Sunday, July 31, 2011

Another Earth

Mike Cahill's "Another Earth" feels sort of tossed off. Maybe that was because the film got rushed for Sundance (if so, that decision paid off handsomely with a Special Jury Prize). Even if that wasn't the case, I wish Cahill had gotten more of a sense of what his movie was about. He has two winning actors in Brit Marling (his fellow screenwriter on the project) and William Mapother, and he and Marling have a potentially stimulating idea in having an exact copy of the Earth appear and be open to scientific and popular speculation. But they hardly explore what it really means to have another planet right there in the sky. I'm pretty sure tidal movements would be totally screwed up, not to mention orbits and all that jazz. We get the invasion angle, and the "what can that me tell me about me" angle (as humans are the same on that planet as well), but not really any satisfactory depth. It's woven into the plot in a way that makes sense, but at the same time it would have been cool to actually know more about it, instead of just having newsspeak thrown at us. And although I know the ending fits in with the processes of science and is somewhat sound on a thematic level, it feels rather like a cop-out, especially since a lot of great fiction has the protagonist eventually experience the mystery at the center of the plot, and as a result we do too. Not here.

As for what I experienced when I watched "Another Earth": I'm from the area where "Another Earth" is set and was shot, and perhaps I might have been more into the film if I hadn't been so distracted by the locations (Truffaut was right when he said that watching a film in a place you're familiar with is hard). Nonetheless, we plunge into the action in the suburbs of New Haven, as Rhoda Williams (Marling) drinks to celebrate her getting into MIT and then drives and, while taking her eyes off the road to take a look at the other Earth (as a radio broadcaster, DJ Flava, chimes in, one of the film's finest details), gets into a fatal crash where only she and the driver of the other car survive (a wife and a son are killed). This leads to her imprisonment (and thus her not going to college), which sends her into a state of intense depression (long walks and laying down in the snow naked are not out of the question), still hanging on her when she gets out four years later.

Working a menial job far below her possible trajectory, she goes to try to get the forgiveness of the other driver, a composer and ex-Yale-professor named John Burroughs (Mapother), but instead keeps quiet about the accident and atones in a different way, by cleaning his extremely messy house. The two are initially distanced, but they bond over Wii Boxing and discussions of the other planet. Soon, though, they do share profound things, like music played with a bow on a saw (not feasible, seemingly, but who knows?*) and an anecdote about a cosmonaut. You can see where this is going, but the tropes that the film employs sometimes do work, mostly do to the work of the leads. ALL of the actors in the film are superior to the script with which they are supplied. Better writing could have led to a great success.

There are scenes that really work, but as a whole, the film has trouble with justifying its existence. In retrospect, it just barely does, but there are sections of the film that don't go far in giving the film any point (other than the somewhat shallow notion of "can I learn from me"; I'm more interested in the film's idea of "how would I confront me"). Ultimately, "Another Earth" is not really in the right hands, and as a result lacks the muscle and cohesion it takes to tell a story like this. C+

*I learn from @SawLady on Twitter: "Playing music on a saw is totally possible." Here's the link she provided to the NYC Musical Saw Festival, an amazing-sounding event. Also, if you want to know what the fuss is about regarding the saw in this film, go here to the other link she gave.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Myth of the American Sleepover

I don't think that the story threads in the jam-packed, affecting "The Myth of the American Sleepover" are all uniformly strong. However, writer/director David Robert Mitchell has united them with strong cinematography, exceptional editing (very valuable), and impressive execution. Here is someone who knows what he's doing. The precision here is undeniable, from the intimate aspect ratio to the way that he creates interest by staggering events (time is not linear; we cut back to the same moment as experienced in different places). There will be some people that won't be as disarmed as I was by this film, but I'd bet there's a contingent of folks who will elect to skip this film without knowing the craft involved. I hope those people don't miss out.

The film takes place in the waning days of a supposedly disappointing summer. School approaches with its constrictions, and it seems the only way to really escape now is to have a sleepover. Thus, many such gatherings are held, and everyone around is going to one or the other, with a few people roaming, searching desperately for fun and (possibly) love.

