Saturday, December 31, 2011

We Bought a Zoo

WE BOUGHT A ZOO            B                    
USA  (124 mi)  2011  d:  Cameron Crowe

You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.   —Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon)

Family fare from rock ‘n’ roll counterculture stalwart Cameron Crowe who has been off the radar for six years, making something soft and cuddly for the kids, using a fairly predictable format, a single dad (Matt Damon) with two kids trying to recover from the devastating aftermath of the death of his wife, the love of his life, where each are still reeling emotionally.  Without ever getting deeply profound or complex, instead this is a fairly sweet portrait of what might be termed just off the fringe from mainstream life in America, using a similar indie template as LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006) which features a morose teenage son along with an overly perky and precocious young sister.  Never veering far from the center, Damon as Benjamin Mee is just an ordinary guy trying to hold his family together, but when his morbidly introverted teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford) gets kicked out of school, apparently unable to control the urges from his dark side, the family has to make a new start somewhere.  Dylan’s gloom is matched by the sunny optimism expressed from 7-year old Rose (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), a first class scene stealer who is one of the hits of the film, as her dad never talks down to her, as she’s the stabilizing force within the family.  The search for a new home is led by an overly optimistic, first-day-on-the-job realtor JB Smoove who reels out a half dozen almost and not quite homes before finally pulling out all stops with something out of the ordinary, an off-the-beaten-track fixer upper tailor made for those not afraid to making a commitment, as it includes a working zoo that is closed to the public as it has fallen into a state of disarray.

Rose is thrilled with all the exotic animals, while Dylan sinks deeper into depression where life sucks moving away from all his friends to a dump out in the middle of nowhere where he’s even more isolated from reality.  However there’s a working team in place to keep the zoo running, which includes Elle Fanning as Lily, another upbeat and sunshiny girl that immediately takes to Dylan, wondering why his drawings are all so dark.  The zookeeper is Scarlett Johansson as Kelly in a less than glamorous role, where she actually plays a practical person with a level head, while her helpers are a band of misfits who would not be out of place in a theatrical rendition of Treasure Island, as they’re a little zany around the edges.  What works best here is Cameron Crowe’s easygoing writing and directing that slowly allows the material to play out, scored by Jon Thor Birgisson, otherwise known as former Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi, where Crowe truly excels with his use of music, starting with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers  Don't Come Around Here No More - YouTube  (4:36), but eventually adding the tender whimsy of Cat Stevens: Don't Be Shy on YouTube (2:54) the poetic lamentations of Bob Dylan - Buckets of Rain - YouTube  (3:26), and the rather clever use of Temple of the Dog "Hunger Strike" - YouTube (4:39), all of which add a feelgood dimension to the film.  Make no mistake, it’s the music that gives this film its soul and makes it feel different, as the songs are cleverly intermixed.  There’s a nice appreciation for quiet dialogue, where Damon in particular gets plenty of airtime with each of his kids, both of whom are a central part of the film, but it also gives him an opportunity to blend in with the zoo loonies which help take his mind off his everpresent world of grief. 

Of course there’s a hint of romance between Damon and Johansson, but even the tiny bit offered is almost too much, as it seems so expected, where the more clever option is to leave it off the table and explore their relationship in other ways, which is exactly what Crowe does with the film, mostly through the inclusion of other characters.  Another surprise is the appearance of Thomas Hayden Church as Damon’s older brother, always a welcome appearance in any film, who for the better part of the picture is the button down and conservative influence, the supposed voice of reason, which of course Damon ignores, choosing to turn over his life to a kind of reckless abandon.  No way this option should ever work, but with a Cameron Crowe film, it’s almost the essential choice, where The Road Not Taken becomes the visionary path.  The film wears its heart on its sleeves and couldn’t be more heartwarming, complete with exotic zoo animals, fun for the whole family, but also includes a major father and son meltdown that has an air of truth about it, but it’s too easily resolved, feeling overly contrived, where money seems like the answer to so many problems, an odd choice for a film with anti-capitalist leanings.  When it veers off the beaten track and delves into a world of problems, there’s a strange fascination with the dysfunctional train wreck about to happen, particularly poignant with the bleak and blissful Randy Newman - I Think It's Going to Rain Today - YouTube (3:27), but when the world turns out to be a hopeful and happy place without the dark underworld depicted in Dylan’s drawings that never feature any sunlight, it’s hard to trust there’s anything real about this kind of surreal and smiley face ending, though it does feel warm and sweet.   

Friday, December 30, 2011

War Horse

WAR HORSE                  C   
USA  (146 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  Steven Spielberg

Despite the Spielberg money and credentials, this painting-by-the-numbers effort could only be described as film mediocrity, resembling a Reader’s Digest, family friendly version of war as seen through the travails and changing hands of a highly intelligent and well-trained horse, a variation on the Black Stallion theme, sort of a Lassie Goes to War movie.  When it was over, the two kids sitting next to me wrapped it all up with the familiar refrain, “And they all lived happily ever after.”  Ever since E.T. (1982), director Steven Spielberg seems bound and determined to reinvent children stories, as if movies were made exclusively for the awe and wonderment of children, including adult content seen through the eyes of a child, where his storytelling consistently reflects his indulgent tendency to spoonfeed and overexplain, where the viewer is seen as an innocent mind to be molded.  Now that may work for some kids who might need the explanations, though one has their doubts, as many kids like to figure things out for themselves, but it can become a real deal breaker for adults who prefer movies that are not sugar coated with this overwhelmingly melodramatic, saccharine coated emotional world that is literally dripping with artifice.  For some, there’s nothing comforting about such heavy handed earnestness that comes across as preachiness, a pre-packaged, black and white moral message that rings of surface level superficiality bordering on phoniness. 

Spielberg films that exude a moral ambiguity feel more mature, like MINORITY REPORT (2002) and CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002), where it’s up to the audience to make sense of the situation instead of the manipulating use of music and narrative to drub sanctified truths into our heads.  These two works are anomalies in the storied career of this director, where the same could not be said for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), told through the awestruck eyes of a thirty-year old lead actor Richard Dreyfuss who may as well be an overanxious teenager who can’t help but to follow his instincts, leading to a surprisingly hopeful good and evil moral dilemma if ever there was one.  Even the INDIANA JONES (1984, 89, 08) series uses another adult lead through a collection of discoveries and mishaps that resemble a teen adventure story, where the black and white depiction of good and evil is so clearly drawn with such distinctive certainty that few could possibly mistake the good guys from the bad.  In JAWS (1975), perhaps the first movie blockbuster, the moral guidelines are carefully explained and drawn out in great detail ahead of time before humans cross the line with terrifying results. 

One could go so far as to suggest the tone of Spielberg’s “black “ historical stories ring false, THE COLOR PURPLE (1985) and AMISTAD (1997), which are meant to be teaching vehicles, where Spielberg presumptuously accompanied the release of AMISTAD with teacher packets that could be used in classrooms across America, while others delivered this message better without the right or wrong, good and evil moral lesson, such as black director Charles Burnett’s KILLER OF SHEEP (1979) and white Jewish director Michael Roemer’s NOTHING BUT A MAN (1964), both of which come across as near documentary truths without an ounce of artifice about the black experience, while Spike Lee’s actual documentary 4 LITTLE GIRLS (1997) about a Birmingham church bombing during the Civil Rights struggle all offer better teaching vehicles because they’re not filtered through the unambiguous moral certainty of a well meaning director. 

