Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Eyes of Others (Mysteries of Lisbon and Young Adult)

It's a shame that my first encounter with Raoul Ruiz is his last movie, Mysteries of Lisbon (2010), but then again that's something the legendary Chilean director might have approved of, what with his elastic concept of time. Ruiz passed away a year ago, and his final film can be viewed as the fever-dream of a child or the memory of a dying young man. Those aren't nearly the only interpretations. A 254-minute 19th-century historical epic edited from an original six-hour Portuguese miniseries, Mysteries of Lisbon has the sweep expected of elaborate costume dramas yet practically none of their formality. It's a remarkably casual, liberating film, with a narrative riddled with hidden pockets and trap doors. It's easy to get lost along the way, but Ruiz makes your occasional puzzlement worthwhile: every frame is beautiful.

Echoes of Dickens (orphaned boy inherits wealth, reunites with mother) have been thoroughly examined by others, as has Ruiz's longstanding fascination with Proust. If I'm focused more on the latter it's for having just read Swann's Way (a.k.a., Vol. I of Remembrance of Things Past). Mysteries of Lisbon (based on a novel by Camilo Castelo Branco) leaps repeatedly to the past through flashbacks recounted by bit players, featuring characters that the protagonist has never met, but whom he gradually learns have had an indelible influence on his life. A countess obsessively in love, a priest with a shady past, a licentious aristocrat who may be more noble than he seems - these are just a few of the film's massive ensemble, all of whom are watched (by servants, by others) in nearly every scene.

What's refreshing about Ruiz's approach is that he makes the theme of watching or being watched not about what you would expect from the genre. Mysteries of Lisbon is less concerned with the stifling need of the upper-class to keep up appearances (a topic, I must confess, I'm getting tired of) than it is with the idea that our appearances, regardless of class, are in constant flux. He underlines this in playful ways: at least a couple of actors play apparently different roles at different times; another performer, in comic relief, directs his double-takes toward the camera. The movie is about mannered behavior without being mannered itself; even the obligatory climactic duel departs from expectations. Raoul Ruiz may be gone, but he has left us a movie that breathes.

I've panned plenty of films since the start of this blog, but few have overtaken me with the urge to claw at the screen quite like Juno, the first collaboration between screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman. A comedy about a pregnant teenager who gives up her baby for adoption, wisecracking all the way to the cutting of the umbilical cord, Juno was applauded by many and won Cody an Academy Award, but for me the the movie's tone - which could be described as "tragic cutesiness" - along with its endlessly snarky dialogue, were about as heartfelt as toxic waste. Since then Reitman has built an unearned rep as a modern-day Billy Wilder with Up in the Air, while Cody - the progenitor of a Showtime series (The United States of Tara) and a disastrous horror-comedy (the Reitman-produced but wisely not-directed Jennifer's Body) - became a self-anointed media phenomenon, with enough of a martyr complex in response to criticism to rival Kevin Smith.

The dynamic duo returns - as calculating as ever - with
Young Adult (2011), a shallow poseur's notion of a confessional. The semi-autobiographical elements of Cody's schema click into place: a Minneapolis author of YA fiction (Charlize Theron), unhappy with work and life, receives news of her high-school boyfriend's newborn baby, then returns to her hometown of Mercury, MN to win him back. The parallels between fact and fiction aren't completely literal: whereas Diablo Cody is the rare screenwriter with name recognition - even a brand-name - Mavis Gary (Theron) is actually a ghostwriter, which seems like a needless layer of complication until you realize that the movie is bizarrely underpopulated and jam-packed with lack of incident. Mavis tries to steal Buddy (her married ex) back, and that's it; the fact that he's played by Patrick Wilson, go-to-guy for male suburban malaise since Little Children and the most boring actor in America, yields no compelling developments.

The filmmakers have been lauded for creating an unlikeable protagonist in Young Adult, but that kind of bravery is admirable only when there's integrity behind it. Time and again, Cody shows no interest in comic logic or consistency. Mavis is portrayed as a languid drunk, yet somehow has the discipline to write a popular series of books. (Plenty of published authors have been alcoholics, but none had the sloth-like qualities of this one.) She's also a narcissist - one, whom we learn, looked at herself in the mirror in high school more than at anybody else - yet inexplicably is an astute enough listener to accurately capture teen patois. (This is Cody at her most self-flattering: the unvarying voices of her characters are entirely her own.) David Edelstein pointed out another head-scratcher: When Mavis reunites with Matt (Patton Oswalt), another high-school classmate and Mercury denizen, she fails to remember who he was even though (she then recalls) he was the victim of a highly publicized hate crime. Matt, who suffered serious physical injury from the assault and walks with a cane (and isn't gay, as his attackers assumed), is the patented Reitman-Cody feint at sincerity, borderline offensive yet achieved anyway thanks to Oswalt's authenticity. His is the best performance in the movie by a mile, outclassing Theron's hard-working yet miscast turn.