Most of the characters are well shaded, leaving those that aren't sticking out (such as the new girl who stumbles into trouble probably due to her being under the influence of alcohol) like sore, stereotypical thumbs. That being said, Mitchell manages to elicit at least a couple good moments in all of the different passages. A few times, he strikes gold, like when he makes the brilliant choice of cutting between girls and boys talking about the same memory. Or when he has a difficult confession play out in a way adeptly designed enough to distract you from the (possible) blatancy of the situation. (Judging from photos on IMDb, he bears a resemblance to this character, a troubled college grad; perhaps the scene is drawn from personal experience. Much of the film could be.)

The various parties range from the interior type where people play games and watch porn to the exterior style where people swim, dance, and lounge on the shore and on rowboats. The latter is supposedly better suited for those who are older, but, as one guy at that party muses, sometimes older teens wish they could go back to the more juvenile days. This is what the title refers to, that people grow old without wanting to be where they used to be (this isn't true). Not, as some have thought, that kids don't really drink or do drugs at parties (they do, according to this film).

Mitchell is a talented scenarist who, if he works out the minor kinks in his writing, has the potential to make some incredible films. He's got the technical facets down, with an eye for lighting and a feel for music (knowing for the most part how to employ potentially cloying music). Even if it falls slightly short of greatness, "The Myth of the American Sleepover" is memorable, with engaging incidents and characters. B+

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Man Who Fell to Earth (Uncut 35th Anniversary 35mm Print)

A film of startling narrative incoherence, Nicolas Roeg's "The Man Who Fell to Earth" made me even less of a fan of its director than before. I had previously seen "Walkabout," and I wasn't too impressed by it, though the fact that the disc I had seen it on was scratched may have had some effect on my patience for the film. It would be hard to deal with "The Man Who Fell to Earth" under any circumstances. It's 139 minutes long (20 minutes lengthier than the previous theatrical cut; the Criterion edition has always been this long), but it doesn't really use that time in a productive way, as it could have if it were a more focused epic. Instead, it's full of ridiculous clutter, so much so that Roeg would have to go back to the drawing board to really make any sort of success. What could have been piercing comes out bland, tedious, and amusing in perhaps a bad way when it's not utterly insane.

Many seem to love this film. To have any such affection for this film, you'd have to give yourself over to it, and, in my opinion, that's very hard to do. Sure, you could appreciate its mildly humorous flourishes, but that's very little to go on. The film has passages that are absurd beyond reason, especially the various sex scenes (the one with the gun full of blanks and the alien-on-alien action are simply risible, despite a friend's pretty solid theory for the latter), and it's nearly impossible to keep track of what's happening beyond a certain point.

At the same time, I'm having a hard time dismissing the film. It's probably because of the hype, or maybe because I love David Bowie's music. I guess it could be because there is some commendable essence here, elicited at times by Anthony B. Richmond's photography. Ultimately, though, no matter how I look at it, the film doesn't work. It's hard to care about the character because his backstory is portrayed in such unappealing ways and also because of the general disorder of the film.

Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Newton, the titular character who has apparently developed patents on his home planet in order to apparently get rich and be able to get back, supposedly with water. (This is all slightly unclear to me.) He's taken on a British persona, even though he doesn't even know the motto of the Royal Guard, and he's often extremely dizzy when traveling fast (he has trouble riding in elevators and traveling faster than 30 mph on the road).

He does indeed make a whole lot of money. He appoints the lawyer he met (Buck Henry) the president of the company he founds and travels out to New Mexico (which is where he crash-landed originally) to apparently scout out a location to build a facility. There, he meets Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a hotel maid with whom he develops a relationship (despite a supposed spouse at home). She's the one who (as has much been remarked upon) gets him to drink alcohol instead of water, which is not a good thing at all. Screenwriter Paul Mayersberg (adapting Walter Tevis' novel) could have worked better with this, but instead develops it only slightly, making it feel banal and as weak as the rest of the film.

Also a fixture in the plot is Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), who's both a sexually predacious professor and a thermal photography buff. He gets fired for horrible class reports and his antics, and comes on board at Newton's World Enterprises. Though he comes to be a little more important later on, a fixture is really all he seems to be, perhaps acting as kind of an audience entry point. I don't really know, having possibly forgotten (this film is hardly indelible outside of its ineptitude).

Roeg definitely tries to do some crazy things with the movie, made relatively early on his career. He punctuates the film with abrupt bursts of ironic music, gives random characters narration tracks, tries to document the New Mexico landscape like he did the Australian outback, and goes for broke with outlandish characterizations of extraterrestrials. These things didn't pay off for me, in the same way the atrocious makeup didn't. I was reminded of "Synecdoche, New York," a similarly big-scale and meticulously art-directed production that was assembled in a much better way than this one. Thus, Charlie Kaufman's soared while Roeg's sank.

