26 February 2011

Cold Weather *

It seems to me that the goal (conscious or otherwise) of Cold Weather is to make a "mumblecore mystery" film, playing with the mumblecore toolbox and telling a sort of sideways crime story, another in-over-our-heads watched-too-many-movies amateur-detective story (which, to be fair, I generally enjoy quite a bit, at least in theory). I didn't stick around for the director's Q&A because it was obvious it would be an endless round of silver-hairs asking what street such-and-such a scene was shot on, or how they got permission to use the Montage, or whatever. (Sadly, random-audience Q&As are rarely any good, full of silly production questions and local-filmmaker-makes-good stories are even less likely to be.) So I can't say for sure that the intent was to go down that road, but at best I'd say that's what he accidentally did, if he didn't do it knowingly.

Anyway, you can more or less get away with writing a low-key pseudo-observational "real" (messy/sluggish/quirky/unstructured) interpersonal drama or relationship comedy, but when you inject an overly-familiar high-concept plotline into that same story, the amorphous storytelling gets in the way because there really is action to follow, stuff really is happening, and your characters are going to have to act or react as needed to keep the story moving. My hope was that the filmmakers would play with the expectations of the genre in some clever and perhaps unexpected ways, as they told their mumblecore-y story of listless middle class dudes taking jobs beneath them and put off growing up for as long as possible. Instead it just kind of lurched awkwardly in and out of some familiar scenes with no sense for action or thriller pacing. Moments dragged on without being humorous or exciting (I admit there's something "real" about the boredom of a stakeout, but if you can't develop your characters or advance your story with this scene, why are you showing it to me at all?) and key elements to drive the story just kept plopping into our heroes' laps (the missing girl just up and calls them on the phone; the briefcase was a breeze to steal; all peril seemed entirely imaginary in this story).

Further, too much of the story was driven by the side characters, which totally undermine any idea that our hero Doug is anything but a lazy slacker who's all talk. He insists he loves Sherlock Holmes and "wants to be a detective" (of the non-CSI/Sherlock Holmes variety no less) but refuses to take action and is the wet blanket when they begin their adventures. And on a side note, as a guy who's probably even geekier than he lets on (and I hardly hide it), I was irked by the idea that some Conan Doyle fanboy wouldn't be at least amenable to Star Trek fandom, and would have heard the names of the characters (Counselor Troi, anyway; maybe not Gul Dukat). His bro-ish resistance to acknowledge that it might be fun, even for the fans, struck me as the weirdest beat for that character, and only served to help me like him less. Basically, in the end, Doug is a wiener who wanted to be Sherlock Holmes but gave it up because the schooling was too hard, still talks about the big dreams, doesn't even understand nerd culture or how to talk to nerds of a different color, and won't even step up to be the story's protagonist without the constant propping up of his sister and his cool DJ/Star Trek geek/ice worker friend.

Everything's too easy, moves too slow (the missing girl mystery doesn't happen until about forty-five minutes in; that means half of this movie is act one), and we begin and end the movie with Doug and his sister in roughly the exact same place: more or less happily cohabitating, getting along, passing the time without actually doing anything. Honestly, the film is almost a clever portrait of spinning plates instead of actually living, and except for the anxiety-inducing glacialness of the story's midsection and a story with no stakes (or momentum, really), I could almost say it works as such. Only that renders all of the characters unlikeable, unsympathetic, and uninteresting.

It's not like I hated this or anything. I just felt like it was a disappointment, a misstep. But the audience ate it up, and I clearly wanted something from Cold Weather that the director didn't feel it was necessary to deliver. So chalk it up to difference of taste.

Oh, but I did hate the pointlessly shaky handheld camera work. Made it feel a lot cheaper than it probably was.

Seen at Cinema 21 as part of the Portland International Film Festival.

22 February 2011

Katalin Varga *

I once tried to write a sort of crime-tinted road movie drama with a tone similar to this (though a story that was drastically different), and at the time it seemed like such a simple structure, something I could just belt out quickly and easily. Of course writing is never that simple, and the project gathers dust on the proverbial shelf and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, but Katalin Varga makes writing a good dark-drama road-movie script look so effortless I almost feel ashamed that I couldn't complete my own. That's just an artifact of good, clean writing, however, because the truth is this is a very complicated story with some very complicated morals behind it. The characters are fairly one-track minded but never one-dimensional, and although the scenes are often efficient to the point of sparsity, the story doesn't lack for layers because of it.

There's a lot I could say for the moral world of the story here, but it really speaks for itself and anything I might say would really just be summarizing the drama for those who haven't seen it, and really they should see it. I'd say this falls in the Recommended If You Like category for fans of Kelly Reichert who crossover with fans of dark existentialism, but this film has also got a fair amount of Lynch's Inland Empire DNA just beneath the surface. The sound design is stellar throughout (turns out they won some awards for it, and rightly so), and the composition finds this great unexplored space between provincial realism and lucid-dream surrealism.

As to the story, the sequence of events is somewhat deceptively straightforward. In that, it reminded me of other Romanian films I've seen, like last year's Police, Adjective (though admittedly, this film is a Hungarian language film shot in Romanian Transylvania by a British filmmaker, and didn't quite feel like the "Romanian New Wave"), because both films seem more about the conversations that come after watching than the conversations or events that occur onscreen.

