Sunday, May 29, 2011

Going in Circles (Somewhere, Dogtooth, and Meek's Cutoff)

Picking a fight over a movie has its kicks, but part of the fun depends on the adversary. For example, Ali Arikan's recent Pirates of the Caribbean piece, which boldly upbraids a blockbuster predestined to suck, baits fans too inept to formulate a cogent argument, and has received a hearty round of Hurrah-for-Karamazovs from fellow blogger/critics who have all written immeasurably better things, strikes this reader as no more than a boring provocation. (There's a point to be made against the masses lining up like lemmings for the latest Hollywood refuse, but Ali's facile broadside doesn't come close to making it.) In contrast Eileen Jones, who occasionally plays the "moron" card as cheaply as Mr. Arikan rails about "cunts," nevertheless explains quite wittily and elegantly why Rob Marshall's movie fails (and how Gore Verbinski's maligned immediate predecessors succeeded far more than they were given credit for). Even better was Jones's challenge to critics of the Coen brothers' True Grit (and admirers of Hathaway's), which forges a fascinating link between the film, Portis's book, and Laughton's Night of the Hunter, and mounts a convincing defense that the Coens's body of work -- contrary to its critics and even a few admirers -- has been anything but cold.

Part of what makes an argument effective is the worthiness of its opponents; it's those same opponents, however, that can make crafting such an argument daunting. High-profile pictures -- The Dark Knight, The Tree of Life -- breed a religious fanaticism in their devotees that can be difficult (and tiresome) to deal with, but Nolanoids and Malickheads typically have a mass facelessness -- like the torch-and-pitchfork crowd at the end of Night of the Hunter -- that give their onslaughts a welcome dash of the ridiculous. Find yourself disliking a smaller film like Meek's Cutoff, Somewhere, or Dogtooth, however, and you may find yourself up against formidable admirers of one, two or all three of those movies, often critics you respect. Movies like these are invariably described by their fans as "challenging": they make the viewer work a little to understand them. I'm all for a little audience effort (Certified Copy being a recent example), but my litmus test ultimately boils down to this: Are you working harder than the movie is to express itself? Kubrick and Malick, Kiarostami and the Coens can all be difficult, but I always have the impression that they know what their movies are about. I'm never left with the sense that they're giving anything less than their all.

The least offensive of the aforementioned threesome, Somewhere is Sofia Coppola's latest non-movie about characters stuck in mind-numbing stasis. As in Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette, Coppola traces celebrity and affluence as the causes of this condition, and I do feel that some critics of her work are off-base by begrudging her for writing what she knows. The problem with her films isn't their insularity, but what she puts into them -- dying stars inside of black holes. Lost in Translation overcome many of its flaws because Bill Murray, as a movie star adrift in a strange land, so beautifully rendered charm out of ennui. (Scarlett Johansson, not so much.) Somewhere casts an inexpressive B-list actor (Stephen Dorff) as a fame-fatigued A-lister, and fails to make his estrangement -- from his daughter (Elle Fanning), from himself -- even remotely as persuasive. (Imagine what Murray would have done with the scene where Dorff's face becomes frozen under layers of movie makeup and you have a semblance of what's missing.) The movie has some affecting moments that evolve from long silences: an ice-skating practice; an older gentleman's guitar solo that captivates the hero more than an assembly of pole-dancers ever could. Inevitably, though, I have qualms about a filmmaker who believes that the best way to convey inertia is via an inert approach.

Somewhere looks downright admirable compared to Dogtooth, the acclaimed Greek black comedy about a father (Christos Stergioglou) who raises his three grown-up children on an isolated family estate that they are forbidden to leave. The kids, all maladjusted blanks with misbegotten vocabularies, are "protected" from the outside world -- represented by the patrarch's place of business, a dreary factory -- yet chaos emerges via a young woman (Anna Kalaitzidou) hired to prostitute herself to the older adolescent son (Hristos Passalis) and, more importantly, contraband videocassettes of Rocky and Flashdance that inspire the eldest daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia) to flailing rebellion. Steven Boone has taught me more about visual syntax than any film critic around, but I must respectfully disagree with his assertion that the lead-pipe directorial style of Giorgos Lanthimos adds up to anything other than a thudding hollowness at the narrative's core. More than one admirer has compared Dogtooth to the best of Luis Bunuel (puh-leeze!), but the surrealist master always posited his malicious contraptions within a larger sociopolitical framework and made his targets worthy of their punishments. The cheap, empty cruelty of Dogtooth is closer in spirit to the early work of Michael Haneke and is every bit as despicable.