This holiday season, one might compare Spielberg’s take on a children’s story with Martin Scorsese’s HUGO (2011), as both cater to the wild-eyed awe of the world of children before introducing harsh realities that make their world’s explode with chaos.  While Spielberg dishes out loads of sentimentality, turning this into an epic drama of innocence lost, where an animal turns into the tearful object of affection, much like the lost and homesick alien from outer space in E.T, Scorsese fills the screen with real wonderment, dazzling the viewer with nothing less than an imagined recreation of the birth of cinema, using actual vintage clips from over 100 years ago and making their art relevant in the modern world—no small task.  Spielberg uses wooden horse puppets and computer graphics to decorate his artificial landscape without the slightest hint of character development while Scorsese reinvents an historic Paris train station in 3D, one of the most artfully mature uses of the form, imagining the secret interior life of no less than one of the founders of cinema while maintaining an all-ages intelligence that delves into complicated emotions and never speaks down to the viewers, allowing the world of cinema to speak for itself, filled with contradictions and a multitude of individual interpretations. 

On the contrary, Spielberg’s style is to tell the viewer what to think and feel, allowing no margin for meandering thoughts or interpretations, as everything is explained with certainty, where the good guys win in the end and through a steadfast belief in a miraculous horse, like Pinocchio, a boy becomes a man.  In this manner, storytelling reveals what happens without imagining why or what for, offering an exhausting glimpse into the horrors of war while completely avoiding any historical impact.  This is the kind of movie that once it’s over, it’s over, as there’s nothing left to ponder or figure out.  Based on Michael Morpugo's 1982 best-selling children’s novel, the film opens with impressive landscape shots of the rocky farmlands of Devon, England where a young boy (Jeremy Irvine) who witnesses the birth of a colt immediately falls in love with him, where his father (Peter Mullan) foolishly overbids at an auction, but the boy spends every waking minute raising a thoroughbred for the harsh and laborious farmwork needed to work the land.  In something of a miracle the horse adapts, but heavy rainstorms ruin the crops, forcing the horse to be sold to the British cavalry at the outset of WWI.  Immediately sent to the battlegrounds, the story progresses through the eyes of the horse, as it continually changes hands, offering a differing perspective on war based on the contrasting lives that care for the horse.  Once he comes of age, the boy eventually enlists and the two are separately hurled into the bloody no man’s land of trench warfare, a brutal and horrific experience that few men or animals survive, leaving behind a mountainous pile of dead corpses.  In the end, battered and bruised, both lucky to be alive, the boy and his horse valiantly reunite, returning from the front sharing their battle scars with the family they left behind—not exactly PATHS OF GLORY (1957) or even IVAN’S CHILDHOOD (1962). 

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Artist

THE ARTIST               B+                  
France  Belgium  (100 mi)  2011  d:  Michel Hazanavicius         Official site [ca]

Despite the unapologetically nostalgic tone of a silent era film that accentuates Hollywood cinema in its golden age, along with its dashingly handsome and debonair stars, like swaggering silent star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), this film, along with Scorsese’s holiday release HUGO (2011), both eloquently pay tribute to a magical era of early cinema.  Set in the late 20’s and early 30’s, coinciding with the SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952) shift from silent to talking pictures, the camera initially adores matinee idol Valentin with cameras and news items following his every move, living in a posh Hollywood mansion with a wealthy socialite wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) who’s too bored with show business that she spends her idle time marking up movie posters with graffiti-like mustaches and goatees, her caustic comment on the whole world of entertainment, rarely uttering a word to her husband.  This dysfunctional portrait of marriage is a satiric comment on Myrna Loy and William Powell’s supposed marital bliss in THE THIN MAN (1934), right down to a theatrical scene-stealing pet dog Uggie, who is a stand-in for Asta and all but steals the picture.  Valentin’s breakfast table scene mimicking the dog’s every move is a classic silent era comedy routine, but his wife couldn’t be bothered to even notice.  Valentin never lacks for a smile, exuding confidence and generosity from the outset, beautifully expressed in a spontaneous moment at a publicity appearance where he is accidentally bumped by a woman who drops her purse while standing in a cordoned off crowd of fans and well-wishers, where at first he expresses rude indignation at the insult, unwanted physical contact, but when he sees what a lovely and charming woman it is (Argentinean actress living in France, Bérénice Bejo, who happens to be the director's spouse), he immediately turns into the gallant gentleman, where their pictures are all over the Hollywood tabloids the next day. 

From this simple coincidence, A STAR IS BORN (1937, 1954, 1976), so to speak, as the lovely lady is Peppy Miller who suddenly lands a job working with Valentin on a picture as a chorus line dancer, nearly thrown off the set by movie mogul John Goodman, the cigar chomping movie producer who blames her for the little stunt which took the actual movie being promoted off the front page, but he relents when Valentin insists she belongs in the picture.  While the two obviously have chemistry, their careers are on different paths, as talkies are the new thing, introducing ambitious young talent like Ms. Miller, while Valentin’s career is all but over, though he refuses to believe he can’t draw an adoring public.  When the stock market crashes and the Depression hits, people show little interest in the way things used to be, despite Valentin’s insistence that he’s an “artist,” not some puppet on a string.  With his marriage on the rocks, his career in ruins, his fortune lost, he becomes a sad and destitute man, still unable to comprehend the chaotic madness of noise associated with talking pictures.  His much more organized silent life seems enchantingly simple, where all he has to do is perform before adoring fans to win their hearts, where he’s a natural born charmer.  Making matters more interesting, the film is actually silent in Valentin’s world, where sound is slowly and cleverly introduced, which others accept, where they eventually live in a world of sound, but Valentin and Uggie remain steadfastly silent.  The film effortlessly walks a fine line between the two worlds, where the unrecognized and distant love between the two stars remains confined to silence. 

