Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO" dir. DAVID FINCHER

Arriving fashionably late to the party, David Fincher's adaptation of Stieg Larsson's blockbuster novel "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" is a gripping, taut procedural that hypnotically shreds three hours away while elevating the source material to a breakneck state of breathless storytelling. Obviously aware of the Swedish version directed by Niels Arden Oplev in 2009, Fincher doesn't seek to outdo or compete with it in any way, instead paying respectful homage by utilizing some of what worked in the original and fleshing out some of what didn't. Fincher's resultant film is one more self-contained and narratively rich, especially as far as the main characters are concerned; in Fincher's world the reasons as to why the characters are who they are are explored in greater and more evocative detail, giving us versions of Mikal Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and Lisbeth Salander (the fabulous Rooney Mara) that feel more like actual people than harshly drawn archetypes. Appropriately, "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" has a greater emotional resonance than its Swedish forebear, opening up a new dimension to a story almost everyone knows, as well as a new textural element to Fincher's film work.
The question isn't so much whether this is a good film (it is) or even a necessary one (still not sure, as much as i like it) but rather how it differs from the original. I liked Oplev's film very much, finding it incredibly dark and atmospheric; in my mind it approached a level of quality to that found in Jonathan Demme's masterful "The Silence of the Lambs." I found myself wondering if even Fincher could do any better a job with it, growing more and more excited as its release drew near. I'm astonished at how far apart the two pieces are in composition, pace, and tone-they really do stand as two separate works from two very different directors. It could be argued that Oplev's version already dipped into the David Fincher pool; few modern directors have had so distinct and psychological a take on the serial killer template. Oplev borrowed all the grime of his "Girl" from Fincher's "Se7en" and quite a bit of its exposition from "Zodiac"; in turn Fincher seems to have borrowed the best bits of his "Girl" from another Scandinavian source, Erik Skjoldbjaerg's 1997 film "Insomnia" (later butchered in the Americanization process by Christopher Nolan). Oplev's and Fincher's films are mirrors of one another, two faces of one coin; its evident Fincher spent some time with Oplev's film by way of some key set pieces that seem almost identical and by way of his meatier narrative exposition. For all its successes, Oplev's film was lean on plot details. Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zaillian correct that and fill out "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" to a point where every scene is crucial; one missed bit of dialogue and the whole thing comes unraveled.
The plot is labyrinthine but remarkably linear. Recently disgraced journalist Mikal Blomkvist is facing public and financial ruin as the result of a lawsuit for libel lobbied against him by a wealthy industrialist suspected of criminal activity. Blomkvist accepts an assignment from the wealthy and retired Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) on his island town of Hedestad, to root through forty years worth of private investigation and find out what happened to his niece Harriet year ago. Vanger suspects someone in his extended family of murdering Harriet; Blomkvist has the necessary skills to root out the truth. The Vanger family tree is a shitstorm of Nazis, misogynists, and abusers; as Blomkvist gets deeper into the truth he hires troubled ward of the state and hacker extraordinaire Lisbeth Salander to assist in his research. Lisbeth, recently self-delivered of her own abusive relationship with her guardian Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), more or less leads Mikal to the reality of what happened to Harriet. Together the two end the taint of corruption that has plagued the Vanger family in the form of prodigal son Martin (the superb Stellan Skarsgard, playing fabulously opposite his character in "Insomnia") and reunite Henrik with Harriet.
The actual investigation really only informs the latter half of the film. The majority is taken up detailing Mikal and Lisbeth's separate paths to their working together. Lisbeth's history is rife with abuse, degradation, and betrayal; her encounters with the sadistic Bjurman are just as frightening to behold here as they were in Opvel's film. Fincher has never shied from violence, preferring a realistic approach to it rather than a stylized one, and here that approach works to ensure a deeply unsettling intensity to Lisbeth's rape and revenge. Mysteriously gone is any retelling of Lisbeth's crime against her father; rather than show it in image Fincher allows Lisbeth to tell Mikal, in about two sentences, how she came to be a ward of the state. The difference in interpretation here is striking, and points to how differently the two directors actually view the character of Lisbeth; Fincher's approach to her is what makes me prefer his version.
In Opvel's film, Lisbeth (played by Noomi Rapace) is an absolute loner with little use for anyone; her past has so destroyed and shaped her that the only defense is complete and total removal. She is severe rather than awkard, crushingly confident, and infuriatingly distant. Opvel played up all Lisbeth's hard edges and allowed for little emotion in her character; the result is a difficulty in appreciating the complexity of her relationship with Mikal (the two make love once, and it's viewed as a fluke event.) Fincher's Lisbeth is a different thing entirely, a fragile and damaged person who projects a thorny exterior to protect against a deep and continuous hurt inflicted against her by those she trusted most. As played by Mara, Lisbeth is an intensely sensitive person; her actions seems to have far more meaning and her motivations are much more clearly understood by Fincher's focus on the personality behind the facade. Her eventual relationship with Mikal is then seen in a different light, the first time Lisbeth has opened up and chosen to trust another person. When Mikal ultimately betrays that trust (as everyone in Lisbeth's life has) the emotional devastation Lisbeth feels is palpable; Fincher's portrayal ultimately answers the riddle of Mikal and Lisbeth's troubled relationship that made so little sense in the two Swedish follow up films. Mara's stunning work as Lisbeth adds to the empathy; Mara looks both haunted and hollowed, and the few moments of joy that Lisbeth experiences are warming. Fincher's Lisbeth is someone we feel for; Oplev's Lisbeth is someone who we aren't even sure feels herself.
That warmth carries over into Fincher's actual look for the film. Gone are all the harsh angles and deep focus and lurid colors of Opvel's nightmare; instead Fincher washes his Sweden out, painting a country under the throes of near endless winter. Colors are muted and soft, lights are bright and glowing. It's a huge deivatiation from the director's earlier work; even "The Social Network" was more foreboding than "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo." This composition is another reference to "Insomnia," Sweden as an eternal blinding white, the ultimate blanc noir behind the Coen Brothers' "Fargo." "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" exists in a dreary haze where even the dark recesses are bathed in sickly white; interesting that so many secrets are hidden amidst so much visibility. Opvel's film had an opulence and austerity that Fincher ultimately rejects; again, his realistic approach frames the story he's trying to tell. Rather than fantasy and exaggeration, Fincher opts for reduction and believability. A character as extreme as Lisbeth cannot be rendered in caricature; Fincher's composition reflects that ideal and effectively allows us in to her world.
Earlier i raised the question of this film's necessity. It's something i'll probably never really be sure of; the issue is complicated further by the fact that i prefer this version over the Swedish one. The more i think about "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" the more i get the layering Fincher has weaved in to it; it's technically flawless film by a director at the height of his craft. Fincher's decision to allow an emotional attachment to his characters further demonstrates his sensitivity and understanding of what makes a great, unique film; while the deeper philosophical concerns found in "Se7en" or "Fight Club" are absent here, "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo"'s warmth and respect for its main character elevate it to a level those films had a hard time reaching. Fincher usually deals in darkness; with Lisbeth Salander he's letting in a little light. "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" may not be definitive, but it's a wonderful start. Here's hoping Fincher chooses to finish out the series.

Monday, December 19, 2011

"YOUNG ADULT" dir. JASON REITMAN

The opening scenes of Jason Reitman's "Young Adult" introduce us to the banality of human wreckage in the form of binge drinking leftovers, mountains of clutter and waste, and the crumpled form of Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) passed out beneath the anonymous arm of a one-night stand. From there the film embarks on a troubling exploration of delusion and personal emptiness, resulting in Reitman's finest work to date and one of the year's better pictures focused on the ennui of modern existence as experienced by the thirty-something set. Questions of expectation and the measures of success as an adult are held up for reassessment, with the suggestion that living in the past is preferable to facing the yawning unknown of living in the present. There is no redemption in "Young Adult," very little hope, and nothing even beginning to approach empathy or compassion. It's a sad, fucked up world full of dead dreams and unfulfilled promises, and for most of us, memory offers the only respite.
In Mavis Gary, Reitman and writer Diablo Cody introduce us to a character who is rapidly approaching the nadir of her life. A ghost writer of a failing series of young adult novels, Mavis spends her days on the couch assimilating youth culture via television and her nights drinking til she passes out. While working on what's to be the final book in her series, she receives an email from her high school boyfriend's wife, announcing the birth of their new little girl. In a blink of her delusional eye, Mavis decides to head back to her hometown of Mercury, MN, and rescue boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) from the shackles of adult responsibility, convinced they're meant to be together and her quest is righteous.
Mavis' campaign to win Buddy back makes up the brunt of the film's narrative, and its appropriately transfixing and unbelievable. As she attempts to insinuate herself into Buddy's life, she enlists the help of former classmate Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt, most likely providing his own wardrobe), a nerdy outcast who still bears the considerable physical and mental scars of a vicious high-school beating; in Matt, Mavis finds a foil for her self-loathing and uses him as a mirror to remind herself of her supposed stature as one of "beautiful" people who've just hit a snag in life. Matt, for his part, enables Mavis even as he tries to get her to abandon her plan, treating her to home distilled whiskey and puppy-dog crush adoration that borders on pathetic. Neither can let go of their high school selves, and in the two of them we begin to see the crippling effect of memory and nostalgia: everyone's an outcast in their own way, but it just sucks way worse for some.
This is a troubling, disturbing film. Mavis's delusion is never exaggerated or apologized for: it simple is, and we have to accept it as a part of her makeup. We know she's troubled (she suffers from trichotillomania alongside her borderline alcoholism) and plagued by self-esteem problems, but her behavious is so selfish and ultimately deplorable that there's no room for pity. Mavis seems determined to destroy herself, and her obsessive crusade to break up Buddy's marriage only leads to an inevitable breaking point. Buddy himself is a bit of an engima; he still has something invested in Mavis, for all his professed love for his wife and daughter. When the two share a brief, drunken kiss on Buddy's front porch i couldn't help but feel he should bear some of the responsibility for Mavis' mental state, but Reitman and Cody let him off the hook. Buddy gets it all, while Mavis and Matt are left wanting for something even beginning to approach happiness.
And what exactly is that "all"? "Young Adult" never really makes it clear, and that's part of the reason for the film's efficacy. If a wife and family are the true measures of success in the adult world, then yes, Buddy has it all-a decent job and the security it provides, a cool wife (she plays in an all-mom band called Nipple Confusion), and a new kid to keep it all alive. We're led to believe that Mavis is fighting this ideal, and that she wants Buddy back to reject this series of expectations. Her parents mourn the dissolve of her first marriage without considering the why; it's frightening to think that the posturing of adulthood comes before the actual satisfaction of their child for some parents (when Mavis matter-of-factly confesses to them that she thinks she might be an alcoholic, their reply is blank stares and denial.) Mavis' mission then becomes an act of rebellion, another grab at the brass ring of youth. Only her tearful collapse on Buddy's front lawn reveals the truth. While a bit of her confessional is over the top (a better screenwriter would have approached it differently, or excised it completely) it does offer some kind of answer for Mavis, an answer that Matt couldn't get at when he tries to get Mavis to view her life in perspective to the world around her. Again, the issue of Mavis' selfishness quashes any hope for empathy; the only person i felt any real joy for in the film was Matt, when he finally gets to realize part of his own dream (as sad as it is) in the wake of Mavis' breakdown.
Perhaps most troubling, though, is Reitman and Cody's decision to allow Mavis to continue her delusion. The final chunk of "Young Adult" reinforces Mavis' view of herself and her world and gives the distinct impression that she'll live her life the exact same way she has, nothing learned. Self-inventory is an impossibility for a character this damaged. It's a bold choice to present someone so flawed and let them revel in their own emptiness; if nothing else Reitman and Cody should get the award for balls in American film for 2011. In that sense this film reflects reality far more effectively than did their previous effort "Juno"; whereas that world became bogged down under the weight of its own pretense and stylization, "Young Adult" seems almost neo-realistic in its portrayal of psychic damage scarring across an entire generation. Maybe it's troubling precisely because it's so correct: the world is full of Mavis Garys and Buddy Slades, and neither represents anything close to what i want.
Reitman and Cody have made an amazing film. It's unsettling but magnetic, over the top in its believability but 100% correct in its illustration of malaise on the cusp of depression. In detailing the virulent strain of sadness that haunts our adult lives, "Young Adult" demands that we consider and reevaluate our expectations, even if none of its characters do. Mavis Gary and Buddy Slade are warnings, archetypes extended to the point of caricature to make a point. There is no right way to be an adult, no matter what the world tells us. We just have to do the best we can, and not hurt other people. It's the only way to really grow up.

"SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS" dir. GUY RITCHIE

All the principals return for Guy Ritchie's late period career revival attempt, trading on the first film's considerable success and upping the ante with more blockbuster action and moody set pieces. Victorian England has rarely looked as beautifully grey and dour as it does in Ritchie's vision, a washed out stage for all of his hero's free-association clairvoyance and rampant ass-kicking. Indeed, it only takes about five minutes before Sherlock Holmes (Robery Downey, Jr.) finds himself in a pickle that only his fists can get him out of, just one of many such conundrums that will befall the beleaguered detective across the film's two hour runtime.
The action picks up almost immediately where the last film left us, with Watson's (Jude Law) nuptials drawing ever closer and Holmes on a debilitatingly obsessive quest to unmask Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris) as London's "Napoleon of crime," responsible for a number of bombings attributed to anarchist groups within the criminal underground. Holmes is a wreck, getting by on a diet of coffee, tobacco and cocaine; Downey plays up the fatigue beautifully, perhaps fueled by his own past experiences. Holmes is gaunt and hollowed out-his investigations of Moriarty partly responsible, but more wounded by the impending loss of his only friend to domesticity. In the spirit of celebration, Holmes drags Watson out to a stag party and ropes him into one last great adventure spanning several European nations that becomes little more than a cross-country pummeling tour with an occasional wisecrack thrown in.
What made the first installment so much fun was the nitpicking banter between Holmes and Watson; Downey and Law played off each other so quickly and sharply their Holmes and Watson seemed more hotheaded brothers than business associates. Here that back and forth is tossed off in favor of Ritchie's confusing action sequences (more than once i found myself wondering what the hell was going on) and large scale landscape shots (which i don't mind, as the art direction here is meticulous), resulting in a less-than-fulfilling experience as we accompany Holmes towards his inevitable face to face with Moriarty before he ignites World War whatever amidst a Swiss castle full of European dignitaries.
That isn't to say parts of the journey aren't thrilling or fun-they are, and there are still moments of brilliance as Holmes and Watson affectionately grate on one another (Watson's train ride to his Brighton honeymoon is especially entertaining, proving that when he's on Ritchie can fuse lightning action with lightning humor as well as he ever did in "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels"), fight (a shootout and chase through a French forest is probably the film's highlight for me, a slow-motion electric carnival of bullets and splintered wood that has to be seen to be believed) and argue their way to the film's finale. Ritchie makes us want to see Homes and Watson end up together; Holmes needs Watson to keep him sane and involved in the real world (his mapping out of potential actions in this film seems almost astral and syrupy) while Watson needs Holmes to make sure he doesn't become just another Englishman, fallen into complacency and squandering a burning talent. There's an investment in the pair that more or less ensures this series can go on indefinitely, and with the addition of an actual arch-villain for Holmes to lock intellects with there's more than enough material to strike paydirt one more time.
It isn't here, though. Ritchie's reimagining plays off witticisms and aristocratic snarkiness, and "A Game of Shadows" doesn't deliver enough of either to elevate it to the status of its prequel. Holmes' final stare down with Moriarty (over a chessboard, of course) is fun, but never quite nails the aura of desperation that we're expecting, especially considering what's at stake. Their previous encounter in an abandoned warehouse fares better, allowing us to see the depth of Moriarty's madness, but still devolves into another explosion-laden destruction spectacle. The emphasis is too much on action, not enough on fun. The big reveal here (as Holmes recounts everything he's taken notice of across the film) is fairly mind-blowing and might prompt repeated viewings to figure out if everything's actually where Ritchie says it is, but it all serves a reckless adherence to the Hollywood formula (something the first film was such an enjoyable antidote to.) I understand sequels are big business; "A Game of Shadows" certainly could have been much, much worse. It simply seems Ritchie is content to keep working, giving audiences what studios think they want, rather than what they've all actually asked for in the context of the first film. "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" is better than average but disappointing in its ultimate failure to live up to its predecessor's potential. Ritchie can go further. Here's hoping round three reunites everyone again, this time with feeling.

Friday, October 14, 2011

"INNI" dir. VINCENT MORISSET

Standing in stark contrast to Sigur Ros' last concert/documentary film "Heima," director Vincent Morisset films the band almost exclusively in the live setting, focusing on the tremendous and at times overwhelming emotional power of the music made physical. Sigur Ros are a band of unusual force, able to summon great swathes of catharsis as well as hushed and intimate declarations that seem to speak to each listener individually; Morisset captures both extremes here, showing a band at the absolute height of their craft. The cathartic moments taeke center stage here, perhaps as a response to "Heima"'s more affirmative examination of the Sigur Ros experience, creating a piece rich in mood and atmosphere and way heavy on intensity.
The band performs a full set intercut with minimal moments of archival footage dating back to earlier moments of their career; specific attention is paid to the members struggling to answer such insipid questions as "How would you describe the music?" The interviewers asking these things almost seem malicious, trying to trap the band into admitting to some sort of pretense on their part in the ultimate realization of their sound. Sigur Ros have been accused of artistic distance in the past and acute reservation regarding discussion of their work, but these interviewers' inability to grasp the ethereal, incredibly personal quality of the band's music speaks to a shallowness on their part. Their refusal to simply let it exist, to be a matter of shared communication and organic creation between the band members (and audience) is insensitive to the point of critical density. The need for definition indicates the discomfort Sigur Ros' intensity of vision can cause; you either get it and respond to it or you don't. The critics in Morisset's film don't get it.
In watching "Inni" the band's self identification as a heavy metal group seems only half in jest. The guitars roar like hurricanes throughout, filling the air with the plaintive and yearning screams of frustration Sigur Ros uses them to summon. This is a loud show; even the near moments of silence when only Jonsi Birgisson's impassioned vocals ring solo seem deafening. This is a band that can summon up something real and pure and inexplicable that other bands are incapable of approaching. The emotional impact of the music is shattering, unlike anything i've felt across years of listening to thousands of bands and records. There is something special about Sigur Ros. They know it, their fans know it, and both are unafraid of it. The concert becomes less a performance than a transference of something otherworldly; for those attuned to the right frequency a Sigur Ros show is more about sound being given over in order to inhabit you than a simple run through of some songs. It's a deeply personal experience, and even just watching the film allows for most of that communication to reach out.
From a visual perspective, Morisset chooses simplicity and favors the austere pallet of black and white to render this most otherwordly of bands. The film is grainy, shadowy and at many times unfocused but it all works; never once do you feel like you're in the presence of an amateur director. The choices presented are all done for their stylistic effect and relationship to the music. Reality seems to waver in and out, and the crushing physicality of much of the music almost demands the heavens above break in two. The archival footage plucks you from those cradling moments of performance, breaking the thrall. The use of color here only reflects the importance, the towering life, of the performance footage. Color seems drab and dead, black and white seems alive and crackling with electricity. The film's penultimate moment (which could really be any, depending on your personal relationship with the songs) for me comes in the final song, a performance of "Popplagio" that begins in the archival footage and carries over into the concert proper, a flawless transition that highlights the song's endurance as well as the clarity of vision Sigur Ros have possessed virtually since their formation. "Popplagio" builds to a shuddering, sky-cracking crescendo that culminates in a torrent of shards of something (rain, paper, who knows what?) flying across the stage; the band seems to be playing in the middle of, and simultaneously summoning, a blizzard. It's achingly beautiful, emotionally draining, and enthralling to the point of trance.
In that capacity "Inni" functions as a perfect companion piece to Sigur Ros' recorded output. While "Heima" sought to humanize the band and clarify some of the mystique surrounding them, "Inni" gives over to that mystique completely and becomes a piece that perfectly summarizes the "experience" of Sigur Ros. This is as close as you could come without being there; despite its hyper stylizing you never once feel that you're being made to view the band in any specific way. The film, much like the music, is for you and you alone, open to your personal interpretation and most especially your emotional reaction. Morisset has created a portrait of something enigmatic and treasured. That portrait is now part of that enigma.

