and birds, where Sam is immediately drawn to Suzy’s bird outfit, that and the fact she isn’t smiling gleefully like the others.  Actually all the children in the film exhibit plenty of individual flair and personality, adding a bit of theatrical showmanship and are in perfect synch with Anderson’s idealized child fable, made even more clever by Suzy’s habits of reading her favorite books at night out loud for Sam, amusingly putting him to sleep initially, but later sustaining his interest completely, where the stories within the story are always wonderfully inventive and near revelatory.  Elfish narrator Bob Balaban shows up intermittently in unexpected places, always absurdly dressed, reinforcing the element of a magical realism and whimsy. 
Adding a level of seriousness (and complete lack of sentimentality) is Sam’s back story where he’s an orphan, having lost his parents early on and grown up in an orphanage, pictured in flashbacks from the 50’s as all boys with wild hair in jeans and white tee-shirts standing around working on cars while Sam remains in his bed reading, the subject of constant humiliation and torment.  When the local police (Bruce Willis) contact his parents to report him missing, they don’t want him back, finding him too much trouble, thinking he’s a bad influence on their other children, whereupon social services is contacted, Tilda Swinton in her matching blue uniform and cap, exhibiting the pious and rigid attitude of the highly repressed, Christian women who founded the social work movement providing charity while administering the church's mission to the poor.  Listening to her, Sam’s chances for the future are doomed, as adding charges of a runaway to his record will only mandate intense psychological testing, perhaps even electric shock therapy.  While this may sound outrageous, and hearing it from the emotionally severe Swinton it most certainly is, what reverberates throughout the minds of all the kids is what an utterly barbaric experience that must be, and while none of them particularly like Sam much, they don’t hate him enough to wish that upon him. 

So this turns into an utterly enchanting children’s story about wild adventures in the woods, featuring the obligatory love song (in French, of course) Françoise Hardy - Le Temps de l'Amour - YouTube (2:26), and the dysfunctional and often irrelevant parents searching for them, lavishly decorated in Britten’s Shakespearean Midsummer Night’s Dream subtext, Moonrise Kingdom Soundtrack 09. A Midsummer Night's Dream ... YouTube (3:05), thoroughly enhanced by the use of children’s songs and a children’s chorus, cleverly intermixed with a little playful Hank Williams, which beautifully accentuates the children’s fairy tale aspect of the film, heard here by Alexandre Desplat’s “A Veiled Mist” Moonrise Kingdom Soundtrack 06. The Heroic Weather-Conditions ... YouTube (3:18).  Life on this quiet island is not like anyplace else and couldn’t be more intimate, becoming a journey of isolated adolescence and first love teen romance given a strangely magisterial beauty all its own, where Anderson’s intoxicating artistry works its own magic.  Because the ages of the kids are so young, this film is unlike anything else in Anderson’s career, where the usual mocking, smart-assed tone is transcended by tenderness and the actual intelligence and compelling wit of the lead characters, where their chemistry is a refreshing portrait of understatement, suggesting the world must find a place for kids who are different, who due to no fault of their own just happen to be smarter (and perhaps geekier) than other kids and adults around them, where Anderson’s emotional deadpan and comic caricature finally have a purposeful release, becoming a wonderfully inventive children’s theater