Monthly Archives: September 2013

‘I’m not a Weekly Recap. I’m just written that way.’

9/15: Kid-Thing (2012)

Kid-Thing movie

“In which Larry the Cable Guy does Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Inasmuch as attributing Larry the Cable Guy to anything can be a compliment, that is one. Kid-Thing follows the misanthropic adventures of Annie (Sydney Aguirre) as crank calls mechanics and pedals her bike on her way to small-time convenience store robberies. Annie’s lashing out might undercut sympathy for her character, but her malicious behavior seems like the only thing her inattentive farmer of a father (Nathan Zellner) has ever given her. When Annie sheepishly wanders over to a playground of children, her obvious desire for companionship is met with obstinate name-calling and derision from the other kid-things. So when Annie whips handfuls of sand at her taunters, she’s transformed from a monstrous tomboy into a pitiable product of her callous, Appalachian surroundings.

Kid-Thing tries Annie’s stunted empathy against the plight of an old woman trapped in a well, which is as supremely bizarre (and a little creepy) as it sounds. Dropping in sloppily made PB&Js and stolen Capri Suns, Annie keeps in contact with the phantom wails of Esther via walkie talkie, providing her with enough care packages to stay alive but never running for the “adult” help that can only hope to lift the woman out. It’s a frustrating back-and-forth, but Kid-Thing makes it clear, with a particularly “arthouse” ending, that Annie really just wants a friend. Her intentions, like the Zellner Brothers, are well-meaning; they just come in an unsavory package.

9/16: Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

The  obvious metatextual conceit in Roger Rabbit dissects recognizable noir tropes but less obviously, cinema, in its broadest strokes. The Raymond Chandler-esque Los Angeles is diametrically opposed to the zany ‘Toon Town.” Big shot producers and hole-in-wall waitresses feel like cut outs instead of characters — cut outs consistently put through the rigors of animated obstacles. The blending of both worlds invites moments of inspiration — in particular, Bob Hoskins’ Eddie feigning dishwashing with a Roger Rabbit still handcuffed to his wrist — but Zemeckis’ L.A. can’t help but feel far more dull than Toon Town by comparison, and the injection of a Disney reference here or a Warner Bros. reference there begins to feel like relief instead of a treat.

Despite leaving such an indelible and horrific pockmark on my adolescence, Judge Doom is the real problem here. Hoskins’ boozy PI and Jessica Rabbit’s (ridiculously) booby femme fatale fit right in with Roger Rabbit’s noir-gone-bonkers mold, but Judge Doom, with his bugged out eyes and helium cackles, invalidates the need for our antiheroes to pursue this mystery’s oh so very obvious puppet master. The design would work were he only a Toon, but the tracking of Eddie’s detective work feels arbitrary, driven by a mystery that seems to have solved most of itself in the first half hour.

9/17: This is Martin Bonner (2013)

This is Martin Bonner 2013

What’s noteworthy in This is Martin Bonner, Chad Hartigan’s strong if not spectacular indie drama, is how well it uses its tight focus. Hartigan centers his story on Paul Eenhoorn’s titular character, a recently moved volunteer coordinator and divorcee, as he works to recapture the cozy rhythms of his previous life — a life he maintained before he moving to Nevada and meeting Travis Holloway (Richmond Arquette). Hartigan’s neatly staged long takes and symmetrical arrangements imply Martin’s a tidy man who appreciates daily rituals of making dinner to old LPs and visiting the same coffee shop for breakfast each morning.

Travis, an excellent Arquette as a mopey ex-con with a second chance, jostles Martin’s routine when he repeatedly turns to him for guidance, help, and in a particularly stressful sequence between Travis and his estranged daughter, social rescue. Hartigan finds connective parallels between two relatively singular men in their gradual readjustments to new circumstances. That both find something in one another that’s never reduced to a feel -good friendship is in keeping with its tepid aspirations. Acceptance, rather than outright transcendence, is at its heart.

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‘Look upon me! I’ll show you the Weekly Recap of the Mind!’