Friday, July 15, 2011

"HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART II" dir. DAVID YATES

And so the circle closes. After a decade the saga of Harry Potter sees finality with the release of "The Deathly Hallows, Part II." Few film franchises in history have been as successful or inspired as much fervent loyalty as the Potter films; the only remotely comparable series I can think of is the similarly epic "Star Wars." Nearly as popular (if not moreso) as the books which birthed them, the Potter films occupy a special place in the cultural zeitgeist, existing somewhere between the bloated mass saturation of blockbuster entertainment and the revered world of serious, artistic filmmaking. Director David Yates has done a wonderful job transforming the last four films into works of visual art beyond their literary templates; though he stumbled a bit with his first Potter film he's grown increasingly confident and visionary as a director, easily resulting in the series' best work. While the first film's audience has no doubt followed the series to this point, the level of viewer maturity has not grown up the way the books or the films have. The giddy mentality that accompanied the midnight screening I attended truly saddened me, because it pretty much signifies to me that Yates' film is going to be regarded as merely the final nail in a piece of gross consumerism, rather than as the serious, beautiful work of art it truly is.
Picking up exactly where "The Deathly Hallows, Part I" left off, "The Deathly Hallows, Part II" finds Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) desperately hunting down the final horcruxes in the hopes of weakening Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) to the point where he can be defeated. This last leg takes our heroes to the depths of Gringotts bank and back to Hogwarts, where the final battle will be waged. It's a breathless, fantastic journey that speeds along at a frenzied pace, making this the most action-oriented and spectacular entry in the series as well as one of its darkest. "The Deathly Hallows, Part II" is a basically a downward spiral of frustration, fear, despondency, and destruction; there's a pallor of doom that hangs across every hulking setpiece, and several supporting characters find themselves struggling with the idea that they're caught up in a hopeless struggle that's gone beyond the idea of good and evil, where the only real certainty is death. Harry seems less a beacon of hope than a magnet for defeat; the world seems just as hollowed out, grey, and indifferent as it did in "The Deathly Hallows, Part I."
The destruction that Yates focuses on is magnificent and all-encompassing. Under attack from Voldemort and his army, Hogwarts absolutely crumbles, leaving mountains of rubble and stinking pools of fire blazing across its emptied courtyards. The onslaught of the advancing forces is a brutal machine, seen as a force of total and consuming repressed hatred. At times some of the battle scenes in "The Deathly Hallows, Part II" reach an almost celestial sort of immediacy, replete with a bloodlust, hypnotism, and extravagance that rivals the work Peter Jackson did in "The Two Towers." Yates seems to revel in this mercenary opulence; it almost seems as though the cast's exhaustion is felt through the way Yates allows the to tear down the manufactured world they've inhabited for the last ten years. In that sense the fall of Hogwarts carries with it an extra weight and a crippling sense of poignancy; this is a complete dismantling, the very essence of magic reduced to a bitter and earthly nothingness.
It seems tragic, and it is. Harry martyrs himself for a higher purpose; so too does Severus Snape (Alan Rickman.) Death has an elegance in the Potter universe-it's to be revered and respected, never pandered to, and never toyed with. Certain powers are beyond the grasp of even the most powerful men; certain magics are simply not allowed. Walking with evil boasts a danger. Voldemort's main failing is obviously his pride-even in a world without Harry Potter Voldemort is bound to fall, consumed by his own grandeur and spiraling ever deeper into the dank recesses of his voided personage. Yates understands this and stages "The Deathly Hallows, Part II" as high tragedy, one in which loss surrounds and sorrow falls across the land like so much snow and ash. You are made to feel the hopelessness, the anxiety, the frustration, the terror. But also the anger and the tension, all the repressions that have been building and building across several films. It makes the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort that much more intense, despite knowing the outcome-there's a grotesque, seething violence to their opposition, an encapsulation of what each stands for-and allows the actual drama of the final wand war to find its voice and scream its ferocity across every corner of the screen.
For all its intensity, "The Deathly Hallows, Part II" also has moments of severe loveliness and beauty. Snape's death and the subsequent tour through his memories are rendered in a bittersweet, deeply melancholic haze of sorrow and regret. You can feel the pangs of jealousy as he watches James effortlessly woo away his beloved; we suffer with Severus we see the true lengths to which he goes in order to protect Harry and thereby declare his love. As it's revealed that some of Dumbledore's (Michael Gambon) motives towards Harry may be selfish, Snape's are truly rooted in love and a desire to make something good out of a defeated life. The strength of his character shines here, and Rickman plays it understated, with class. For me this is the emotional crux of the novels and I was glad to see it translates so well to film. Yates drapes these memories in painterly, naturalistic detail, trading effects for the simple beauty of trees waving in the wind and a child's lovelorn gaze. It's gorgeous almost to the point of painful; it's a bursting heart hidden away in a two hour flurry of fire and vengeance. Ron and Hermione finally lock lips here as well; Yates plays it down and sneaks it in the aftermath of a mad dash to destroy a horcrux. The pairing feels natural and real, a gravitation of human emotion breaking away from wizardly horrors and strained exposition.
One of the major complaints lodged against "The Deathly Hallows, Part I" was the pacing. Critics alleged that Yates relied too much on epic, massive landscapes and too little on character interaction. This film remedies that but doesn't sacrifice any of the splendor that Yates has so successfully been capturing throughout his Potter films; what surprises me most is how few of those critics remember that the final book was mostly comprised of aimless searches and bitter bouts of exhaustion. In that regard Yates' film was a perfect evocation of the source material; it's nice to see that here, in the final film, he's finally grown comfortable with allowing his film space to breathe and grow without having to worry about running long or losing viewers because of it. A film like this is a double-edged sword for a director; on the one hand you've got a near limitless budget and the ability to make your wildest visionary dreams come to life, on the other you've got a necessity to fit said film into a very narrow corner of expectation with little allowance for true creative license. It's a marvel to me that Yates has made these last films as pretty as they are; while previous directors' entries in the series have been visually arresting, very few of them have been honestly visual affecting. For that alone Yates deserves praise; "The Deathly Hallows, Parts I and II" are films that can stand up against nearly anything released in the last several years as far as photography is concerned. "The Deathly Hallows, Part II" goes even further and ties that visual element to a near relentless whir of frightening, tense action that blows away most of what's been vomited into the theaters in 2011.
As a modern film that straddles the line between art and commerce, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II" exceeds nearly every expectation that could have been set for it. Yates has sent the series out on an extreme high note and it's unlikely that anyone else could have helmed this vehicle so successfully and steered it towards such lofty artistically inclined shores. While there were certainly comprises (another fairly brief run time, unnecessary moments of levity) the overall result is a fairly unblemished adaptation of this century's most engaging literary phenomenon; it's hard to imagine anything like this coming along again in my film-viewing lifetime. Years ago a friend had to pay me to read the first four Harry Potter novels because I had been so disappointed by the first film (I found it overly childish and somewhat patronizing); I'm glad I took the money and gave the novels, and the later the films, a second chance. While the general audience may not really appreciate the marvel David Yates has given them, the few who have actually grown up with the novels in the intended manner will find an intense, deeply felt end to the story that's been with them for so much of their lives. The saga may have ended, but the magic continues.
And the dragon is really fucking cool.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"TABLOID" dir. ERROL MORRIS

