10/13: Fargo (1996)
By now, Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) and her you betcha midwest accent have become synonymous with the state of
Minnesota Minneesohta. Marge is stuck investigating three seemingly related roadside murders and (eventually) tracing their twisting connections to twitchy Twin Cities car dealer Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy). William H. Macy plays Jerry as a flustered hole-digger, delightfully one step behind it all with his patience bursting at the seams of his tailored beige suits. Marge and Jerry — really anyone outside of Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare’s hired goons — and their hyperbolized shticks occasionally become tiresome in heated back-and-forths, but the Coens are mindful that the frozen playground they grouse in is sometimes in need of a cathartic laugh or two — especially amid Jerry’s ill-planned (and downright awful) plan to kidnap his own wife (Kristin Rudrüd) and extort his stingy DIY-er father-in-law (Harve Presnell) for the $750,000 he won’t loan Jerry to start his own business.
Coens Brothers regular Carter Burwell taps into an old country quality with his “Fargo, North Dakota,” and while this wildly successful crime drama probably doesn’t have a “theme song” per se, its as close to a title track as we’re going to get. With its processional, Scandinavian jangles, Burwell’s piece begins almost as a funeral march, building to a violent burst of melancholy through Brainerd’s snowfall. And oh, that snowfall. Characters stand transfixed against snowy backdrops and waddle, dejected, across empty parking lots. Disappointment peppers Fargo but there’s also the sense that this is all ensconced in some larger routine. Norms are to be respected — those of habit and those married to Chief Gunderson (John Carroll Lynch). Norm Gunderson insists one making Marge breakfast before her shift. Jerry’s father-in-law parks in front of the Gopher hockey game with a tumbler glass. Even whole conversations have a rhythm to them. (this is where that you betcha crap comes in handy.) The Coens bracket their dialogue with oh yahs and ah gees like sandwiches; its a handmade mechanism to drive along a faux-hostage ransom that’s remarkably similar to what would ensue (or not, I guess) in The Big Lebowski just two years later. The version of the midwest the Coens have crafted in Fargo doesn’t just feel lived in. It’s time-honored. Tradition.
On an episode of the excellent Auteurcast podcast, Rudie Obias and West Anthony interpreted a seemingly out-of-place scene between Marge and an old classmate as a spark in her character’s realization that people can bullshit. Ebert makes a similar observation in his first volume of The Great Movies, and Marge’s swift return to Jerry Lundegaard seems to confirm as much. But Marge’s inevitable conclusion doesn’t lead to vengeance or even anger in her suspects. Instead, she’s mildly despondent. When she bears witness to one crook’s unfortunate end via wood chipper, her reaction isn’t one of disgust but of a tepid disappointment. It’s not unlike a mother’s firm moral lectures to her child in the backseat. Of course, that’s just what Marge does as the snow falls in the rear window.
10/14: Blackfish (2013)
Blackfish gets its name from an American Indian term for the orca whale, one that expresses the animal’s power and majesty. On those qualities alone then, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary on the sordid inconsistent history of violence in captive killer whales is appropriately titled. Cowperthwaite bookends biological histories, legal cases, and eye witness accounts with an acknowledgement of the beast’s deeper spirituality, but it’s a quality she can’t fully reconcile with the brutal, inhumane realities behind several very real SeaWorld tragedies.
Those tragedies, however abbreviated by edits and the understandably limited availability of footage, make Blackfish an incredibly unsettling series of rises and denouements. One moment, which stops before the SeaWorld orca ‘Tilikum’ kills SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, is particularly chilling. Not only is the understanding between a trainer and her animal an uncomfortable one, but Brancheau, who died at 40 years old, was a seasoned instructor at the marine park. Cowperthwaite enlists talking heads — OSHA key witnesses, former instructors, marine biologists — to field several hypotheses that may explain seeming acts of random violence from the animals, but the mystery remains inevitably perplexing, especially given the killer whale’s reputation as a calm, even empathetic species. Blackfish can’t round out its Free Willy moments with a convincing indictment of the animal’s ferocious potential, but one expert’s “hands in the air” reaction over just how little has been learned about Tilikum’s psychosis in the past two decades is eminently frightening.
10/16: Captain Phillips (2013)
Paul Greengrass’ latest thriller begins with an awful dramatic fumble, but then rarely takes its finger off the bright red TENSION button. That fumble, an obnoxious airport ride between Catherine Keener and Tom Hanks’ Captain Phillips, clumsily lays out the film’s preoccupations with changing markets and a globalized economy. Escalation, really, and it’s escalation that drives Captain Phillips — both from where it’s coming and to ultimately where it leads.
