Saturday, April 21, 2012

Keyhole (Tuesday, April 10, 2012) (35)

Guy Maddin is the most interesting and best Canadian filmmaker working today and easily one of the best filmmakers from any region. I have a never-ending respect for David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan, two directors whose work in the past has been spectacular, but Maddin has eclipsed them and developed a new style and visual language along the way. His films fall somewhere between narrative and experimental works on a filmic spectrum, frequently using documentary elements and always dealing with nostalgia and subconscious through a Brechtian formalist language. He walks the line of being fun and funny, but also uncanny, sometimes uncomfortable and frequently difficult.

His latest work, Keyhole, is all of these things. It's not really a linear narrative film, not totally experimental (despite being commissioned by the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State), but also totally weird and unsettling. All the while it's thrilling, exuberant and firmly sarcastic. It is a film told in a "fugue state" style, making elements disconnected, obscured and abstract. It is wonderful and fascinating.

The story of the film is really secondary to the formalism and thematic content, but deals with a noir-like plot involving a man named Ulysses (Jason Patric), who returns to his home after a botched job with his underworld lackeys. He brings with him a young beauty, Denny (Brooke Palsson), and a bound young man, Manners (David Wontner), who seems to be his son. In the house on the upper floor is his wife, Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini), and an old man who claims to be her father, guardian of all memories in the house. This geezer walks around, out of shape, in his underwear, dragging with him a heavy chain that seems to keep him tied to the building itself. Ulysses must struggle to get to his wife, deal with Old Man Memory and figure out what to do with his two prisoners.

As a dream-essay, the film doesn't move along in an A-to-B fashion, but jumps from one thing to another in a sometimes bizarre or difficult way. Characters don't seem to be really alive or dead, but suspended in mid-flight between two places (waking and sleeping, still and dynamic, past and present). Just like a dream, there are small circular stories connected with other circular stories, making the film slightly more difficult to follow... though if you sit back and enjoy it, everything becomes clear. (Part of this structure is that there is a somewhat Marxist element of having no internal dynamism, making it hard to know what is next or when it will end. This is certainly a challenge, but a thrilling and, ultimately, a rewarding one.)

From one scene to the next, Ulysses goes from hard-boiled B-movie noir star to a nervous everyman dealing with his memories and his demons. The house becomes his subconscious, his journey though it, like his classical namesake, becomes his psychoanalysis. The eponymous keyhole in the door to the upstairs bathroom (where Hyacinth and Old Man Memory seem to live) serves the purposes of being a small view into a distant recess of memory as well as a hole through which Ulysses can pull threads (literally). The reason the story feels choppy, difficult and strange is because it's Ulysses' therapeutic journey. My shrink father once said that psychoanalysis is the act of taking down a wall, brick by brick, and then rebuilding it slowly with better mortar... that seems pretty apt here in the case of this house.

Aside from all of this elegant presentation and plot, what makes Maddin's films so clever and enjoyable is how technically interesting they are. He's a master of juxtaposition, editing and pacing. Images are frequently on screen for seconds or only several frames, signaling something in our brains, but remaining distant enough that we feel we are just short of making a connection. Characters come and go through dark canals and obscured spaces, making the act of watching one of his films (this one in particular) a game, but one with no rules that are easy to win. It's a new kind of filmmaking, a doorway to more avante-garde material, reminiscent of the work of Bruce Connor, but shown through the prism of something almost familiar and narrative. It's difficult to define, but thrilling to behold.

Stars: 4 of 4

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Damsels in Distress (Sunday, April 15, 2012) (40)

What the hell happened to Whit Stillman? He made three movies in eight years in the '90s and then nothing for the next 14 years. Now he comes out with Damsels in Distress, which has his typically staccato, arch dialogue, but none of the charm of the earlier efforts (if you want to call that charm... or maybe cynicism is a better word).

Set at the posh Northeastern liberal arts college of Seven Oaks (really, Whit? That was the best you could do for a fake college name? Read more Phillip Roth, please...), the film deals with a rather recycled Mean-Girls-meets-Pygmalion story of three girls Violet (Greta Gerwig), Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) who dress and act much better than their classmates, whom they judge relentlessly. At the beginning of the school year, they meet Lily (Analeigh Tipton) a transfer student who they feel needs their direction. Violet is the self-possessed boss and she gives most of the advice, despite almost never being right about anything.

