Archive for the ‘drama’ category

Labor Day

February 2, 2014

Remember when Kate Winslet was the best reason to see a movie — when her presence promised fun, spirit, irrepressible emotion? Winslet is not, I hasten to add, suddenly a bad actress; she’s just gone afield, choosing counterintuitive roles. I don’t want to see her suffer; I want to see her laugh and be dazzling. In recent years it’s almost as if Winslet were doing penance for her earlier work, appearing in one dreary Oscar-chaser after another, and Labor Day is the dreariest yet. Winslet plays Adele, a depressed divorcée who barely leaves the house. Her 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) looks out for her, pushing the car’s shifter out of neutral when Adele means to go in reverse. That’s a rather neat metaphor for their relationship: he helps her from being stuck but enables her living in the past. Winslet commits herself to this sorrowful woman, whose agonies, we learn, go beyond mere divorce. (It must be said, though, that Adele maintains a house and raises a child despite no visible job, and later she withdraws what looks like thousands of dollars from her bank account; she must’ve gotten a really sweet deal from her ex-husband.)

All this is just set-up for the real story: an escaped convict, Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), approaches Henry at the supermarket while Adele is busy fretting over which brand of light bulb to buy. Frank’s leg is wounded, and he needs somewhere to stay for a few hours. Dazed with fear — though Frank is courteous and not openly threatening — Adele agrees, and Frank ends up spending Labor Day weekend with the two. If you’re going to give up your couch to a convicted murderer, of course, you could do worse than Frank. His demeanor is calm and soothing. He fixes things around the house. He teaches Henry how to throw and hit a baseball. He shows Adele how to make peach pie. He’s the perfect man, perhaps too perfect. He’s essentially a feminine fantasy of a good bad boy (Joyce Maynard wrote the source novel, adapted by Jason Reitman).

The movie doesn’t lapse into manufactured drama, but it forgets to include any real drama, either. Everyone’s emotions seem repressed. Nobody is ever overcome with passion, or joy, or relief, or anything. The characters maintain a dull even keel. The only strong moment in the entire film is when Adele’s neighbor (Brooke Smith), picking up her disabled little boy after having left him in Adele’s care for the evening, gets exasperated at the boy’s struggling vocalizations and slaps him. The boy, of course, is trying to tell his mother that he just saw Frank — the same man who’s been kind to him all day — on TV, which constantly blares warnings of the dangerous criminal on the loose.

Labor Day might be read as a boy’s coming-of-age story (it’s narrated by Tobey Maguire as the adult Henry), a tale about that time his mom met a guy who was a better dad than his real dad. The politics of the piece are null — it could be saying that what this fearful, saddened woman really needs is a real man, and what the flat-affect son needs is a real man as his dad. When we learn the nature of Frank’s crime, it’s set up so that he’s essentially blameless, even though it grew out of his losing his temper. Director Reitman feeds us the past traumas of Frank and Adele in elliptical little flashbacks. They’re two broken people reaching for each other, and that sort of thing.

And so we return to the mystery of Kate Winslet, and why she wants to do a movie in which she sits tenderly holding a dead baby. Life has beaten the shit out of Adele, but I prefer Winslet when she’s beating the shit out of life, and has no need of a man to set her straight on the carpe diem path. It’s twenty years now since she took cinema by storm in Heavenly Creatures, in which she swooned as she announced, “All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases — it’s all frightfully romantic!” The Winslet who delivered that line so wonderfully would’ve spat in this morose film’s eye, and its dishrag heroine’s, too. Labor Day doesn’t risk any melodramatic excesses; it sort of sits in a blank, defeated slump. We don’t feel the depth of despair or the spike of joy; it’s a flatline movie. It leaves us with nothing except the aftertaste of our popcorn.


January 26, 2014


The reigning champ of bleak works of art with the title Nebraska remains Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album. A short-story collection about losers and psychos, accompanied by lonely acoustic guitar and packed in the dry ice of despair, Springsteen’s Nebraska invited compassion for the down and out, the devil’s rejects. Alexander Payne’s film Nebraska, on the other hand, holds its subjects at an aesthetic arm’s length. It’s shot (by Phedon Papamichael) in pristine black and white, and on a wide, wide canvas, emphasizing the flat beauty of the Midwest as it dwarfs the nothing-special people who (barely) occupy it. The movie keeps scoring small, unpleasant points off its harmless characters; it is everything I detest about a certain subspecies of “indie” film. It keeps parading its own unearned superiority.

The protagonist, crankily retired Woody Grant of Billings, Montana (Bruce Dern), has received a letter informing him (he thinks) that he’s won a million dollars. Everyone around Woody — his wife Kate (June Squibb), his grown sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) — knows it’s a scam designed to sell magazines, but stubborn Woody keeps sneaking off to walk the 750 miles to Nebraska to collect his cash. Eventually, David offers to drive Woody there and stop off in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne. We get the sense that the million dollars is only an excuse or an impetus for a deeper desire in Woody to chuck everything and walk away from his disappointing life. But Payne and his screenwriter Bob Nelson have made that life disappointing. The movie’s view of humanity, especially as word spreads in Hawthorne about Woody’s incipient payday and everyone starts to circle him for handouts, is callowly caustic.