Reality almost always reads more interesting than any fiction if you're willing to go deep enough. The absurdities and cruelties that befall people just like us are far more crazy and outlandish than anything that could be invented; if it's possible, then somewhere it's probably happened. Few filmmakers get this better than Errol Morris, who excels at unearthing flagrantly bizarre stories and suggesting labyrinthine webs of connection between subjects and events. The people he chooses to highlight are most often a little off themselves, but virtually always well-spoken, candid, and confident in their presentation of events. Morris' ability to so expertly navigate this grandiose, subterranean world allows us a rare glimpse of the truly unexpected; to return back to our average lives having stood on the precipice of something confounding but sublime. His latest film, "Tabloid," goes further than he's ever gone-it's fucked up and strange and funny beyond belief-but it also demonstrates, again, the illusory nature of "truth" and the radical power of self-conceptualization.
"Tabloid" spools out the flabbergasting story of Joyce McKinney circa 1976 through the early '90's. Growing up in Utah amidst very staunch religious values, McKinney's average high school misbehaviour was thought of as "bad girl" antics. One evening she met Kirk Anderson and immediately fell insanely, obsessively in love with him. Anderson was a Mormon but fell hard for McKinney, much to the chagrin of his very traditional parents who opposed the relationship. One day, Anderson simply disappeared. McKinney tracked him, at great expense, to London, where his parents had sent him to be fully indoctrinated into heavy traditional Mormon beliefs. Along with her deeply devoted friend Keith, McKinney chartered a private plane to fly them to London and retrieve Anderson from what McKinney categorized a cult. Abducting Anderson at gunpoint (with a fake gun), she and Keith took him to a cabin in the English countryside where she chained him to a bed and raped him repeatedly over a period of three days. McKinney described the "weekend" as a consensual honeymoon, a sort of "deprogramming" to bring Anderson back. Anderson thought differently; managing to escape during a town outing he later arranged for McKinney's capture and subsequent trial, resulting in a spotlight dance with the British tabloids that lasted for a number of years and made McKinney a bonafide celebrity akin to the Octomoms and Paris Hiltons of today.
The press ate McKinney up and she played it for everything it was worth, delighting in the attention (despite later protestations of the same) and courting the cameras as she traipsed across the London party scene. The trial left the constabulary and courts flabbergasted at the events she recounted, rendered even more unbelievable by the sheer candor and confidence with which McKinney recalled her actions. What McKinney called a honeymoon Anderson described drolly as three days of wide-eyed terror and emasculation, a befouling of his Mormon ideals that left him dangerously close to a lifetime of Satanic influence. Both parties detailed an extreme scenario existing at opposite ends; the majority of those involved in the events seem to recall the "truth" as being an amalgamation as both stories meeting somewhere nearer the middle of the recollections. Morris makes no judgment himself, preferring to let his cast tell their stories and the viewer to make her own assessment.
Those stories are the heart of "Tabloid," and they're very interesting. Aside from McKinney herself, Morris devotes considerable time to two London tabloid journalists, the pilot who flew McKinney and Keith to London, a Mormon missionary, and a Korean geneticist (more on that later.) All of them are extremely open, engaging, and funny. Each reveals layers to the story that confuse the issues at hand and obscure the actualities of the situation they're attempting to recall; Morris makes no attempt to steer the "facts" in any particular direction, nor does he feel compelled to condescend to us by categorizing McKinney's actions as "right" or "wrong." That question is truly blurred because the facts that eventually surface regarding McKinney's background suggest something more sinister may have been at work. On photo assignment for one of the London rags in Los Angeles, Kent Gavin describes the wealth of material he drudged up concerning McKinney's sordid past: through an old obsessed boyfriend, Gavin unearthed hundreds of photos of McKinney engaged in acts of prostitution and light pornography (dramatic bondage and vaguely tasteless nude photography.) McKinney flat out denies the existence of these, claiming photo manipulation and slander; unfortunately Gavin reveals most of the photos (everything that wasn't published) were lost when the paper changed owners years ago. What, exactly, are we supposed to believe?
Peter Tory, the other journalist interviewed, seems to gravitate more toward the lurid. Gleefully reveling in the sexual bizarreness of the case, Tory paints McKinney as something of a ringmaster presiding over her own private circus, turning her tabloid celebrity into a form of bondage and domination over the public at large. Tory sees McKinney and the public as being caught up in a grossly symbiotic relationship with one another; Joyce pulled all the strings and the public lapped it up, demanding more, ever more. Only when things began to get out of McKinney's control (when the pornographic photos began to turn up in the papers) did she retreat and cry foul, railing against the invasions towards her person that she fully embraced and courted only weeks before. McKinney believes the hyperfocused attention drove her to a crippling state of agoraphobia; the hunter becomes the hunted and the hunted becomes the invisible. McKinney also says that "...if you tell a lie long enough eventually you'll believe it"; it's difficult to view her version of events as absolute truth when her self-image is so perfectly constructed to be resistant to anything that might question that version. An argument could be made as to the necessity of this sort of thick skin given McKinney's history with celebrity, but a more likely explanation is far simpler: McKinney only wants to be viewed in the way she wants you to view her.
Manipulation and obsession inform the broader points of "Tabloid." McKinney is obsessed with Kirk Anderson from the moment she meets him, despite the fact that he's a pasty, fat, boring person. By all assessments there was nothing remarkable about him; Peter Tory wonders openly what attracted McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming, to Anderson at all. Perhaps it was the ease with which she was able to commandeer his life; perhaps his blandness reflected a brighter image of her for herself. McKinney's friend Keith was similarly obsessed with her; his motivations throughout the ordeal remain obtusely unclear, but we can surmise that he was probably hoping some sort of romantic relationship would eventually blossom between McKinney and himself. The obsession extends outward; as much as McKinney was a slave to her own desires the media was a slave to hers. The public's own obsession with the "truth" of the matter allowed McKinney to carefully craft her persona and create the idea of what she wanted the public to see. At first the relationship worked marvelously, with the various magazines holding McKinney up as something completely new and astonishing-a good Utah girl pushed to the brink by the discriminatory actions of traditional Mormonism, going all in for the sake of love-but eventually they demanded more, digging deeper and rejecting McKinney's crafted image of herself in favor of something closer to a newer, perceived "truth." Only when her manipulations failed did McKinney begin to be bothered by all the attentions; only when she could no longer be who she wanted to be did she view the game distastefully.
A different filmmaker might have challenged McKinney; Morris instead gives us leave to weigh everything we're given and draw our own conclusion about her. If he had challenged her "Tabloid" would have been a much different film, something that perhaps took itself too seriously or purported to be some sort of vehicle for historical accuracy and ideology rather than the strange, delerious tour through weirdness it is. There's nothing sacred in Morris' methodology; it's people as they are, being who they are, judgment be fucked. In that manner "Tabloid" is revelatory, with Morris demonstrating why he's one of the American documentarists most capable of approaching Werner Herzog's "ecstatic truth"; there's a beauty hidden beneath all the layers of the varying narratives that can speak deeply to some of the problems currently plaguing modernity. McKinney's case is messed up but it's far from unique; her tabloid dalliances are almost exactly the same as the ones that exist today, staring you in the face at whatever grocery store line you find yourself standing in. There is no immunity from this sort of media deluge. It's all around you, and it's screaming at you to pay attention to it. This is part of the cultural consciousness; it's your duty to know about this sort of shit.
McKinney is never really able to escape the spotlight, even despite her battle with agoraphobia. Retreating to her parents' spacious farmland to begin a life of loneliness and reflection that she hopes will produce a book about her experiences, McKinney finds herself besieged by story-hungry, photo-stealing opportunists trespassing onto her land and into her privacy yet again. Hoping to dissuade their efforts she brings home a monstrous pit bull she names "Tough Guy"; later she brings home a smaller pit bull runt whom she christens "Booger." It doesn't take long for tragedy to strike. Tough Guy goes crazy and attacks McKinney, severing her hand at the wrist. Booger perishes trying to save McKinney from the carnage. Despondent and isolated, McKinney hears something about cloning and decides to have Booger brought back to life. Paying a doctor in Korea $150,000 to craft a new Booger lands McKinney in the shutter eye once again, even moreso when the cloning is a smashing success yielding five (!) perfect little Boogers for McKinney to fawn over; it's interesting that she again finds herself amidst an ethical maelstrom attached to her actions. It's almost as though Morris is suggesting through this chronology that we demand more from our celebrities than they can possibly give, pushing them to the furthest reaches of outlandish, extreme behaviour. It's not an indictment (he is, after all, the person making the film) but it's close to a warning-be careful about what sort of value you place on entertainment or the lines will begin to blur dramatically.
For all it's over the top theatrics, "Tabloid"'s most striking, transcendent moment comes towards the end during McKinney's sabbatical to her parents' farm. Shooting home footage for unknown purposes, McKinney passes the camera over a backyard plot of land four different times, her narration detailing how little is there, how nothing changes, how stagnancy informs the majority of our surroundings. Watching it you want to find something different in each pass, some important little detail that will allow the scene to make perfect sense, but there's nothing. There's just a want, a nervous, anxious ache to see SOMETHING, anything, rather than the dull and lifeless parade of dropping greenery that makes up the McKinney estate. It's a riddle offered up to both the audience and McKinney. How much do you want this to have meaning? It's difficult to accept that not everything does, that randomness and circumstance shape our lives just as much as the choices we make.
"Tabloid" is ultimately a study of some of those choices and their outcomes; Morris holds this story up for your subjective appraisal. If there is an actual "truth" here it's marvelously obscured by myriad recollection and the dusts of time; you can accept one version or many and come out with a different set of meanings for each. Though not as poetic as some of Morris' other films, "Tabloid" still boasts an impressive amount of visual trickery and playfulness; anything more than a light touch would have detracted from the ridiculously immersive narrative that unfolds. The weight of the issues and problems at hand never bog the film down-it's still laugh out loud funny-but they never fully retreat either, hanging like spectres across the shadowy murk of fuzzy ethics and frustrating revelations that comprise the bulk of the work. Morris wants you to realize that entertainment is never free; someone always pays, and behind every fucked up unbelievable circle of events concerning people far removed from there's a true human element. We may build pedestals to turn people into idols, but we seem just as eager to tear those pedestals down and reduce the idols to ash when they don't meet our expectations and demands. These architectures are eternal; the actual implications of those structures' continued existences are for you to figure out.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