9/9: Before Sunrise (1995)

Before Sunrise listening booth Julie Delpy Ethan Hawke

I was convinced Before Sunrise’s talky sequences, its breezy attitude towards mise-en-scene were a kind of a “fuck you” exercise. I was convinced these two young travelers, seemingly so naive and unsure and yet so cynical about the world, would never end up falling into making their own kind of plans, that they themselves were never able to resist what appears so inevitable. Alas, Richard Linklater has pulled a fast one on me.

I screen capped that particular sequence — where Etahn Hawke and Julie Delpy share a wordless moment inside a Viennese record store’s listening booth — because these actors’ skills are on complete display in a touching scene that’s devoid of any dialogue. There’s a palpable restlessness to Before Sunrise’s beginning, with a rather forward invitation to spend an evening in Austria between strangers. Uma Thurman muses in Pulp Fiction over the unsung virtues of “comfortable silences,” spaces in between conversations where neither party feels compelled to yack about mindless bullshit. In Before Sunrise’s listening booth, neither one’s eyes ever lock for more than an instant, but the slow brew of what becomes a deep, meaningful evening is right in that silence.

Richard Linklater pulled a fast one on me. Thank God for that.

9/10: Barton Fink (1991)

Barton Fink John Turturro Coen Bros

Where’s the difference in two opaque films like Barton Fink, a tremendous cinematic achievement in arthouse, and Primer, a film I do not care for, to put it lightly?

Barton Fink, among my personal favorites of the Coens Brothers, is a tremendous film, but it’s also tremendously opaque. Its images are bountiful: peeling wallpaper; rolling waves against the shore; a swimsuit-clad woman gazing out past the ocean; extreme close-ups on a typewriter; the shuddering knees of John Mahoney’s alcoholic novelist against the bathroom tile; the very fires of Perdition swallowing the Hotel Earle whole, etc. Their resonances are as evocative as they are mystifying, and at times, it seems as though not every element was designed to fit perfectly in such a way. The Coens situate John Turturro’s playwright-turned-screenwriter within disjunctive spaces, placing him next to haunting hotel neighbors and big, broad secondary caricatures. It’s a jarring world that never quite fits, but it’s also a world oddly attuned to Barton’s own displacement.

So why does Barton Fink’s lack of clarity work while another opaqe arthouse film, like Primer for example, doesn’t? Shane Carruth’s terse mini-essay on time travel presents a veritable wall of process and experimentation, but like a random chunk of thick physics textbook, it’s overwhelming and dry. Primer wants the viewer to know how hard its engineers have worked to develop their device. Barton Fink’s imagery on the other hand, is much more in keeping with the painting of that swimsuit-clad woman, seeming to beckon out to Barton as it hangs above his hotel room desk. It’s an invitation, even when the answers appear unknown. “What’s in the box?” “I don’t know.”

9/14: Liberal Arts (2012)

Liberal Arts Josh Radnor

“You are a snob.”
“No, I’m not.”
“You think it’s cool to hate things. And it’s not. It’s boring.”

If Liberal Arts has any agenda, and even that is debatable, Elizabeth Olsen and Josh Radnor’s coffee shop tête-à-tête over the merits of vampire romance criticism isn’t enough to excuse the laziness of its script. Radnor, who also directs, presents a middling drama where an admissions counselor strikes up a relationship with Olsen’s much younger and much, much quirkier college student.

Radnor, oddly enough, plays a veritable copy of How I Met Your Mother’s Ted Mosby, flighty and fickle in the social interactions that count yet professional enough to maintain a cushy middle class lifestyle. That Radnor’s character in Liberal Arts also floats around a college campus seems less than coincidental. Olsen makes good enough use of two-dimensional material, but Liberal Arts never bothers to plum the depths of its two leads’ motivations, instead settling for watered down denouement and weightless literary suggestions. Can’t I just pretend this is HIMYM fan fiction?

9/14: Army of Shadows (1969)

army-of-shadows cinematheque

The story behind Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows, unseen in the United States for nearly forty years, is a sad one. Then again, Army of Shadows is a sad story.