She dates a dumb, beefy frat boy, because she says dating good looking and smart men doesn't work well as such guys are too hard to control. She organizes the schools suicide prevention program where she insists that tap dance is the best way to cure the students' sads. There isn't really much of a story, as the metamorphosis story of Lily never really fully develops and the plot devolves into a series of generic college movie elements (fights with the school paper, girls dropping out, different boys entering and leaving for no reason).

While I admit that Stillman's three earlier films are not perfect and are sometimes a bit annoying, this film seems to be a sarcastic riff on the sardonic tones of those pictures. When a very dumb joke about frat boys not knowing the names of colors (not because they're color blind, but because they're too stupid to know that blue and green are different and what they are called) falls flat once, we get that same bit three more times... as if it would improve on seeing it over and over again (it doesn't).

This is the most desperate and base comedy imaginable. What Stillman used to do well was take a rather remote corner of the world and examine it with a ridiculous bitterness. Here he takes a rather obvious target and makes banal jokes about the topic. It's very not funny. What's worse, the very mannerist, exacting speech patterns of the first three films kills any element of realism here, making it all seem like a weird, silly, Brechtian play. Sarcasm is its own tone -- you don't need to add silliness to it to improve it.

As a Gerwig adorer, I have to say my girlfriend really does struggle with the material here -- though the material is so bad to begin with, it's hard to blame her. I worry she's not best suited for overly conceived and scripted material and does better working with more personal, artistic control over the material, either meaning less style and more naturalness or more improvisational leeway. The fact is that this movie will be forgotten in a few weeks, so Greta doesn't have to worry about it dragging down her career.

Stars: .5 of 4

The Hunter (Sunday, April 15, 2012) (39)

There's been something interesting going on in Australian cinema in recent years. A country once dominated by Brits and Peter Weir, where it seems every other Hollywood star comes from (can you think of an action movie or costume drama in the last 15 years that didn't have one Aussie in it?) has strangely produced only a small amount of fresh directing and writing talent. And yet there seems to be something bubbling down there. A handful of interesting, if not totally successful, films in the past few years have come to represent some sort of renaissance downunda.

One of the standouts from this new class is the recent film The Hunter, directed by Daniel Nettheim, adapted by Alice Addison from a novel by Julia Leigh. This is a very elegant contemporary Western set in the mysterious world of ecoterrorism, bio-pharmacology and extreme survivalism. Martin David (Willem Dafoe) is some sort of extreme-outdoorsman-for-hire who is given the mysterious task of researching the possible existence of Tasmanian tigers, long though to be extinct, by a mysterious bio-tech company. Martin is a total badass, like a Bear Grylls with a gun and no camera crew.

He gets to his Tasmanian base camp in the home of a rural single mother, depressed after the mysterious disappearance of her outdoorsman husband, and her two young kids (super charming and sweet kids... and I don't really get kids). He finds that he's totally unwelcome by the locals who are loggers and figure his work will result in them losing their work. He's also pressured by the environmental hippies who monitor the actions of the loggers. He goes into the wilderness looking for signs of tigers (which are really closer to wolves than big cats), and finds himself being stalked along the way. Back at the base camp, he improves the lives of the broken family he's living with, but the attention he brings might also be risking their safety as well.

I know very little about Tasmania, but apparently it's rugged and beautiful, looking a lot like Alaska or the woody parts of the upper Midwest. It's one of those places that looks so good on screen that you wonder whether it's beautiful cinematography (by Robert Humphreys) or just photography of a gorgeous place. Nettheim has a nice touch, using lots of helicopter shots, which can frequently be cliche, but help here to get a sense of the bigness of the spaces and the smallness of people.

Isolation and loneliness is a repeated theme throughout the film, as there is only minimal music used (mostly diegetic) and lots of silence. Dafoe has a stoic calmness, that's somewhat unsettling and also strangely kind (he seems to be a good guy in the way he deals with the family). The two kids are clearly desperate for his attention when he arrives at their house, partly because they're young and happy, but mostly because they're incredibly lonely and are looking for some sort of attention or break from their dull lives.