Which brings us to Meek's Cutoff, the most recent widely-praised film by my least favorite current filmmaker. The previous efforts of Kelly Reichardt, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, approach modern malaise from the opposite end of Sofia Coppola's economic spectrum: For Reichardt, it's poverty that's the cause of society's ills, a perfectly valid worldview negated by the filmmaker's insistence that the lower-class live out every interaction of their lives in staggering torpor. The sun not only never shines in her monotonous Pacific Northwest milieu, the characters never laugh, never crack a joke or a smile, never express or act out a subversive thought. When a character makes a rare act of selflessness, like the security guard who gives Michelle Williams money in Wendy and Lucy, he's made to look like a dunce.

I had braced myself for more of the same with Meek's Cutoff, her period-piece foray into 19th-century pioneering, so it was seductive to be confronted by sunlit vistas of an expansive Oregon desert, as ravishing as they are treacherous. (The peerless cinematography is by Chris Blauvelt, a relative newcomer with camera-operating credits for David Fincher and Gus Van Sant.) Although Reichardt's sub-laconic, micro-minimalist style works far better coming out of the mouths and registering on the faces of 1845 settlers, her ensemble is more varied this time out. (There's even, my God, a joke or two, albeit the biggest laugh is derived from an opening title card that reads "A Primitive Nerd Production.") Michelle Williams provides a stronger moral center than she was allowed in Wendy and Lucy; Paul Dano's precise enunciation is as hypnotic as it was in There Will Be Blood (hard to believe his breakout role, in Little Miss Sunshine, was a character who refused to speak); Shirley Henderson's dreamy British diction is a constant source of amusement. The most colorful character is the titular Stephen Meek (a bearded Bruce Greenwood), a posturing, self-aggrandizing guide who has persuaded (perhaps disingenuously) this handful of pioneer men and women to abandon the larger wagon train and follow him to a suitable terrain to call home.

The opening third of Meek's Cutoff casts such a spell I had nearly convinced myself that Reichardt had wrecked my thesis for this post. Eventually, however, her dunderheaded storytelling instincts kick in. The lost pioneers capture a solitary Native American (Ron Rondeaux), and much argumentation ensues over whether the man should be killed (Meek's preference) or used as a guide to a desperately-needed water source (the Williams/Patton option). I've read reviews describing Meek's Cutoff as an allegory for Bush's failed leadership in the Iraq War; if that was the intent, it's muddled by the fact that we never see Meek persuade anyone to do anything. His con -- if that's what it is -- occurs before the narrative opens. The movie is more about the perils of following: yet that too is hampered because the decision to follow the Cayuse Indian has no consequences one way or another. His motives are depicted as ambiguously as Meek's, no matter how much blind faith Williams puts into him. (Stabs at fragmented communication between the settlers and the Cayuse are about as convincing as similar scenes in The Ewok Adventure.)

I know, not every movie needs a payoff. To make the whole Waiting for Godot thing work, though, an artist has to captivate by other means, and Reichardt's ideas are too half-baked to warrant such high regard. She sets up a potentially riveting narrative -- growing suspicion that Meek is all bluster, mounting hysteria that the Cayuse is leading them into a trap -- and abandons it not due to the demands of the story, but because, I suspect, she feels above such niceties. Too bad. Despite succumbing to her worst impulses, Kelly Reichardt has come dangerously close to making a good movie. Maybe next time.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Too Many Secrets (Farewell and The Tourist)