Do I misunderstand this movie? Possibly, but it frustrated me and not in a pleasant way. It's one of those where nothing technically is really top-of-the-line but it seems like it could possibly make do anyways. It really doesn't, though. I have to say that if you admire the works of any of the participants, you're better off just skipping it, because your perception could be forever altered. I'm really not too sure what to think; it's difficult in the lack of solid redeeming qualities to be found. But, as you can see, even if it's a little imprecise, what I can put together is hardly positive. D


"Tabloid" illuminates a story that makes very little sense unless very carefully told. Joyce McKinney, the person at the center of the events, seems like she's happy to tell the story over and over again until someone finally believes what she considers to be "the truth." Her interview, which anchors Errol Morris' film, is invaluable, as it gets us as close as we can get to the case which has been termed "The Manacled Mormon," even if her view on the matter is extremely one-sided and filtered through a fairytale-esque vision.

Without her, "Tabloid" would be a mediocre documentary, likely to end up on some specialty channel on TV. (The film is also flawed technique-wise, using fadeouts to a distracting degree.) But the film would be of similar quality if it featured only her. So Morris supplies outside opinion such as reporters from two tabloids who covered her story, an "accomplice" in her scheme, and an ex-Mormon missionary. This mix paints as full a picture of the situation as possible.

Renowned for being (apparently) extremely smart and beautiful, McKinney went to Utah when what seemed like a matchmaking opportunity opened up. She fell in love with Kirk, who she didn't know was Mormon. After hitting it off really fast and getting engaged, Kirk apparently left without any notice and sent Joyce on a wild goose chase to find him, resulting in her "rescuing" him from the Mormon religion and trying to trigger his supposed love of her via some unconventional techniques.

"Tabloid" goes on to cover how what happened was snapped up by the news and how McKinney was forced into stranger and stranger situations as a result. Since it goes full-bore into the story (as is per usual for Morris), those who are alienated by the idea should stay away. For those drawn in, though, it could prove to be an engaging documentary experience, something that many folks find to be pretty rare. I think it's definitely diverting, but in the context of the strongest recent docs it doesn't stand out all that much. B

Friday, July 22, 2011

Project Nim

James Marsh's "Project Nim" has admirably incredible access to the saga of Nim Chimpsky, and raises some interesting questions, making it an easy early favorite for Best Documentary as well as a film that a lot of non-documentary-junkies will pick up and enjoy. However, in my opinion, it's far less sweeping and engrossing than Marsh's tremendous previous documentary "Man on Wire," and more a movie, despite some fumbling of style and technique, to appreciate than to love.

The subject of the film was first brought to my attention when I was milling about in a bookstore. It sounded pretty lame (what with the name they gave the chimpanzee in question) and I never looked into it more. However, when a strong filmmaker puts a focus on something, one is given incentive to take notice. "Project Nim" chronicles events that really seem to play out a lot better visually anyways.

Nim was a chimp who was wrenched from his mother when he was young. Used in an experiment by an extremely controlling professor, Nim was given to a family to be raised as a human being and to be taught sign language in the hopes that he could put sentences together. However, the professor didn't see what he was getting the chimp into, as the mother Stephanie was less interested in furthering the process of the experiment and more interested in raising the chimp as a part of her vibrant family. Her notion of parenthood seems a little perverted, though, since she both breast-fed and supplied alcohol and marijuana to her simian charge. The whole situation was bizarre, and apparently detrimental to both the family (only two of its many members allowed themselves to be interviewed) and the experiment itself. After a more specialized sign language teacher Laura came into the mix (whom the professor desires, along with Stephanie previously), the professor became inclined to move Nim and the observation to an exurban Columbia University mansion and a classroom. This is where he stayed until he became more and more strong and less and less compatible with human beings.

The film, in its later passages about which I will not go into detail, shines a light on how we think of "animal cruelty": once people anthropomorphize, they start to think differently about the "feelings" of that particular animal. If we're going to think about one case like that, it's only fair to think about all other animals the same way. It gets a little complicated, and justice can't really be ever served. Despite the fact that the experiment yielded results about how manipulative chimps can be, this examination was never really a good idea, and it ended up causing a lot more harm it seems than benefit.