Anyway it's good. You should definitely check this out if you get a chance. It's dark and depressing, and yet kind of enervating all at the same time. But for a movie that I can call both realistic and surreal, that seems only appropriate.

Seen at the Broadway Metroplex as part of the Portland International Film Festival.

19 February 2011

Rubber *

The first thirty or forty minutes of Rubber are exciting and energizing. Rarely has something been so pointedly unpredictable and self-aware without feeling overcooked or pretentious. Forgive me for taking the high-minded (read: totally pretentious) road here, but: on the one hand it was a skillful characterization of an inert, characterless object that said a lot about the nature of narratives and protagonists; and on the other hand it was a self-conscious anti-story deconstruction of everything the genre movie (and especially the exploitationy slasher film) means to be. For all of act one and the beginning of act two, this was something I'd never seen before, and it was fun, and funny, and exciting, and meta, and thoughtful, and strongly deconstructionist. It hit my high-brow and low-brow sides just right. But only for the first thirty or forty minutes.

Not that after that it's a disaster. I'm still glad I saw it. It's just that, once we've got the many conceits that get us into act two rolling, we don't really get any more flashes of brilliance. Instead we just ride the waves caused by those initial ripples for another forty or so minutes. It's still fun in bursts, and clever at times, but it loses its newness and its oddness. It may be strange to call the story of a psychokinetic murderous living tire rampaging through a slightly self-aware movie world monotonous, but there you have it. Once things get up to speed we never really change gears, and for that reason we kind of lose steam before the end (mixaphorically speaking). The end itself, of course, is the same unexpected and untelegraphed anti-end that you'd expect from something trying so deliberately to be an anti-story. It lacks resolution and satisfaction, pointedly, and I can live with that. But getting there should have had more of the original twists and turns that carried every minute of the first act forward.

I knew going in that Mr. Oizo had done the music for this, but I did not know, to be honest, that writer/director Quentin Dupieux was Mr. Oizo. In retrospect, that should have been obvious. On the one hand it seems very Spike Jonze (and Jack Plotnik, who plays the "Accountant," even looks like Spike Jonze in character) but more than that the way the personification of the tire is handled -- deadpan, casual, tragicomic -- reminds me somehow of the Mr. Oizo music videos, which were of course also directed by Dupieux himself.

Definitely glad I saw this, but it starts with a premise so bold and strong and unusual and novel that it's almost impossible to follow through, so it's not one I'm going to rush out to see again or rave to my friends about.

Seen at the Hollywood Theater as part of the Portland International Film Festival.

18 February 2011

ลุงบุญมีระลึกชาติ (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) *

It's frustrating to watch a film that's basically all symbolism and recognize that you're only getting about 20% of the symbols, but that's how it felt for me as I watched this. Totally dreamlike, a sad fantasy world based on a very eastern approach to mythology and philosophy, and full of historical, cultural, political references that I have only the slightest ideas about. Still, as Jen points out, it's a testament to how fundamentally good a movie is when you still get and enjoy it on a core level despite all the missed layers and references.

The same "monkey spirits" in this -- or similar enough for me, an outsider -- appear as vaguely hostile forces in Princess Mononoke: dark, shaggy shapes lacking distinction or detail, with impossibly glowing red eyes. But seeing them here, in live action, was so much more beautiful and surreal than seeing animated creatures. The moments between Boonmee and his wife, Huay, were consistently touching in how underplayed and vulnerable they were, and the general tone of casual, deadpan acceptance of the bizarre and the impossible lends a soft dignity to some of the stranger moments that I don't think a western film could pull off. The cave, the letting of his fluids, the talk between dying husband and dead wife about how and where they will meet in the afterlife, the monk and Aunt Jen becoming literally detached from their own bodies and going to get dinner in a karaoke bar while they also stayed behind to watch boring television -- all of it was beautiful and wonderful and rich. Not to mention the midstory vignette of the ugly princess and the catfish.

I really liked this film, and the world it shows me, and the mood and atmosphere of the whole thing, and I will definitely watch this again one day, but I still can't help but feel like most of it went over my head. It's too Thai to be meant for me, in a certain sense; but in another, it's perfectly universal and all the more powerful for being so obviously coded about much of its meaning.

Seen at CineMagic, as part of the Portland International Film Festival.

16 February 2011

Goethe! (Young Goethe in Love) *

I have always wished I knew more about Goethe and The Sorrows of Young Werther. It's always been a bit of a blind spot. All I knew, really, about Young Werther was that it's about how being young and heartbroken sucks and is supposedly responsible for more suicides than any other single work in the history of western literature. All I knew about Goethe was that Germany considered him their own personal Shakespeare and he was kind of a big deal. (Full disclosure: I completely forgot he was responsible for Faust, though halfway through this film I had my hunches.) So I was not in the ideal position to watch a film overflowing with nods to his most famous work -- though I seemed to be in a better position than the vocal minority of housewives and silver hairs who surrounded us in the theater.