We’ve been down this saggy-soul-of-America road with Payne before, in 2002′s overrated About Schmidt, which trained a similar coldly curious eye on Midwesterners. We are assured by the usual fawning press that Payne himself hails from Nebraska and lives there part of the year, so he couldn’t possibly intend Nebraska as snotty city-mouse commentary, right? Whenever possible, people are framed within the wide compositions to render them insignificant; for his other trick, Payne stares head-on at the wizened, stoic codgers and the derisive fatties as they sit in a sparse living room absorbed in afternoon football. These people are damned by their simple values, their bland tastes and interests. Woody seems content enough to sit among them, and David’s attempt to strike out in the larger world — selling Bose speakers at a strip mall — is also sneered at by the movie, as is his brother Ross’s substitute gig as a local-news anchorman. Is there any way for a person in this film to live that would meet with the approval of its director?

When David Lynch took a comparable tour of flyover country with a senior citizen, in 1999′s The Straight Story, he brought out the enchantment and pleasant strangeness of the land and its people. The movie was good-hearted (and ten times the artistic achievement that Payne’s film is) without being sappy. Nebraska‘s heart pumps acid yet also gets clogged with sap, a bizarre and toxic mixture. Waddling about with tufts of duck-feather hair sticking out like a halation of mental disorder, Bruce Dern is monotonously antagonistic, as I’m sure Payne directed him to be; that Woody doesn’t grow or change doesn’t make him any less of a sentimental cliché, since he’s defined mostly by how the exasperated David relates to him (it’s the Rain Man prestige-buddy-road-trip dynamic all over again). Performances don’t matter much here anyway — the actors are coached to flatten their delivery to conform to that of the local non-actors with whom Payne loves to fill the margins of his movies.

A filmmaker who considers himself smart and artistic has no business taking shots at such slow-moving targets as karaoke singers. Ha ha! These rubes are terrible singers and have nothing better to do with their afternoons! I got angrier at Nebraska the longer it trudged on, its ostentatiously bedraggled milieu less and less mitigated by its fashionably stark cinematography. The movie has zero to say about what it shows us; unlike even the troubling rural inner chaos depicted in Werner Herzog’s Stroszek and Harmony Korine’s Gummo — both of which also sported some surrealistic verve and freakshow showmanship — Nebraska has no spirit, no life. It’s just small people with small lives and small vision milling around a gigantic canvas, until Woody gets what he wants, and then the movie ends, whereupon I got what I wanted.

The Counselor

October 27, 2013

the-counselor-michael-fassbenderReaders of Cormac McCarthy, who wrote the script for the convoluted new thriller The Counselor, might ask who this movie’s Ultimate Evil is, the Judge Holden, the Chigurh, the suzerain of the earth, silent and serene. Is it the drug kingpin Reiner (Javier Bardem)? Or the middleman Westray (Brad Pitt), who arranges deals between men like Reiner and men who need a lot of cash? Or even the sallow-faced assassin (Sam Spruell) we see stringing wire across a desert highway, the better to separate a motorcyclist from his helmet and its contents? Or could it be the never-named Counselor (Michael Fassbender), whose naïve dabbling in the drug trade stands to win him either $20 million or despair? Who in this amoral universe knows all, sees all, claims that nothing must be permitted to occur upon the earth save by his dispensation?

There’s an answer to that, late in the movie, and meanwhile we watch as the chess pieces, set in shaky motion, march towards a properly bleak McCarthy end. The Counselor is not so much a thriller, really, as it is a new gloss on McCarthy’s favorite conflict between the evil that knows too much and the good that doesn’t know nearly enough. The key, for those inclined to seek it, might lie in a late-inning phone chat between the Counselor and a cartel bigwig (Ruben Blades), who sounds like a somewhat gentler Judge Holden and speaks obliquely about crossings and events long set in stone. Over and over, the Counselor is himself counseled to avoid the path he wants to follow, and once he’s too far along the road, he is told it’s too late.

The movie is full of odd one-on-one conversations that may exasperate those who want the film to get to the point, but the dialogue is the point. It’s not snappy or clever, but it does evoke Hemingway in its weary fatalism and particularly its repeated assessment of women as a threat to the male Garden of Eden. Without women, you see, there would be nobody for men to impress with diamonds and other flashy indicators of wealth, and therefore no crime, no war. I don’t think the movie itself (or McCarthy) believes this — rather, it’s one more way in which the desperate and stupid men in the film sabotage themselves. The Counselor is not a feminist work — not with the old reliable madonna/whore construct represented by the Counselor’s innocent fiancée Laura (Penelope Cruz) and Reiner’s cheetah-owning girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) — but it’s not a masculinist work either. McCarthy is not much into heroes except when he’s writing about the literal end of the world.