In her Criterion essay “Out of the Shadows,” Amy Taubin notes Melville’s Army of Shadows, despite its period setting, shares more in common with the director’s previous gangster films than with his earlier wartime pictures:

Army of Shadows was the third and final film in which Melville dealt directly with the German occupation of France—Le silence de la mer (1949), his first feature, and Léon Morin, prêtre (1961) were also set during that time—and his only film devoted to the Resistance. But it was made in the middle of his stunning late run of gangster films, preceded by Le deuxième souffle (1966) and Le samouraï (1967) and followed by Le cercle rouge (1970) and Un flic (1972), and it has more in common with them, formally, narratively, and philosophically, than with the earlier war films.

Much in the same manner that Le doulos deals with perilously flawed characters inside increasingly damning circumstances, Army of Shadows consists of complex, interlacing, and downward-spirals of narratives in several French Resistance fighters during World War II. Melville never draws any literal connections, but it’s not hard to see where Taubin was coming from. Lino Ventura’s Philippe Gerbier must lie, steal, and especially, murder under circumstances that would seemingly damn his eventual fate. As the freedom fighters squirm out of each German execution or police ambush, the walls of their collective safety slowly close in on them. Even within a historical framework, there’s a poetry to Melville’s doomed narratives here that mirrors any from Jean-Paul Belmondo.

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‘Weekly movies we Recap’

9/7: Stories We Tell (2012)

Stories We Tell Sarah Polley Michael Polley

Through no fault but my own, I often struggle with documentaries. It’s their unflinching tendency to ignore the multiplicity of truths and the elusive capture of the Truth. Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell approaches that latter challenge head on, interrogating the lives, stories and emotions of her family members as a means of uncovering a holistic portrait of her deceased mother. Polley interviews her brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and even family acquaintances, but her film is anchored by intimate dialogues with her father Michael Polley and her biological father, former Hollywood producer Harry Gulkin. The latter revelation, that Gulkin is Polley’s real father, went unbeknownst to Polley for much of her life and is a moment Polley treats with maturity. There’s an understanding for Gulkin’s selfish approach to keeping his memories of Polley’s mother to himself; in short, Gulkin maintains there are only two people who can fully understand the story of his love affair with Polley’s mother, and one of them is dead. Polley is respectful in this point, but her arto-biographical project also rejects Gulkin’s notion of the one truth.

The film’s other anchor, and really the emotional core through which Polley filters thoughts and ideas, is the man who raised her. Stories We Tell begins with Michael Polley reading letters (presumably written by Sarah) in a sound booth, with Polley occasionally requesting a re-read or firmer delivery on certain lines. Polley never shies away from the orchestration behind recreating her memories, something that Gulkin ironically seems incapable of understanding in his obstinance. Polley treats this post hoc puzzle-piecing of her mother as an exercise, less a goal. Re-enacting certain pieces of her parents’ lives — those that weren’t already captured on home video film stock — is an admission that film, like an interview, a Polaroid, or even a conversation, is merely another lens through which we tell our stories. Stories We Tell is all the better for admitting that, turning its questions about truth back around on its auteur.

9/7: Miller’s Crossing (1990)

Miller's Crossing woods John Turturro Gabriel Byrne

John Torturro famously steals the show in Miller’s Crossing as a ragged worm of a man, weaseling his way out of seemingly inescapable problems. With every scene of Torturro’s blubbering, his backstabbing, and his bullshitting, each word seems to dig his character further into a rut. He’s such an oozing, pathetic presence, admirable in his resourcefulness, endlessly loathsome in his squirmability. It’s a showy, breakout performance from the man who would go on to star in the Coens’ next feature, Barton Fink, but it also distracts from capable turns from Albert Finney, the cartoony Jon Polito, and Marcia Gay Harden. The polar opposite of Finney’s cool, collected mob boss Leo, Polito’s Johnny Caspar is like Pinocchio’s Stromboli made flesh, and Harden is steely when she needs to be but always reflects a damaged vulnerability underneath.

