Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Jane Eyre (2011)

I had a suspicion that the simply astounding poster for "Jane Eyre" would trump the film itself, even though the ticket taker at my theater spoke enthusiastically of its exciting properties, but I wasn't sure by exactly how much. Having endured the film's tedious 2 hour length, I now know the difference in quality between the two works is quite large indeed. This is a plodding film, made by a director who I admire for taking a chance but also see as terribly misguided all the same. One could not imagine that the person who made "Sin Nombre," a very abrasive film, could possibly assemble a movie this dull. Filmmakers such as Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola have done disarming things with similar material, so the fact that Cary Joji Fukunaga brings little to the table is disappointing. And what he does have, he squanders with incompetent, at times risible, direction.

I admit, I say this with limited familiarity with the original novel by Charlotte Brontë. I know from a friend that the story is told in a more sequential manner there than here, and from scanning the opening page of the book that it is told in first person. The film adaptation changes both of these elements slightly, neither for the better. Screenwriter Moira Buffini jumbles the chronology, which produced for me a sort of disconnect to the story. On this same note, I didn't relate too much with the title character, who's sealed off from the audience. I'm guessing that the Brontë version worked better by not separating you from her, and maybe by having people identify with her more this movie could have been improved a bit.

The film is definitely helped, though not completely remedied, by the performances from Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender in the lead roles. Wasikowska, though looking uncomfortable at times (Fukunaga's fault perhaps?), plays the title character well as a quick-witted converser, traumatized by her past (involving Craig Roberts and Sally Hawkins playing against type) but wanting to move on and get some work. We learn, after seeing her taken in by missionary St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell), that her first job came as the governess of the estate of Edward Fairfax Rochester. Fassbender, though terrific and scene-stealing as always, seems to be getting accustomed to the role of the middle-aged guy who preys on the young girl and pulls back to a pre-made facade after this and "Fish Tank." I think it's a good thing that he'll be working again with Steve McQueen, who did the exceptional "Hunger," on "Shame."

How I'd much rather be viewing and talking about that film than this one. No matter. The house that she goes to live in includes an unrelated Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench) (whom, according to my friend, is toned down from the book and is seen her as an ally to Jane), as well as a young French girl named Adele (Romy Settbon Moore) whom Jane is teaching and a figure (to be revealed) who is producing noises and fires during the night. This is the backdrop for scenes where Rochester makes his affection for Jane clear and where he finds that even a man as high in stature as himself has to work sometimes for love. Their drawn-out courtship is frustrating as drama, disturbing when it becomes more prescient, and, at a later juncture, simply hilarious. This strikes me as a detrimental misconception on the part of the makers of the film, but who knows? Holy shit, maybe this is all some sort of crazy-ass stylization way ahead of our time!

There is beautiful nature shown in this film (from which a couple of nice compositions by "Sin Nombre" cinematographer Adriano Goldman are drawn), but it's underutilized, and viewers don't get to linger on it as they do in Campion's "Bright Star." A couple of man-made images linger: Eyre as a child lying on the floor cross-dissolved into a saucer of tea, as well as Eyre and Rochester lit by the fire. If Fukunaga had pushed more deeply on this front, and done without the old-fashioned score by "Atonement" composer Dario Marianelli, then possibly there would be more of the "reinvention" that the ads all professed this film to have. I mean, even though I was a little unsettled by these things, being inflicted with disquiet is far superior to being inflicted with boredom. C

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Outbound; Pariah (New Directors/New Films)

The combined quality of the two films I saw on this double feature, my first day at this year's ND/NF (the 40th anniversary edition), surpasses anything that I saw at last year's New York Film Festival (also hosted at Lincoln Center), suggesting that this may be ultimately the more worthwhile event. This is a festival where you can not only listen to the directors and casts talk about their works, but also meet them. The NYFF supplies distance between you and the creator of the art and thus makes it a bit less enjoyable.

"Outbound" (or "Periferic," as it's referred to in Romanian) by Bodgan George Apetri stands as an out-and-out masterpiece on the director's first go at full-length filmmaking. Technically flawless and brilliantly controlled, it lets us in on the story of Matilda, played by Ana Ularu, a Romanian cross between Milla Jovovich and Michelle Rodriguez in appearance but a much superior performer than either. She wants to leave Romania on her day leave from prison. She goes to her married brother Andrei (Andi Vasluianu), her sexual client Paul (Mimi Branescu from "Tuesday, After Christmas"), and her son Toma (Timotei Duma), trying to get cash and everything necessary to leave and never come back. As she moves along, the film beautifully unfolds, giving us details about the characters that ultimately form a fractured understanding. In this way, it is a cousin of "If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle," also shot by Marius Panduru and also about prison.