"Project Nim" doesn't sustain itself well for 93 minutes, and it ends up at some point seeming like a bunch of talking heads over endless footage. Not necessarily a bad thing, but I can't say my attention was held from beginning to end. Plus, Marsh makes certain elements that fit well in "Man on Wire," such as the dramatic re-enactments, feel precious in a bad way. Nonetheless, it's a decent success, and will surely appeal to at least some audiences. B

Thursday, July 7, 2011


"Green" by Sophia Takal has the opposite problem of one of the three main characters, Robin. While she constantly (though maybe in the interest of trying to be polite) overstays her welcome, the film that she's in ends up being way too short at 75 minutes. It offers up a lot of interesting ideas about social structure, but doesn't go about explaining them to the extent that it should. This and the fact that many elements of the film feel strained are its biggest problems. If only these issues had been fixed somehow.

The film takes place almost entirely in a small town (possibly in Pennsylvania, judging from a license plate), opening with its only scene set in New York. We come in medius res, as people heatedly discuss Philip Roth and Proust. The camera darts between various angles before settling on Genevieve (Kate Lyn Sheil), who will continue to be examined throughout the movie. This seems like a strange way to start things off, but we come to see how it establishes the dearly held intellectual status of Genevieve and her boyfriend Sebastian (Lawrence Michael Levine), her moderate distance from him, and how their life is full of consistent social interaction.

After this, the action moves to the rural home where the two are subletting for around a year as Sebastian writes an article about sustainable farming. They seem to think they're alone, and thus prepare themselves for a particular sort of intimacy. But soon, their neighbor Robin (played by writer/director Takal) comes stumbling into the picture. The way that Takal integrates her character into the plot exhausts credibility as much as her put-on Southern sounding accent does (you definitely can see from this interview that her voice is nothing like the one in the film). The difference in attitude of Genevieve and Sebastian regarding Robin from the first to second scenes struck me as kind of odd. However, it's a testament to Takal's much-remarked-upon strength as an actress that she can somehow make Robin into more than just a stereotype, even as at the same time she explores the way that both of the Manhattanites see her as one.

Robin again and again seems to be prying into their lives, offering to go on walks with them and show them around the town (though it's usually just with Genevieve) and becoming a regular at their table. Although Robin seems to get at a fun side in Genevieve's personality (eventually getting her to reveal certain personal stories), Genevieve feels her time slightly more and more disrupted. This happens especially when she starts to pick up on undertones of romance between Robin and Sebastian (which I took to be entirely imagined until the very end of the film, which I think Takal misplays). This she takes as an insult to her pronounced braininess.

Her intense disdain for Robin and her supposed mental incapacity comes out in the film's strongest scene (both thematically and technically), when, during a lunch, she asks Sebastian about returning to New York to attend an art show. Done in an unbroken take where the camera moves back and forth across the table, at times resting on Robin but seeing her as more a catalyst than a participant, this scene is the movie's most successful distillation of the tension between the three characters. It showcases Genevieve's iciness and quickness to laugh, Sebastian's abundance of humor, and Robin's knack for (perhaps strategically) saying things at the wrong times. It's in moments like this that "Green" excels.

It helps that Takal has a real eye for good dialogue (especially for Levine, who ironically supposedly is her fiancee in real life), arresting images (the transposition-heavy campfire scene is a stunner), and engaging techniques (the voiceover conversations between Genevieve and Sebastian are strong). Her main cinematographer Nandan Rao (Benjamin Nicholas and Kim Takal did additional photography, making it slightly hard to tell who shot what) creates a lot of nice compositions in the forest that often have interesting facets of focus. I'm less hot but still somewhat appreciative of the work of her composer Ernesto Caramo, who makes transitional textures that sound often like noises of aliens. The best job is done by the sound designer Weston Fonger, who makes certain features of the sound come out very palpably and thus produces an additional layer of friction between the leads.

What the director doesn't have down is how to put together the introverted and extroverted components of her story. Within each of the modes, the scenes jell quite nicely, but when Takal wants to switch from personal to public, the film feels awkwardly put together in a way that sort of screams Mumblecore (and probably actually is, due to the film's extremely small looking budget and type of content). This is a hitch that, along with the other flaws noted above, hurts the film as a whole. If Takal can avoid these weaknesses in the future (and maybe hire an editor other than herself), she could be an extremely strong filmmaker. B-