Perhaps the idea is that in the conflict between nature and humans, the sides are not evenly matched. As Martin seems to be the best human out there to unlock the secrets of the wilderness for a company who hopes to do something probably ugly with his findings, he is outmatched, a small being in the vastness of the outback (think of astronaut Dave Bowman floating through the silence and coldness of outer space in 2001: A Space Odyssey). But there's also a feeling that in the human world, we don't even give one another basic assistance in the form of love or kindness, which turns us into lone wolves in our daily lives. Business interests try to exploit this for financial gain, creating a conflict between those who want to connect to others and those who would rather hurt one another, between those who want to live with nature and who want to constantly battle against it.

There is a unspeakable sadness that pervades the film, eerily, heartbreakingly brought to life when Martin gets the family's turntable working and Springsteen's song "I'm On Fire". The missing dad had previously hooked speakers up into the trees, so when the music comes on, the area is surrounded by the melancholy song, reminding us of the relative silence that preceded it.

At times Nettheim get's a bit tied up in banal script elements, like his poor reception from the locals when he arrives or a overly sentimental penultimate scene. Still, he does a really interesting job otherwise with a story that doesn't really feel like a masterpiece.

The Hunter is a good solid movie, and although it's not perfect, it is a lot of fun and a clever twist on a classic Western talk of an outsider coming into a small town to shake things up.

Stars: 3 of 4

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Five-Year Engagement (Thursday, April 5, 2012) (34)

In the ever-rising tide of adult-themed romantic gross-out comedies comes The Five-Year Engagement, a totally preposterous film with one of the weirdest, most fat-laden stories and scripts I've seen in awhile. There are lots of funny moments (many provided by Jason Segal, who is quietly turning into one this era's most talented comics... er, except for the fact that he co-wrote this screenplay... OK - so let's call him inconsistent...), but much more excess and overly graphic situations, making watching it more of a chore than a joy.

Directed and co-written by Nicholas Stoller (of Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek fame), the movie revolves around Tom (Segal), an up-and-coming chef in San Francisco, who gets engaged to Violet (Emily Blunt). They fully plan to have a timely wedding, until she gets into grad school in Ann Arbor. They move and his life begins to spin out of control after he's unable to get a "respectable" restaurant gig (featuring a fun "A-squared" resto montage, for anyone who went to school or ate dinner there). She thrives and he shrivels and their wedding moves further away. In the meantime his best friend (Chris Pratt) and her sister (Alison Brie) get married and have babies and the world moves along. Just when you think they're gonna figure it out, everything falls apart, possibly irreparably.

Typical of many recent gross-out comedies, the stakes are raised to silly heights as we see the characters behaving ridiculously and see frank pain and embarrassment in every other scene or so. At one point, when Tom freaks out about their pending wedding, he gets drunk and sleeps in the woods in the middle of winter, almost naked. He wakes up with frostbite on one of his toes, which has to be cut off. In another scene, the couple's niece shoots one of Tom's arrows (he's a bow hunter) into Violet's leg -- but just for shits and giggles and no real plot point.

I actually appreciate the frankness of these moments, and the reaction they bring to us in the audience (shock and horror with uncomfortable laughter), but they're especially difficult to endure as they're interspersed with typical RomCom comedy and come generally as surprises. It's all a bit too much for too little pay off.

The real sin of this film, of this script, is that it's just not very efficient and almost every scene goes on about one to four minutes too long, making the whole film feel bloated and cumbersome. The transitions between one bit and another are clumsy and the amount of serious reflective time allotted to each character is too much, making this weirdly heady at times -- not the best tone for a stupid comedy.

This really feels like it was cut down from a script that was probably twice as long, a script with every joke and every set-up the writers could imagine, but then cut it to this overweight 120-some minutes. I think if they had trimmed the script more (like by another 30-40 mintues) they could have had a pretty good movie. Instead we get a weird movie that's not really enjoyable and doesn't move well, despite some honestly funny moments.

Stars: 1 of 4