Monday, June 27, 2016

2016 Top Ten List #9 The Lobster

THE LOBSTER                     A-                
Greece  Netherlands  Ireland  Great Britain  France  (118 mi)  2015  d:  Yorgos Lanthimos

From Greece, the same country that gave us Costa-Gavras’s brilliant political exposé Z (1969), showing the demise of a military junta during absurdly repressive times, the country again is in deep economic turmoil over its national debt, where the abruptly changing insecurity of life in that society simply does not resemble anywhere else in the rest of the world, causing this Greek filmmaker at least to take a completely unique worldview.  Evoking the depths of Greek tragedy with a true artistic realization, Yorgos Lanthimos invents an absurdly bleak universe that is such an extreme form of dark comedy that it appears to exist in its own universe, where it’s often hard to equate how it mirrors our own world.  Unsettling, to say the least, demonstrating a kind of scathing sarcasm that hasn’t really been seen since Terry Gilliam’s nightmarish BRAZIL (1985), the film has a power to enthrall but also confuse, as it lends itself to no easy answers.  Like the best David Lynch films, the director would be hard pressed to find any critic that actually understands specifically what the director was trying to achieve, though from an audience standpoint, it’s not like anything else you’ll see all year.  Weirdly reminiscent of LORD OF THE FLIES (1990) for adults, the starkness of the situation calls upon a completely new societal order, where nothing is as it seems, but exists in the bizarre logic of the moment, told exclusively through deadpan humor, surrealistic flourish, and completely absurd events.  At the center is a subversive rebellion against conformity, where characters are forced to accept the most peculiar set of rules as the norm, and then carry out their daily routines within the appalling restrictions of those imposed standards, each weirder than the next, where the outer shell capitulates willingly, showing no sign of aversion, while the inner being is profoundly disturbed, but can’t show it, as the entire film evolves around the core idea of pretending to fit in.  David, Colin Farrell in his most unglamorous role, plays a pot-bellied, middle aged, ordinary man with no outstanding attributes, whose wife of eleven years has just dumped him, where in this society it’s a crime to be single, so he’s sent to a “home” for recovery, a rehabilitation hotel with strict rules and the most ominous consequences.  Here he has 45 days to find an acceptable mate or he will be transformed into an animal of his choice, while accompanying him on his journey is Bob, his brother turned into a dog, transformed years ago from a previous visit to this same recovery home.   

Described as an “unconventional love story,” the film is set in the near future where being single is considered a crime, so people’s lives depend on finding a partner.  While the hotel establishment resembles a health spa, it’s more appropriately a cruel and sadistic prison with draconian regulations that are strictly enforced, where the rules are accepted without question, as if this has been a longstanding tradition, including morning visits from a maid, Ariane Labed (the director’s wife), who nakedly straddles David’s lap until he gets an erection before abruptly departing, leaving him in a state of permanent dissatisfaction, where there isn’t the slightest hint of love or happiness anywhere to be found, instead residents cower in fear at the inevitable, willing to accept the slightest hint of compatibility as a sign of true love.  Couples are drawn together by an exaggerated notion of having something in common, using physical attributes as “defining characteristics,” where both are left-handed, walk with a limp, have a speech impediment, or are subject to nose bleeds, etc, a seemingly random or arbitrary trait, where people are so desperate to be accepted that they attribute maximum importance to seemingly insignificant details.  For David, it’s his nearsightedness, for his friend Robert (John C. Reilly), it’s his lisp, while John (Ben Whishaw) walks with a limp, as they seek to find a partner who matches their own personal characteristic.  Part of the intrigue of the film is the novel use of originality, where they have literally created a futuristic Brave New World that exists in its own peculiar mathematical certainty, but makes little sense.  Being stuck in the absolutism of this Kafkaesque totalitarian world is the fate of each character, where no background information explains how society arrived at this point, yet the lifeless and banal quality of their lives is matched by a musical soundtrack that is wrenchingly emotional, including Beethoven String Quartet No 1 in F major, Op 18, No 1 Adagio ... YouTube (8:34), which recurs throughout like a musical motif, becoming a parody of what’s missing.  Also featured is the equally rare and obscure, yet extremely stylized romanticism provided by Sophia Loren and Tonis Maroudas singing “What Is This Thing They Call Love,” Sophia Loren, Tonis Maroudas - Ti 'ne afto pou to lene agapi (1957 ... YouTube (2:26) from BOY ON A DOLPHIN (1957).  The film is narrated by the voice of Rachel Weisz, an unseen character that doesn’t appear until well into the second half of the film, who speaks in a halting voice, with no voice inflection, never sure of herself, as no one, not even the narrator, is capable of actually expressing themselves clearly, instead everything is communicated in strict robotic deadpan without ever showing an ounce of emotion.  While this conveys an amateurish feel, as if actors never really rehearsed their lines, it’s part of Lanthimos establishing a totally “new” world that is both haunting and ridiculous, provoking outright laughter at times, adding bizarre twists that are weird and increasingly uncomfortable, tapping into an extreme degree of pain and anguish.