"TROLLHUNTER" dir. ANDRE OVREDAL

The world is full of mysteries. Places unvisited, wonders unseen. As much as human arrogance posits the idea we've seen everything and are just improving on concepts understood, the reality of existence is that there are hundreds of millions of things that we haven't discovered or haven't even begun to figure out. We're blind out there, grasping at a grandiosity that's more expansive than our minds can really comprehend. Parts of the world bemoan an ancientness that confounds us-Stonehenge, Easter Island, Giza-all of them harbor secrets we can only guess at, crafted out of minds more attuned to the magic song of the natural world than ours, befouled by modernity and detachment. We simply can't imagine the primeval anymore. "Trollhunter" is as much a refutation of that idea as it is a lament for its truth; while on the one hand the film marvels at fairy tales come to life, it also examines the sadness resulting from our inability to really appreciate the wonder of those stories.
"Trollhunter" purports to be a truth of its own; the opening credits posit the conceit that what we're about to view is found footage released by the Norwegian government as a public service. What we're to do with it, how it's to shape the direction of the future, is a matter left to the viewer. The most immediate problem is your personal choice to believe what you're seeing. The film follows a group of university students making a documentary film about bear poaching in the Norwegian wilds. Fiercely regulated by the government, bear hunting is a practice left to a few licensed professionals; rogue activity in decreasing populations is something of a potential ecological crisis. Believing they've found the man responsible, a gruff and tired nomadic loner named Hans (Otto Jesperson), the students pursue him relentlessly; following him on a midnight outing results in a chaotic chase through the Norwegian woods culminating in the destruction of the students' car by some sort of creature, leaving the kids exasperated and bewildered. After giving them a lift, Hans intentionally lets slip what he's really after: trolls. He allows the students to film his hunts provided they make the footage readily available and do whatever he says; the intrigue proves impossible to resist, and so begins a descent into Norwegian mythology and breathless unbelievability.
"Trollhunter" takes an obvious aesthetic cue from "The Blair Witch Project"; shaky handheld cameras and a faux cinema verite style make the picture seem lower budget than it really is, as well as lending it a sense of authenticity. But where "Blair Witch" exacted thrills from little more than suggestion, "Trollhunter" rolls out its titular fiends in a veritable parade of aplomb. Trolls are encountered quickly and without much hunting at all, tromping through woods and creeks and bearing all to a wide-eyed group of jaded college-age intellectuals. It's as though the trolls are a remnant of what gets lost when we reach a certain age, a reminder of the awesome power of imagination and an open mind. Ovredal never treats the trolls as anything less than magical; even as Hans rattles off their different species and bemoans their pitiful intelligence the trolls' depiction practically demands a belief in that missing magic that birthed them so long ago. They are ancient, yes, but they're creatures like any other in Hans' (and the government's) mind, more capable of being nuisances than wondrous sights to behold. The incompatability of the trolls with the modern world is one of the film's major themes; it's somewhat sad to see Hans so indifferent to the implausability of the creatures he's tasked with hunting down but at the same time it's realistic. You would get tired of trailing giant, smelly monsters for 30 years too. "I'm so sick of this crap," Hans mutters from beneath a makeshift suit of armor as he prepares to attempt drawing a blood sample from a rabid Ringlefinch. It's a beautiful moment because it so fully captures exactly what "Trollhunter" is about-the brutality of modern life grinding down the last true moments of magic floating free in the world.
Social criticism aside, "Trollhunter" is a rollicking piece of filmmaking. Ovredal's direction veers perfectly between documentary drolldom and massive spectacle whenever a troll is on the screen. It's difficult not to feel dwarfed during the final sequences, when the team encounters a giant (200 some feet tall) Jotnar troll roaming the barren windswept mountains of Norway's more forgotten regions. It feels like you're in the presence of something ancient and removed and totally beyond what you know; it seems like the gates of Valhalla can't really be that far off. Perspective is the film's greatest strength, and Ovredal exploits it whenever possible, showcasing the incredible coolness and weirdness of his creatures struggling to survive in a world they no longer belong in. The photography is as gorgeous as you'd expect, capturing the wilds of Norway in lush and subdued tones of green and blue, showing a world removed from total modern assimilation despite its ever-creeping onset. The landscapes feel old, haunted and flooded with myths and magicks. Jesperson is wonderful as Hans, coming off as both tired of his life and sensitive to the fact that trolls are just animals attempting to survive as they always have. Hans takes no joy in exterminating them; it's just a job like any other (or not, depending on how ingrained into modernity you've become.) The students, on the other hand, never really seem to grasp what they've uncovered, taking it all in without any real contemplation. The film moves at a fairly breakneck pace but their reactions still seem vaguely inappropriate, without the right amount of deference to legend or respect for the sights they've born witness to. It would probably be difficult to accept, yes, but the sheer majesty of the Jotnar troll should inspire at least some sort of meekness; even i felt it a little just watching it. If that's part of Ovredal's goal, depicting modern malaise, then he's extraordinarily successful in achieving it.
As cool as "Trollhunter" is, it's far from perfect. The plotline concerning the government cover-up is pretty thinly drawn, and aside from Hans there aren't very many strong characters other than the assorted trolls. Humorous asides concerning bear poaching and the difficulty of acquiring bear carcasses indigenous to Norway are funny but ultimately detract from the deeper message of the film. Ovredal needs to choose exactly what he wants his film to be-a layered meditation or blockbuster entertainment-because it isn't adept enough to be both. For me the enormity of the message (and the trolls that present it) makes me wish Ovredal had gone a little more serious with the work but hey, these are fairy tales bought to life. Being able to see that life, a potent mixture of mythology and history coming together, is more than worth the price of admission. The question of authenticity is all but done away with the moment the first troll lumbers into view; this is a work of high fantasy for those who haven't forgotten just how engrossing the surreal and the impossible can be. Seriously creative and seriously fun.

Monday, July 4, 2011

"ROAD TO NOWHERE" dir. MONTE HELLMAN

Like most forms of art, film at its best offers total transcendence. Film can transform reality and immerse us in a world not entirely unlike the one we know, but one where the things we do think we know are totally illusory and falsified. This sort of transformation is difficult to achieve in cinema because the artist is working with vision-it's not easy to create a sense of removal from something that's right before the viewer, nor is it easy to break the barriers of time and chronology that we subconsciously impose upon whatever it is we're involved in. When a film gets there, to that enigmatic place where all the assumptions fall breathlessly away, we find ourselves lost in a dream, completely held in sway by the painting moving all around us. Monte Hellman's phenomenal "Road to Nowhere" exists in that place, allowing us a transfixing alternate reality where actuality and fiction intersect in a troubling, deeply hypnotic manner.
That intersection is apparent right in the film's opening shot, of someone popping a DVD labeled "Road to Nowhere" into a computer and pressing 'play.' The hand belongs to director Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan) and "Road to Nowhere" is the film he's been laboring over for weeks, a labyrinthine but poorly-written film noir based on a bizarre murder-suicide that shook a small town several years back. The details of the crime are hazy, the finer points very convoluted, but it involved financial manipulations on a major scale, false identities, stolen dental records and stolen bodies and what may or may not have been a passionate murder. At the center of the rat's nest is the beautiful, haunted Velma Duran (Shannyn Sossamon) who supposedly drove her car into a lake and drowned after witnessing her possible lover, millionaire Rafe Taschen (Cliff De Young), crash his plane into the placid waters before her. Haven and his writer Steve (Rob Kolar) think the story will make a serious, intense film and embark on an odyssey of creation that sends everyone involved down a major rabbit hole. After casting exploitation actress Laurel Graham (also played by Sossamon) in the role of Velma, Haven's connections to reality begin to waver and the lines between truth and fiction become seriously and irrevocably blurred. This is a film that deals in doppelgangers and intentional obscurities, deeply layered and working with multiple character mirrors, creating a seriously disassociative and magnetic sense of vagueness that engulfs the viewer and brings them ever deeper into Hellman's world. It's film noir in the most epic sense, Raymond Chandler as seen by Howard Hawks in "The Big Sleep" or Mickey Spillane as interpreted by Robert Aldrich in the equally mindfucking "Kiss Me Deadly."
Throughout the film Hellman deconstructs our expectations of linearity and jumps back and forth between the actual details of the actual crime and the machinations of those involved and the ongoing struggles of Haven to bring to life his filmed version of those same events. Having no real knowledge of what truly happened to Velma (or Taschen) demands that Haven and Steve attempt to fill in the blanks themselves, relying on the investigations of sexy, heavy-drinking blogger Nathalie Post(Dominique Swain) and former insurance investigator turned set builder Bruno Brotherton (Waylon Payne); as the truth grows murkier Haven finds himself obsessing over Velma and in turn Laurel, who bears more than a passing resemblance. Obsession turns to disconnect, disconnect threatens insanity, insanity begets violence and the ideas governing the world we're so comfortable with begin to fall away, leaving us bereft of anchor and drifting further out into dark, misty reaches of the great unknowns. This simple outlining may read loose, but there's so many characters and so many questions working betwixt levels the film becomes a study in dreaming, a demonstration of connectedness across an array of consciousnesses as beguiling as it is narcoleptic.
"Road to Nowhere" is a twisted knot of motivations past rational understanding, an illustration of events that confuse and obfuscate rather than open themselves up to realistic interpretation and appreciation. Hellman paces his film languidly, letting it flow like a quiet stream through all the dirty recesses of the familiar until it washes up against the cold cement walls of consequence. Those familiar with any of the director's work will understand the lulling momentum, the fixation on long takes and the focus on space and style over narrative drive or action. Even the dialogue is meandering and sparse, reveling in suggestion rather than exposition, dealing in evocation and atmosphere rather than explanation. This is heavily stylized filmmaking concerned with rich questions of existentialism, echoing work by Antonioni, Bergman, and Erice, the latter two of whom are paid tribute to in the film as Haven and Laurel wile away late nights watching their work. Fitting that Hellman chose Erice's "Spirit of the Beehive," as it's another fevered, delerious work concerned with the dangerous power of imagination and hidden areas of the world where things don't exist the way we're used to them existing. The photography in "Road to Nowhere" is subtle and understated; the lush greenery of North Carolina bears silent witness to illusion and sensual immersion. The lighting is equally subdued, with the majority of the film taking place in empty nocturnal scenes charged with menace, reminiscent of some of Gregory Crewsdon's staged photography. Hellman clues us in by setting several scenes in tunnels, as though telling us there's only so much of this we're going to get, even with eyes wide open; the narrowness of our field of vision doesn't allow us to take in all the necessary detail. In the hands of a lesser director this sort of manipulation could come off as pretentious but Hellman understands that what isn't seen, what isn't even knowable, is far more important than what's presented, especially when the question is one of philosophy and imagination. Being is more than vision; understanding is a matter of interpretation and introspection, not blind and blithe handholding. Hellman thinks we're better than that, that on some level we're all capable of this sort of psychic navigation.
This is an ambitious film, and it succeeds entirely. Few films in recent memory have mesmerized me so thoroughly. Every loose narrative thread is another path to the dark; every small clue uncovered is another brick in the towering wall of obsession. There's no moral center, no value placed on anything. This is a strange world of passion, sensuality, transfixion, illusion, and above all, danger. Watching it, i was reminded deeply of David Lynch's own noir excursion "Mulholland Drive"; but while Lynch commits fully to the incommensurability of modernity and dreams, Hellman embraces the idea of reality as nothing more than a series of overlapping dreams. Lynch uses dreams as a communication and an obvious alternate space; Hellman constructs dreams as the space upon which all other "realities" issue forth. The constant blur of the "real" and the "constructed real" are meant to fold over into each other and create only one nebulous intersection where one person is the same as many and identity is little more than a man-made imposition on true existence. Whether you're witnessing something that really happened or a simple reimagining of those events becomes utterly irrelevant as the film progresses; what you're left with is simply movement. It is there. It is open. It is everything you want it to be, and it is terrifying in its absolute and engulfing magnificence. "If it made sense i wouldn't be interested," Haven tells Nathalie. I feel the same way.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