The Counselor is vaguely apocalyptic as it is, set in a world where cartel thugs dispatch the unwise with vicious time-activated nooses called bolitos — McCarthy digs sending human beings to their maker with implements that seem designed for use on livestock, as with Chigurh’s cattle gun in No Country for Old Men. (In Cuba, a bolita refers to a lottery ball, and someone’s number comes up here.) The movie is being called violent, but the brutal bits are few and far between; we get what we need to keep our dread fresh. The Counselor has been directed by Ridley Scott outside his usual mode of ladling hot/cold visuals onto the screen to let us know that he, Ridley Scott, master visualist, directed it. As a result, it’s Scott’s best film in quite some time. He serves McCarthy’s story. We get the sense that the script magnetized everyone involved, who felt no need to diddle with anything or show off. The cast hums with a low intensity — there are no Oscar moments here, no disgraceful displays like Hugh Jackman in Prisoners. This film isn’t getting, but should, the grateful accolades that Prisoners got, and shouldn’t have.

How seldom we see the feared cartel monsters, or even the drugs themselves, in this putative cartel thriller. Almost everyone in the movie is on the margins of the trade, profiting from it without getting their hands bloody. This isn’t a noir thriller featuring the poor and desperate, but rather the rich and desperate, desperate to maintain their spot in the hierarchy. The story is simple but told with a terse economy that doesn’t spoon-feed us the narrative. The Counselor is one of McCarthy’s late-period minimalist fables, philosophical in speech but plain in action, unlike the efflorescent wilderness of pain and madness painted in McCarthy’s gravestone work Blood Meridian. “The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die,” says Judge Holden in that book, “but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night.” We don’t see many drugs in The Counselor because the people may as well be clashing over rocks or sand or flags. The Judge or Chigurh of the movie is revealed before the credits roll, but ultimately the Judge and Chigurh represent human folly, the illusion of control over events save by our dispensation.


October 5, 2013

Sandra-Bullock-in-Gravity-2013-Movie-Image-2We could easily come up with a few legitimate complaints about Gravity. Emotionally, it’s a little pat. The film’s tagline — “Don’t let go” — resolves into that time-honored Hollywood bromide about life always finding a way. And along about the fifth or sixth crisis faced by Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), we may think a better title for the movie might be The Perils of Sandra. Despite its comforting aspects, though, Gravity is a work of techno-art, with images of humbling grandeur and scenes almost painful in the depth of horror they evoke. The film’s climactic reassurances, though welcome on some level after the bone-shaking ride we’ve had, feel a little soft because the true takeaway from the experience is this: Space is very, very unforgiving. Don’t fuck with it.

We’re up there above Earth, floating and bobbing and revolving, along with Dr. Stone and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Stone is tinkering around on the outside of the space shuttle Explorer; this is her first time in space, and she’s nervous and nauseated. This is Kowalski’s last mission, and he scoots around in his Manned Maneuvering Unit, his mood jocular and calming. Then the Explorer receives ominous news: the Russians have blown up one of their own satellites, and the debris is heading for the Explorer with a powerful quickness. As the death-junk approaches, the music (by Steven Price) becomes a menacing paradox, huge yet needlingly intimate. This crap is coming for you, the score says, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. Soon enough, the Explorer becomes a piñata, communication to Houston is cut off, Stone finds herself reeling through the inky void, and Kowalski doesn’t have a lot of juice left in his MMU. And you thought you had problems.

At first glance a minimalist survival nail-biter on the order of, say, Cast Away or Open Water, Gravity ratchets up the terror by observing the pitiless logic of physics. In this zero-gravity reality, people bounce off each other and go spinning heedlessly into hard, unyielding objects; the physicality is a little overwhelming — the smallest movement can have massive consequences. For every action, it seems in space, there is a wildly inequal and opposite reaction. To deal with this, career astronauts must possess a certain serenity under enormous danger and a certain outlook on life and death, perhaps born of seeing the world from a literally different perspective than most of us do. Clooney’s Kowalski never loses his cool, continuing to urge Stone on with lulling optimism even when his own situation looks bleak.

Some have lampooned Gravity as “Sandra Bullock screaming for 90 minutes.” I’m sorry if the marketing has made it seem that way — and most of what you’ve seen in the commercials happens in the first half hour — but that’s unfair to Bullock, an amiable comic actress who has been impressive in dramatic roles, never more so than here. Stone is our avatar; we share her fright and her awe. Bullock finds the spark in a woman who long ago, in the wake of a tragedy, gave herself up for dead. Gravity is, in part, about how Stone learns to value her life again, and that’s a bit of a bummer — we intuit her turn rather than feeling it. But that’s not Bullock’s fault; the script only has so much time to flesh out Stone’s background. When Stone starts to feel alive, Bullock becomes more animated; we can almost feel the heat of her flesh where the blood is flowing again. (Maybe it’s intellectual rejuvenation — rather than feeling powerless, Stone has a hallucinatory epiphany that these are mechanical problems she can think her way around and solve.)