While overseeing a cargo route from Oman to Mombasa, Richard Phillips’ U.S. cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, is overtaken by four pirates in a speedboat; their small crew is highlighted by a wonderful breakout performance from Barkhad Abdi as Muse. For the better part of two hours, Phillips attempts to outsmart, outwit, and outlast his captors through a series of clever tricks, distracting conversation, and secret communication to the Alabama‘s stowed away crew. Apart from strong communique with Shane Murphy’s first officer, Captain Phillips’ relationship with the rest of his crew is never unpacked. The hijacking happens so swiftly, hints of Phillips’ “hard ass” approach to managing crew and resources become standard, no-nonsense emergency protocol.
Greengrass, screenwriter Billy Ray, and, really, the “real-world” deserve credit for shirking the American “Hoo-ra” mentality when a mass of Naval forces descend upon Phillips, now trapped and held for ransom inside the Maersk Alabama‘s lifeboat. What began as a battle of wits between Phillips and Muse’s captain de facto flips to Muse against the might of an entire nation. And however awkward those first minutes are, the dire straits of Muse’s crew, desperate to repay an indebted warlord, speak volumes about economic disparities and a shifting table of global politics and third-world escalation.
Again, “escalation” is key here, but in the subtext and disappointingly less so in Greengrass’ direction. The directors two Bourne efforts hold up as popcorn entertainment because of their hyperactive qualities. In both films, Greengrass engineers a controlled level of mild panic that erupts in citywide car chases and rooftop rundowns. With Captain Phillips, a pursuit across the sea is tense enough with infinitesimal shot lengths and a generic throbbing score, but the open waters leave Greengrass’ style is left wanting without those pulse-pounding Matt Damon set pieces. The lump in one’s throat doesn’t go away, but Greengrass (admirably) tries for broader moments with the same mechanics. He’s superb at twisting your arm, but at heart, he doesn’t throw punches.
10/18: Re-Animator (1985)
Stuart Gordon wasn’t just cribbing from H.P. Lovecraft with 1985’s Re-Animator. Dr. Herbert West’s (Jeffrey Combs) pursuit of the re-animated man has an undeniable waft Mary Shelley, and Gordon engineers a kind of “Dr. Frankenstein” cult of personality around him. West’s antisocial, even downright mysterious presence is filtered through the perspective of fellow med student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) and his girlfriend (Barbara Crampton). At first little more than dull moral canvas, Dan’s begrudging acceptance of West’s radical research corrodes into outright lab assistance. It’s a choice that wreaks (ridiculously) disastrous consequences on Dan’s academic aspirations, inciting the erasure of his medical scholarship and, more essentially, the dissolution of ethical inhibitions.
With gore as vibrant as West’s bright green “re-agent” fluid, body horrors occasionally reach high enough peaks of grotesqueness that the ensuing shocks become humorous. A re-animated doctor’s eyeballs bulge from his sockets only to burst with blood. Dan’s “accidentally” killed tabby cat throttles its resurrector with the farcical ferocity of a Princess Bride rodent of unusual size. Key to these tonal balances is Combs’ surprisingly accomplished performance as a cool obsessive. Despite his insane ambitions, West still privileges human life, albeit to monstrous extremes. Combs rarely shies away from the character’s egotism, a man possessed by a drive to discredit the “brain death” research of Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), research West believes to be horribly outdated. As close of an antagonist as the story allows, Hill is cold and regressive, but he still harbors a secret desire for Dan’s girlfriend — a desire that carries over into a delightfully campy scene of seduction between the two. Er, between the one and a half. For all of its collegiate rigidity, Re-Animator‘s characters have an undeniable amount of passion left in them.
10/19: All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006)
After playing at several festivals in 2006 and 2007, Jonathan Levine’s horror (?) film All the Boys Love Mandy Lane sat on the shelf. Those waiting on bated breath to see Levine’s indie release finally got their chance outside the festival circuit when the film earned a limited theatrical release and video on demand this past October.
I drone on about Mandy Lane’s production history because it’s quite frankly the only interesting thing about it. Cut from a mold of generic summer slashers (signaled through its high school hedonism and seasonal choice, notably I Know What You Did Last Summer), Levine privileges personal high school relationships — namely filtered through an effectively mean-spirited high school mentality. Stoners and jocks alike toss around “faggot” and engage in douche bag bro humor, all vying for the affections of one, Mandy Lane (Amber Heard).
The ensuing machismo circus that plays out on a weekend trip at a classmate’s cabin — and then the murders start ahappenin’, meandering between spontaneous barn romps and jarring jump scares that ache with the director’s visual palette. That any critics might compare Mandy Lane’s incongruous visual language to early Malick is absurd. Levine’s sunny “magic hour” shots at dusk make for a telling precursor to his camera work in Warm Bodies, but the combination of Instagram-lite filters and telephoto lenses resembles a Trace Adkins music video before Days of Heaven.
From muddled half-thoughts on feminism to Mandy Lane’s clumsily-handled friendship with social outcast Emmett (Michael Welch), Mandy Lane’s nadir is an absurd final act reveal. Levine trusts we haven’t caught on to who’s behind it all, but what’s meant to be a gut punch is more of a “fuck you” to those still paying attention.