For the most part, I liked it. Bits of it clung too easily to the hoariest of romance film formulas, but Wikipedia suggests that those things were true to the texts, which suggests to me that some of those hoary formulas may owe a debt to this, or at least to literature from this era. Reading how Young Werther is an amalgamation of Goethe's life, his friend Jerusalem's, and his fantasy version of events with Charlotte Buff, it's fitting to find a different configuration of these elements come alive in the film. In fact, reading just the summary on Wikipedia gives me already a newfound respect for both the film and its drama.

My one nagging thought, then, concerns the end. Young Werther did reportedly turn Goethe into an overnight sensation and celebrity, as was dramatized in the film, and that in itself felt sudden but didn't bother me. I enjoy that he leaves the work to Lotte and demands she burn it, but her final gift to him ("We cannot be together in truth, but we will always be together in poetry," she tells him) is the publication of his longing for her and the pain he's endured. It's a beautiful love letter outside the confines of actuality, wherein Lotte remains with the stable, mostly decent Albert. Even the reversal of Goethe's father from frustration to pride is perfectly fine with me (because even though he disdains all that "scribbling," he really only wants what's best for the boy, which in his mind is success -- not necessarily law).

What sticks out like a sore thumb about the end is Goethe's own reaction to all this. He seems overjoyed, bubbling with glee, without a care in the world. I wanted this ending, where his lost love is both literally and figuratively what gives him the recognition for the only other thing he's ever loved, to be bittersweet. He got what he wanted by losing what he wanted, and his heart suffered terribly for what he gained. Showing him let go of all that with such ease, shrugging off the inconvenient weight of all that "Sorrow" so readily, devalues the journey he's gone through and the loss he's borne. It twists the rest of the story, for me, in an awkward direction, where love and longing and loss become palatable experiences if artistic success can be gleaned from them. And while I may even, on some level, agree with that sentiment, to deny the sacrifice for the goal seems to happily render the sacrifice null, or close to.

So yeah, that ending (and his reaction to the story's conclusion) feels a little too 80s comedy for me. I half-expected Goethe to leap upward and freeze-frame in mid-air, knees bent, arms out, laughing hysterically with his buddies. But everything up until that point was really nicely handled, and much richer once I've done even the barest research into the story behind the story. Call it one more book I'd like one day to read, but who knows. As I've said, it's a depressingly long list.

Seen at the Broadway Metroplex, as part of the Portland International Festival.


Up is such a hard film to parse for me. I'm reasonably certain it's the most thematically and dramatically complex story Pixar has done yet. It's also the most symbolically rich film I think they've done, and as such I suspect it's the most unpackable Pixar film to date. More than any of the others -- even ones I personally have more fondness for (not that I'm short in the fondness department when it comes to this one) -- Up is a slippery riddle that seems to run off in all directions at once and still manages to feel like a single cohesive story.

Last time I watched this I dismissed it somewhat glibly as one of those stories (like Wall-E, like Juno) that starts in one direction and seems to veer off in another, broader direction once the story gets going, and I don't think that's a wrong assessment. It's just that Up seems like it does that a little differently, a little more aware. On first glance, it seems like the story is Carl's need to fulfill his dead wife's wish, to keep a crossed-heart promise to the young girl he fell so deeply in love with. In fact Carl achieves that, actually, about an hour in, and what's left is the discovery that his wife's final wish was not for him to live in their past but to "have new adventures," to never give up the ghost, and to live in his own present and future. Up isn't about a man trying to float a house down to a South American jungle to make real the silly dreams of his youth; it's about a man coping with loss and finding a way to honor that loss without losing himself as well.

To that end we also have other characters dealing with loss: Russell has lost his father (presumably to divorce); Charles Muntz has lost the respect of the nation, and maybe you could argue he's lost his soul to the bitterness of spending a lifetime hunting for Kevin, the giant bird -- who in turn has lost her family and the way home. There's even Dug, who's never really had a loving master as far as we know in the story. Dug's maybe an outlier, in that he wants the same kinds of things our heroes want (family, father/son relationship and love, dignity and self-respect) but we don't get the sense that these are things he has ever had. Still, for the most part Up feels like a bunch of lost and wounded souls with colliding trajectories. Or that's my passing theory on the subject.

The truth is, this new perspective still figures oddly into the final act, which pits Fredricksen against Muntz. I guess the key to all this is Kevin, the macguffin-in-bird-form, who is trying to get back to her home. Muntz wants to use her to absolve the shame of his career and prove that he was not a fraud and a fake (which, it should be pointed out, he was not, making his villainy almost problematically tragic), and Carl wants to rescue Kevin and deliver her to her babies -- which is actually not Carl's quest at all, but Russell's -- and even that is Russell's secondary quest since we begin the story with Russell's mission definitively set as "assisting the elderly" and helping Carl on Carl's journey -- and even that is just a means to an end, because what Russell is really after is reunion with his lost father (which is similar to how Carl's quest to relocate his house is actually a means to reconnecting with the ghost of his wife).