Gravity is perhaps the magnum opus from director Alfonso Cuarón, who hasn’t made a feature since 2006’s Children of Men; he spent much of the intervening time working on this film. This director adores technical challenges, technical wizardry; the carnage-spattered long-take chase scene in Children of Men is deservedly legendary, and he lets his shots here sprawl and breathe and gather dread. Gene Siskel’s statement about Who Framed Roger Rabbit (“I don’t know how they did it, and I don’t want to know”) applies just as accurately to the kind of magic Cuarón weaves. Not merely a cold craftsman, Cuarón shares with his confederates Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu a tough-minded humanism: people are imperfect and inhabit a hostile environment but strive anyway, and the striving itself is worth noting and making movies about. Nothing feels sadistic about the way Cuarón tightens the screws on his characters. He wants to view them in extremis — and more extreme than outer space you can’t get — because that’s where the story is. Gravity has some soft spots, probably best blamed on the marketplace demands of making a movie at the $100 million level, but it’s still a masterpiece, with appropriate respect for the vastness of the chessboard and the smallness of the pawns who can navigate it.


September 21, 2013

Capture19You know what you’re in for with the first shot, of a snowy patch of woods in late autumn, while a voice-over intones the Lord’s Prayer. A deer wanders into the frame, and the camera pulls back to reveal someone aiming a rifle. Bang! Christianity and unmotivated gun violence: ain’t that America? Prisoners, the first film in English by the Quebec director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies), feels as though it wants to be part of the national conversation; it seems to want to be more than a kidnapped-kids thriller (especially with its generous running time of two hours and thirty-three minutes). For a long time, Villeneuve’s patient formalism and Roger Deakins’ typically luscious cinematography make Prisoners a pleasant, and pleasantly adult, sit. Then it seems to remember that it has to wrap things up neatly (why?), and the last half hour, despite the occasional jolt of excitement, is an embarrassment.

In a drab Pennsylvania suburb, two families get together for Thanksgiving: Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello head over to the (slightly better-looking) home of Terrence Howard and Viola Davis. Jackman, I think, also brings some of the deer his son just shot in the first scene. The families each have a teenage kid and a small daughter. The two small daughters leave the house after Thanksgiving dinner and never return. Prisoners then becomes about how the parents, and specifically Jackman, respond to the crisis. Howard and Davis recede, and Bello zonks herself out on pills — the brief moments of levity the elsewhere-vibrant actresses Bello and Davis share pre-kidnapping have to last us a long time, because the movie turns into The Hugh Jackman Show. The poor man, who seems to have dedicated much of his film career to making us forget he can also be a charming song-and-dance light comedian, rages and suffers and howls and falls off the wagon and generally comports himself like someone even Wolverine might cross the street to avoid.

The police, led by Jake Gyllenhaal as a detective who’s “never lost a case,” find a mentally challenged young man (Paul Dano) who certainly seems to be the kidnapper, but the girls are nowhere to be seen, and after 24 hours the cops have no evidence on him and have to release him. Wolverine — er, Jackman — swings into action, kidnapping Dano, stashing him in a dilapidated, abandoned apartment building he happens to have inherited, and torturing him for information while Terrence Howard mostly stands around looking queasy. Meanwhile, someone else is sneaking around the neighborhood at night and apparently breaking into the Jackman and Howard homes. Could he be the kidnapper? Or how about the old child-molesting ex-priest who has something interesting in his basement?

Denis Villeneuve appears to be fighting this material tooth and nail. He brings a burnish of high burgundy seriousness to the staging, but the plot is irredeemably pulpy and runs on a thin tank of coincidence and convolution. Villeneuve seems to want the film to say something about the American character as personified by Jackman, a struggling carpenter (Jesus?) who fills his own basement with survival supplies and passes easily into righteous fury. Gyllenhaal’s cop, I guess, is there as balance, but he doesn’t do much of anything, and it takes him forever to figure anything out (some detective). The extended running time is there to pile on more and more twists, not to discover anything in the characters. The only thing we learn about Terrence Howard’s character, aside from his not having the stomach for torture, is that he plays the trumpet badly. About Viola Davis we learn not even that much. Spike Lee’s comments about mishandling of black characters in films made by white people are sometimes an occasion for eye-rolling, but after seeing Prisoners you might acknowledge he has a point.

And then the movie gears up for its gripping climax and becomes terrible. The filmmaking remains crystalline, immaculate, which makes the implausibilities much bitterer pills to swallow. Something seems to happen, and then no, it didn’t happen that way, and someone is in custody that the cops like for the crime, but then whoops, someone isn’t in custody any more, and someone goes alone to someone else’s house and at that point, by simple process of elimination, you wait for the big reveal, and it happens, and while you’re still trying to get your brain around the laughable disparity in size between the threatened party and the threatener, more stuff happens and people act stupidly and good god, is this going to be over any time soon? There are two movies at war here: a glum, wintry character drama from the Atom Egoyan mold (say, The Sweet Hereafter or Exotica) and a very-particular-set-of-skills thriller á la Taken. Guess which movie wins, but it’s not even fun on a Taken level, never mind as devastating as Sweet Hereafter. This movie is impeccably-made horseshit.