Admittedly, it’s the lead, Gabriel Byrne, who does nothing for me. Byrne is appropriately stone faced as Tom Reagan, a mobster’s fickle, triple-crossing right hand man. But then again, when isn’t Gabriel Byrne stone faced? Byrne’s performance is buoyed by the smart ass quips he’s given — and boy does everyone let him know what a smart ass he is. Miller’s Crossing‘s overly complicated story is dense, but much of the charm is owed to the script, with plot taking a back seat to big characters and the Coens’ top notch dialogue. Strangely enough, it’s why Miller’s Crossing shares a likeness with Big Lebowski, which ultimately lives and dies by character and chit chat. Byrne pursues Torturro, who’s more of a ghost than a man, an exaggerated re-appropriation of a “shylock” stereotype from old Warner Bros gangster pictures of the 30’s and 40’s, until Byrne is left all by himself. The story and its machinations, like leaves in the forest, ultimately wither and die, tumbling to the ground, leaving nothing but a frail frame behind. Don’t forget your hat.

9/7: Le doulos (1962)

le doulos cinematheque uw

In his Criterion essay, “Walking Ghosts,” Glenn Kenny writes that, among Jean-Pierre Melville’s playing with sound and visuals, his gangster picture Le doulos roots so much in the past:

The answer, like almost everything else in the convoluted plot, lies in what has gone before. As Faugel enters Gilbert’s house at the film’s opening, he carries himself like a specter, one who is himself haunted. Only later do we find out what he was avenging, and having committed the deed, he then can’t stop obsessing over what he’s done to a former friend. By contrast, Silien (“a guy who does not exteriorize himself,” as per Pierre Lesou’s source novel—and can’t that be said of almost all of Melville’s gangster heroes?), brisk and efficient as he lends Faugel some gear for a robbery, is confidently looking forward to getting out of the rackets and enjoying his newly built house.

What’s great about Melville’s overly complex if not otherwise remarkable gangster plot is how it draws out the dour shadows on its characters faces and externalizes them as prior snippets of a sordid biography. Yes, police informant Jean-Paul Belmondo’s assault of Thérèse is “unspeakably violent,” but his character spends much of this foiled jewel heist trying to escape that seemingly inescapable cycle of low-stakes crime, looking ahead to the future while gunning down his past. The death toll here is remarkably high, but it’s a callous reminder that perhaps death is the only freedom from this walk of life.

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‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The Weekly Recap’

Two Weekly Recaps in two days? I guess I’m just that generous a person. Or lazy.

8/25: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)

Scott Pilgrim vs The World Michael Cera pee bar

Today in movies I was horribly wrong about:

Sometimes our goals in life aren’t mutually exclusive. Sometimes they’re linked, and to get one thing, you have to fight for another. Edgar Wright’s accelerated time lapses in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are trademark visual flares, but in transferring O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim manga to the screen, they’re a pagination for the shorthand of graphic storytelling — as cinematic a page turn as one can get.

Wright harkens back, smartly, to panels of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s artwork only in explaining Ramona Flowers’ backstory, a gesture as fitting a tribute to the source material as it is a crystallization of film itself. This is not a “manga” adaptation per se, at least not in the modern comic book tradition. In teasing out a strong performance from Michael Cera, Wright has fused cultures of geek and game, love interests and self-interests in energized fight sequences that tease out character development in arcade-styled versus modes.

Two dimensional? Only the graphics.

8/26: The Act of Killing (2012)

The Act of Killing Sundance Cinemas

In his 2012 documentary The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer follows the 50 year aftermath of a mass Indonesian genocide, one that left over a million suspected communists dead at the hands of mass death squads. The catch here is that Oppenheimer leaves the history-telling to the victors, going so far as to turn over the camera to death squad leaders and allowing them to produce their own accounts of the atrocities.

In taking this observational, passive approach, Oppenheimer doesn’t give any definitive answers and provides no moral stance, apart from the toll taking a life has on one’s conscience and sanity. Rather, Oppenheimer suggests that history isn’t made up of absolute “right” and “wrong,” of winners and losers, but instead exists on a gradient of complexity. It’s at first a terrifying and then numbing notion, especially when played out in the documentary’s candid version of reality. One of the death squad leaders talks of mass beheadings, of burying hundreds of prisoners of war. Oppenheimer places this voiced recollections over scenes of the man, his wife and his daughter strolling through a shopping mall.