You can see how it's a puzzle to decode here. Halfway through the story -- when Carl looks through Ellie's Adventure Book and realizes she's lived her full life and only wants her husband to do the same -- Carl completely changes his goals. At this point in the narrative, Russell has already made up his mind, and abandons his main quest (assist Carl, win back his father) and pursues this secondary quest as well. This actually prompts a focus in Carl's objective from saving Kevin to saving Russell. I suppose what happens here is our two heroes learn to look past their own selfish needs and desires and to connect with a larger world, to both be a family unit and to help bring together other family units as well. Coping with loss means acknowledging the pain (and Up doesn't skimp, especially in the first forty minutes, on scenes that hurt) and embracing what follows, the new, the different, the unexpected. It's hard to say if I'm making excuses for a film's convoluted second act or digging into the heart of the matter and finding the true reason for it, but it does feel like a theme here is to find the next adventure and to connect with likeminded souls and to be a family, in the looser-and-so-much-more-meaningful Vonnegutian sense of the word "family."

On a stylistic note, Up walks the finest line of any modern fantasy I know of between gritty realism (the sets and action, the photography, the existence of death and despair and the gravity with which they're treated, the peril throughout, the even the use of mundane-sounding names like "Muntz" and "Russell" and "Carl Fredrickson") and broadly comic cartoonishness (the character design, the balloon-house premise, the simplicity of their mission and ease of getting to South America, the Disney's Alice in Wonderland tone of Kevin, and of course talking dogs who pilot aircraft and fear the cone of shame). Sometimes the story dips too far into one side or the other, and for my money the overly broad strokes are the trouble spots, but for the most part it manages to keep this balance surprisingly well. It's satisfying to watch and it's satisfying to think about.

Up isn't my favorite Pixar film. In some ways, it feels like one of the messiest, structurally. But in other ways, it really does feel like one of the most mature, and the messiness smacks of deliberate intent. (Compare to Wall-E, a film I personally felt had more potential in its simplicity but slipped too far into broadly-painted cartoon elements and never really came back -- the messiness there doesn't feel as deliberate.) Up feels worth closer and closer inspections, because so much is happening on so many layers. I didn't even talk about the visual symbolism -- I could write twice as much on that subject and still not crack the surface.

Pixar is famous for being the undisputed kings of western animation, and without question this is rightly so. But for all of the prettiness of their computer-generated art, character design, photography and effects, their greatest strength has always been in the writing. Nobody writes an animated script like Pixar, with tough-to-explain (let alone sell) premises and layers of meaning and emotional resonance. The screenplays are the golden secret weapon that keeps Pixar ahead of everyone else in the game, and Up is a perfect example.

14 February 2011

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

This film led to a long discussion about what holding auditions for actors is like, watching monologue after monologue, each one well-written, clever, and slightly overacted in that certain way: the actor wants you to know he or she gets it, that it's more than just words to them. Most monologues involve one character telling a single story to a captive, silent audience -- theater and film have concocted an endless number of excuses for this simple setup -- and basically, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men plays out as an endless stream of these. Part of that is inherent to the idea of interviews, naturally, and I suppose writer-director-actor John Krasinski had to choose between downplaying that and embracing it, and he clearly went with his theater and acting roots and embraced it. At times it becomes exhausting, but I wonder how much of that is just my own personal reaction after so many times sitting in an empty room behind a table and watching dude after dude after dude of roughly the same type and look deliver variations on the same two or three monologues directly to me. Not everybody's held auditions, so for some people this experience would be novel, or at least not flashback-inducing.

As to the content of the film, I haven't read this DFW novel collection of short stories so I can't say how much of it comes from that versus how much of it is the filmmaker's choice, but there is an episodic quality to the events in Sarah's life (the speechmaking guy, the neighbor at the closed door, the student obsessed with the positive-transformative side of rape, and so on), and I couldn't help but wish they were a little more connected somehow, or interwoven more than episodic. Mostly I wanted to see this applied to the subplot involving Daniel, the rape-obsessed thesis student, whose circular back-and-forth with Sarah was believable and interesting and aggravating (all at once), but in the end I felt that the beats of his story lost a lot of their impact by being piled on top of each other like they were.

Like the climactic speech of a good play, Krasinski's monologue at the end leaves a lot to mull over, specifically in the choices of the writers/director, and while it was a little offputting it wasn't displeasing, and it tied in nicely to the themes building throughout. If I follow the nonlinear storytelling properly, it was Sarah's breakup with Krasinski (sorry, I didn't catch the character's name) that directly led her to go to Professor Timothy Hutton and change the direction of her research into (briefly) interviewing (hideous) men. Withholding until this point what she was researching (feminism, and specifically what impact its advent has had on male culture) worked for me, in the way that a narrative shouldn't spell out its thesis until after it's already made it, if at all -- unlike a term paper or dissertation.

What didn't work for me in this reading, however, is something that speaks to what Professor Hutton said early on in the film, with regards to Nanook of the North: (I'm paraphrasing, but) "I know, it's kind of dry and uninteresting, but try and pay attention to the documenter, not the documented, and always remember to ask the big question: why?" At its heart, this isn't a story about the many ways many men react to a newly feminist world; this is the story of one woman and why she is pursuing this line of reasoning in the first place. And as Brief Interviews lays out for us, Sarah is pursuing this as a direct reaction to an awkwardly soul-baring speech by an ex-love confounded by his own fear of connection and suspicious of his role in the power dynamic of seduction.