The real magic of this film is an old-fashioned romance set against a backdrop of a continual stream of homages to different film eras, where Valentin begins as a 1920’s swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks hero, where his Chaplinesque comic routines or enthralling Fred Astaire dance numbers are utterly captivating, but when his luck fades, he’s a down on his luck fading movie star lost in the decaying psychological cobwebs of SUNSET BLVD. (1950), filtered through the alcoholic doldrums of meaningless despair from THE LOST WEEKEND (1945).  What’s truly remarkable is actor Jean Dujardin’s range of ability in wordlessly conveying each of these tumultuous emotional turns so effortlessly, where his eminent demeanor never slips out of character.  Despite the predictable narrative arc of falling from grace to living a life in shambles, he carries himself with an immensely appealing dignity throughout, where the scenes with Bérénice Bejo simply sparkle and couldn’t be more scintillating, becoming heartbreakingly tender at times, bringing needed poignancy to their relationship.  Labelled crowd pleasing and lighthearted entertainment by critics, that would be misleading, as this is scrupulously well put together, painting a particularly tragic note to fame, which like youth, is fleeting.  The director combines a rare combination of cleverness and craft, where the extraordinary personalities of the superb talent onscreen win out in the end.  While the relatively unknown director is French, one can’t help but think of fellow countryman Jacques Tati, whose enduring silent comedy was set entirely during the unpredictable modern landscape of the present.  Something of a living, iconic anachronism, he spent everything he earned back into his own unfailingly unique cinematic art, crushed by the lack of success at the box office, probably thinking he was something of a failure at the end of his life, while today he is revered as a rare comic genius.  One might have wished for a special tribute paid to Tati, instead there's a curious debt of thanks to Argentinean soccer superstar Diego Maradona. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

USA  Sweden  Great Britain  Germany  (158 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  David Fincher

Adapted from the Stieg Larsson Millennium Trilogy, a wildly popular series of Swedish crime novels that were published posthumously, the first part of the series was initially directed in 2009 by Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev, featuring a mix of digital video, 16 mm, Super 16 mm, all blown up on Super 35 mm, giving the film a variety of looks which helps set the series in motion.  The opening introduction is easily the most intriguing of the Trilogy, as it draws the audience into this smart crime drama where part of the interest is the individuality and unique intelligence in the characters, introducing the punkish computer hacker Lisbeth Salander with a near photographic memory, initially played by Noomi Rapace, and Mikael Blomkvist, originally Michael Nyqkvist, a top notch, award winning investigative journalist working for an issues oriented magazine called Millennium, where he has a longstanding affair with the editor, Lena Endre initially, replaced here by Robin Wright Penn, where a brutal streak of sadism lies underneath the cool veneer of Swedish sophistication, where only on the outside surface does life feel safe, secure, and orderly.  Despite the vastly improved production values and superb score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the writing and editing of this American remake are less impressive, losing some of the intensity and focus, including what was so uniquely original about it, namely the intelligence and strange sexual curiosity between the two leads.  

David Fincher creates a superb opening credit sequence shot to a cover of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, which is a masterful film short in itself seen here:  Karen O, Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross: "Immigrant Song ... - YouTube (2:51).  The Swedish title Män Som Hatar Kvinnor translates to Men Who Hate Women, quite appropriate to the story, a decade’s long murder mystery filled with particularly grisly unsolved murders directed against women balanced against an intriguing, off color love story.  The film opens as acclaimed journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is being sentenced to 6 months in prison for libel and is immediately whisked away from his family Christmas dinner to meet secretly with a millionaire business tycoon, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) on a remote island location where Vanger wants him to search for his presumably killed niece, missing for 40 years, insisting upon Blomkvist only after his libel case had been thoroughly investigated by an unusual computer expert, a young punkish Lisbeth (Rooney Mara) who has found no evidence of any wrongdoing, but instead everything suggests a frame.  Of interest, the niece always made Vanger a birthday gift of crushed flowers, and those gifts have continued to be sent from various corners of the earth ever since she went missing.  Vanger believes his is a hateful family, one of whom is likely the murderer with a sadistic interest in continuing the birthday reminders of her absence.  With nothing to lose, Blomkvist resigns from the magazine to begin his investigative work on the island. 

Hard to believe Rooney Mara as the rebellious and punkish Lisbeth Salander in this film is the same spirited girl in the opening conversation in a bar with 19-year old Harvard sophomore Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010), the girl whose blatant rejection of his crudely obnoxious manner led to his creation of the computer template for Facebook before the night was done.  Despite Mara’s best efforts, however, she’s no match for the harder edged Noomi Rapace who originated the role.  The American remake sticks closely to the original version except for a few exceptions, like the omission of a sequence of Lisbeth getting beaten up by a street gang, less time spent with Lisbeth’s underworld friends, including her hacker friend named Plague, and changing the focus somewhat, giving a softer edge to Lisbeth in the relationship, as she’s not nearly as aggressively controlling as Rapace, who adds more fire and inner rage to the character, more damaged and more ferocious, feeling much more uniquely revelatory and internally complex in the original.  Mara is following Rapace’s lead with the character, where Rapace’s physique is less feminine, built more like a man, where in the original story her biographic profile was blended into the theme of treachery against targeted women instead of spoon fed to the audience only after the fact at the end in Fincher’s version, as if to elicit sympathy, something at odds with the Lisbeth character who would never allow herself to feel like a victim.     

The secret to the success of this Trilogy is the fierce interior character of Lisbeth herself, an outlandish woman dressed provocatively in full black leather fetish attire, wearing motorcycle boots, facial painting with heavy black eye liner, looking boyish with spikes, multiple tattoos, a Mohawk haircut and piercings, a girl who never smiles or enjoys herself, who uses her brooding silence brilliantly, remaining one of the more compelling characters seen in years.  Her appeal lies in her own approach to herself, her reaction to the dark forces surrounding her, operating with utmost conviction, highly disciplined, fiercely independent, protecting herself with the feral quality of an animal surrounded by savage beasts, yet she remains balanced and in complete control of her life.  In the original, her startling sociopathic personality wins over audiences through flashback sequences to childhood including courtroom sequences that threaten to take control of her life, exposing a lifetime of fighting against physical and emotional abuse, becoming a righteous feminist vigilante, which makes her a sympathetic figure from the outset, where she initiates the initial encounter with Blomkvist by hacking into his computer and leaving him clues, steering him in the right direction, which leads him to her.  Fincher omits these scenes altogether, having them spend much less time together, delaying and prolonging the real tension and interest of the story, the glue that holds it all together, which is this bizarre but fascinating relationship.  Her computer and investigative skills at uncovering secret evidence are unmatched, so he convinces her to work with him in exposing a savage killer of women, where she ends up doing most of the lead work and being his guardian angel, actually saving his life from a reclusive family of demented Nazi’s. 

The dark and at times horrendous story is told with a brisk pace, advanced by clues, impeccable computer searches and interviews, but especially intriguing are negatives of old photographs which Mikael blows up and scans, becoming a movie within the movie, where they uncover unsolved murders, eventually leading them to various sexually gruesome murder sites across the country where something potentially connects to this case.  As they get closer, the inner circle of the Vanger family become more and more suspicious and paranoid, as they all appear to have something to hide.  The actual island estate is filled with architecturally stunning homes that are especially foreboding in the winter ice, with a few former Nazi’s living inside, men who have little respect for human life and will go to any extent to protect what they have.  There’s plenty of suspense and psychological tension in this taut drama, but something has to give, and when it does, it will carry the force of forty years of lies and cover ups, something dark, twisted, and repulsive, yet undetected throughout the entire period of time.  Noomi Rapace, however, is the real discovery of the Trilogy, and nothing in Fincher’s version matches her ferocity, as her hostile yet vulnerable character is shrouded in secrets as well, but she’s actually looking for a way to believe in something better, yet all around her she is held back by deeply disturbed and detestable men who have turned her life into a living hell, isolated, alone, but an aggressive force, even as she sleeps with Blomkvist, a man who senses danger with every move, that only grows more acute as he draws closer.  It’s one of these cool sophisticated crime fiction thrillers that’s gorgeous to look at, that relies on intelligence and a multitude of clues, where a heavy streak of brutal sadism lurks underneath the sexual intrigue between the major players. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY                   B+                     
Great Britain  France  Germany  (127 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  Tomas Alfredson