Theron can be a good actress; even in more commercial fare she never comes across as lazy like, for instance, Ashley Judd. But she can't bring the character's contradictory elements together, and other than Oswalt, she has nobody to play off. Young Adult is populated by the same breathtakingly uninteresting fringe characters who occupied Juno: whether former classmates or hotel and store clerks, they exist to either punch the protagonist or get punched back. (For a comedy writer, Cody is much more judgmental than observational.) The movie dawdles for ninety minutes before ending with a public confrontation between Mavis and her adversary, Buddy's wife (Elizabeth Reaser), who has insisted that Mavis stick around for no plausible reason. That's not completely true: the explicated reason, in front of Mr. and Mrs. Buddy's friends and neighbors, is they all feel sorry for her; the subtext, proposed afterwards by Matt's sister (Collette Wolfe), is they're all jealous of her success and wish that they could skip town too. (Reitman evokes Mercury with his customary professionalism - he keeps the camera usually still, a quality I'm growing to appreciate - yet the Staples and Chili's chains are trotted out as if to condemn small-town life, when I'm pretty sure Minneapolis has them too.) Either way, Young Adult may have made more sense had Mavis been the credited author of the YA series that was being ghosted for her: Mavis as insecure phony, then, would have been the film's subject, instead of an insincere portrait of an alleged genuine article.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Oh, Brother (Warrior and The Trip)

The Deer Hunter of Rocky movies, Gavin O'Connor's 140-minute pseudo-epic Warrior (2011) makes grandiose claims to the meaning of America: Imagine Stallone and Dolph Lundgren taunting each other in the ring with Russian roulette trigger-pulls rather than punches and you have an inkling of this film's self-regarding machismo. (Hmmm, Russian roulette: such a Franco-Commie ring to it; let's call it "Freedom spins.") O'Connor's twist on the go-for-it inspirational sports genre follows not one character or team but estranged brothers - the Conlons - on parallel tracks toward duking it out in the ring (or cage) for a cool few million that each desperately needs. We know Warrior is a serious film because it's always telling us it is, as sure a sign of trustworthiness in cinema as in life.

As the older Brendon, Joel Edgerton gives a good performance, bringing a few incongruous personality strands (talented high school physics teacher, happily married husband and father) into an aging bruiser who, for all his intellectual proclivities, likes to pummel and get pummeled. As younger Tommy, the ripped, tattooed Tom Hardy gives a good pose. Tommy is your standard tough-guy screw-up head-case prodigy played by an actor who's taken too many rides at A Streetcar Named Desireland. A veteran of the Iraq War, it's revealed that the seemingly self-centered Tommy heroically saved the lives of fellow soldiers, no easy feat when you're constantly admiring yourself in a hand-mirror.

Because complications are the mulch in which cliched narrative grows, it's eventually revealed that secretly sensitive Tommy is an AWOL coward too, though somehow this crucial piece of news fails to faze his cheering throngs in the slightest. (The military police whom we are told are waiting to take Tommy to the stockade after the championship bout - why wait? - are also conspicuously off-camera.) Also included is a Burgess Meredith/Pat Morita trainer/mentor in the form of their father, Paddy Conlon, an alcoholic on the wagon. As always, Nick Nolte transcends stereo-typecasting. Hints of abusive parenting abound: Brendon won't let Paddy see his grandchildren; Tommy rejects him as a father but lets Paddy train him again because "You were always good at that much." Actually, it's not clear exactly what makes Paddy good at training, especially since the strategy-free Tommy, who knocks out his opponents within seconds, doesn't seem to need any help. But Nolte sells the character's savvy (he has a great scene where he guesses the number of pill containers stashed in Tommy's jacket based on sound), his hope for reconciliation with both sons (and that they reconcile with each other), his fear of failing them again (giving the same number of days he's been sober even though more time has elapsed).