I Declare War

September 15, 2013

I-DECLARE-WAR-Press-Image-1.-This-should-go-in-guide.-Property-of-IDW-Films-Inc.Back in 1969, writer Sandra Scoppettone and artist Louise Fitzhugh put out a children’s book called Bang Bang You’re Dead. It’s something of a collector’s item now — so many parents and teachers loathed it that it kicked up a lot of controversy. Anyway, the book is a starkly brilliant parable about kids playing war and really hurting (though not killing) each other. The point, made none too subtly for a readership of little boys who liked to play war, was that war isn’t and shouldn’t be a game. It draws blood. I remembered the book while watching I Declare War, a bitter but paradoxically entertaining fantasia about a group of boys (and one girl) who play war out in the Canadian woods. The movie’s conceit is that we share the kids’ imaginations: when they pick up a toy gun or a branch and pretend it’s a real gun or a bazooka, that’s what we see. In visual movie language, they’re really shooting at each other, but only in their heads. No one gets killed, but a few illusions bite the dust.

Shrewdly, I Declare War almost immediately puts us on the side of P.K. (Gage Munroe) and his army. P.K. is small, blonde and tinsel-toothed, an unlikely figure to be a general, but he’s intelligent and has studied military history. He’s serious about winning war games — his base shows off all the flags he’s won. Putting us further in P.K.’s camp is his adversary, Skinner (Michael Friend), an unpleasant “spaz” who’s just out for revenge on P.K. and is willing to torture P.K.’s best friend Kwan (Siam Yu) when he takes Kwan prisoner. Therefore a variety of “soldiers” under both boys’ “command” are cannon fodder to settle an old score between two “nations.” You could read I Declare War as an allegory for just about any conflict the United States has gotten into, or any other country.

As the movie goes on, we realize something about the fair-haired P.K.: he’s a bit of a sociopath. He’s perfectly fine with sending his best friend off to be captured and possibly tortured a second time. We’ve been rooting for him because he’s smart and his enemy is emotionally volatile, but the movie ends up asking what, exactly, P.K. stands to “win” by asking his friends to sacrifice for his own glory. There’s another brain in the group, Jess (Mackenzie Munro), who plays a lot of chess and has her own agenda; she’s technically on Skinner’s side, but isn’t really loyal to him. Jess’s favored weapon is a crossbow, which serves as a perhaps unintentional critique of the heroine of The Hunger Games. The movie suggests that the people best at planning out war games aren’t the best human beings. Skinner, warped by the desire to make a mark in this faux-violent context, comes to seem less like a villain than a victim.

I Declare War has enough downtime to flesh out all the characters, strongly played by a variety of young actors mostly unknown outside Canada. But it flies by anyway, animated by the complexity of the chessboard. François Truffaut famously opined that it was impossible to make an anti-war movie, since war is so innately cinematic and exciting, and indeed the battles here are crisply staged for maximum lizard-brain satisfaction. At times the movie is like Red Dawn with a conscience. Directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson (Lapeyre also wrote the script) perform a weirdly morally complicated contextual juggling act. We know it’s fake, both in and out of the film’s reality — we know the “grenades” are just balloons filled with red paint, the “guns” just wood and plastic — yet here we are, watching adolescents shooting at each other with what read visually as real bullets, and it’s fun. It’s fun in the old primate way it’s always been: the tension of the “good guys” taking cover while being shot at, the gratification of what Hannibal Smith called a plan coming together.

But it’s also not fun, and while nothing much is actually hurt here aside from some feelings, those feelings matter to us because the kids do. As you may have guessed, this is a story, like Lord of the Flies and Stand by Me, that involves kids but is meant more for adults. The language, appropriately enough, is pretty salty. Also like those stories, though, I Declare War is thematically appropriate for pre-teens, who use that language anyway, and who might best benefit from its message. If it were a young-adult book, it’d be stupidly challenged by offended parents all over the country. It’d face the same fear and loathing that greeted that Vietnam-era relic Bang Bang You’re Dead. Why do some authority figures not want children to know about the painful, unglamorous realities of war? Or have I just answered my own question?


April 28, 2013

Fairhaven6[1].rFairhaven’s a beautiful town, especially in winter. That much we learn from Fairhaven, though not much else. The movie tracks the vague disappointments of three friends who grew up together in southcoastal Massachusetts. Jon (Tom O’Brien) works on a fishing boat but wants to be a writer. Sam (Rich Sommer) sells real estate and is having a hard time getting back in the romance game after his divorce. Dave (Chris Messina), the one who left town, is back home for his father’s funeral. Dave is the kind of scabrously honest guy built to kick out the underpinnings of complacency in his buddies. We watch as the guys, in pairs or in trio, wander around trying to distract themselves with women who never get to say much. That’s essentially the movie.

Fairhaven is a wee, almost microscopic character study whose characters, and their issues, seem imported from similar movies. I kept reflecting on 1996’s Beautiful Girls, which had a larger cast, a more authentically New England flavor (though most of it was shot in Minnesota), and more vivid female characters. Fairhaven could’ve used a Rosie O’Donnell figure, loudly barging through the fog of white male weltschmerz. The movie feels intimate and therapy-bound yet aesthetically remote; whenever we’re looking at tasty footage of Fort Phoenix at dusk we can understand why cinematographer Peter Simonite broke out the wide canvas, but inside cramped houses with two people talking the wide frame almost mocks the unimportance of what’s going on, or not going on.