Unlike anything else you’ll see this year, an intelligently restrained and thoroughly detached study of the dark and shadowy world that exists behind the face of the Cold War, circa the early 1970’s, as the British Intelligence has to clean up one of their messy operations gone wrong in Budapest, Hungary when an agent gets gunned down on the streets in broad daylight.  An updated adaptation of John Le Carré’s 1974 novel, not to be confused with the 7-part made for TV British mini-series in 1979 starring Alec Guinness, this one stars Gary Oldham as Smiley, the agent brought out of forced retirement to investigate the presence of a double agent mole hidden within the upper ranks of their intelligence service.  In an early sequence, all the suspected agents are gathered together into a room with the head of Intelligence (John Heard) laying out the problem while coolly indicating the mole was likely someone sitting with them at the moment in the room.  Through a series of brief flashbacks mixed with current operations, it’s rare to find even the briefest glimpse of a clue, where these guys are professionals at leaving no tracks behind.  Instead, bits and pieces of conversations from interpersonal relations are seen which reflect a hidden side of the characters introduced, where they all remain detached, indifferent and isolated, closed off from the rest of the world, unable to express openness, inconspicuously blending into the landscape without generating emotional sparks, making it hard for anyone to detect.  What’s interesting is a continuing holiday office party sequence that appears throughout to plenty of drinks and cheesy music, each time offering a littler bit more information, which is one of the only times these guys are ever seen in a slightly informal setting, as each one is always on their guard, offering quick glances at one another, aware that they’re continually being watched.

Shot in Budapest, Istanbul, and London, this is a contemplative and deeply probing thinking man's movie, one of the darker looking films of the year, where cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema continually shoots agents as moving shadows engulfed in a black emptiness of oversized rooms, where looming underneath it all is a chilly atmosphere of mounting dread and paranoia.  It's twenty minutes into the movie before Smiley utters a word, pursuing his leads in an extremely low key and deliberate manner, rarely speaking, revealing nothing, simply observing the men in their work, spending most of the time listening, occasionally asking questions about events that previously transpired, double checking their answers with the record, searching for blind spots and holes, always attempting to unearth a clearer picture of each and every step of the operations, continually unraveling and then putting back together again the various pieces of the puzzle.  The world is so muddled and hazy that’s it hard to judge the progress, as traps are continually being set, so how does Smiley or the audience distinguish the truth from falsely planted clues?  In this world, which is really the altered scenes behind the scenes, it all looks the same, where lies are perfectly incorporated into regular routines.  While tempers grow short and fingers are pointed, the director offers occasional close ups where the camera at times feels too close and too intrusive, especially the blank look on Oldham’s face which betrays nothing in this overly polite world of manners and etiquette, where catching someone off guard or in an uncontrolled moment seems far fetched, where the audience can grow frustrated by the continuing compilation of minutiae and the subsequent lack of comprehension or progress on the case.

While there are quick bursts of violence when bad things happen to the wrong people, there’s nothing seemingly pointing to how the mission was compromised in the first place, only the horrifying consequences thrown into the faces of the viewer, where the price each agent pays to remain invisible can feel hollow and empty, where the inhuman unravels into the inhumane, where agents are asked to do the unspeakable.  It’s hard to fathom what motivates men at this level, what drives them to put themselves into harm’s way, where if caught they can’t reveal anything, even under torture.  In one of the more revealing scenes of the film, a reprise of that party sequence, the brightest undercover British agents are captured in a spontaneous moment of drunken revelry with a man in a Santa Claus suit wearing a Lenin mask leading the group in a rousing chorus of the Internationale, where Smiley uncomfortably backs out of the room to an outside balcony where he sees another man’s hands all over his wife, as they are kissing in the shadows.  We never see any of the wives, and only have a limited window into the personal lives of the agents, where duty and sacrifice is the blood running through their veins and is at the core of their being.  In something of a clever twist, there is the briefest insinuation of a homosexual affair, which sheds light into the closeted and secretive world of both a gay man in the 70’s and an intelligence agent, both having to invent a false or neutered personality to live by, a lie that never goes away, where either way tenderness or intimacy is the real danger that could blow their cover, literally destroying their lives.  The film is a grey and murky world of secrets and betrayals where the undercurrent of life trembling in those veins is off limits, where the idea of romance or having a lifelong partner remains inaccessible and continually out of reach, where instead it is the dedication to consistency in their work and the accumulation of minute details that determines the man, where in this intensely distrustful business, each other is really all they have, brothers in an elite fraternity of subterfuge. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Dangerous Method

A DANGEROUS METHOD                           C+                    
Great Britain  Germany  Canada  Switzerland  (99 mi)  2011  d:  David Cronenberg

Sort of like watching paint dry, as this ultra repressive, interior chamber drama moves with the glacial pace of Chekhov, usually stuck inside the sanctitude of one of many rooms but without his power of observation and social dissection.  Instead, this is a historical costume drama that presupposes the meeting of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) at the dawn of the psychoanalytic age around the turn of the 20th century.  The film is a Christopher Hampton adaptation of his own play called A Talking Cure, which was adapted from John Kerr’s book using the film title.  As such, all action is advanced by dialogue, much of it through patient to therapist sessions, but also person to person discussions and through various letters sent between the two colleagues, who after striking up a rich personal friendship and professional associative relationship fell out of favor with each other, basically ending all communication.  Since the two are known to have fathered what is known today as the practice of psychoanalysis, it’s ironic that in their own relationship they couldn’t practice what they preached, falling instead into utter dysfunction.  While there is no doubt this raises intelligent issues, it will be hard to find an audience that is moved or actively interested in a cold intellectual discussion of their methodology as a science.  Unfortunately, this was reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s WAKING LIFE (2001), his animated, color-coated, drug fantasia that becomes a dull soliloquy of endless ethereal monologues spoken as if in a perpetual daydream that brought back memories of being lectured to, as the tone of the entire film here is as if what it has to say is so extremely important that it begins to sound entirely self-serving instead of interesting.  Both of these men, Jung and Freud, seem so arrogantly self-centered and full of themselves that it’s hard to believe anyone ever listened to either one of them.  

