Archive for April 2013

Fairhaven

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.

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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.

Antiviral

April 14, 2013

Antiviral.jpg.scaled696-940x380Is it strictly fair to judge a young artist’s work against the work of his or her parent? In some cases the notion seems irrelevant. Sofia Coppola, for instance, has made her own distinctive mark with films rather unlike those by her father Francis. If Brandon Cronenberg had been consciously interested in stepping out of the shadow of his father David, he might have made a romantic comedy or a western — anything but a sterile, slow-moving biological thriller that unavoidably raises comparisons to Cronenberg pére’s early films like Rabid and Shivers. Cronenberg fils has written and directed Antiviral, in which celebrity-obsessed people pay to be infected with viruses that came from their favorite stars.

There’s a seed of satire in this, but only a seed. Cronenberg doesn’t have much to say about celebrity culture or its reductio ad absurdum in the form of fans vying to catch a famous strain of herpes (or lining up to eat artificial steaks cloned from the muscle cells of stars). Most of Antiviral is a poky and mannered affair focusing on Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), an employee of the Lucas Clinic who smuggles celeb viruses in his own body. He becomes fixated on ailing star Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), who’s dying of a mystery virus. The body-consciousness of the premise links Antiviral to your choice of David Cronenberg films, including Videodrome and even Crash, in which some of the characters wanted to re-enact famous celebrity car accidents. It was funnier there.

That’s definitely one thing missing: humor, or at least wit. David Cronenberg can do deadpan with the best of them, but there’s an active and playful imagination behind the poker face. People may have talked and acted like the undead in Crash, but the quiet, subversive comedy lay in the contrast between the characters’ dry-ice demeanor and the outrageous situations they put themselves in, helplessly and obsessively. In Antiviral, everyone wanders around as if underwater, inside hermetically-sealed compositions that scream “art movie.” The young David Cronenberg did this sort of thing in his early student films, but he had the sense and the mercy to keep them an hour or shorter. This goddamn thing crawls along for an hour and fifty minutes, with little to look at for long stretches except the unpleasant, stringy-haired, mush-mouthed Caleb Landry Jones as he limps around scowling and eventually drooling blood.

Oh, yes, it does get bloody. We see dark gore being vomited up a number of times, or coughed up, or smeared onto gleaming white walls. After a while we come to look forward to the red, because it’s a change from the movie’s relentless black-on-white color scheme. Almost everyone in the movie is pale, too, and I suppose the only reason the filmmakers didn’t go all the way and shoot in black and white was that the movie would’ve looked even more pretentious than it already does. Everyone whispers, and what little music we get is discordant noise, and aesthetically the whole thing is like being stuck in a dentist’s chair for two hours. There’s no life here, no passion, and we certainly don’t care about Syd March’s ill-defined mission to find out about that mystery virus. Antiviral is what happens when you make a movie around a fleetingly interesting idea but forget to find a story in it.

About an hour into it, Malcolm McDowell turns up as a doctor treating Hannah Geist, and we lean towards him gratefully. He doesn’t camp it up — he’s as quiet as everyone else — but the simple theatrical snap of his voice is a blessing. Antiviral is anti-entertainment in a way that even David Cronenberg’s most stubbornly interiorized work never is; it’s boring. I hate to say this; David Cronenberg himself has long since abandoned this type of body-politic chiller, and I’d hoped that his son might have the chops to pick up the mantle. But if anyone not related to Cronenberg had made Antiviral, I’d have the same complaints. Perhaps now that Brandon Cronenberg has gotten this out of his system, he’ll feel free to make his own way, his own movies.

Evil Dead (2013)

April 7, 2013

Evli-Dead_03If you ever wondered what the Evil Dead movies might have been like without the central wit and charisma of their star Bruce Campbell, the answer now awaits you at a theater near you. The new Evil Dead remake certainly doesn’t skimp on the gore; tons of the stuff spatter, pool, mist, spurt, bead up and roll off. Much has also been made of the majority of the effects being realized “practically” — that is, with old-school latex and Karo syrup, not computer-generated flesh and blood. Such things, I suppose, are to be honored in this era of hermetically-sealed fantasy film, when you know that most of what you see is not only fake but doesn’t exist in real space. The drenched and sticky actors in Evil Dead would no doubt tell you it all existed in real space, all right.

What’s missing, first and foremost, is the incomparable real-guy presence of Bruce Campbell, who in the original three Evil Dead films directed by Sam Raimi came close to defining himself as the Buster Keaton of splatstick. Raimi never tired of tormenting Campbell by making him do one grotesque, painful thing after another, because Raimi knew that Campbell, at least in his youthful prime, was fun to watch being bashed around — not because we disliked him but because he looked as though he could shrug it off. In the new Evil Dead, there is no Campbell analogue, no character named Ash; the closest the film comes is a frail-looking recovering addict named Mia (Jane Levy), who spends a good chunk of the movie locked in the basement of a cabin, possessed by a demon who makes her do things like split her tongue in half with a knife. Despite this, later on, after the demon has vacated her, she can speak perfectly well.

The plot is similar. Five college-age people come to a cabin in the woods. I use those last four words advisedly, because if you have seen last year’s The Cabin in the Woods, this film will seem kind of late to the party. The trip to the cabin, it seems, is a last-ditch effort of sorts to rehab Mia. Accompanying her is her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), and her friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas), a registered nurse. Olivia apparently has lots of detox meds and tranquilizers to use on Mia, leading me to imagine a scene back at the hospital where a pharmacist yells “What happened to all our detox meds and tranquilizers?”