Yet another filmmaker who assumes shaking the camera automatically creates an atmosphere of grit and authenticity, O'Connor sells much harder than Nolte and far less convincingly. I know nothing about the movie's phenomenally popular "sport," which I believe is called Chop-Sockey Hit-Hockey, but like video games, Kim Kardashian, and The Big Bang Theory, I'll give the benefit of the doubt that millions of people are into it. Where Warrior fails is persuading me why I should be into it. Rather than genuinely take us into the world of its subject, the movie offers a very superficial rendering, coming on hot and heavy to body-slamming the audience until it acquiesces its love.

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon aren't siblings, but in The Trip (2011) they convey a sense of exasperation laced with affection that feels lived-in, the product of a friendship-cum-rivalry extending over several years. In Michael Winterbottom's mischievous funhouse comedy Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005), Coogan and Brydon played versions of themselves, a relatively famous British comic actor and his less-famous sidekick, working together - and with a larger cast - on an adaptation of "an unfilmmable novel." (The novel's unfilmmability became the movie's subject.) In The Trip, a comic road-movie (edited from a multiple-part BBC series) wherein the principals sample the best restaurants in England, Winterbottom deepens the implications of the Coogan-Brydon relationship from the earlier film into ruminations on aging and belonging. It's a light venture, and while I wouldn't assume that their portraits are strictly autobiographical - they're too cagey as performers for that - the contrast between Coogan's haggardness and Brydon's content becomes sneakily affecting.

Now in his mid-40s, Steve Coogan plays himself as an egotistical bad-boy unable to shake the Alan Partridge persona that made him (in Britain) a star. He also can't rid himself of more self-destructive attributes - drug-addiction, womanizing - that surface during his tour through the English countryside. Although the same age as Coogan, the Rob Brydon of the film is emotionally stable, happily married, and fairly well-known in his own right, a sidekick who won't be pushed aside. Coogan's competitive insecurities inevitably flare up around Brydon: his face falls hilariously when the latter is recognized instead of himself; or when Brydon, a dazzling impressionist, reveals that one of his "voices" has become an iPhone app.

One of the funniest moments in Tristram Shandy occurs when Brydon, apropos of nothing, launches into a Pacino riff. ("FFFFffffuck YOU!") Much of The Trip - perhaps too much - is devoted to Brydon's impressions (Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and others) and Coogan's attempts to one-up him. Beneath these deceptively casual bull-sessions is a festering jealousy, yes, but also genuine admiration and a spirit of creativity and play. Winterbottom has that same spirit: He stages a couple of inspired dream sequences (one with an American movie star got all the attention from critics, but I preferred a more subtle yet revealing fantasy involving a newspaper headline), and his visual sense remains as acute as ever. An image from Tristram Shandy that has stuck with me in the years since I first saw it features an ensemble of bit players dressed like Ancien Regime soldiers running with sparklers at a late-night party. From the interiors of the restaurants to the food on the tables to the expansive settings in nature, The Trip is equally gorgeous. Also, in moments like one where Brydon keeps a respectful distance on a couch from a young female fan, Winterbottom conceives his shots to convey information about his characters. And he does it again at the end, in a scene reminiscent of the conclusion of Local Hero, when Coogan, alone in his spacious apartment,
and affected by his journey more than he realizes, makes a decision, places a phone call, tries to connect.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Overblown (Take Shelter)

(Impossible to discuss this movie without giving it away, so be aware there are spoilers.)

Shotgun Stories
, the 2007 drama from writer-director Jeff Nichols, remains one of the most impressive debuts of its decade. The movie, about a blood feud between two sets of rival brothers in rural Arkansas, depicted lower-class Americans without a trace of the condescension which Alexander Payne and Joel and Ethan Coen are always accused of, and which Jason Reitman and Kelly Reichardt actually employ. Shotgun Stories builds in intensity, but its best scenes depict the wit and resourcefulness not uncommon among the economically desperate. Nichols could be accurately called a classical filmmaker, yet he frequently stages sequences that don't play out the way you expect. The peace-loving sibling of the main trio, for example, doesn't suddenly resort to violence in order to prove he's a man. It's a movie made by a director who treats his characters with respect.