The two actors are among the best actors working today, but here both are toned down and restricted to emotionally straight jacketed performances, especially Fassbender as Jung, who always looks like he’s framed in a picture book of some kind or an upscale magazine devoted to the elegant lifestyles of the wealthy class living in the luxurious mansions along beautiful Lake Zurich.  His wife inherited money, so his ultra civilized dress and manner represents wealth and status, but also social rigidity, where one can suffocate in the righteous air of theoretical ideas, almost as if the body is completely cut off from the head attached to it.  Freud’s studies in Vienna, Austria led him to the conclusion that all neurotic behavior was caused from sexual repression, leading to a dialogue between patient and therapist in an attempt to discover the root of the problem, using dream analysis and a discussion probing the unconscious mind in an attempt to unlock the key to a healthier life.  Jung followed in his footsteps in Zurich, Switzerland, but refused to single out sex as a cause of repression, believing there could be a myriad of other possibilities.  Both believed in intensive dream analysis, which they shared with one another, holding nothing back about their private lives in their intimate discussions until eventually something happened to change all that.  Enter Keira Knightley, aka:  Sabina Spielrein, the patient.  If ever there was a hysterical, overacted performance, it is this one, which is barely watchable at times.  Add to this the phony accents and you’ve got yourself a turkey of a performance in a film that’s already difficult to engage with due to the sometimes studious and at times professorial content of the endless discussions. 

When Sabina describes her abusive family history, which has left her in an apoplectic state of continual hysteria, no one needs a degree in psychology to understand what a fragile and terrible condition she is in, where her body is filled with uncontrollable spasms reacting to her personal fears of continually being beaten by her father.  Making matters worse, she enjoys the punishment.  Promoting his inner calm, Jung is successful at getting her to accept herself as she is, an exceptionally well-educated woman unafraid to delve into the intellectual matters at hand, joining the psychoanalytic profession, though taking issue with both her colleagues.  While this speaks of the success of therapy, no one believes Sabina is ever cured due to Knightley’s sprawling performance which is all over the place, always eccentric, never really losing the hysteria, just the flinching body spasms.  While there’s not a lot to see and nothing particularly engaging, only lines of trust that are continually crossed, the film really dovetails off the charts, perhaps entirely miscast, where no character is the least bit interesting or sympathetic, made worse by the stifling oppressive tone of scholarly reserve, where anything outside this artificially passive world of stately elegance and manners is already seen as out of the ordinary and eventually out of bounds.  It well describes the fissure that came between the two men, all of which precedes the advent of World War One, a crisis of unthinkable proportions which would change the thinking forever about battle fatigue and chronic stress syndrome.  But these terms hadn’t yet been invented as Freud and Jung continue to squabble like children about their self-professed techniques in combating psychological relief.  Both men are out of  favor today due to advancements in the use of medicine for mental health treatment, which has all but replaced the idea of dream analysis and free associative psychoanalytic therapy sessions which are now largely based on an accumulation of family history and circumstances.  The elegance and classical style used by Cronenberg never varies, matched by the music of Howard Shore who steals excerpts from a Viennese composer from the same era, the uncredited Gustav Mahler.

Post Script – The irony is not lost to viewers, as any therapist who would actually do what is suggested here by one of the founders of the field would likely lose their license, be thrown out of practice, and receive a hefty jail sentence.  But of course, they were pioneers slogging their way through the wilderness. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Young Adult

YOUNG ADULT                    C                    
USA  (94 mi)  2011  d:  Jason Reitman                         Official site

Oh where, Oh where has Charlize Theron gone?  Since winning the Academy Award for Best Actress in MONSTER (2003), she has all but dropped off the face of the earth, barely seen since then, working in such low profile films that many haven’t seen her at all since then.  She is back in a role that is pretty much written around her part, aka:  confessions of a psycho bitch from Diablo Cody, who is attempting to glean untold truths from the safe and secure mediocrity of the heartland.  Theron as Mavis is on the rebound after her failed marriage, one of the few who left her small town of Mercury, Minnesota to make it in the urban metropolis of Minneapolis, affectionately known as the Mini Apple, a place that few in Mercury ever see.  Mavis is the author of teen stories that are no longer in vogue, yet she’s busily typing away on her computer trying to complete the series, which is a running narrative throughout the film which mirrors the real life issues surrounding Mavis.  This is largely an opportunity lost, as the book characters offer no fresh insight into real life, but remains lost in a superficial wish fulfillment haze of self-centeredness that defines Mavis’s own world.  And therein lies the real problem with this film, as it’s stuck in a vacuous emptiness from which it rarely escapes.  Post divorce, Mavis is on a mission, to return to her hometown and reclaim her high school boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson), even though he’s happily married with a newborn.  She makes this clear while throwing down tequila chasers in a bar one night, confessing her plan to a guy she went to high school with, Matt (Patton Oswalt), perhaps the most refreshing character in the film, seen as a loser in high school, a guy whose locker was next to hers but she never gave him a second look as she was a high school beauty queen that rarely thought of anyone except herself.  Nothing has changed in that department, while others around her have matured and become more responsible citizens, which she ridicules endlessly as a town full of losers. 

Mavis’s answer to everything is to fill herself full of liquor, which she does pretty much every day, falling face first into her bed at night without ever crawling under the covers.  Like Reese Witherspoon in LEGALLY BLONDE (2001), she has a tiny dog that you can carry around in the palm of your hand that she all but ignores.  Matt becomes her regular drinking buddy, where he conveniently has a homemade whisky still in his garage and the two commiserate about his loser life in high school and her narcissistic intentions with a married man that seem wacko.  The excessive amount of liquor consumption is a fairly standard device in the movies these days, which doesn’t seem to find alcoholism the least bit offensive or obnoxious, treating it as an opportunity for the characters to get more chummy and honest.  In Matt’s case, this may be true, as he’s strictly a side character whose role becomes more relevant due to his genuine earnestness, while Mavis never for a single moment stops thinking of herself, like a smug and pampered rich bitch that treats everyone around her like crap, thinking their lives are little more than boring and miserable, where their freedom is typically hampered by having annoying babies.  Her plan is to swoop in and rescue Buddy from this dreaded fate, knowing he would drop everything to run away with her.  This is a strange take on the American Dream, which Mavis has appropriated as doing whatever she wants at everyone else’s expense.           

While there are a few comical gestures, mostly in the exaggerated MEAN GIRL (2004) cruelty of Mavis’s derision of others, spoken mostly when drunk, as if this actually opens up possibilities for speaking candidly, but most may be surprised at how quietly unfunny this film actually is, as it’s more awkward and uncomfortable than funny, like watching a train wreck waiting to happen.  Had there been more revelations, one can endure plenty of uncomfortable moments, but this film is as vacuous as it seems, where the empty-headed character who spends all her time accessorizing with manicures and pedicures and buying new clothes for herself really never gets below the surface, as she’s pretty much the same vain egotist she was in high school, where her good looks have allowed her to get away with anything.  The way she stuffs herself with junk food and candy, not to mention plenty of alcohol, it’s a stretch to believe she never gains any weight.  But this is Charlize Theron we’re talking about, who dons several different flirtatious and beguiling looks and still looks terrific when hung over in the morning.  All in all, little happens, little is learned, and little changes, where the movie is basically a window into small town America as seen through the eyes of an overly pampered Barbie doll with a love for booze and spewing venom about the wretched and miserable lives of others, all the while blind to how pathetic her own miserable life has become.  She is a perennial user, a blood sucker, a parasite, the kind of girl who survives by manipulating others to get what she wants.  In the end all we can ask is so what?  Why should we care? 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Huckleberry Finn (1920)