With the arrival of new guests, the coolly efficient hotel manager (Olivia Colman) speaks with uncanny ease, “The fact that you will be transformed into an animal should not alarm you,” as she and her partner (Garry Mountaine) provide pop songs and inane skits for the identically dressed hotel guests advocating the advantages of couples, Something`s Gotten Hold Of My Heart - The Lobster - YouTube (4:08), while the throbbing electrical sounds resembling a fire alarm signals it’s time for The Hunt, extraordinary scenes when the residents are bussed into a nearby forest to hunt down escapees and other individuals called Loners with tranquilizer darts, gaining an extra day for every captive delivered, dramatically elevated to a slow motion operatic montage shot by cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, Apo Mesa Pethamenos - Danai (The Lobster OST - HD Video ... YouTube (3:06).  One of the guests, a ruthless misanthrope who is easily the hotel’s most unpleasant resident known as the Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia), takes sadistic relish in bagging record numbers of hunt victims, each targeted for animal transformation and returned back to the forest.  The sinister nature underlying each and every scene only grows more chilling, where there’s a lot going on under the surface, most of it indescribably dark and cruel, like being stuck in a Grimm fairy tale.  When David finally escapes to the forest, he discovers yet another rebellious society of wandering outcasts run by the tyrannical rule of Loner Leader Léa Seydoux (couldn’t help but wonder how she became the leader), a terrifying force of evil who inflicts her own ridiculous set of rules, where touching, kissing, and falling in love is forbidden, punishable by mutilation, so they survive like hidden guerilla fighters.  It’s here that David meets his soul mate, the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz), but they are unable to express affection, so they develop a coded sign language designed to hide their true feelings from others.  “When we turn our heads to the left, it means I love you more than anything in the world, and when we turn our heads to the right, it means Watch out, we’re in danger.  We had to be very careful in the beginning not to mix up I love you more than anything in the world with Watch out, we’re in danger. Inexplicably, the Loner Leader and a randomly chosen partner lead David and his chosen partner on covert visits to the City, ostensibly to visit her parents (both play classical guitar), where she invents a life and a career, as the City is run by an equally arcane set of rules, with police on the lookout for non-married individuals who are subject to arrest.  Shrewdly written by Lanthimos and his frequent co-writer Efthymis Filippou, exhibiting a more accomplished sense of overall direction, where one can’t help but be a bit wonderstruck by all the perplexing, unanswered questions, the film draws heavily upon existentialism and the theater of the absurd, where the specter of liberation or conformity shadows every scene, creating a thought provoking and oddly moving experience where romance remains undefined and continually under construction, even by the end, which couldn’t be more disturbingly ambiguous.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Money Monster

MONEY MONSTER             C+               
USA  (98 mi)  2016  ‘Scope  d:  Jodie Foster

A dark film with timely ambitions of having something relevant to say about the global financial crisis of 2008 and the inexplicable bailout of Wall Street that actually caused the crisis, cynically suggesting the rich get richer by fleecing the public with get rich schemes that require manipulating the market, where there are winners and losers, but few questions asked, even under the most dire circumstances.  At the same time, the film caters to our prisoner of the moment fascination with the news, where only catastrophes get our attention, and then only for a moment to see how it all plays out before moving our attention elsewhere.  The film may unintentionally offer validation that we’re living in a police state, that the lives of the poor are not only marginalized, but sacrificed on a regular basis in the interests of protecting an elite class, whose own crimes are so willingly overlooked.  Featuring A-list Hollywood actors and tabloid icons, not to mention perennial People’s Choice nominees George Clooney and Julia Roberts, who first worked together in Soderbergh’s OCEANS ELEVEN (2001), they come across as best friends both on and off the screen, where Clooney plays Lee Gates, a smug TV host of his own show entitled Money Monster, complete with a musical theme and dancing girls, with a supposed knowledge of all things Wall Street, handing out stock tips, while Patty (Roberts) is the behind-the-scenes producer in the booth.  Their all-too ordinary lives get upended by the presence of an armed intruder on the set, Jack O’Connell as Kyle Budwell, an irate investor that lost $60,000, his entire life’s savings, who decides to hold the host hostage, claiming he’s responsible, placing him in a bomb-rigged suicide vest for insurance while holding the detonator in his hand.  From that point on, events unravel in real time, as viewers around the globe become fascinated with a live feed of the entire experience.  The question of whether Jodie Foster can direct is answered by the sheer conventionality of the film, which offers surprisingly few new ideas, lacking originality and a better screenwriter.  The product of a Hollywood system in which she was raised as a child actress, Foster probably thought this was a big story that would fill headlines, where there’s an urge to enlarge everything and make it bigger than it is, as if that’s entertainment, while a more carefully crafted film would break it down to smaller, more poignant moments that actually matter, where we might delve under the surface for intimate details of the character’s lives. 