I usually give movies like this the benefit of the doubt up to a point, that point generally being the moment I feel I’ve apprehended everything the movie has to say, and it’s not fixing to do anything else but amplify or reiterate what it’s said. That moment came fairly early in Fairhaven, when Jon and Dave are at a strip club and Dave confesses an affair with Sam’s ex-wife Kate (Sarah Paulson). I grumbled to myself, “This scene had maybe six lines of relevant dialogue and could’ve been set anywhere, and they had to stage it in a strip club?” Not that I’m a prude, but in a movie so disinterested in what women have to say, it sort of matters. Anyway, the scene leads to a flat-out unbelievable bit in which a stripper takes Jon and Dave home for a coke-dusted threesome, which Jon skips out on because he has a girlfriend, though she’s been making earnest noises about open relationships, and somehow she doesn’t get mad when he drops in on her in the middle of the night and tells her where he’s been. She’s just a sounding board, like every other woman in town.

Fairhaven was directed by its star, Tom O’Brien, and written by him and his co-star Chris Messina, and it has that Good Will Hunting whiff about it — an actors’ script, written to its actors’ strengths to show off what they can do. The drama burns with such a low flame, though, that the most the talented stars can do is brood and pose and perform “act what isn’t said” exercises. The latter part makes Fairhaven obliquely interesting — we feel as though there are dozens of backstories to what we’re seeing. We don’t really get to know the guys, though. Each gets one or two traits. Jon is haunted by superstar quarterback Tom Brady’s averral that he still feels unfulfilled, and this Peggy Lee-esque “is that all there is” lament runs through Jon’s character arc. Generally, in a film like this, Jon would be advised to get out of Fairhaven and go be a writer. But that advice is placed in the foul mouth of Dave, who only fled town because he slept with his buddy’s wife anyway. And the town is made to look so gorgeous and restful that it seems the movie doesn’t want to pull the trigger on Fairhaven as a go-nowhere burg.

Which it isn’t. I liked that Promised Land made a case for its rural setting, and I like the case visually made for the town here. But you’d never know from Fairhaven that the actual town has a rich literary pedigree — Mark Twain liked to hang around there, chumming it up with oilman and town benefactor Henry Huttleston Rogers. But what is Jon going to write about? What kinds of things will he write? A novel set in Fairhaven about three overgrown boys who can’t figure out underwritten women? They can’t figure out the women because there’s nothing in them to figure out, and nothing in the guys, either. Fairhaven is one of those self-consciously low-key indie films that come around every couple of years — the kind of drama that actively avoids Hollywood clichés (tearful confrontations and revelations) but has nothing to replace them with except indie-film clichés (off-the-cuff confrontations and revelations). There’s no passion, no spark. It’s an actor’s workshop with intermittent slide shows of Fairhaven, but Fairhaven bats its eyelashes becomingly, ready for its close-up.

To the Wonder

April 21, 2013

To-The-Wonder-Trailer6The throughline of To the Wonder is quite simple, as many romantic movies are. An American man in France falls in love with a French woman. He invites her and her daughter back to America. It doesn’t work out, and the woman and her daughter leave. The man strikes up a relationship with another woman he once knew years ago. That doesn’t work out, either. Then the man invites the French woman back to America. They get married. This doesn’t make things much easier. Meanwhile, a priest is having trouble with his faith. He and the man wander around a bit, comforting the sick and elderly. The end, I think.

That sort of synopsis doesn’t nearly grapple with To the Wonder, but then no synopsis could pin Terrence Malick to the ground. This is Malick’s sixth film in a 40-year career; he has been working at a positively blistering clip lately, relative to his output, because his previous film, The Tree of Life, only came out two years ago, and he’s working on another. Malick, who once taught philosophy and translated Heidegger, is perhaps the lone acolyte of the American sublime; he is preoccupied with the ineffable, the primordial, the ecstatic. To this end, he makes hushed and meditative films with painfully beautiful photography and lots of solemn, whispered voice-overs. Not a Team Malick member myself, I thought that Tree of Life was gaseous yet movingly inchoate, the work of a true seeker, and that it probably represented the purest expression of what he’s getting at.

And what is he getting at? In To the Wonder, the man (Ben Affleck) and the French woman (Olga Kurylenko) seem to represent The Man and The Woman. There are no people in a Terrence Malick film; instead there are abstracted avatars standing in for ideas. In Tree of Life, Brad Pitt was Nature — red in tooth and claw — and Jessica Chastain was Grace, spinning about free-spiritedly. And we see the same dynamic here. Men, weighted to the earth, must contend with its despoliation (Affleck’s character literally measures how much we’re poisoning the soil). Women, if this film and its predecessor are to be believed, fling their arms to the heavens at every opportunity and dance among the fireflies, the buffalo, the waves at the beach. If Tree of Life was about the son who felt pulled between the forces of Nature and Grace, To the Wonder is a kind of prequel-in-spirit in which we see how uneasily Nature and Grace live together.