HUCKLEBERRY FINN                 C+
USA  (75 mi)  1920  d:  William Desmond Taylor                     
HUCKLEBERRY FINN (1920) official trailer - YouTube

Nearly a decade after the release of his popular The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Mark Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1885, considered one of the great American novels largely due to painting such a vivid portrait of life along the Mississippi River, including the use of highly colorful characters, a somewhat scathing use of Southern antebellum flavor, including the controversial use of regional dialect, making satiric references to entrenched attitudes towards slavery that persisted at the time, including language and stereotypes now deplored as racist, including the frequent use of the word “nigger,” which does not appear in the film.  The book was condemned by author Louisa May Alcott upon release and the public library in Concord, Massachusetts refused to carry the book, claiming it was “more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.”  Despite continuing efforts to ban this book specifically for the protagonist’s language, including condensed editions released today which delete the offensive words, what’s unique is the original inclusion as a remarkable depiction of regional accuracy.  This is an era when public lynchings of disobedient or caught runaway slaves were still common, an incident that is aptly described in the book but was deleted in this film. 

To this Irish born director’s credit, he was an avid reader and previously filmed TOM SAWYER in 1917 and HUCK AND TOM a year later, so he was intimately familiar with the material, but deleted much of the most controversial aspects of the story.  Still, there are somewhat shocking visual portrayals of slaves as lazy and listless, often seen sleeping throughout the day, while slave children are happily seen eating watermelon.  Truthfully, this film is no more shocking than the depiction of slaves fiercely loyal to the Confederacy in GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), often listed as one of the great American films, including 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.  Noted as the first feature length film version of the popular book, it was recently restored to a 35 mm print by the film preservationist George Eastman House, including occasional use of surrealism and color tinting.  The Silent film is being released with a newly scored soundtrack by the Mont Alto Orchestra, which is included in the version seen on Turner Classic Movies television and airing the same night as the Portage theater screening, courtesy of the Northwest Chicago Film Society, which included live organ accompaniment by Jay Warren.  While the vivid detail of the restored image is state of the art, there are a few cuts to a black screen noting a sequence with lost footage, also some nearly destroyed images that show signs of print deterioration.  

Without the use of any real stars, the film opens and closes with bookend shots of Mark Twain sitting in a rocking chair on his front porch, where the movie becomes his recollections of what he’d written, seen as a companion piece to Tom Sawyer.  Set on the Missouri shores of the Mississippi River a decade or so before the Civil War, Huck, played by 17-year old Lewis Sargent, is placed under the guardianship of two stern elderly women, Widow Douglas and her contrary and authoritarian minded sister Miss Watson who seem bound a determined to teach him some manners, forever instilling upon him some rules to live by. Despite the confining chokehold from the restricted, civilized life, it’s better than when his drunk and abusive father returns to the scene literally kidnapping him and enslaving him with the sole intention of beating him, where Huck’s soon had enough of “civilization,” fakes his death and escapes on a raft down the river with an escaped slave named Jim.  Shortly afterwards the duo is met on the riverbank by a pair of escaping con artists claiming to be a Duke and a King, two outrageous scoundrels who do nothing but continually hatch plans to fool people into parting with their cash.  When they hear of the death of a property owner, they soon impersonate the missing brothers who stand to inherit the proceeds, quickly acquiring a bagful of cash that Huck hides from the scheming imposters as he’s fallen for one of the daughters, who becomes the girl of his dreams, Mary Jane, played by Esther Ralston, who by the end of the decade became one of the highest paid Silent film actresses, known for her flamboyant lifestyle that included riding around in a chauffeur driven Rolls-Royce where the chauffeur’s uniform matched the color of her dress.  

Huck’s journey leads him to a personal transformation, as he slowly comes to realize that all is not as it seems, that Jim is his real friend, loyal and helpful, despite being on the run from the law, while the Duke and the King are liars and cheats who always find a public following of fools yet they continually get away scot free, though in the book they are eventually tarred and feathered.  In the end Huck realizes that Jim’s escape from slavery, a world of captive brutality, is no different than his own need to escape the vicious beatings from his own drunk and belligerent father.  Despite what seems like neverending inner titles advancing the story, where you spend much of the time reading this movie, the director makes little differentiation between the changing perceptions on land and on the river, where what’s missing is the wry humor and relentlessly sarcastic, observational tone that holds society on the riverbank up to ridicule by continually poking fun at the neverending hypocrisy happening all around them.  By leaving out the most provocative and detestable material, the director is undermining the full power and intent of the novel.  Absent Twain’s real genius, which is to belittle and castrate existing trends of wrongfully imposed morality through a kind of everyday, warm and folksy humor, ironically using two oddly illiterate heroes to expose this kind of social revelation, the audience here is rarely in on the joke, often missing the eventual elevation of one’s consciousness from the seething tone of disenchantment with the now duly deposed antebellum world.  Huck’s flight to freedom should feel like an iconic journey that the entire newly liberated, post Civil War nation is taking right alongside with him.     

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Sitter

THE SITTER               C                    
USA  (81 mi)  2011  d:  David Gordon Green

One way to approach David Gordon Green’s descent away from art films and into the more lucrative Hollywood industry is to think of this movie as little more than an extended short, as basically this is a one idea film, all the things that could go wrong with a completely inept and unqualified babysitter, using a variation on WC Field’s contemptuous view of children theme and then attacking the audience with anarchistic set pieces that will either leave you laughing at the derisive nature of the beast or bolting from the theater in disgust.  If the idea is simply to provoke a reaction, then Green has likely succeeded, though this was probably more fun on the set than the finished product onscreen, likely the case in far too many comedies.  What’s missing here is a cohesive whole, as instead it’s something of a sprawling mess of various likely improvised ideas that never really come together.   

Rather than a just missed comedy, this may be a huge quasi experimental misstep that is amusing by just how far away from comedy this movie occasionally travels, reminiscent of the Macaulay Caulkin HOME ALONE (1990, 1992) series which was one extended misadventure filled with ludicrous set ups and sight gags that in themselves became ridiculous after awhile.  What this mostly resembles, however, are the Doctor Seuss children stories, where kids are left pretty much on their own with no discernable adult presence where they run amok creating havoc and mischief for a brief period before everything returns back to normal by the time their parents get home.  That’s pretty much the film, which includes the random screw ups of the adult sitter in charge, the man-child Jonah Hill as the clueless Noah.  It always helps if the kids can have mature moments when they act much older than their ages, allowing each, by the end, to benefit from the time spent with one other. 

From the outset, using his familiar cinematographer Tim Orr, Green loves to use inventive camera shots, from double to triple screen, superimposed imagery, slow mo and fast action sequences, and even a sideways cam, all a bit offsetting and disruptive from the comfort zone of the viewer, but also offering a taste of the world being viewed from a slightly different vantage point that has tilted askew.  While some may find stereotypes offensive, they are fairly prevalent in comedy sketches, and this film has a field day exuding the pleasures of exploitation flicks which are in the wheelhouse of this director who grew up with 70’s and 80's films.  Taking a riff on the American mainstream family portrayal, Green takes a look at living in the posh neighborhoods of the lily white suburbs with overly pampered and alienated kids, clueless parents who have their own sexual repressive and adulterous issues, where one parent routinely has to look away in order to maintain the high quality of life to which they’ve become accustomed, where morality is a smokescreen, something you purchase in order to impress others with instead of upholding any personal convictions. 