Take Shelter (2011), Nichols' follow-up, received a modest yet considerably larger audience as well as even stronger reviews - an impeccably crafted film with a talk-about ending that's given it an element of staying power. It takes nothing away from Nichols' abilities as one of the most promising filmmakers of his generation when I say that I think he misfires badly this time: psychological thriller is not his metier. Take Shelter stars Michael Shannon as Curtis, an Ohio construction worker with a wife and daughter who begins to experience troubling nightmares. The family dog bites him. His daughter is kidnapped. Most of all, the weather turns dark and terrifying in the form of downpours and twisters. His dreams take the form of waking visions when he starts to hear thunderclaps that nobody else hears and sees birds circling in ominous formations that nobody else sees. Convinced that a massive storm is coming - while also considering the off-chance that he's losing his mind - Curtis invests his money and energy into rebuilding the underground tornado shelter on his property, estranging himself from his family and putting his job at risk.

Anything can happen when a skilled filmmaker clashes with the conventions of a genre. (Random good example: Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight; random bad: Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear.) Take Shelter gives us an Everyman whom Everyone thinks is going crazy, along with a deaf child in need of a medical procedure that requires his healthcare plan, in case our emotions were in need of further goosing. Yet Nichols keeps the other shoe from dropping for so long that I wish he had avoided the inevitable altogether. It's revealed that Curtis's mother (Kathy Baker) is a diagnosed schizophrenic who abandoned him when he was a child, and the possibility that Curtis too may be inflicted by bipolar disorder is treated (at first) seriously and compassionately. Eventually, though, Nichols resorts to the deck-stacking side-stepped by his first film, the kind where most of the protagonist's problems would be avoided by simply telling those around him what's going on. Curtis loses his job as the result of a contrived chain of events involving his co-worker/best friend Dewart (Shea Whigham), culminating in showy fisticuffs at a community dinner where Curtis bugs his eyeballs and screams at everybody that "A STORM'S A-COMIN!", or a jeremiad to that effect, as tables are turned over and silverware goes flying.

Screaming and eyeball-bugging come all too easily to Michael Shannon, whose knack for overacting can be amusing in doses but is frequently hard to take at center-stage. Relatively subdued in Shotgun Stories, Shannon's soft-spokenness in Take Shelter is belied by his own physical tics. We need to see Curtis as a normally functioning human being to care about his decline, and Shannon - like Vince Vaughn in the Psycho remake - looks like he's woken up with flopsweat his entire life. It's not entirely his fault, though. Nichols directs his actor to spend half the movie craning his neck up to the sky, and what he sees (and we see) look like fairly impressive special effects - yet nothing more than CGI. I imagine it will be argued that if Curtis is hallucinating then his hallucinations should have an air of unreality. But I think that circling birds -- like the bats swarming over downtown Austin in Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, an indelible image that looks and feels authentic -- need to appear real if we are to believe that Curtis believes they are real.

Credit Nichols for testing himself, and I hope he doesn't stop trying different things, but it's clear that he isn't playing to his strengths here. His interests in Take Shelter clearly lie in depicting the everyday struggles of characters dealing with crummy jobs and rising gas prices and high pharmaceutical co-pays. He's also highly adept at conveying a loving marriage under siege. As Curtis's wife Samantha, Jessica Chastain, in one of her half-dozen remarkably varied performances from last year, gives to her co-star much more than she gets - but that's right down her wheelhouse as an actress. There seems to be nothing that isn't: Chastain is put through the paces of bewilderment and frustration, anger and fear toward her husband's madness, only to double-down on steely resolve to help him overcome it. Her big moment, in what should have been the film's climax, is both touching and powerful, only to be betrayed by a denouement in which the director ditches his creative integrity. Nichols probably needed the ending he came up with to get the movie made in the first place: What studio wants to greenlight an honest movie about mental illness? And, yes, it's still "open to interpretation" that either the storms in Curtis's head turn out to be real or his wife is now sharing in his insanity. Both options are utter nonsense; though I suppose if you're Terry Gilliam or Randy Quaid (quite a target demographic), one or the other has appeal.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Dancing around a Void (Pina and Damsels in Distress)

Pina (2011), the Oscar-nom'd Best Documentary directed by Wim Wenders, continues the genre's current trend of revealing little about its subject. Or even having a subject. Or arguably not being a documentary at all. This is not a knee-jerk criticism, noncomformity being generally a good thing; but the PowerPoint presentations of Al Gore and the metaphysical musings of Werner Herzog and the stock-footage shenanigans of Alex Gibney or Michael Moore don't push the envelope so much as neglect to stamp postage on their messages altogether. And on the off-chance there is an actual topic front and center - like professional nutjob Joyce McCarthy in Errol Morris's Tabloid - it's of so little consequence I feel the same way I do toward recently ballyhooed docudramas that magnify ephemera like the crappy movies of Howard Hughes or the bogus impact of Billy Beane: Why was this movie even made? Why should I be watching it?