"SUPER 8" dir. J.J. ABRAMS

At a breakfast gathering awhile ago, some friends and I were discussing the fact that there are certain types of films that aren't made anymore. They're difficult to define and not genre specific, but when you see one of them your heart kind of fills up and you gasp a little inside at the blush of sweet nostalgia that overtakes you. The film we were talking about was the John Candy/Dan Ackroyd vehicle "The Great Outdoors"; other prime examples would be "Uncle Buck," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "E.T.," and, most definitively, "The Goonies." These are films that were so closely intertwined with their time they couldn't really be made today, and their narratives spoke to an idea of patience amongst audiences who were willing to entertain something slightly more thoughtful, exuberant, and wide-eyed. J.J. Abrams' wonderfully entertaining "Super 8" looks to tap into that hazy innocence and for the most part succeeds, resulting in a breakneck film that subtly references much of the above while still throwing in enough thrills and destruction to appeal to a modern aesthetic. Abrams trades on his audience's knowledge of these films; while you don't have to be a late-twenties/early-thirties geek to enjoy "Super 8" it sure as hell makes the ride more fun and allows the emotional aspects of the film to resonate a tiny bit more.
Set in small town Ohio circa 1979, "Super 8" follows a tight-knit band of horror film obsessed middle schoolers through the making of their latest celluloid opus, a no-budget zombie film that director Charles (Riley Griffiths) hopes to enter in competition. While obviously an amateur effort, it boasts impressive effects and makeup work courtesy Cary (Ryan Lee) and narrative focus Joe (Joel Courtney.) Joe's make-up and model building are especially advanced, showcasing a sensitivity born from his mother's death months before. The production hits a snag when Charles realizes he needs to introduce a female lead; after roping in the dreamy, bleary-eyed Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) to play the role the kids sneak out to film a crucial scene at the train yard. From here the film absolutely takes off, beginning with a train derailing that screams with wanton, joyous destruction and an adrenalized approach to the idea of "thrilling." The kids manage to catch it all on tape, including one of their teachers driving his truck straight into the train, causing all the damage. One of the train cars spills out a mountain of weird cosmic white cubes; Joe pockets one and becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of how the cube and the crash fit together. To say too much more is to spoil the fun; best to just let the film grab you by the hand and lead speeding down its dark, freaky hyperfun tunnels.
Fitting that Steven Spielberg had his hand in three of the films i mentioned earlier. He's executive producer here and its from his pool of influence that Abrams draws most liberally (and reverentially.) Abrams' intent is to recreate the sort of "kids against the world" movie so intrinsic to the early 80's; everything in "Super 8" can be traced back to the magic of "The Goonies," whether it's the effortless interaction of all the kids and their broadly drawn personalities (scaredy-cat, pyromaniac big-mouth, egomaniacal fat-kid, sensitive and wounded everykid, doe-eyed love interest) or the relative inefficacy of adults' ability to believe, Abrams paints a world in which children hold the power to unlock the mysteries lurking just beneath the surface. "Super 8"'s mysteries are a little more brutal and frightening than those found in "The Goonies" but even that film held the threat of death over its protagonists; Abrams merely swaps one set of oppression and obfuscation (the Fratellis) for another (the U.S. Army), giving his kids ample enemies and situations to circumnavigate. The Spielberg connection has another key role to play in "Super 8" as well defining the sort of film Abrams is emulating; Spielberg has never shied away from his interest in extraterrestrial life, nor has he ever seemed to tire of the mystery and contemplation associated with the more paranormal aspects of its suggested existence. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T." both dealt with misinterpretation and the necessity of a childlike wonder to appreciate the events that unfolded; so too does "Super 8" rely on an appreciation of the vast weirdness of the universe and an adult world's tendency to punish rather than try and understand. This narrow adult view results in "Super 8" being a much darker film than you'd expect. There's a lot of menace, terror and death hidden in the Ohio shadows.
Adults prove completely unreliable in the film, some well-intentioned (Charles' parents) and some totally lost (Joe's father) but all somehow distant and unable to peacefully traverse their kids' world. Abrams captures this gap masterfully, illustrating the pains and frustrations of trying to communicate with people who are supposed to be able to help us and guide us but end up caught in their own petty squabbles and notions of what's important, ultimately failing those they're meant to protect. Alice's father attempts to prevent her from seeing Joe because of the guilt he feels over his role in Joe's mother's death (which was virtually nil); his feeling of complacency in what was essentially an act of universal indifference creates a despondency that only alienates his daughter and poisons his own life. Joe's father feels similarly towards Alice, unable to let the pain of loss go and be a father to a son who desperately needs him to be one. He channels all of his grief into his police work, attempting to be a guardian to the entire town rather than the one person who most needs him. These intergenerational rifts necessitate the strong relationships between the kids, forcing them to create their own webs of support and essentially their own contained world. Abrams establishes and maintains this sense of removal better than most any film in recent memory, tempering nostalgia with pain and a bittersweet sense of loss not felt since "Stand By Me" (another film "Super 8" owes a strong thematic debt to.)
As the various kids the cast is uniformly excellent. Some characters are more detailed than others but virtually every actor inhabits their role with fervency and determination, speaking to how fun this film must have been to be in. Riley Griffith is particularly outstanding as Charles, lording over the group like a mini Orson Welles infatuated with his own vision and imagined magnetism. Joel Courtney plays Joe well, illuminating his artistic sensitivity and empathy. Ryan Lee infuses Cary with an impish sense of cataclysm, delighting in all things pyrotechnic, while Gabriel Basso makes Martin's fearfulness into an endearing trait rather than the stumbling plot block it could have become. Elle Fanning is also excellent as Alice, bringing the washed-out playful narcolepsy she displayed in Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere" to a new level, creating a teenage dream girl whose neither "manic" or "pixie" but mysteriously alluring, leaving little wonder that she creates some discord within the group. It no doubt helped that Abrams allowed the cast to actually make the zombie film the kids are working on (it screens during the credits and is very fun) and learn about each other through creative interaction; their comfort and closeness with one another shines through and gives "Super 8" an authenticity that most films struggle to create.
Everything here works. Abrams has fashioned a marvelous tribute to the sorts of films he (and by extension, a lot of us) loved as a kid. The creation of a world populated with wonder and mystery is difficult to resist, whether you're twelve or, like me, thirty-two. Quality storytelling never gets old, and films like "The Goonies" never really feel dated. J.J. Abrams has taken the best of Spielberg's cosmic interests and fused them to a coming-of-age story that's both affecting and exciting. This is blockbuster filmmaking of an entirely different sort, one that doesn't dismiss its audience as explosion-hungry idiots or pander to base emotional response. "Super 8" is an absolute blast-the first 20 minutes are totally edge of your seat rollercoaster style fun-and it gives new hope to the idea that summer films are brainless garbage only looking to make back their investment. By embracing his own geekery again, Abrams has given us another intelligent film that still manages to be character driven and fun as hell.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

"THE TREE OF LIFE" dir. TERRENCE MALICK

As inscrutable as it is beautiful, Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" sets a new standard for film as poetry. Beyond dense and layered to a point of near total obfuscation, the film unfolds with a languid, riverlike pace, floating along as a dream and surrounding you like a universal meditation. There are big, huge ideas here, rolling across the sky as clouds, daring you to try to reach out and touch them. This is a film about everything Malick has ever considered, and by turn everything we too have ever considered; attempting to wrestle down nothing less than the meanings behind the meanings and the point at which any of our existence began to be significant, Malick creates an homage to the awesome spectacle of being in a way that almost no other filmmaker has been able to do.
This is a piece of art that is really beyond any sort of criticism because the vagueness of the narrative and the overwhelming feel of the universal aspects leave room for little other than subjective interpretations; you may come away from this film feeling a renewed sense of spiritual awareness, you may come away from this feeling a deep-rooted anger towards the way your life has panned out, you may come away from this feeling beyond confused and wondering what, exactly, you're supposed to do next to try and make sense of any of what you've witnessed. The raw material is there for you to work with, and I think part of what Malick has put into this picture is a freedom to look at the themes and ideas and mould them into whatever you need them to be. There is obviously a great deal of Malick himself in this picture, at least as much as we're likely to ever get, and it becomes very easy to think of "The Tree of Life" as the film he's been steering his career towards for the last forty years. It's that epic, that expansive, that immersive...but there's an intimacy at the heart of it that pulls against the universality that dominates the film's framework.
Visually the film is stunning; Malick's images are pure majesty, photographed instances of literature in motion, the weeping sorts of compositions that line the sleeping hearts of time's greatest artists. Red blood cells coalesce into nebulas, white blood cells morph into the stars themselves, dinosaurs engage in strange acts of what might be mercy, trees sway and dance, and planets rise across the horizon and assert themselves as the universe's great obstinancies. It all seems larger than it could ever possibly be, like Malick is trying to get at something that even he isn't able to entirely grasp. That sense of mystery haunts every frame of "The Tree of Life"; i think it's the film's greatest strength, but that level of open-endedness could very well be off-putting to less philosophically minded viewers. This is most definitely a think piece, and if you don't come away from the film with about a million different questions about what the fuck is going on all around you all the time, then "The Tree of Life" has failed in its only real identifiable theme. Malick wants us to be in awe of everything around us; all of nature has value, all of life is inscrutable, and trying to understand something so beautiful and vast and magnificent is beyond mere mortal applications of thought. As it ventures further into theoreticals, philosophy ultimately begins to fail as it dissolves into math and logic; Malick's film is able to expound on these sorts of questions in a more poetic and visionary way, and in this manner his philosophical engagement with questions of being becomes slightly easier to comprehend. Not that there are any answers here-there aren't-but there's an attempt to illustrate what's inside.
Like "The Thin Red Line," much of the film's narrative is advanced via an interior dialogue; questions of upbringing and personality and how much we get from whom and what is actually us in the raw dominate the proceedings. The actions that these dialogues give way to don't seem near as important or epochal as the questions that led to them; much of the film has a hushed and quiet pace befitting intense contemplation. For me, a lot of the film was spent simply trying to listen as i was bowled over by image after breathtaking image, idea after confusing idea. The story exists to give the film some sort of grounding; how it ties into the concept of being in the universe, how we're supposed to fit Malick's simple earthborn sliver of time into EVERYTHING, is a slightly more difficult puzzle to put together, one that i'm not really sure i can do.
This willful obscurity helps make the film much more alluring; the jumbled cohesiveness and tendril-like extensions of implied meanings create a resonance that maintains hold long after the credits have rolled. Watching "The Tree of Life" feels a bit like walking through impossible halls of architecture is some removed astral plane, forever staring up at beauty and vision that you don't really get. It seems lifted from another realm, plucked out of a churning magic and let loose on the reality we've come to know. It's a little discomfiting but in the best possible way; Malick's demand that you think about what you're seeing becomes intuitive as the puzzles stack on top of each other.
There's little else i can communicate about "The Tree of Life" other than it is an absolute must see for anyone remotely interested in film as art. Malick has attained a status similar to that of Kubrick, and rightly so; the ambition seen here is so far-reaching it becomes reckless, more fearless and challenging than any other film you're likely to see in the next several years. Questions, at their best, give way to more questions, an infinite dialogue with possibility and perception. "The Tree of Life" wants that dialogue with you, and it wants to open you up to the insane, explosive beauty and wonder that exists all around you. Every action, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, has a mirror in gargantua near infathomable. We don't think about these things enough, but Terrence Malick does-his wish to convey that sense of awe and grace is a gift to the world of film. This is a major work, and i cannot recommend it more highly.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