This is the backdrop of the story, where Noah, an aimless, overweight and unemployed twenty something who has amounted to nothing in life is still living at home with his single mother, where they both commiserate over the evils of his absent dad who has left them high and dry, now running a highly successful business yet still lags woefully behind on his alimony payments.  Noah routinely degrades himself for female companionship, where self-absorbed Marisa (Air Gaynor) allows him to pleasure her while keeping all other sexual contact off the table.  When his mom finally has a chance to go out and have an evening of her own, it’s nearly spoiled when the couple she’s going to a social event with loses their babysitter at the last moment, allowing Noah to fill in, where he’s interestingly introduced to three misfits, Slater (Max Records), the overmedicated kid who's pretty much afraid of all human contact, Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez), the adopted Central American child with a penchant for explosives and wearing cowboy boots with pajamas, and Blithe (Landry Bender), the reincarnation of Jonbenet Ramsey, an adorable young child with an eye on becoming a celebrity with a flair for gossip and the excessive use of sparkle make up. 

When Marisa calls from a party offering full sexual contact if he’ll score some coke and come pick her up, all bets are off on conventional babysitting as Noah stashes the kids in the back of the family minivan for a rollicking escapade on the town, where he has a few stops to make along the way, all of which explode in his face with things going wrong, including a hilarious trip to a warehouse filled with scantily clad male bodybuilders where a gay escort on roller skates (Sean Patrick Doyle) leads them inside to see Karl (Sam Rockwell), the coked up, out of control drug dealer (with his portrait on the wall) who wants everybody to be his friend, actually ranking them by number, where he’s continually challenged to make on the spot readjustments with each new person he meets.  Karl believes in manly hugs, loyalty and likeability, pointing guns at anyone who falls out of line, which is Noah when Rodrigo makes off with Karl’s personal stash.  Turning into something of a spirited, free wheeling romp, where blacksploitation action, gangsta rap, and a gorgeous black girl friend Roxanne (Kylie Bunbury) literally drop out of the sky offering him a reprieve from the mediocrity of life in the suburbs.  A lighthearted story about being true to yourself, it’s a minor riff on middle class complacency, much of which feels generic and is not so much about anything as expressing a message of creating your own unique style of living, where it’s best not to take anyone or anything for granted. While enjoyable at times, it’s also completely forgettable.  

Friday, December 9, 2011

Letters From the Big Man

LETTERS FROM THE BIG MAN        B                   
USA  (115 mi)  2011  d:  Christopher Münch

Having recently seen An Unmarried Woman (1978) starring Jill Clayburgh, this movie interestingly stars her daughter, Lily Rabe, as Sarah, an outdoor enthusiast who previously worked for the U.S. Forest Service, but is now leaving the city of Medford, Oregon with the last few personal belongings she’s taking with her following a recent breakup.  She’s hired on with the Forest Service again to do a special survey charting the natural recovery in a wilderness area nearly destroyed by a fire a decade ago, beautifully shot by cinematographer Rob Sweeney almost entirely in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness of Southwest Oregon, between Interstate 5 and the coast just north of the California border.  Sarah is seen as a strong-willed woman with an immediate sense of purpose, who wastes little time talking needlessly, who yearns for the solitary comfort of the forest as a means of recovery.  An aerial shot follows her as she winds her way through the narrow canyon roads, eventually discarding the van and then kayaking ahead further before heading alone on foot, making her way deeper into the wilderness until the wordlessness and captivating beauty of the landscape matches her curiously isolated state of mind, where she pulls out a sketchpad to draw what she sees while also jotting down notes on a tiny notepad.  Sarah is the well-trained and more experienced equivalent of the clueless Christopher McCandless character from INTO THE WILD (2007) heading for Alaska on his own searching for an adventure in the wild.  Sarah seems to be a child of privilege, as her rude and abrupt manner with people is typically intended to create space where she doesn’t want to be bothered.  Finally back in her element, accompanied by the Renaissance Madrigal sound of the chamber group Ensemble Galilei, the colors and natural sounds come into play where the audience is treated to a magnificent hiking adventure without ever leaving their seats, as the luscious splendor of the wilderness couldn’t be more stunning to the uninitiated, and to those who have been there before, this landscape beckons for your return. 

Sarah has the sense that someone is following her, where a mythical Sasquatch or Bigfoot creature can continually be seen lurking behind the rocks visible to the audience but remains unseen to Sarah.  While this might seem ridiculous in some films, Münch, the director of the scintillating SLEEPY TIME GAL (2002), uses a clever device of blending the character into the story by keeping the audience wondering if the forest creature is real or imagined, as despite her seemingly healthy physical endurance, this could all be taking place inside her head, as expressed in a dreamlike moment when a giant-sized, sunlight reflection image of Bigfoot appears before her which seems completely imagined, like a hallucination.  When a fellow hiker appears at a clearing, Sean (Jason Butler Harner), Sarah goes into her realist survival mode, investigating him and carefully making sure the hiker is not carrying a gun before sharing a campsite.  Both are ardent outdoor enthusiasts who are probably as comfortable alone in the woods as most would be in the company of their families.  Sarah makes it clear her “serenity” has been interrupted, so Sean’s visit is brief, though it appears they both have much in common when they discuss their mutual appreciation for the area.  In an unexpected, all too sudden time shift, Sarah has returned to civilization where she’s enjoying the Ashland Shakespeare Festival performance of The Tempest, which is seen as a play about art and magic and how it’s easy to confuse the two.  In an amusing gesture, Sarah, something of a fitness freak, is seen on a stationary bike and a jump rope to keep up her conditioning, as the arduous hiking is apparently child’s play to her.  Sarah’s new home is an idyllic cabin set deep in the woods, where she’s by now become used to the strange sounds of her woodland pursuer.  While she was initially suspect of being followed, not sure what to expect, she has now grown safer and more reassured, spending more time worrying about the nagging mosquitoes than this seemingly unknown but still felt presence.