Farewell (2010) tells a great story from the ground up: In the early 1980s, during the last pinnacle of the Cold War, a high-level Russian intelligence agent passes state secrets to a low-level French operative, leading ultimately to the downfall of the Soviet Union. The Russian, Sergei Gregoriev (Emir Kusturica), is a fortysomething epicurean, gregarious and reckless, in possession of a fed-up, middle-aged wife, an obsessed mistress, and a teenage son with an appreciation for "decadent Western music." The Frenchman, Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet), is a thirtyish intellectual, whose ambition and timidity pull him in opposite directions and threaten to estrange him from his own young wife and infant children. The movie begins in media res (finally, an excuse to use that phrase!), with Sergei waiting for Pierre while ensconced in the back-seat shadows of the latter's car. It's an opening reminiscent of Alan Pakula's work with Gordon Willis, yet where Farewell departs from its forbearers in the genre is Sergei and Pierre choose to conspire not at a loading dock or in a underground garage but rather directly outside a public event (a circus performance featuring one of Pierre's daughters). The hiding-in-plain-sight joke turns into a running gag, as the pair continue (at Sergei's behest) to rendezvous in one public area after another, exchanging government records during the harsh light of day. Sergei's scheme is so counterintuitive that his colleagues in the Russian intelligentsia overlook it entirely; it's so mundane that it takes a while for the French and American presidents -- Mitterrand (Phillippe Magnan) and Reagan (Fred Ward) -- to realize the gold mine of information that's landed in their laps.

This has all the makings of a terrific thriller, a human-scaled epic out of le Carre, so it's puzzling that Farewell never quite grips as a satisfying whole. The director, Christian Carion, works with an ambitiousness that exceeds both his budget and skill. Individual sequences, like a white-knuckler at a border crossing, are deftly staged. But there's a lack of momentum from one scene into the next; even a montage late in the movie featuring the international rounding-up of covert KGB agents (one of them played in a wordless cameo by Diane Kruger) lacks a sense of how this humdrum operation affects the bigger picture. Inconsistency also plagues the performances. Kusturica (who is a Serbian film director) plays Sergei like a Russkie Brendan Gleeson, expansive, flawed and soulful, whose commitment toward giving his son a brighter future is the catalyst for his actions. Canet (perhaps also better known as a director, namely of the superb French thriller Tell No One) renders Pierre an effective everyman, less goal-driven than Sergei to "change the world" than he is at bucking for promotion, yet increasingly terrified of getting caught, getting killed, or losing his family. On the downside, Fred Ward's turn as a bizarrely engaged Ronald Reagan is a constant source of distraction, and reminded me of Phil Hartman's priceless countermythical impression on Saturday Night Live: "I've got to do everything by myself!"

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck makes up for the cunning of his surveillance experts in his last film, The Lives of Others, with a vengeance in the first five minutes of The Tourist (2010), opening with a laughably conspicuous black panel van tailing Angelina Jolie from about ten feet behind. Jolie plays an English mystery woman (a secret agent, or femme fatale, or something) named Elise Clifton-Ward, who shows her knack for undercover work by appearing in magazine-cover attire and burning a surreptitious note dropped at her table in an outdoor Parisian cafe. A head of British intelligence (Paul Bettany, spending the movie glaring at computer screens and barking orders into microphones) commands his team to Get That Note!, and they tail their leisurely-paced high-heeled target down the street before losing her in a subway tunnel. I was hoping to see Jolie give her pursuers the slip through a gaggle of nuns, but von Donnersmarck sadly lacks a flair for the ridiculous.

Rather, The Tourist doesn't seem to know it's ridiculous. Or perhaps the movie senses this quality (there is a lingering whiff of desperation) but won't embrace it. Obviously von Donnersmarck wanted to make a lighthearted Hitchcockian travelogue -- To Catch a Thief, et al. -- and that kind of movie would have been more than welcome, but what he came up with instead can only be described as laboriously breezy. (Come to think of it, To Catch a Thief wasn't that great in the first place.) On a train for Venice, Elise meets Frank Tupelo (good sport Johnny Depp), a mild-mannered American tourist who becomes her dupe as she plots to evade both the clueless Brits and a ham-fisted gangster in order to rendezvous with her white-collar thief-lover. The leads have zilch chemistry, the chase scenes move at half-speed, and the director appears to have advised every male actor in the cast to react to Jolie's entrances like a cartoon wolf clubbing his own head with a mallet. No question she's still a looker (though the botox is starting to get in the way), but it's a weird case of overselling from a filmmaker whose debut was breathtakingly calibrated. The Tourist is a comatose non-starter.