The film's formal prowess can be noted at any moment. It opens with one of the most arrestingly hypnotic images I've ever seen (involving rain), and cycles through follow shots, long takes, jump cuts, flashes of light, and more, displaying an incredible visual stylist at work. The cinematography, editing, and lighting all reach immense heights, but that's not the only great thing about this film. The actors pick up the slack and (for the most part) deliver excellent performances. If you could dock this film points for anything, it would be for the symbolism (like naming the proverbial ferryman out of Romania "Vergil") and parallels (the mother and the son), but in my opinion these add something to the film, perhaps a bit more of a pulse to connect with. And the handling of the ending may disappoint some, though to me it gives the film its most successful conclusion possible. "Outbound" is all you could hope for with a debut and one longs for Apetri to go onwards with his powerful skill, even though he could stop right here and have already had a worthy career. A

I also saw Dee Rees' short-film-adaptation "Pariah" in its New York premiere and first screening since Sundance, where it was picked up for massive distribution by Focus Features. For much of the running time, the movie is superb, a different kind of success than "Outbound." The film is told with an objective point-of-view, which provides the film with a nice flow but also may contribute to the movie's ultimate splintering off. We most prominently follow the symbolically named, closeted gay teenager Alike (Adepero Oduye), a great student who tries to navigate the social landscape of a New York where sexual orientation is over-classified. Her best friend Laura (Pernell Walker) is the most genuine person in her life, but she is shunned by Alike's mother (Kim Wayans). Speaking of Alike's family, only her sister (Sahra Mellesse) is supportive of her. Her overworked parents, nurse mother and detective father (Charles Parnell), pick up signals of her true nature but desperately want them not to be (though less her father than her mother, the former coming to accept, the latter stubbornly anti-gay). Her mother tries to set Alike up with another friend, Bina (Aasha Davis), but that turns out to be what neither mother nor daughter expected.

Despite being tritely scored, this is a strongly acted and written work, with many great scenes. It is magnificently photographed by Bradford Young (who won an award at Sundance for it), using focus in dazzling ways, and utilizing movement and camera placement to capture everything. (It must be said, however, that a friend nearly got sick at the film's constant motion.) This is complimented by the top-notch editing work by Mako Kamitsuna. But the film just doesn't go all the way, as the English teacher in the film urges the lead to do. It pulls back and goes for less of an ending than it probably could have, or perhaps doesn't validate its ending enough, or something. Whatever the case, "Pariah" doesn't jell above a scene-by-scene level. I don't mind that much, though, as it is plenty engaging and directed with talent, and I hope it success with audiences and awards bodies when it arrives in theaters towards the end of the year. B+

I will return on next Saturday to see Athina Rachel Tsangari's "Dogtooth"-esque trip "Attenberg" and Matthew Bate's Sundance competition documentary "Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure."

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Cedar Rapids

"Cedar Rapids" by Miguel Arteta claims to know what bullshit is, so it's kind of strange to me how it is unable to avoid being it itself. It has insight, but wrapped in a candy-colored, slapdash box, presented like the giver is reluctant about handing it to the receiver. I saw it with a Midwesterner, and felt a bit uncomfortable at the film's digs, but even so, it didn't hold up as a success under those circumstances. If it were a success, it probably would have. This is a film that aims somewhere between treacle and hardcore satire, and ends up just about shooting its own eye out. In this position, the slaps at Midwestern culture seem like half-hearted cheap shots, and the schmaltz (which deserves no mention alongside Frank Capra, the point of influence the critics have been using) doesn't even register. In its falling between sardonic and sentimental extremes, it, like "The Housemaid," doesn't ever manage to make a bond with its audience. Which is fine, I guess; the movie would think it was being too "gay."

We follow the exploits of Tim Lippe (Ed Helms, who admirably throws himself into the part), a dude with small ambitions, big-time prejudices, unconventional sexual partners, and an impassioned demeanor, cause that's just how Midwesterners do (so says this movie). He works at an insurance company, which has a track record of winning awards, and heads to Cedar Rapids after the suicide of his reputed fellow employee to preserve it. He wears the warnings and beliefs that have been ingrained in him by his boss (Stephen Root), told to stay with the good guys (like Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), keep off the trail of troublemakers (such as John C. Reilly, basically reprising his role of Dr. Steve Brule) and to keep his eyes on the prize. He soon is being flirtatious with Joan (Anne Heche), who uses Cedar Rapids as a place to get crazy away from her family. His relationship with her gives the movie its ideological heft (about how people aim for so little and are satisfied when they achieve it), but it proves even too revealing, as the film is guilty of the same crimes for which it calls its characters out.