Like something out of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums (1958) and Desolation Angels (1965), books which actually reflect his own personal journals that he kept one summer when he worked for the Forest Service in the North Cascades of Washington as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak, a remote outpost sitting atop a mountain summit, Sasquatch appears to her as if in her dreams, where she starts making vivid sketches in her journal of what she sees, quickly becoming evident that she believes the creature is real.  Meanwhile, Münch cleverly intermixes realist argumentative posturing of local environmental activists (which includes Sean and Karen Black!) with Forest Service executives (which includes the data collected by Sarah), where they’re attempting to mediate their differences with the logging industry, which reflect the actual concerns of anyone living in Oregon, as these battles have been raging for decades.  Using Sean’s romantic interest in Sarah as a substory, the film delves into his radical beliefs, which include the ravings of conspiracy theorists who believe there’s a secret government plot for the military to build a wilderness outpost for the sole purpose of capturing and exploiting the telepathic powers of Bigfoot, who seemingly, according to Indian lore, channels soothing and harmonious beliefs into his friends while sending signals of terror into his more distrustful enemies.  One of the Oregonian relics of the logging industry is Sarah’s friend Barney, Jim Cody Williams, a heavily bearded old geezer who expresses as much love and admiration for the trees as any of the environmentalists, which adds a kind of luster to this idyllic portrait of differing sides coming together in a mutual understanding of just how invaluable the natural world can be if used wisely.  Sarah defines the spirit of those backpackers who continually need to get back into the woods, enchanted by all kinds of mysterious spirits, real and mythical, all of which add more layers of understanding to the human experience.       

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Shame (2011)

SHAME                                   B+                  
Great Britain  (101 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  Steve McQueen

As reflective of a deep cultural divide in this country, Cinemark Theaters, the third largest theater chain in the nation, refuses to show any film rated NC-17, which this is, as has Carmike, the nation’s fourth largest, and as will WalMart, the country’s top retail outlet, as they won’t sell Adults-only DVD’s.  Mind you, this is much ado over nothing, as there are no erections and no penetration shots, standard features in adult porn films, instead offering occasional naked glimpses of both men and women, and perhaps three featured graphic sex scenes, one fairly hard core in intensity only, while the other two are more suggestive than graphic, but the soundtrack includes plenty of online porn chatter.  The last NC-17 film to hit the theaters was Ang Lee’s LUST, CAUTION (2007), which grossed $4.5 million dollars, a sexually graphic, behind-the-scenes espionage tale set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in 1942 where a seductress was used to betray a powerful political figure suspected of collaborating with the enemy, reminiscent of Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS (1946). 

Not to be confused with the exquisite 1968 Bergman film by the same name, this film has no historical context but instead exudes a modern day existential emptiness, featuring the exploits of Michael Fassbender as Brandon Sullivan, an Irish born transplant to New York City where he has a successful executive career in sales.  Brandon’s thing is incessantly watching porn, where the shot is always upon his face, where nothing else besides sex seems to hold his attention for long.  While he goes bar-hopping after work with his boss, James Badge Dale, something of an obnoxious, overly anxious motor mouth that won’t shut up, his boss strikes out while Brandon’s quiet stares usually reel in the girl.  His life (without condoms) seems to be a neverending stream of loveless sex where one could certainly foresee a sexually transmitted disease to knock some sense into his head.  Instead the surprise blow comes in the form of an unexpected naked girl in his shower (Carey Mulligan, we should all be so lucky!!) when he arrives home one night.  While the two obviously share some intimate history that’s never revealed, McQueen extends the curiosity factor for quite some time before revealing this is his sister. 

Honestly, brother and sister movies are relatively rare, where Polanski had a field day in CHINATOWN (1974), or Kenneth Lonergan’s quirky indie film YOU CAN COUNT ON ME (2000), but more often children are featured such as Bergman’s classic FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982), Hirokazu Kore-eda’s NOBODY KNOWS (2004), or Charles Laughton’s THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955).  One of the best ever remains John Cassavetes' last film, LOVE STREAMS (1984), a superlative love story swirling in wrong choices and missed opportunities, where its last breath of hope suggests it’s never too late to start anew.  Written by the director and Abi Morgan, this is not your typical family drama, as both siblings are drenched in a profound hurt and sadness that runs so deep they can’t even talk about it, instead growing frustrated and angry.  But one of the scenes of the film is hearing Mulligan sing a slow and heart wrenchingly sad rendition of “New York, New York” heard here:  Shame Official Trailer #2 - YouTube (1:34), which can’t help but alter one’s expectations of this film, as this is Mulligan unlike we’ve ever seen her before, turning this overheated promotional anthem to a city into a song of quiet introspection.   The performances simply excel, as both brother and sister are fiercely intense and provocatively uninhibited, yet also damaged goods that are internally scarred.  Brandon’s reaction to her is powerfully devastating, throwing him off his game, as she’s disrupting his routine, invading all the spaces where he’s used to hiding from the rest of the world, eventually throwing out several giant garbage bags of illicit material he doesn’t want her to see. 

There’s an interesting turn of events at work when an attractive black coworker, Nicole Beharie, outwardly flirts over coffee, leading to a dinner date in a restaurant, where their conversation is compelling by the very casual yet sincere way he acknowledges his distaste for extended relationships, where she instantly sees herself potentially trapped, yet also intrigued by his easy going charm and intelligence that makes her sense there’s more going on with this guy than he’ll admit to.  Other than his sister, these two spend the most onscreen time together and exhibit the highest levels of acute sensitivity, certainly piquing the interest of this black director, where the next afternoon Brandon whisks her away from the worksite for a little afternoon delight, bringing her to the most fabulous upscale hotel room (The Standard Hotel, The Standard New York) most have ever seen with ceiling to floor windows overlooking a wharf with the picturesque city skyline across the river.  It’s enough to make your knees buckle and impossible not to feel an adrenal rush of excitement and a tinge of sensual titillation in such a plush environment.  People’s reactions to this film may vary, as many are simply uncomfortable watching couples in the throes of sexual intimacy, especially where there’s scant evidence of love in the air, where meaningless intimacy evades explanation altogether.  McQueen eloquently frames these affairs with an air of prolonged indifference, holding the camera and refusing to look away from the collateral damage, usually accompanied by Glenn Gould’s near scientifically perfect technique playing the piano music of Bach.  Within this sublime perfection something must go amiss, and within that minefield of confusion lies Brandon’s endlessly lost soul.     

Perhaps the strongest asset this film offers is the sound design and use of music, original score written by Harry Escott, where the quietly detached precision of solitude contrasts against a heavy surge of emotion that occasionally overwhelms the viewers, flooding the scene with depths of sound that seem to come out of nowhere, where you’re literally captivated and engulfed in the moment.  McQueen’s use of quiet and spare music during some of the most wrenchingly emotional moments is reminiscent of Kurosawa’s poetic use of hushed music during the most horrific battlefield sequences in RAN (1985), offering an eerie calm to an endless series of mounted columns of soldiers sweeping across the plains, most plundering to their bloody deaths in a savage depiction of human brutality.  By the end of this film, a composite of ever increasing uncomfortable moments, Brandon has gone through a meat grinder and plunges into unknown territory, haunted by the depths of despair, driven by circumstances completely out of his comfort zone, where what should be sexual ecstasy written on his face instead shows wearying grimaces of sorrow and agonizing pain.  Life is reduced to a struggle where nothing comes easy, where anguish falls on deaf ears, where his own capacity to involve others leaves something to be desired, as all he knows how to do is evade reality and create his own private space, becoming invisible, like a ravaged ghost of a human being, reduced to a kind of male incubus whose spirit wanders the streets like Sisyphus preying on the subconscious sexual needs of women, where his own needs are eternally unfulfilled.