So you see, it’s not really a romantic movie after all. Well, not lowly human romance, anyway. The priest (Javier Bardem) is there for a very significant thematic reason: to remind us how far we’ve fallen from the Grace of God. (This movie and Tree of Life feel intensely spiritual but don’t seem to show specific allegiance to any creed. God here is, as AA puts it, “as we understand him.” Or her. With Malick, we can’t be sure.) A little has been made of the way some of the plot seems to mirror Malick’s own romantic past, but I’d say he’s just writing what he knows as an on-ramp onto the highway of higher mysteries. Nature and Grace are mutually infatuated but can never reconcile; their aims are too different. Affleck, who sees daily what his species has done to the planet, cannot love. Kurylenko seeks companionship but cannot, will not, be tied down.

Your response to all this depends extremely heavily on how much philosophizing and pretty pictures you’re willing to accept in lieu of a story. I seem to have grown tired in recent years of the stuff Hollywood expects me to accept as stories, and so I have moved a little closer to the Malick camp, without quite being sold on the Master a hundred percent. Tree of Life and To the Wonder both fall into the “interesting, yet boring” category, ravishing but at an aesthetic remove dramatically. For instance, we see Affleck and Kurylenko arguing but never hear what they’re fighting about; we see the end of Affleck’s relationship with the second woman (Rachel McAdams) but have no idea why or how it ended. (In voice-over, McAdams whispers dejectedly that Affleck “made it into nothing” with his “lust.” Okay.) Again, I think we’re supposed to take these love affairs as Love Affairs, which in turn signify not mere matters of the heart but the titans of creation and destruction at war within all of us. Or something.

Also, I could be wrong but I believe this is the first Terrence Malick film that’s ever seen the inside of a supermarket. He finds beauty and ecstasy even there. But we don’t find out what groceries the characters buy or why they eat them, and I think that’s a useful thing to keep in mind when approaching this or any Malick film. They’re just in the supermarket.

Les Miserables

December 23, 2012

Les-Miserables-Anne-Hathaway-1In the first reel or so of Les Miserables, we may be reminded that we don’t often see something like this at the movies these days — big, lavish, epic, period musicals, the kind with ornate and expensive sets. Sadly, we’re still not seeing something like that; the musicals of old used to take time to drink in the set decoration (hey, a lot of money went into it, might as well point a camera at it), but Les Miserables, under the shaky direction of Tom Hooper, gives us a few perfunctory backdrops and then takes the camera right up into the actors’ faces. Hooper is going for a more intimate rendition of the beloved stage musical, and this works only up to a point, that point being when Anne Hathaway is on the screen. Beyond that point, it’s Hugh Jackman or Russell Crowe or various other guys belting right in our faces, and it’s sort of assaultive, emphasizing the sausage-fest that this material (as adapted for song, anyway) always was.

As Fantine, musical theater’s favorite emo chick, Hathaway blows away whatever else is supposed to be going on. She’s out of the movie quickly, but she haunts the rest of it (though her absence is sorely felt). Hathaway’s Fantine is in a different movie about how 19th-century France grinds women down, makes a mockery of their dreams and denies them even the slimmest dignity. Hooper’s only wise choice here is to move in close for Fantine’s show-stopper “I Dreamed a Dream” and let Hathaway’s undiluted anguish burn the screen down. This segment of the film, right down to Hathaway’s shorn hair, is a tribute not to stagecraft but to the legendary Maria Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc; it’s no easy burden to bear comparison to cinema’s greatest acting work, but Hathaway shoulders it. Between this and The Dark Knight Rises (another big Occupy-flavored epic she walked away with) and the recent, hilarious Funny or Die “sad-off” she did with Samuel L. Jackson, Hathaway’s had quite the year. Les Miserables — or its first half hour, anyway — is worth sitting through just to see the performance that’s probably going to send Hathaway home with the gold next year.

The rest of this thing is a rather slack battle of wills between ex-con turned mayor Jean Valjean (Jackman) and his adversary, rigid Inspector Javert (Crowe). It’s supposed to be Valjean’s story, how he redeems himself by raising Fantine’s daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) in safety while dodging Javert and joining in the June Rebellion. But after a while we’re following some colorless rebels, including the drippy Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who falls in love with Cosette at first sight, breaking the heart of poor Eponine (Samantha Barks), who loves him. Far too much of our time is taken up by this weak triangle, and I came to resent that Samantha Barks has more singing time than Anne Hathaway or even Amanda Seyfried; Barks has a fine voice, but she can’t act the songs the way Hathaway or Seyfried do. In any event, the women in this story are only there for the men to protect or mourn or long for.

