Monday, September 5, 2011

Telluride 2011, Day 3: Target; Shame; We Need to Talk About Kevin

Telluride '11 was still vibrant today, but the atmosphere could be felt slowly diminishing. I was hoping for the festival to continue to deliver indispensable cinema, and, in one case, it did. But my expectations for two of the three films I saw today weren't met, and I can now reflect that, while it has been quite a strong festival (as everyone has been saying), the programming hasn't been unimpeachable. (It is better than last year's NYFF, though, it must be said.)

I was surprised (but very happy) to see Alexander Zeldovich's "Target" among the official selection of Telluride this year. It seemed like a pretty gutsy move, a welcome push of the usual limits of the lineup, and, as a result, a lot of intrigue was created. I don't think that many people have liked the film that much, however, and it's easy to see why. The film takes a potentially gripping idea into pretty disturbing territory, leading to scenes that are embarrassing, disgusting, and deeply unnerving.

Since the film is about people who go to a radiated place to seek a solution to their problems (more specifically, to stop themselves from physically getting older), I was expecting something near Andrei Tarkovsky's provocative, humanist "Stalker." Zeldovich's movie plays as if Tarkovsky's work were transported into the future and remade by David Cronenberg and Richard Kelly. Instead of a more sensitive examination of this concept, Zeldovich has his characters go overboard with sexuality and violence. I know, as a fellow moviegoer informed me, this is a possible and not often used way of illustrating what could go wrong. My interest got detached somewhere along the way, as affairs take place and the plot devolves into moments of insanity. Though the film has some interesting flourishes in portraying a slightly dystopian future (immigrants are hunted as game and the freeways are full of trailers and nothing else) and a fun character who is talented at talking really fast, I often found what I was watching ridiculous. I know I've misunderstood this movie (a post-film discussion showed me how I went wrong). But to me it was tiresome and troubling in ways I couldn't quite get over. I'm not too keen on having a second viewing, though I doubt I'll ever get one, seeing as though distributors wouldn't have a fun time trying to get people to give it a go. C

Speaking of distributors, I saw representatives from various companies at the day's next film, which, judging from the packed house, seemed to be the most anticipated film of many people (it was mine). It'll be an easier sell than "Target," for sure. But there may still be some logistical issues getting it into a theater without passing on an MPAA rating. This was Steve McQueen's emotionally frank, graphically sexual "Shame." Though I don't think it quite tops his previous movie "Hunger," and though towards the beginning it's a little oblique, it's good enough to establish McQueen as one of the best directors of his generation.

This is especially because he is able to get such good work out of two actors that don't get used to their full potential in other hands. Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan are unquestionably better here than they've ever been before. It's also because he always finds art in the places in which he sets his films (using his extraordinary DP Sean Bobbit). Whereas "Hunger" was all filthy prison cells and urine-stained halls, "Shame" is full of the sleek windows and mirrors of offices and apartments. Brandon (Fassbender) sees himself divided as if by panes from the rest of humanity. He copulates and masturbates often, but always connects only on a physical level, unable to have a serious relationship and doomed forever to a shady private existence.

One day, coming home, he finds his sister Sissy (Mulligan, who alternates effectively between piercing and irritating) unexpectedly bathing in his apartment, although she insists she's called many times. Though she's a captivating singer (as one scene rather uncomfortably shows us), she has nowhere to stay. He reluctantly allows her to crash, though conflict is always around the corner. She comes to discover his erotic tendencies, and it only piles on the shame that Brandon has already been feeling. Also overwhelming him is his attempt at a serious relationship with a woman from work named Marianne (Nicole Beharie), the only time that we can see that he's ever been nervous around a sexual partner. The chemistry between Fassbender and Beharie is remarkable, especially considering the fact that McQueen often chooses to not cut away from their interactions and thus forces them to carry on their bantering with feeling for minutes at a time. The brilliant screenplay by McQueen and Abi Morgan fuels these conversations as well as the confrontations between Brandon and Sissy, giving the actors excellent material, making Brandon not the only character struggling with morality (take a look at his boss), and bringing the film to a perfectly chosen close.

I wish the film, McQueen, and Fassbender (best performance of the year, possibly) the best of luck at Venice when it comes to awards. "Shame" marshals great insight and discomfort, portraying a man who is unable to satisfy himself in any way, continuing to try certain methods, though, even as he pushes farther away from society and digs himself deeper and deeper into a hole, not seeing that guilt won't solve everything. A-

I caught a tribute to Tilda Swinton today, as well, my second of the fest (after the George Clooney one yesterday). Affixed to the end of it was Lynne Ramsay's "We Need to Talk About Kevin." Honestly, I don't understand exactly why this film was made. Adapted by Ramsay and Rory Kinnear from a book by Lionel Shriver, it shows a despicable character doing and saying horrible things, and provides really no explanation for this. It left me feeling very, very sad, especially since it has tapioca pacing and since it never for more than about 30 seconds alleviates its grueling tone. It eventually becomes just a string of bad events, so exasperatingly predictable you have to wonder why Ramsay didn't take a different path.

Swinton supplies a good acting job that goes sadly underutilized as Eva, the mother of the titular character (Ezra Miller), who takes a bow and arrow to school and attacks many students. We don't find this out until towards the end, as the film is scrambled (an approach taken in a similar way by its predecessor, Gus Van Sant's "Elephant"; Ramsay uses a visceral variation that ends up as one of the film's minor high points, even if she stumbles with it later on), dipping back from Eva's depressed present to moments that ended up defining her life. Kevin's motives are supposedly examined, though it just seems that he's pissed off that he exists and takes every opportunity to get back at his mother for bringing him into the world. I say this because he cried profusely as a baby and seemed to have been already resistant to Eva's child-rearing techniques. He does take a liking to his father, Franklin (John C. Reilly), but ultimately it appears to have been only to find another way to emotionally abuse his mother. It's painful to sit through this film, even if it has a couple of merits. I think Ramsay needed to have a talk herself about whether this movie was necessary to make. D+


Anonymous said...

Maybe you just don't understand, Nick.

Nick Duval said...

Maybe that's why I said "honestly, I don't understand" in the review? Didn't like that film very much at all, and I'm not in the mood to give it any more of my time.