"MIDNIGHT IN PARIS" dir. WOODY ALLEN

In his last film, "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," Woody Allen returned to the deeply pessimistic themes outlined in "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and "Match Point." The illustration wasn't quite as violent or as grave but the message was the same: the universe is empty, there is no absolute morality, and the quality of a person emanates from inside of them rather than through the outside influence of any greater governing force. Characters made poor, selfish choices and the question of their consequence was left hanging, beholden only to instances of universal randomness and something best identified as "luck." While the gravity of actions in "Stranger" was nowhere near the bleak brutality of those in "Crimes" or "Match Point" it was refreshing to see Allen still feeling the need to convey these ideas; on some level it's comforting to know he still wrestles with these sorts of philosophical complexities and feels compelled to deal with them in an artistic way. But it can also feel like he's beating a dead horse. Like his straight comedies, sometimes the shtick wears thin and he's moved to steer the work in a different direction. Little surprise, then, that his newest film, "Midnight in Paris," steps with a much lighter foot and traffics in matters no less serious or complex, just much more friendly and approachable. The result is a quintessential Allen dramedy that adds little to the oeuvre but doesn't take away from it either.
Owen Wilson stars as Gil Pender, a successful screenwriter taking a stab at writing an actual prose novel. Afloat in Paris with his arrogant and uppity fiancee Inez, Gil romanticizes the golden age of the 1920's, wishing he could live in a simpler time where genius rubbed elbows with vision. While stumbling home one evening from a boring social engagement Gil is scooped up by a cab and magically transported to his preferred time where he finds himself attending parties with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, talking writing with Ernest Hemingway and falling in love with one of Pablo Picasso's mistresses. There isn't much else to it other than that; like in most Allen films the meat of the story is in the dialogue. There's a richness to Allen's treatment of his 1920's luminaries and Gil handles himself well amongst all these intellectual heavyweights; everyone he meets takes an immediate shine to him, laughing and cajoling and basically letting Gil right in to to their circle. The question of conflicting time is never an issue, as Gil is so enamored with the magic of Paris in the 20's that he blends in easily enough to not cause a stir. As things advance, typical Allen plot devices assault the characters: infidelities reveal self-truths and romance blooms in likely and unlikely locales, and by the end of it all everyone's where they need to be and more or less happy with the way things work out.
If not for the happy ending, "Midnight in Paris" would be more or less a rewrite of Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo;" the ideas and the themes are so similar, as well as the nifty narrative device of time travel and a main character named Gil, they seem cut from the same genesis cloth. In both films there is a reverence for a bygone era, but only in "Cairo" is there a suggestion that the reality we inhabit is hazardous to the human condition. "Midnight in Paris" speaks to the value of imagination and history, but it also accepts that "Golden Age thinking" is a romanticized view of existence and that if we're really going to make it, we need to accept the reality of the moment we're stuck in. Hemingway may have been a great writer, but he was also capable of being a colossal asshole. Picasso may have had talent to the heavens, but he was a misogynist besieged by paranoid anxieties. These people dealt with these deficiencies the same way as anyone else, and it wasn't the time they lived in that defined them or made them remarkable-it was the way they conducted themselves within that time. Eventually Gil comes to see this, a "minor insight" as he terms it, but it's the key to the film and also a hint at some of the underlying optimism that permeates Allen's usually bleak worldview.
That insight is the major "reveal" of the film, and as such it renders "Midnight in Paris" one of the director's lesser works. Much of Allen's humor is very intellectual; he trades on the idea that you've got almost as decent an understanding of all these historical giants as he does, and if you're close to there the film does yield ample rewards. One of the best scenes is Gil's encounter with Salvador Dali, Man Ray and Luis Bunuel as they attempt to talk him through a romantic conundrum. Though the three surrealists have very few lines, the words Allen chooses for them are so illustrative of their personalities that you come away with the sense that Allen really gets all this shit-really, seriously gets it. The guy's a genius. Of course it helps that his cast here is phenomenal as usual. At this point I don't think there's any way I could dislike Owen Wilson. His portrayal of Gil Pender shines with such wide-eyed enthusiam and boyish amazement I don't think I could bear to see his heart break the way Mia Farrow's does in "The Purple Rose of Cairo." You just want things to work out for him, and I think Allen's casting of Wilson shaped some of the film's overall outcome. Corey Stoll is fabulous as Hemingway, coming off as drunkenly handsome and arrogantly masculine but still possessed with a fearsome intelligence. Adrien Brody takes the aforementioned role of Dali, stealing into the man's skin with impish delight and mischief. Marion Cotilliard is passable as Gil's 1920's love interest, but she's playing to her strengths as a chanteusy flapper type who flirts with the Parisian literary scene. Allen hangs a good chunk of the film's overall philosophical heft on her, though, and she plays out her own golden age syndrome with conviction and believability (she's almost as pie-eyed as Gil when she lands in her dream realm.)
As a love letter to Woody Allen's new home, "Midnight in Paris" is a fine demonstration of all the charm and historical richness that city offers. As a crucial piece in the director's body of work, it ranks closer with a film like "Mighty Aphrodite" than its thematic forebear "The Purple Rose of Cairo;" while visually "Midnight in Paris" is more appealing, it lacks the underlying despondency that defines the best of Allen's films. It's fine for things to work out sometimes, but his strongest films never let us forget how crushing reality is for the dreamers.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