I didn't feel quite that harshly toward Pina, which has some imaginatively staged dance numbers, some of them in urban or natural settings. Shortly before filming began, Wenders, who has made at least one notable documentary (1999's Buena Vista Social Club) and one of the greatest movies ever made (whether that movie is Paris, Texas or Wings of Desire depends on you), was faced with the death of his subject, the groundbreaking choreographer Pina Bausch. How, then, to fill the void? (In Buena Vista Social Club he had the opposite problem - keeping the overbearing Ry Cooder's ego out of the way of the compelling Cuban musicians and their terrific music.) Pina showcases Bausch's most famous dance numbers as performed by her troupe, a polyethnic, gender-balanced mix of younger and older dancers who supply the expected "talking-heads" without heads that do any talking. In what some may find an overly artful touch, Wenders has each of them face the camera silently while the audio from their interviews plays in voiceover.

Like Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Pina was made in 3-D, and even more than Herzog's film (which I mostly liked) it demonstrates both the best (depth of field) and worst (blurriness of motion) that the technology can offer. And while it's clear that Pina Bausch had a profound impact on her proteges, the most they reveal about her - or at least what Wenders lets us hear - are blinding insights like "Pina taught me to find strength in fragility." It's apparent to even this dance non-expert that a recurring theme in Bausch's art is the struggle between the deterioration of the body (through disease or age) and the will of the spirit: One dazzling set-piece occurs in a large sterile room - possibly a mental institution - in which the dancers navigate obstacles between each other in the form of several chairs. If the movie had spelled out such themes with real-life parallels I'd probably be critiquing that narrative tack instead. It's good to see Wenders, who has a habit of indulging his own pretensions, flirting with relevance again. He's still halfway down the rabbit hole, though, allowing his subjects to speak for themselves without fully considering what their words, and his images, mean.

Whit Stillman's return to the screen following a fourteen-year absence isn't as momentous as Terrence Malick's end to his 20-year exile - 1998, the year of Stillman's last movie (The Last Days of Disco), was the same as Malick's resurfacing (The Thin Red Line) - but the unique niche that Stillman occupies is worth noting. Or at least the go-getting young-adult rarefied-air landscapes of Metropolitan and Barcelona used to be original before Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbauch aggressively expanded the area's urban planning.

The weirdest thing about the self-conscious weirdness of
Damsels in Distress (2012) is it feels like Stillman trying to do an Anderson movie, rather than the other way around. It's been a while since I've seen his earlier films, but the arch flatness (or flat archness) of the dialogue and deadpan absurdity of the shaggy-dog scenarios seem more exaggeratedly cartoonish than in previous Stillman efforts. (Unlike his disciples, Stillman moves the camera quite a bit in Damsels - unlike Stillman too, in fact.) As Violet, the lead distressed damsel of a quartet out to better the lives of the culturally deprived co-eds at Seven Oaks College, Greta Gerwig hits the right tone: When she explains the virtues of good hygiene for suicide prevention, or why stupid guys make the best boyfriends (to give women a purpose in life and feel better about themselves), the twisted comic logic is ticklish. And as Frank and Thor, a pair of boneheads from a local "Roman" frathouse (the campus's version of Greeks), Ryan Metcalf and Billy Magnussen provide the funniest takes on inspired stupidity since Bill Pullman in Ruthless People and Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda.

Unfortunately what is at first clever and charming becomes exhausting twee overload by the film's second half. Damsels sets up one of Stillman's key themes - the efforts of a collective to change an individual (here a transfer student played blandly by Analeigh Tipton), only to have that individual shake them up instead - but doesn't follow through on the premise. The comedy gradually unspools, ending with not one but two dance numbers, a classical-style musical sequence followed immediately by Violet's purported new "dance craze" over the closing credits. It's one of those bring-the-cast-together climaxes you find in Wes Anderson's work, only without the emotional resonance of the best of them. Parts of Damsels in Distress are fresh and delightful, but the worst bits are as stifling as The Life Aquatic or The Darjeeling Limited - movies made ostensibly in the open air, yet actually within the world of a filmmaker who forgot to crack a window.