Krasinski's confession that he never loved Sarah because he'd never known love hurts her, but her academic training kicks in like a (probably very common, judging from Krasinski's comments) defense mechanism, and instead of fighting back or taking a stand, she listens, she absorbs, and she quietly judges. She remains deadpan and stoic even after he's gone, furious and pitying that she cannot speak up or reach out (or even lash out). Her only reaction that we see -- again, if I've got the chronology right, and I think I do -- is to go to her professor and say, "You know, I'm tired of reading about feminism and women; that's been well-documented. I just realized men are a wreck because of this whole 'movement' thing, and there's a lot of rich, unmined territory there. I'd like to investigate that instead." It is hard to fault Krasinski for wandering astray, hooking up with what he thought was a pathetic floozy. It's just as hard to fault him for chasing an ephemeral moment of intensity upon hearing a story that embarrassed him out of his safety zones. (It's easy to fault him for having this pseudo-epiphany about connections with other humans so late in life, but there seems to be a recurring theme of just how emotionally stunted all these academics and intellectuals are anyway.)

Another thought: Daniel's speech about the empowerment and enlightenment that can only come after the most grievous acts of degradation and trauma has a clever reverse-parallel* in the point of her thesis. The opposite of degradation and trauma -- I guess you could make a case, the "opposite" of rape -- is liberation and equalization -- specifically in this case, the feminist movement. As such, the thesis that "empowerment and enlightenment can come from rape" can be reversed as "disempowerment and ignorance can come from feminism." Don't get me wrong, I'm not endorsing anything so glib in the slightest, but as a dramatic theme for a story, it's strong enough to string a lot of scenes on, and the clever head-to-tails contrast of these ideas is nice, though again that just reinforces my desire to see more done with the Daniel character and his incendiary philosophy.

Overall, the movie's interesting, and it's fun to watch a lot of these actors try overhard in a way that works (i.e., is neither hammy nor corny, nor any other food-based adjective I can think of), wrestling with a lot of quasi-provocative speeches and breathing life into a lot of wooden scenes. The ideas are strong and the film isn't a wreck, but it's not quite a success either, obviously for those same reasons. (It makes me wish I'd read the book, but who are we kidding? My to-read list is wildly disproportionate to my pace of books-per-year these days.) Glad I saw it. Not in love.

* Is that a thing, "reverse-parallel?" It should be. (I had to ask. Anyway, it wouldn't do to blog about a film based on David Foster Wallace without at least one footnote.)

Five Easy Pieces

I can see why this is an American classic, because it's got so much to say about class warfare, ivory-tower intellectuals, the nature of roots and the allure of rootlessness (and what is more American than denying one's roots and stomping boldly across untrodden soil?), and it has scenes devoted to workaday traffic jams, senseless inhuman bureaucracy, environmentalism, smug liberalism, art vs. work, the fear of death, the fear of new life, and every kind of existential angst a human adult was capable of feeling in 1970. Bobby is a seething, raging hypocrite, but like all good anti-heroes, he's someone who's darkness comes across as a defense mechanism against a time and place when things seem too crazy for anything else.

But for my money, the movie is a little too meandery and episodic, and the characters that populate the world drawn a little too broadly and simplistically. I like a little more ambiguity in my moral soapboxing, and a little more dimension to my characters and their relationships. Though the story does a good job of showing the good and the bad sides of almost every one of its main characters, the people themselves are still cartoonishly one-sided, more spokesmen for various perspectives and ideologies than rounded-out human beings. To be fair, I am almost positive this was deliberately done, and the number of ideologies that parade in front of Bobby's crosshairs is impressive and wide ranging. Still, I like characters over symbols, so I was left a little wanting in that regard.

On the other hand, I enjoy the end a lot. It's messy and it's preposterous (I mean, it's a perfectly fine ending; it's a preposterous choice Bobby makes) and it's obvious without being telegraphed.

So I didn't love it, but I admire and respect it. Years ago I'd started it once and gave up before the bowling alley sequence was over, and I'm glad I finally returned and gave it more due this time (I should thank Jen, who needed to watch this for class... and because it was late when we started it, still needs to). It's a solid piece of Americana, and many different angles and collisions are explored properly. A lot of different worthwhile papers could be crafted out of this film... or so it seems to me, on a single viewing.

13 February 2011

世界グッドモーニング!! (Good Morning to the World!) *

Before I get into this, I need to say: unfortunately, the version that the Portland International Film Festival is showing of this has some egregious, prohibitively distracting problems with its interlacing. Maybe every copy that went out looks like this, I don't know -- but it's definitely a fixable error. Specifically, I'm pretty sure it's a shift-field issue, and the truth is it tainted the experience of watching what was already an extreme-low-budget Japanese film that appears to have been shot on a ten-year-old DV camera. And so:

It depends on how you want to view this. Is it a deconstructionist anti-narrative, with one part coming-of-age road movie and one-part inside-out detective story? Or is it an amateur's meandering story with no center and no linear direction? Either way, along the way are some interesting parts and some clearly padded-out-for-no-reason parts, but it's difficult for me to say if the intent here is artsy and high-brow or simplistic and low-brow.