I pity newcomers to Les Miz, who haven’t seen the musical on stage and might not know (because the movie doesn’t bend over backward to establish it) that Eponine and the bold young Gavroche (destined to be shot by a French soldier) are the children of the scroungy innkeepers the Thenardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, providing welcome comic relief, though their presence turns their scenes into what seem to be Sweeney Todd outtakes). If the Thenardiers have any emotional response to the deaths of their children, we’re not briefed on it. The few action scenes are loud and incoherently staged, and that includes the sword-and-song duel between Valjean and Javert. Tom Hooper might be the worst living director who has previously won an Oscar for directing (The King’s Speech); when he isn’t jamming the camera in his cast’s nostrils, or letting the corner of a building block Samantha Barks’ face for half her dialogue in a scene, he’s making us queasy with handheld shots or, on a few occasions, framing someone off to the side with way too much head room. Hooper’s artsy pomp made me wish for the relatively straightforward pomp and clarity of old Hollywood musicals.

Jackman suffers and endures heroically, and performs with passion, though as the role is conceived he can’t bring any spark or wit to it. Essentially, Valjean is a wind-up good guy. Crowe is, as always, an imposing presence, and he hits the notes, but it seems as though hitting the notes takes all his energy, with none left over for the moral shading Javert probably should have. With mostly cardboard male characters (really, they’ve got one thing they want — freedom or justice), this Les Miz needed the spirit of wronged and seething femaleness to drive it, but once Fantine gives up the ghost so does the movie. I have no doubt that Les Miz is a powerhouse on the stage, but it hasn’t been configured in a way that makes it explode as a movie. Despite the face-invader camerawork, the material feels as remote from us as if we were sitting in the nosebleed seats. It will probably delight worshipers of the musical, but I can’t see it converting any agnostics.

Promised Land

December 16, 2012

Promised LandAs message movies go, the anti-fracking Promised Land (opening December 28) is neither a firebrand nor a puppyish Oscar-chaser. It’s becalmed, downright mellow at times. Unlike other position-paper films like Traffic and Syriana, which packed so many characters and subplots they seemed more like agenda delivery systems than like drama, Promised Land is relatively underpopulated and simple. Steve Taylor (Matt Damon) is a hotshot sales rep from a massive natural-gas company. He swings into rural Pennsylvania, accompanied by senior rep Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), to get the townspeople to sign off on drilling on their land. Steve waves lots of (potential) money around: these down-on-their-luck farmers need the cash injection. Things look good for Steve and Sue until an environmentalist, Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), wheels into town. Dustin brings stories of other farms, such as his own, that said yes to fracking and sealed their own doom.

Damon and Krasinski wrote the screenplay (based on a story Krasinski worked up with novelist Dave Eggers), and it’s consciously non-insulting. The rural people are never hung out to dry as naïve clods or rednecks; many of them, like local teacher Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt) and gun-shop owner Rob (Titus Welliver), speak with a quick, sardonic wit. We’re never made to feel that the farmers and homeowners need to be protected from their own stupidity by crusading liberals. Steve and Sue are damn good salespeople, making their offer sound like the only sensible thing to do. Some folks, like science teacher Frank (Hal Holbrook), aren’t so sure about that.

The movie is also careful to humanize Steve and Sue, who are not nefarious villains twirling their mustaches but people trying to close a sale. They lie, or at least misrepresent the truth, but so do most salespeople, especially those working for major corporations. I’m not excusing what real-life Steves and Sues do and the human cost of what they do; my point is that the movie isn’t structured to give us someone easy to hate, so there’s some complexity involved. The film allows surprisingly little time for anti-fracking chat; it’s more interested in the community and what’s at stake, and we meet and get to know a number of the people. Director Gus Van Sant and his cinematographer Linus Sandgren dwell on the beauty of the landscapes. We see for ourselves what might be ruined, feel for ourselves the generational ties to the soil. The filmmaking is smooth, unhurried, unassertive. The message isn’t crammed down our throats; it sneaks up on us.

Promised Land is good drama at a time when good drama is scarce at the movies (generally these days we look to TV for that). It’s rarely grim; it flows with the easy-going humor of smart people talking to each other, and that sets the movie’s rhythm, too. The tempo is very rural, laid-back. Steve’s crisis of conscience is established mostly wordlessly. He and Sue both find attractive, funny people to spend time with (when they’d only planned to be in and out of town in a few days). Damon and Krasinski get a lot of comic mileage out of their scenes together; Dustin Noble (the name is a bit much, and is probably meant to be) approaches activism as prankish performance art, like Jim from The Office needling Dwight. But if Steve has unexpected layers to him, so does Dustin. Something he says to Steve — “Do you have what it takes?” — reverberates darkly later on.

I came to Promised Land with a bit of a dutiful heavy step: oh, man, an earnest Hollywood-liberal drama. I’m a lefty myself, but as I’ve said before, I don’t enjoy feeling as if I were in a choir being preached to. I want to be told a good story, spend time with well-written and interesting characters, be surprised. Promised Land checks off all those boxes. It ends up saying nothing more radical than that natural gas may be a decent alternative to oil and coal, but that fracking for it can be a brutal and destructive way to go about getting it, and that short-term windfalls of cash won’t make up for ruining the soil that gives you what’s left of your livelihood. At its base it really only advocates for looking very closely at any offers made to you and anything given to you to sign, and also looking very closely at the people making the offers and handing you the papers, and the corporations behind the people.


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