"HESHER" dir. SPENCER SUSSER

Metal has always been an "outsider" genre. It attracts the angry and the violent, the depressed and the defeated, the hopeless and the humiliated. Metal is a refuge, an outpouring of aggression that serves as much as therapy as it does music. The best films made about metal understand this and reflect it; it's very easy to separate the directors who really get it from the hacks who simply try to co-opt a genre for ironic consideration and broad characterizations. Spencer Susser obviously gets it, and the resultant film is one that takes metal's dystopic isolationism to a nihilistic extreme, crafting a dirty, arid shitscape that screams sadness and rage.
The film follows barely teenaged T.J. Forney (Devin Brochu) as he attempts to navigate the world created by the death of his mother several months prior. The loss has left his father Paul (Rainn Wilson) in a walking coma, immune to almost everything happening outside the sphere of his private grief. T.J. is tormented by bullies at school, too meek to fight back and completely unable to cope with the anger bubbling up inside him. His only friend is Nicole (Natalie Portman), a lowly grocery store cashier who becomes the object of T.J.'s misplaced emotions. A chance act of vandalism in a junkyard summons Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the ultimate id personified, a burned-out metal fanatic prone to random acts of destruction, pyromania, and all-out badassing. Hesher does not take any shit, and he insinuates himself into T.J and Paul's lives and begins to awaken the feelings and awareness still hidden in both.
Hesher is an almost mystical presence in the film, at once of this earth and far beyond it. He appears wordlessly at various times of stress in T.J.'s life, more of a mocking figure than any sort of refuge or reprieve. T.J. wonders why Hesher stands idly while bullies force him to eat a urinal cake; similarly, Hesher can't seem to understand why T.J. is so unwilling to fight back. Hesher's whole life is a chronology of doing exactly that, and he's so far removed from society's norms that he can't fathom not acting out of individual desire. This sort of behaviour could be interpreted as base selfishness, but in Susser's world this sort of objectivism is an ideal; Hesher is a standard against which all other characters in the film are judged. He adheres to something akin to collectivism, a passivity that allows "win/win" situations for everyone (illustrated by an amusing anecdote involving an orgy.) Susser complicates this further by making Hesher extremely unlikeable. There is no way to feel any sympathy towards him; he simply is and he acts, and that's it. It's very black and white. This lends an interesting distance to the picture of Hesher as disturbed; when we watch him go on a destructive rampage at a swimming pool, damaging both inanimate objects and himself, we watch and feel almost nothing other than the impact of watching the damages occur. Much like Nicole and T.J. trying to take in exactly what's happening as they watch Hesher set fire to the pool water (again, the idea of mysticism), we're in a place where traditional values are being eroded, a landscape that is totally alien from a moral perspective.
Hesher's effect on T.J. is what the film is really about. There's always a question of whether or not Hesher exists or is just a created part of T.J.'s personality, brought into being to help him cope with his grief. A "hesher" is a broad descriptive term attached to those who look to be involved with heavy metal culture; there is little personality associated with the term other than stereotypical ideas of grit, dirt, violence and antisocial tendencies. Hesher is simply nobody, an exertion of will on the world. As he leads T.J. down a strange road of embracing anger, rage, and revenge, there's a strong suggestion from Susser that this sort of societal antagonism is what really distinguishes a bland existence from a meaningful, fully lived one. Though the tone of Susser's film is distinctly darker, it's hard not to see echoes of Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru"; both films are concerned with illustrating the damage done when we hide behind ideas of what life should be rather than embracing the side of ourselves that is actually able to live them. Hesher's "instruction" opens T.J. up and shows him the necessity of resistance in life; Hesher's presence also does wonders to wake Paul out of his grief-driven stupor, reminding him of what he still has left despite all the loss he's suffered.
Nicole is an interesting character in that she seems to be an illustration of what average existence and compliance ultimately breed. She has a good heart and is attempting to play by what she sees as the "rules" of society; all this gets her is a job that demeans her and barely allows her live along with a continuing string of indignities and defeats. She is the opposite of Hesher in every regard, and Susser allows this contrast to obviously value one way of thinking above another. Nicole is used and humiliated and makes poor decisions, inflicting emotional damage on those closest to her in the same manner that Hesher doles out punishment to random objects. When Nicole sleeps with Hesher we grasp the depth of her self-hatred; the world we live in is so caustic and crushing we're more apt to resist anything resembling real affection in favor of sensory experience disguised as emotional connection.
Susser's world is a strange but effective distillation of Harmony Korine, Todd Solondz, Cameron Jamie, and Wes Anderson. The landscape of "Hesher" bears more than a passing resemblance to the grotesque world of Korine's "Gummo"; so too does the effective use of heavy metal music and culture to create an aura of bleak defeatism. There's a nod to Solondz in the awkwardness of every interaction and the demand to view ethically compromised characters without judgment, and like Anderson there's a melancholy poignancy to every action we witness. The violence in Hesher is easily something that would belong in one of Jamie's backyard wrestling films; so too is the layer of dust and dirt that hazes over "Hesher"'s aesthetic. Susser's ultimate suggestion is a little more hopeful than any of the aforementioned directors (aside from maybe Anderson, whose overall vision isn't near as malicious as the others) but the arrival at that epiphany exacts a heavy emotional toll on the majority of the film's characters; true enlightenment never comes without a cost.
The acting is superb throughout. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is astonishing as Hesher; there seems little this man can't do in whatever role he's cast. Rainn Wilson turns in another excellent dramatic performance, making good on all the potential he showed in "Six Feet Under," thankfully distancing himself from "The Office" once more. Portman is fine here as well, leading me to wonder why so many other reviewers have singled her out as terrible in this film. There seems to be an issue with making her "unattractive", as though this sort of transformation were beyond belief and that we can't take Nicole's struggles in life seriously because there's no way to get past the idea that this is the breathtaking Natalie Portman. That sort of criticism is assinine; Portman vanishes into her role her with grace and depth, and I found her simple, banal anxieties to be incredibly relatable and realistic. The real star, though, is Brochu, who brings such anguish and torture to T.J. that it's almost painful to watch him onscreen. Grief is not an easy emotion to convey, and Brochu does so with restraint; it seems like he could snap at anytime but he never goes so far overboard that his depiction becomes caricature.
This is a complex but rewarding film. Like Todd Solondz's "Happiness," Spencer Susser has given us a portrait of modern banality and complacency that is both disturbing and moving. The focus on the idea of individualism at any cost is one that may put a lot of people off, but these sorts of presentations are absolutely necessary if we're to break free of the constraints society continuously imposes on us. Hesher is an ideal that we all need to aspire to; compassion and resistance aren't always at odds with one another. You can hate most people and still be a good person. A life lived mostly alone doesn't make you a failure. Sometimes it takes destruction to make people realize they're sleepwalking through life; the meaning of metal isn't so much music as it is defiance and questions. Susser knows this, and his film an open engagement with possibility and the power of self-realization.

Friday, April 29, 2011

"MILDRED PIERCE" dir. TODD HAYNES

Todd Haynes tackles epic banality with his adaptation of James M. Cain's "Mildred Pierce," a strange piece of work that blurs the line between feminist hoorah and misogynist drivel. The novel was something of a departure for Cain, bearing little resemblance to his noir works and instead choosing to explore a life in transition while trying to wrestle down the idea that our children might not be everything we want them to be. He also confronted the resultant disappointments that erupt, both personal and familial. Haynes deviates little from this path, stretching his story across nine agonizing years and a parade of defeats in public and private.
The film opens in the midst of the Great Depression and the tail-end of prohibition, a time when pent-up aggressions and frustrations in most Americans were about to boil over. Mildred Pierce (Kate Winslet) is an average housewife of the time, stuck in a marriage with a husband she knows is two-timing her and two astringent daughters, the hyperactive Ray and the ethereal and aristocratic Veda. Within five minutes of the film, Mildred kicks her husband out and embarks on her bizarre personal odyssey of self-discovery as she struggles to find footing and provide for her daughters in a world that still viewed women as second class citizens.
It's easy to lose sight of how difficult is to tackle the story of one life in film and have it come across as both universal and individualized, and Haynes does a fine job letting us tag along as Mildred opens herself up to the possibility of self-actualization. We watch as Mildred takes her first job as a waitress and finds her self esteem crushed by the job's low stature. We see her stumble into an awkward sexual affair with her husband's former business partner, who then stakes Mildred in her own business venture, a restaurant dealing specifically in chicken, waffles, and pies. Just as the restaurant takes off and begins to lend the Pierces some financial stability, Ray dies of a mysterious fever, leaving Mildred and Veda alone in their mausoleum-like home together, hastening the deterioration of their relationship. Mildred takes up romantically with the aimless but handsome playboy Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce) whose fruit fortune is rapidly disappearing thanks to conglomerations and consolidations, relying on Mildred to sustain his high-end lifestyle. Monty and Veda bond quickly over their arrogance, and this is the fulcrum on which all the relationships implode.
Mildred's self-delusion is mind-blowing. Haynes and Cain seem to suggest that the dual roles of involved single-parent and successful businesswoman are absolutely at odds with one another and juggling them is bound to result in failure. Mildred could be read as either a proto-feminist icon (a self-made woman in an extremely difficult social era, both financially and sexually independent) or as a pathetic casualty of rampant masculine domination (she relies on men for the majority of her guidance, often following their advice blindly); Haynes doesn't make a judgment either way, instead leaving it up to us to decide where our sympathies will ultimately lie. While some of Mildred's choices are baffling, she isn't a bad person-merely a simple one who gets caught up in a world of massively inflated personalities that she can't possibly equal intellectually or aristocratically. The gross illustration of these two worlds and their total incompatability is at the heart of the film's theme, showing us what happens when we try to be something we can't possibly be. In this the film's tagline seems horribly apt: having it all costs everything, indeed.
Mildred's relationship with her daughter Veda (Evan Rachel Wood) is at the center of everything, the eye of the Pierce storm. All of Mildred's decisions revolve around Veda, and all of her heartbreaks and failures are the result of her falling short of Veda's inflated expectations. When we're first introduced to Veda she's seems from another world: impossibly noble, disdainfully proud and possessed of an arrogance that renders her immediately unlikeable. Veda has no regard for anyone, and as she ages she grows more and more into the person she always imagined herself to be: one of the Hollywood elite. Her shame regarding her background, and Mildred in particular, causes her to fall into her own delusions, blissfully unaware of what it actually takes to support the glamorous sort of lifestyle she sees being lived out by Monty and his high society pals. Both use Mildred over and over, sucking off of her relatively minor financial success like royal vampires, eating away at her until Mildred is reduced to little else than a vehicle for their wishes. Mildred so lives for Veda that she forgets everything else in her life, and Veda's subsequent removal from, and reappearance into, Mildred's life causes a wealth of personal inner destruction that she cannot bear without consequence.
Haynes allows Mildred some respite in the form of her ex-husband Bert (Brian F. O'Byrne) and her friend Lucy Gessler (Melissa Leo). Both provide Mildred with support and advice that comes from a position of true love and concern rather than greed and narcissism, and without their prominence in Mildred's life (especially Bert, who seems to be the best ex-husband a girl could possibly have) the story would have turned out much more tragically than it already does. Mildred's insistence that there's something good in Veda remains right up until the end, whereas virtually everyone else sees that she's nothing more than a cloud of air and ambition dressed up in silk and lace. Even Veda's music teacher tells Mildred she's a bitch and not worth the exhaustion it takes to have her in her life. But Mildred will not accept that her daughter is so empty, so vile, so callous, and this delusional parental desire to see something good in her child, no matter how contrary that child's behaviour, illustrates the simplicities and vulnerabilities that allow Mildred to be so used and taken advantage of. When Bert finally tells Mildred "To hell with her" in regards to Veda, we hope with all our hearts that Mildred actually listens.
Haynes has captured a frustrating character trying to eke out an existence in an extraordinarily transformative time, and his film vividly recreates the era. Every setpiece is bathed in a washed-out sickly sort of green, giving the look of some sort of fevered and bizarre dream. Carter Burwell's score is excellent, reminding me of his evocative and dark work for the Coen Brothers' "A Serious Man." The acting is uniformly excellent, with Evan Rachel Wood and Guy Pearce both living their characters and the time (Pearce especially seems geared for this, trumping his work in the similarly set "L.A. Confidential") while Kate Winslet turns in a one-note performance that seems intricately layered, completely perfect for Mildred's seeming inability to belong in any aspect of her world.
"Mildred Pierce" isn't as deep as it wants to be, but it's far from terrible. I get the feeling it's a little difficult for Haynes to remove from himself from the elitist sect he's trying to vilify here, but the emptiness captured in both Veda and Monty is more than indicative enough of some kind of evil running throughout society. The film should serve as a warning to all of us, that our dreams always run the risk of being trampled beneath the demands of our lives, that self-realization almost always requires total removal from the shackles of our day to day existences. We can't possibly find out who we are if we're always forced into playing the role of what everyone else thinks we should be.