The film starts strong, with a kind of high-schooler version of Mersault accidentally causing (or having nothing to do with) a homeless man's death and getting his classmate in trouble with a strict teacher, resulting in enough social pressure to practically force him to skip class. All that's interesting, as pieces start to crumble and pressures start to build all around this stoic, sheltered, lonely boy. And as he begins a journey to return the bag he's stolen, or at least do some right by the man who died and inform his loved ones, the story should have become more engaging as his focus sharpened and the trail of chaos broadened, but those things don't happen. Instead we get a lifeless series of vignettes, what looks like an episodic trek through the rural outskirts of Japan in a film that might have cost as little as $200 to shoot (depending on how much hot air balloon rentals run).

So basically, it starts with dull promise and collapses quickly. But I have read this is a first (?) film by a 23-year-old student, and while it doesn't save the film to know this, I'd say this shows promise both in understated storytelling and economical filmmaking. I'd be interested to see future works by Satoru Hirohara, but I don't think there's enough in Good Morning to the World to revisit it, or to recommend it to others.

And Jen absolutely hated it.

Seen at the Broadway Metroplex as part of the Portland International Film Festival.

12 February 2011

The Informer

I can't decide if I really like this one as much as the last John Ford film I watched. Both spend a lot of act two in weird narrative dead-ends, and although it didn't bother me as much here as in Shark Island I wasn't as in love with this story as with the last. It felt a little too much like a cheap, drunk, Irish Crime & Punishment with lesser stakes -- though more politicized: rather than committing murder our anti-hero merely betrays a compatriot instead. Plus, instead of being motivated by an existentialist ideal taken to absurd extremes, our drunk buffoon is motivated by an idiot's dream of coming to America. I'm sure there are layers and ramifications to this, but in the end it all comes down to everybody (his girlfriend, the leader of their group, and even the victim's mother) forgiving him in the face of the repeated chorus "[he] didn't know what [he] was doing."

What I did like about it is the seedy nightlife of a mean Irish city and the out of control binge Gypo goes on, careening like a pinball from one dangerous situation to another and leaving a wake of chaos and greed and suspicion. The more untethered he becomes in his wanderings, the more pleasurable I found the story actually, but the tailing operatives tallying up his cashflow felt a little easy -- like a conspiracy of invisible accountants. The big tribunal sequence was nice, though, and it was interesting to watch our hero so willfully and brazenly throw an innocent man under the bus. Gypo was kicked out of the organization some time earlier and only reinstated on the stipulation he find and eliminate the informer (for a moment I was hoping for a 1930s John Ford Gangs of New York meets A Scanner Darkly thriller, but alas). My thought is, maybe someone with the poor judgment and low impulse control that Gypo Nolan has shouldn't be a) let into your little club, b) trusted with any kind of secrets at all.

Anyway, it was an all right film, but not my favorite John Ford. It held together well and set up a great and wonderful messy little world... just didn't grip me or keep me as engaged as The Prisoner of Shark Island managed to.

11 February 2011

The Prisoner of Shark Island

I didn't know until just now that this was based on the true story of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, but of course it is. It's too grand and bizarre and interesting a story to be otherwise. I was about to suggest that it might also explain some of the stranger directions the story goes in, most notably the attempted-but-thwarted escape sequence, but according to Wikipedia, that's all made up, it turns out. Still, this is a pretty exciting film, and damn impressive for 1936 in terms of action and drama.

I made a point to watch this when reading Samuel Fuller talk about Shock Corridor and being visited by Ford and calling him "the man who made the great Prisoner of Shark Island," and I can definitely see how the claustrophobia and madness inherent to the fort made an impression on Fuller's film years later.

The structure is a little odd, taking forty-plus minutes to get the prisoner onto shark island and all, and then spending the next thirty or so with his wife's scheme to storm the castle and bring her man back to Key Largo for a new trial -- which works until their ship is boarded (and her father murdered, no less). Considering this was Dr. Mudd's story primarily, I'm surprised this whole sequence occurs. I mean, I'm glad Mrs. Mudd wasn't portrayed as sitting at home wringing her hands and waiting for a miracle, but other than showing how hard it is to escape, it seemed to be a massive, needlessly complicated dead-end that had nothing to do with the final act's action. Then again, I guess you can't really put an innocent dude in a prison called Shark Island and not have a long daring escape sequence.

But aside from the dead-ends and long side-stories, I was pretty impressed. Dr. Mudd looks haunting with his skinny body, wild hair, and shaggy beard, but commanding with his half-buttoned dress shirt and funny little mustache. A lot of scene-stealingly great character actors (including John Carradine among them) populate the sidelines throughout, which helps the world feel lived-in and interesting.

My only comment left is the music. The "score" was primarily made up of variations on two songs. "Dixie" I understand, though it didn't always work. On the other hand, the love-theme and tragic/sad song of choice throughout was "O Tannenbaum" (or "Oh Christmas Tree," if you prefer), and frankly, that never worked. Why does Christmas music play as he is escorted to prison? Why does Christmas music play as his wife mourns her broken home? Am I wrong and maybe "O Tannenbaum" has non-Christmas connotations as well? (Wikipedia doesn't mention any.) It's just distracting and confusing. But other than that, and some gee-golly-yes-massa overacting by the "Negroes" (which was at least era-appropriate, I admit, but still felt overperformed to me), I was really impressed. Definitely lives up to the legend Samuel Fuller bestowed on it for me.