A mysterious book is discovered in the basement. Eric, being a horror-movie character and therefore staggeringly stupid, reads aloud from the book and unleashes demons, one of which promptly infests Mia, who in turn corrupts Olivia, and we’re off to the races. The movie hits the beats that Evil Dead fans will expect and perhaps be bored by. A character’s hand is possessed, requiring its removal by way of an electric carving knife. A nail gun, a shotgun and a chainsaw all get a bow on stage. What’s missing, to go further, is not only Campbell but the spirit of play and prankishness that he represented. The new director, Fede Alvarez, is no Sam Raimi, and that’s not to say he’s a bad filmmaker; he could be a fine one, given the right material. But Raimi made these films with energy and gutbucket humor, whereas Alvarez goes about his work grimly, as though the Evil Dead films were works of the utmost gravity.

Yes, yes, this is probably supposed to be a new re-imagining of Evil Dead, not slavishly following in Raimi’s footsteps. I would just as soon see Alvarez directing something fresh, and I would rather not see Raimi, Campbell and co-producer Rob Tapert lending their imprimatur to this remake as producers, thus smudging their own names and leaving a bad aftertaste on the original franchise. The main disappointment of the new Evil Dead is that it simply isn’t very fun. The original films, particularly the two sequels, were essentially comedies, and Evil Dead II achieved a level of grisly pop art. The new film seems as though it might be interesting for a while, using demonic possession as a metaphor for drug addiction (and nobody believing the hysterical and withdrawal-scourged Mia when she starts seeing the evil dead), but soon that gets buried in arterial spray and close-ups of someone pulling a hypodermic needle out of his face. To top it off, this thing is too slick. It’s beautifully lighted, and it cost $17 million and looks it. The first Evil Dead cost about $400,000, and Raimi had to invent camera rigs to get some of the insane shots he wanted. No invention here.

Roger Ebert

April 4, 2013

C200512-A-Life-in-the-Movies-01He knew. He had to have known. His last blog entry — posted two days before he died — had the tone of a fond goodbye, though, to comfort the rest of us, he wrote a lot about the plans he had for the future, the future I’m guessing he knew he didn’t have. He would leave workaday film reviewing to others, and concentrate on things that meant more to him. His Ebertfest. The forthcoming documentary about him, which will now  have a sad period at its conclusion that none of us wanted. His “Great Movies” column. Even if he didn’t consciously know, some part of him must have. The blog entry opens with “Thank you” — he was never one for burying the lede — and ends with “I’ll see you at the movies.”

Roger Ebert, as I’ve said elsewhere, made a whole lot of us want to see and think about and write about movies with greater precision and passion. Throughout the many health demons that plagued him in his final years, one constant remained: his voice. It was robbed from him physically, but it continued in print. We could still hear it in our heads as we read him. Now the voice is gone, though we can still call it up from any of his thousands of reviews, or watch him on YouTube if we literally need to hear that avuncular, sane, midwestern sound.

You don’t need to agree with everything someone believes in order to like them, and you don’t need to agree with everything a film critic writes in order to like their reviews. The entire point of Blue Velvet seemed to go whistling over Ebert’s head and far out to sea, but his thoughts on the film are valuable just the same. He was fond of quoting Robert Warshow’s maxim “A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.” In recent years I grew weary of people pointing out where Ebert got this or that fact wrong in a review. So what? He was dealing with far graver things in his life than some plot point in a forgettable Hollywood entertainment. His emotional responses were still sound, and those, really, are what a critic has to work with. Give me someone who responds openly and whole-heartedly to a film over someone who gets all the details right but doesn’t rise to the film with any soul.

I never met him, and now never will, but I felt I knew him, feel I know him. That was true even before I read his memoir Life Itself. Even when his reviews contained no autobiographical element, he revealed himself, as all good writers do and must. Years before he officially declared himself a recovering alcoholic, review after review of films dealing with addiction (even the bad films, especially the bad films) spoke of firsthand understanding of and compassion for the slave to a chemical.

Ebert has two entire books devoted to negative reviews, and yet he never struck me as mean. Even at his most splenetic, he came across as a guy who’d just drunk a glass of sour milk, when all he’d wanted was a good honest normal glass of milk, and had been assured it was a great glass of milk. He wanted you to know that, no, this milk is terrible; don’t drink it; I drank it so that you don’t have to. He seldom gave the impression that he was dumping on a movie for the sadistic pleasure of it. He’d wasted hours of his ever-decreasing life on the damn thing and now he had to make something out of it. Sometimes a little bitter glee did show. He was only human.

Ebert’s first review (more exactly, “just about the first movie review I ever wrote”) was of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Not a bad way to start. The final review he posted was of The Host — not the Korean kaiju film but the shitty Hollywood one based on the shitty Stephenie Meyer book. I’m hoping there’s something else on his desk somewhere. Some final fragments of thought about, say, Citizen Kane or Casablanca or even Dark City. In Ebert’s career, in his life span, you go from Fellini to teen bullshit. You don’t want to dwell on that too much.¹

No, you want to think about a man who loved what he did and did what he loved, day in and day out, for decades. You want to think about a man who did what he could while he could to add to the conversation about art. You want to think about the work he championed, the work he accomplished, the work he left us, the work we can sure try like hell to continue in his honor. We can’t be Roger Ebert but we can try to be us with as much grace and wit and honesty as he was himself.

¹As it turns out, according to Jim Emerson, the final movie Ebert reviewed was Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, which seems more appropriate.