That juxtaposition, in its implied unfeeling nature, is disturbing, but as I sat in the Sundance theater, I couldn’t help but marvel at my audience’s reactions. There were gasps of incredulity. After all, how could these killers be so heartless, yet remain so self-aware? It’s less a hypothetical question of “what happens when the Nazis win?” and more “what changes when the history writers own up to omitting half the story?”

Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close explores the tangential idea of the recorded death, and among its many questions asked is perhaps its most powerful: By watching a disaster like the World Trade Center collapses over and over, are we symbolically killing the same people over and over? Obviously, there’s a performative quality in asking murderers to replay their horrible crimes on camera. The Act of Killing implies there’s a kind of catharsis that arises from replaying these murders; judging from the strong emotional reactions some of the more remorseful killers end up having, I’m inclined to believe it.

8/27: Raising Arizona (1987)

Raising Arizona profile

There’s a scene in Raising Arizona where Nicolas Cage’s shyster with a heart o’ gold bungles a grocery store stick-up for some Huggies, and his far more moral wife Holly Hunter peels off with their newly stolen baby — and the getaway car.

The ensuing chase — between Cage, Hunter, a tenacious police officer, a pack of angry dogs, and the well-armed clerk from that grocery store — parses out and elongates the baggage of Raising Arizona‘s lovable misfit couple in comedic fashion, with Joel Coen’s playful camera indulging in an exuberance that’s arguably never been topped by the brothers since.

8/28: Prince Avalanche (2013)

prince avalanche

After The Sitter and Your Highness, David Gordon Green once again finds the time to tell a small, intimate story — an alleged $60,000 budget’s worth of a small story. It’s easy to trace the trajectory of Pineapple Express’ buddy film to this and see why the director would be interested in the spaces between relationships. Among a barren cast, both Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd turn in some solid work here; in Rudd’s case, it’s nice to see him flex a little outside the Apatow Warp Zone.

Prince Avalanche is also gorgeous, and Gordon Green finds some artful structures among the barren trees of his sparse woodland landscapes. Regardless of what the original film, Either Way, does, Prince Avalanche still overplays its hand in having Rudd and Hirsch hurl insults at each other, rather than let the story play out in between its uncomfortable nighttime silences and melancholy flavors.

8/30: A Single Shot (2013)

a single shot sam rockwell

Hey, guys. I’m here for the Sam Rockwell party.

“Lone gun” type films aren’t really my bag, but Sam Rockwell, who’s finally receiving the mainstream recognition he deserves, definitely is my bag. A Single Shot, which sees Rockwell’s crusty poacher cover up his accidental killing of a woman, is standard thriller fare, more or less. Written by Matthew F. Jones — and based on his novel of the same name — there’s a definite No Country For Old Men quality that ensues when Rockwell stumbles upon Jason Isaacs’ drug dealer’s cash hoard, hiding the funds and taking every precaution to cover his tracks. It’s the film’s attention to detail that helps and ultimately hurts the ensuing by-the-numbers “cat and mouse” game.

While I have no lingering questions, I was never certain how anyone caught on to Rockwell’s secret in the first place. What A Single Shot lacks in clarity or originality however, it makes up for with superb mixing and sound design. The score’s “prickly” violin strings are creepy until they’re overused, but the true horror lies in the film’s suggestion that the world may in fact be better off without Rockwell.

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‘We’ll write a Weekly Recap and wait for this whole thing to blow over.’

I’m a bit late on this one, but considering I revisited Shaun of the Dead last week, let’s just say I was channeling my inner Ed, eh?

8/21: Europa Report (2013)

Europa Report

Prometheus failed, in part, because its sensationalist tendencies took away from the genuine thrill of bald discovery. Few films in recent memory have burst with such wonder and fear of the unknown (and in equal measure) than the first 25 minutes of Ridley Scott’s science fiction odyssey. At the very least, Europa Report maintains that commitment to scientific discovery through the end.