It'd been a long time since I'd seen this, and it's an interesting study in what works and what doesn't. (If I have only a little to say, it's largely due to having just read an excellent piece by Nathan Rabin comparing the two Lolitas, from his book My Year of Flops.)

The film version is unsurprisingly light when it comes to the characters' sexuality and sexual adventures -- no long sequences devoted to Lo's spindly limbs coated in sweat or anything of the sort -- and of course Dolores Haze here is a good deal older than twelve, but the general detached-lust and totally askew protagonist remain, as does the flippant ambivalence of the girl in question. The film isn't shy about the tension between them and even has room for some humorously suggestive bisexual voraciousness from Sellers's Claire Quilty, so you can't accuse the film of being sexless, or even toothless -- just reserved.

What's more interesting are some of the other omissions Kubrick makes as he goes. The most obvious seems to be that Humbert isn't allowed a single moment of genuine joy here (this thought originated in Rabin's book, I confess). The two sequences of Humbert actually having Lolita, both the one first time and the subsequent six months together, are over and done with in a crossfade and some stilted voiceover (for a novel that relies on the beauty of first-person prose, it's odd that the voiceover feels so stiff and formal here -- I can't tell if that's a deliberate choice or the result of it being a post-meddler fix on Kubrick's part). The life of Humbert Humbert is rendered even more pathetic here than in the book, where at least he is his own hero and suffering victim, rather than a petulant, obsessed paranoid-neurotic.

Overall, I like the story all right. It's clearly not the gem later Kubrick movies would be (this one was famously meddled with, as I just alluded to, and I believe Kubrick once said, "If I'd have known how much trouble I'd go through to make it I never would have started the project in the first place."), but it's got a lot of great moments. Peter Sellers plays almost too broad but he's never less than entertaining... though I wonder. It's been a long time since I've read the novel; are we supposed to know that all those "chance encounters" were just Claire Quilty fucking with Humbert the whole time? As it plays in the film, it's so obviously Sellers in those roles that we roll our eyes and wait for our buffoon protagonist to catch up to what is obvious to us every step of the way. James Mason and Susan Lyon and Shelley Winters (here playing a character similar to her role in The Night of the Hunter) are all wonderful. But it doesn't quite escape the shadow of its source material...

Lolita still feels mostly unfilmable, a book about language and perspective and the ability of words to both underline and undermine (see what I did there?), not to mention a study in getting your audience to sympathize with one of the least sympathetic main characters in the history of storytelling. Here I never quite like Mason, though I suppose I do side with him more or less. It's a good go at it, and I'm glad to've seen it again, but it's not a classic, to be sure.

05 February 2011

Beat the Devil

Sometimes I do myself a favor by remembering that I very much want to see a film and allowing myself to forget the reasons why. It gives me the impetus to pay attention and adds the fun of trying to figure out what piece of long lost lore or trivia led me here in the first place. I remembered that Beat the Devil was a less popular (non-blockbuster) Huston film with Bogart, and that at one point I was very excited to watch it, but by the time I sat down to do so I'd forgotten why, and watched it with a blank slate.

Immediately it was obvious that Bogart was playing a kind of posh John Huston. Aged as he was, with his skin starting to sag and his teeth looking more and more like old-man teeth, he even looked like Huston. The mannerisms were good too -- a little affected, a little entitled, but also gruff and no-bullshit.

Billy Dannreuther (it sounds distractingly like everybody calls him "Dan Rather," and Humphrey is no Billy) is cynical and manipulative and knows when to put survival before dignity. He plays everyone against each other and like his Spade or Marlowe he tries to stay out in front of the various conniving bad guys so he can score the loot and get the girl. I found it impossible to watch this movie and not keep comparing it to The Maltese Falcon, right down to the appearance of an always-fun Peter Lorre and a languidly verbose, sweaty fat man who seems sometimes like the leader of the ragtag gang of ambitious crooks -- it isn't Sydney Greenstreet, but Robert Morley plays it with the same kind of fondness for his own blather. The main difference, though, is that here everything seems to go wrong, and often comically. The car going down the hill and off the cliff; the boat sinking; Billy fleeing the Arabs, getting caught, weaseling his way out of danger by throwing his companion under the bus in his place. It was almost like Huston was turning his own film on its head and shaking out all the hard-edged bravado, leaving only the nonsense and schemes and shifting loyalties and ever-changing backstories.

And so, when I finished the film I peeked online to see if I could figure out what had drawn me here in the first place. Sure enough, plain as day, Wikipedia says, "It was intended by Huston as a tongue-in-cheek spoof of his earlier masterpiece, The Maltese Falcon, and of films of its genre." Written (apparently on the fly, day to day) by Huston and Truman Capote, it was the director taking the piss out of a genre he helped make huge. It apparently tanked and Bogart disowned it to some degree ("Only phonies like it") and Wikipedia goes on to call it "the first camp movie," but I admire it beyond all of that. It has undeniably fun characters, and isn't boring for a moment. (The romance is just as rushed as its forebear, but there's vastly more chemistry between Bogart and Jennifer Jones than he ever had with Mary Astor.) The plot is insane, leaping (fairly seamlessly) from manic slapstick to shifty-eyed noir to weapy romance to high-stakes thriller, and it never slacks in any of these.