Although the people around me when I saw it broke into literal hysterics, I don't think this is a particularly funny movie. Writer Phil Johnston, a relative amateur with only a couple of credits to his name on IMDb, makes all of his comic setups look choreographed and preconceived. He gives a couple people a couple of good lines, but that doesn't make up for the fact that he equates getting smashed and drugged up to being free (and doesn't try to critique that in the slightest). Because of missteps like this, someone really could make a parody of "Cedar Rapids." Though since it's as "derivative" and "mild" as Anthony Lane and J. Hoberman respectively called it, why would you? C

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Housemaid (Hanyo) (2010)

Im Sang-soo knows how to compose a shot and track forwards or backwards. He's truly talented with that. He's not so good, though, at sustaining any sort of interest, as "The Housemaid," his remake of a film made just over 40 years ago, is irritatingly dull in its slow crawl from scene to scene. I'm fine with slow movies, but there's scarcely a point for this movie to be one, and thus it is very boring. It's supposed to be "provocative," or something (that's what the ads and critics have been saying), but I'm pretty sure the only provoking that'll be happening will be the pinching administered to your arm to keep yourself awake.

I love unbelievable cinematography as much as the next man. More so, probably. But there are also some things that are more important than having your film look good. For example, it doesn't help much when you don't have ANY characters that you can relate to in the slightest. The main character in this film (played by Do-yeon Jeon) finds out information way after we do, and thus cannot really hold our attention. She's a maid who after a little while at her post starts being basically forced (via red wine) into having sex with the father of the family. It shouldn't be too much of a SPOILER, but she gets pregnant. The film would possibly be effective if it let us catch on to this as she did, but due to the film's objective POV (which attempts to pick up on all of the action in this household), we have already processed this information for quite some time before it comes as a revelation to her. A film similar in premise is Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer," which achieves wonders by putting the audience and the main character on the same level.

Back to the plot. The wife of course is pissed off when she finds out, when her (annoying) mother tells her because the experienced maid in the house informed on the main character. This makes little to sense as a plot device, as the experienced maid seems to be the only character that we have a chance at relating to. Then again, she basically tossed out all of her credibility as a believable character when flailed around in a random drunken rage. That leaves just about no one (except for the girl of the family, who's only a secondary character), unless you're about to sympathize with a lecherous man or petty grandmother. Me neither. Maybe I just knew too much coming in, or something, but this film didn't really connect with me. I wouldn't really risk taking the chance of it not connecting with you, either.

The film develops and develops, until it doesn't really matter what happens. We don't care about the characters, and thus we don't care about what they do. Simple as that. I wish I had spent my evening in a much different way than waiting it out through 106 minutes of unimaginative cinema like "The Housemaid." The camerawork is something to behold, but all the same, that can't be the only thing that's good about a movie. It's like eating a pie crust without filling inside it. C-

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Nostalgia for the Light (Nostalgia de la luz)

"Next to the stars in the sky, the troubles of Chile may seem insignificant. But if you laid them out on a table, they would be a galaxy."

"Nostalgia for the Light" made me think about astronomy in entirely different ways. It makes a parallel between the universe as a whole and the Atacama Desert, where much of a dark period in Chilean history took place and is preserved. By doing this, the film compares the history of humanity with the history of the individual (of those people missing relatives, and of director Patricio Guzman's own life and interests), and confronts massive, mind-blowing notions. It reminds one of films like "Waltz With Bashir" and "Shoah" in how it captures the human tendency to want both to look towards the future, to keep discovering, and also to throw away the past. As in those films, there are people who don't want to let go, who see how that would be even more catastrophic than enduring the catastrophe itself. "Nostalgia for the Light" stands like the bodies left in the Atacama as a way to hold onto history, and thus remains about as valuable as films can get.

The film is an ideological overload on first look, and close attention and repeated viewing is probably necessary. The entry point is the director, who was very into astronomy when he was young, when technological advancement was prided upon, before the political problems in Chile eroded these things. However, we learn this is not the only bad patch of Chilean history: the 19th century seems to be something that nobody wants to think about. This is so much the case that concentration camps were built atop the mines of that time, in an attempt to leave the period behind. Add to that the fact that those under Pinochet placed the corpses of people they murdered in the Atacama, leaving them both well-kept but at the same time infuriatingly decomposed. This has saddened the people who have looked and looked to find the remains of bodies that once housed people they once knew. To some, the shreds they find are cathartic, but to others, they only give to the desire to find something impossible to reach.

The film's overall craftsmanship is marvelous. The cinematography (contrasting the red, rough desert and the white, clean telescopes, as well as space, for further comparison) and the score are both resonant. I only criticize the director's decision to apply iMovie grade effects and (at times) conventional documentary techniques to the film, but, as a friend notes, neither hurts the film too much and both can be somewhat validated. "Nostalgia for the Light" consciously evokes a sliver of land and a country for most of its 90 minutes but at the same time, it opens out into the sky to survey our steps forward and our steps back, our history expanding and contracting again to one day leave us. "Nostalgia for the Light" makes sure that this won't happen in the present day. A