“I might be the one with a gun here, but I am not the criminal,” explains Kyle to the cameras, reminding Gates that he was the one who recommended a certain stock named IBIS as a sure thing, but yesterday the stock plummeted, costing investors $800 million dollars, where the company’s vague explanation was the action occurred inexplicably due to a computer glitch.  Unable to grasp what that even means, but threatening to blow them all up unless they provide real answers, there is a side story following executives at IBIS, who are perplexed by the sudden disappearance of their CEO Walt Canby (Dominic West), who left unexpectedly for Geneva, Switzerland and is supposedly in the air on his executive jet, though he was scheduled to be a guest on the show.  Instead, they send a PR talking head, Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe), who was hooked up to a TV monitor, but makes a mad dash back to the office when she sees what transpires, where she and another male executive are simply befuddled about what to do other than stall until their CEO surfaces.  It’s interesting that the film takes great interest in exposing the layout of the television studio from all angles, how it looks from the booth, hearing Patty’s specific instructions to each of them, calling up certain monitors for the live shot, following the camera operators doing their jobs, yet this careful examination gets greater scrutiny than any of the characters, where instead we get neverending wisecracks from everyone involved, where the routine of the job has simply allowed them to tune out anything serious happening in their lives.  As a result, the film pales considerably from works it obviously drew inspiration from, such as Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Network (1976), iconic 70’s thrillers that doubled as absurdly humorous yet incisive cultural critiques.  Unfortunately, there’s an absence of humor and insight here, where small talk is allowed to take its place, ending up with the kind of dialogue that’s easily forgettable.  What is remarkable is that no one takes the computer glitch remark seriously, where instead this comes across as utter fiction, yet the news team goes to great lengths to identify the Korean computer programmer that designed the algorithm allegedly used by the company, whose explanation is that only a “human hand” could have caused the system to act the way it did. 

Meanwhile, even as the set is under siege, with Gates’ life repeatedly threatened by an increasingly unstable hijacker whose righteous anger is desperate to begin with, he seems to run out of options, so Gates, with Patty whispering instructions to him through an earpiece, is forced to try to find this kid some answers, turning him into something of a sympathetic figure, going into full investigative journalism mode in order to scour the inside operations of IBIS, while simultaneously the New York City police surround the set, install a few carefully placed snipers in the upper regions of the rafters, while they examine the possibility of shooting out the electric detonator receiver located on the suicide vest just above the kidney region, questioning whether Gates would survive a shot.  All bets are off, however, when the police find Kyle’s pregnant girlfriend (Emily Meade), putting her on a monitor with a live feed, but instead of sympathizing with Kyle, she rails against him in a lengthy tirade telling him what an idiot and complete loser he is before the police finally cut the feed.  This seems to sap all the life out of Kyle, turning him into a broken mess, where Gates has to come to his rescue.  As Diane begins to doubt the truthfulness of her boss, realizing he was never in Switzerland, she begins to feed inside information exclusively to Patty, which is then fed to Gates on the air.  Initially skeptical, Patty is forced to reassure Diane, “We don’t do gotcha journalism here, Diane—we don’t do journalism, period.”  It turns out Canby has returned to New York and intends to speak to the press at Federal Hall nearby, the site of the nation’s first capitol.  Unbelievably, Gates encourages Kyle, along with loyal cameraman Lenny (Lenny Venito) to march down the streets of New York, like a scene out of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), surrounded by a legion of cops with guns and rifles aimed straight at them, with Kyle continually blocking the vest transmitter, receiving hoots and catcalls from the mobs of bystanders on the street as they make their way to Federal Hall to confront Walt Canby.  Preposterous as it is, there is little to no suspense, largely due to the unimaginative way it’s filmed, losing its way in an attempt to tie up loose ends and make it all perfectly understandable, while the case against global capitalism simply fizzles into thin air.  Unfortunately, unlike the work of a professional investigative journalism team from a reputable news organization, like what was uncovered in Spotlight (2015), Foster resorts to manipulation tactics when the damning evidence is instead provided by a couple of drunken hackers in Iceland playing video games, who instead of proving the system is rigged, or making the case that corporations conspire to manipulate the markets by duping investors, which would be boring and way too complicated, can instead only provide evidence that Canby is lying to cover up his real intent, where his response to the cameras is simply, “What’s wrong with making a profit?”  Perhaps unsurprisingly, this film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and while hardly an exposé equivalent to the tobacco industry’s decades-long history of lies and cover-ups that resulted in Michael Mann’s THE INSIDER (1999), the real conspiracy would be finding viewers who are stupid enough to place their financial fortunes in the hands of a TV Quiz Show host dressed in gold lamé pants, a glitter top hat, and surrounded by Fly Girls.