Beat the Devil comes off clearly as the work of an old-hat at genre film who's bold enough to challenge the expectations of an audience, but it's also got the punk attitude of a great director rewriting old formulas. If artists didn't so willfully color outside the boxes every now and then, we'd never move forward artistically. In that sense, it's easy to see this film as a predecessor to anything from Romancing the Stone to The Big Lebowski to Shaun of the Dead. Anything with a gleefully deconstructionist bent, really.

Personally, while I can see why it wasn't a huge success and isn't as fondly remembered as The Maltese Falcon or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or The Asphalt Jungle, I still really enjoyed this and am very glad to have seen it. It feels in its way like an important film, because it's bold enough to spit in the face of something both I and the filmmakers clearly hold dear. Dismantling a thing you love is a hard thing to do but it's so rewarding when it's done well. And here it's done well.

04 February 2011

L'Illusionniste (The Illusionist) *

It's funny to have so little to say about a movie that I liked so much, but the truth is, I don't have any words to do it justice. It's not that I'm speechless (exactly), it's just that the film is an experience, a collection of tiny poignant moments and bittersweet humor. It's not that surprising, maybe -- the story doesn't need words to speak; words are pointedly missing, especially from the main character (basically Tati himself, practically M. Hulot). This isn't a story about words.

Just last night I advised a friend to tell his students to try and envision (and write) their stories as silent films first, and tell the story through visual cues rather than exposition and info-dump (a particular student wants to tell his complicated story solely through voiceover), and this is the perfect example of that done right. It also feels like a suitable testament to the body of work Tati left, but although I quite like him and his films I'm not an avid fan, so maybe that's not for me to say.

That's about all I have to say. I liked everything about this. I would like to see it again (on DVD or Blu-ray, perhaps, or at a cheap theater). I would even love to see this win Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, but of course who am I kidding? Well, at least it got a nomination.

If I do have anything critical to say, I have to mention that towards the end a couple of egregious 3D tracking-through-landscape shots ruined some otherwise magical moments for me, but they were quick and the rest of the film's poetry eclipses the flaws for me.

Anyway, I have nothing deep to say about this. You should really just go see it, right away. It speaks for itself.

Seen at Cinema 21.

01 February 2011

Κυνόδοντας (Kynodontas / Dogtooth)


Ever since one of the A.V. Club writers (Mike D'Angelo, I think?) wrote about this film at last year's Cannes, I've been looking forward to seeing it. All I knew about it was it involved some sheltered sisters and was sufficiently "weird." Beyond that, I blocked it all out and waited until I could finally watch it for myself. It took a while, since it never played in theaters (that I was aware of) and only just came out on DVD, but it was worth it.

I don't even know what to say about it. Maybe one of my favorite things, because it relates to where I'm at with my own story is, no matter how unusual the premise, it manages to remain crystal clear without a single line of exposition or any scenes that merely "establish." The photography is similarly obtuse, often arbitrary feeling in an unsettling, oddly-framed way that harmonizes nicely with the tone of the story. The performances are great, just intimate enough that we squeamishly sympathize and just detached enough that we recognize the monstrousess of the children, regardless of their blamelessness. The movie never moralizes, in fact it never even offers counterpoint to its slanted philosophy. We just watch scenes unfold in a strange world. Some scenes have odd details that make sense later on. Other scenes take a little mental footwork and keep the audience figuring out the puzzle as they go. Right to the last frame we have to do the work ourselves to understand the story, but it's never unclear.

There is of course a couple of squirmy scenes in this. [SPOILERS] I don't mind the weird sexuality and incest in the story, or even the crazy brainwashing and mental, emotional, and physical abuse (although abuse through misinformation does touch a nerve with me, it's hardly something I have to turn away from) but I almost lost it when the older daughter decided to lose her dogtooth. The mirror, the mini-barbell, the look in the mirror... as soon as the scene began I muttered out loud, "Oh no," and then when she did it (repeatedly) I could barely keep watching or sit still. Maybe it's the dental thing (I've had a lot of dental work done and grew up with an average-or-higher fear of losing my teeth), or maybe it's the prolonged, deliberate, unflinching pace of it, but I found this harder even than The Scene in Caché.

This is Yorgos Lanthimos's second feature, supposedly, and I'm going to see now if I can't find a copy of Kinetta, his first. He's definitely someone to watch. And although tonight was supposed to be devoted to writing and that's exactly the one thing I failed to accomplish, this film feels like exactly the kind of thing I need to see, to give me a little kick-in-the-pants courage about how I approach some scenes and character beats.

This was an enervating and inspiring film to see, and it makes me hungry for more like it. The Portland International Film Festival begins in a little over a week. Hopefully this experience can be repeated with some of the films they're showing there.