When a team of scientists and engineers embark on a mission to probe the ice of Jupiter’s moon, Europa, for signs of life, things don’t exactly go according to plan. Equipment breaks, crew members die off, and yes, even hints of intelligent life are teased. Europa Report’s cast of semi-familiar faces is like a retread of European-turned-American villain types: Sharlto Copley’s emotionally distraught engineer; Mykael Nyqvist’s stony chief engineer; Anamaria Marinca’s headstrong pilot. Expect to see these faces cast as the next generic euro trash baddie in a summer blockbuster near you. This is a talented cast, but a film so committed to scientific discovery leaves little in the way of characterization or cohesive pacing.

Or stylistic consistency, for that matter. Found footage seems like another thing to do now in contemporary populist cinema, like post-credit stingers or Zack Hemsey imitations. Much like my problems with Chronicle — I guess I’m bringing up a lot of dislikes here — Europa Report wants to have its found footage cake and eat it, too, conveniently shifting not just out of the onboard dash cams and helmet feeds but switching to full-on cinematic string-pulling with rises in the score, abrupt cuts for tension, even expressionist uses of distortion and feedback. Far be it from me to define “how” anything should or shouldn’t be used, but where’s the sense in found footage where there’s a line between diegesis and “reality?”

For what it’s worth, Embeth Davitz, Dan Fogler, and Isaiah Whitlock Jr. all comprise a shuttle planning team that would probably make for a more interesting film. 

8/22: Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

Smiles of a Summer Night

As Roger Ebert notes in his revisiting of Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 screwball comedySmiles of a Summer Night is an extremely autobiographical picture for the director — if not directly than very indirectly so. He writes:

Adultery was the great subject of many of Ingmar Bergman’s films and much of his life. He was married five times, and not very faithfully…

Perhaps it only speaks volumes of my own familiarity with Bergman, but this sharply written, quick-witted romantic comedy took me by surprise. Yes, Bergman’s construction and visual acuity isn’t as tight and assured as it would become in his later masterpieces; Bergman employs at least one tracking shot on the unfaithul Gunnar Björnstrand that seems uncharacteristically sloppy. What’s truly remarkable here is how the stereotype of Bergman’s sour interiority (at least as it exists in my mind’s eye) is still on display in such light material. Smiles’ penultimate dinner sequence, in which Eva Dahlbeck and Margit Carlqvist plot to swap lovers, sees its director find his way to heightened reality and dark psychology in a purely visual manner, with slow tracks in and expressions cloaked in chiaroscuro. Knowing, in hindsight, that Bergman’s masterworks The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries would both come but two years later now seems both impressively humbling and completely expected from such a limber auteur.

8/23: The Producers (1968)

producers

The UW Cinematheque and WUD Film wrapped their Ebert tribute series this summer with one of the late critic’s favorites. To crib, once again, from the critic:

The movie was like a bomb going off inside the audience’s sense of propriety. There is such rapacity in its heroes, such gleeful fraud, such greed, such lust, such a willingness to compromise every principle, that we cave in and go along.

I must agree with Mr. Ebert here. Beyond The Producers’ amorality, I was taken by its pure subversiveness. Mel Brooks’ ability to completely and utterly undermine any kind of value system whatsoever never feels like this musical comedy is biting the hand that feeds it. Instead, it’s making an absolute glutton of itself, chowing down while winking at us all the while.

8/24: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Shaun of the Dead

George Romero obviously popularized the notion of “zombie flick as sociocultural critique.” While Edgar Wright’s feature length debut isn’t as revelatory as a Night of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead borrows from Romero’s tropes while incorporating a rom-com sensibility in its escalation of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s dead-end “zombification.”

Frost’s pot-smoking, Time Splitters 2-playing fuckup of a roomie is clearly more far gone, but Pegg’s Shaun is headed down a similar path should he fail to change his ways. In its self-actualization of the latter and sacrifice of the former, Shaun of the Dead reunites its unlikely hero with his girlfriend (Kate Ashfield) and chains a zombified Ed to a game system in the shed. Perhaps some of us really are better off with our unsavory friends dead and buried. Erm, metaphorically speaking of course.

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