Monday, October 31, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene; Tyrannosaur; Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Philadelphia Film Festival)

I saw two of these three as part of the Philly Film Festival, but "Martha Marcy" (which is now technically in its general release) played earlier in the fest so it's valid in rounding up here. I saw about 15 minutes of "House of Tolerance" (or "Pleasures," whichever you wish to call it), but I walked out so I could catch the end of Game 7 between the Cardinals and the Rangers. Much more interesting, as far as I could tell.

Sean Durkin has made one of the year's most propulsive, engaging films with "Martha Marcy May Marlene." Yet despite being so magnetic, it falls far, far short of being a great film. Durkin is a phenomenal director when it comes to look and atmosphere, but he stumbles mightily in the area of screenwriting. He fails to develop the plot to a satisfactory degree, and thus is unable to reach the heights he's more than capable of achieving.

Martha (Elizabeth Olson), who joined a cult due to her lack of a stable family (and who was renamed Marcy May), ultimately gets fed up and leaves to lay low with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who's on vacation in Connecticut. But Martha's flashbacks and cult-induced tendency towards uncouth behavior quickly start to alienate Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), and Martha's future seems uncertain.

The film's depiction of the cult is unsettling and riveting, full of many beautifully observed details (the men eating as a group, then the women) and POV quirks (rituals are seen from Martha's eyes). But it would be nice if there was just more there, since when the film comes to a close, we feel as if we only caught a glimpse of this faction. When you have John Hawkes at his absolute best, it's a pity to underuse him. (He does have one particularly extraordinary scene, where he sings and plays on guitar a tune called "Marcy's Song.") And Olson's work calls for more as well.

The film's strongest element is its overwhelming technical prowess. Jody Lee Lipes and Zachary Stuart-Pontier do incredible jobs with cinematography and editing, respectively. Though sometimes Lipes uses the wrong lenses in the wrong places, he accomplishes a stark, rattling visual style. And Stuart-Pontier's deft cross-cutting between the present and the past borders on too good at times-- editing usually isn't this seamless anymore. Yet Durkin confuses the pieces he has for a full puzzle when indeed there are some big holes that aren't filled. Thus, though it impresses in spades, "Martha Marcy May Marlene" isn't a full enough work. B-

Paddy Considine's "Tyrannosaur," is a cohesive film, but feels banal and unassured in ways that Durkin was able to avoid. A drunkard named Joseph (Peter Mullan), depressed after kicking his dog to death and being persecuted by the goons of the store owner whom he annoyed, looks for some support in the form of Hannah (Olivia Colman). In his abrasive way, he at first insults Hannah's naivete and devout Christian piety but eventually forms a strong bond with her. She needs some emotional aid as well, seeing that her husband James (Eddie Marsan) is a violent, manipulative, despicable version of his former self.

If it weren't for Colman's magnificent supporting performance, this movie wouldn't be moving in the slightest. It's still not that affecting, but Colman gives it all she can give. Considine does her and Mullan (solid as well) absolutely no favors, soundtracking the film as if it were a folly and piling on disaster after cliche disaster with the grace of a Disney auteur. If I still favored Jim Sheridan over Terence Davies (who, admittedly, did come to mind during this film's better moments), I think I would enjoy this. No dice. C

Nuri Bilge Ceylan has one of the most distinctive eyes in cinema today. Neither of the films of his that I've seen ("Distant" and "Climates") ever caught up to their images. "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" perfectly illustrates why the man should stick to photography or video art and stop with the pretense of making feature length narrative motion pictures. None of the film's rambling philosophy or stilted, patently unfunny comedy ever rings true in the way a single still does. What would have been nice if all of these images had been his, but in fact, Ceylan lifts a whole lot from the canon of Abbas Kiarostami: the use of the zigzag landscape, dashboard cam, the apple rolling from the tree downstream just like the can does in "Close-Up."

Despite these problems, Ceylan has still made a somewhat interesting film with great shots and many memorable, well-defined characters (a prosecutor, a driver, and a police chief among them). It follows a convoy of police officials as they drive around looking for a buried body at the mercy of the captured killer. In a regular film, this section would only take up a fraction of the film. The body would be found and that would be that. But Ceylan decides to devote 120 of 150 minutes on it, and thus incites us into thinking more about this process. I don't think much comes of it at the end, but it's a solid approach. Ultimately, it's less about what happens to the suspected killer and more about what happened to the body and the family of the deceased.

I was rather annoyed with the film's main character, a righteous doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) who seems to be solving everyone's problems and having all sorts of profound psychological quieries. I think most people who can take this guy will enjoy the movie, and those who can't (like me) will be less likely to appreciate it. As for Ceylan, he's becoming a director like Nicolas Winding Refn whose films I like in theory but not all that much in practice. It always seems like he's aspiring to far less than he could. C+

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Take Shelter

I'm often very into performance-driven, high-concept works like Jeff Nichols' "Take Shelter." Unfortunately, this film doesn't reach the same heights as its peers due to patchy screenwriting and a dreary rhythm. But it does feature one of the best performance work of the year: a sweaty, committed piece of acting by Michael Shannon, working as the film's borderline schizophrenic lifeblood. He's not always fun to watch, but the film would be rendered ineffective if he were. Seeing him go for broke, it's hard not to be disappointed in Nichols for not coming through.

"Take Shelter" follows about a week in the life of Curtis LaForche (Shannon), a satisfied family man and construction worker, as he gets increasingly freaked out by his dreams and hallucinations of inclement weather (possible symptoms of the insanity that's continued to plague his institutionalized mother since her 30's). Trying to prevent horrific damage, he ends up threatening his relationship with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain), who's already somewhat occupied making life nice for her deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). She's not too happy about his spending money (even taking out a loan) on a decked-out tornado shelter when the family could be saving up for a summer in Myrtle Beach. But for Curtis, survival is the only thing worth thinking about.

This potentially brilliant scenario proves to be too tricky for Nichols to pull off. For one, the writing often just isn't there. The final storm scene is an example of when tension can be a bad thing; Nichols draws it out way too far and ends up making a heavy-handed fool of Jessica Chastain. Her part in particular suffers throughout the film. Nichols' debut work, "Shotgun Stories," was centered around father-son conflict and featured primarily male actors. Perhaps that's why "Take Shelter"'s treatment of Samantha doesn't fully work?

Also, Nichols doesn't examine the storm in the fullest way he possibly could have. The film does make a connection between money and the storm, but all the same, the idea of it representing the economic crisis is a bit too muted. But, on an even more fundamental level, fascination with storms (separate from worry), which propels many a storm chaser, is left somewhat in the dark as well. I must say though that the way in which Nichols implements a possible and much-remarked-upon religious angle (displayed in by far the film's best scene, when Curtis vehemently preaches to a stupefied cafeteria, as well as in the fact that Curtis is in his 30's) is ace. But all-in-all, "Take Shelter" is too locked-down for its own good. Nichols may have had to sacrifice some of the intensity, but perhaps it would have been a better film if he had opened it up a bit. B-

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Michael (Philadelphia Film Festival)

Both the champions and detractors have a point. Cannes competition entry "Michael" is by no means a perfect film, and director Markus Schleinzer may not have entirely dealt with some thorny morality problems. But at the same time, he aggressively evokes both space and sound to put you alongside the characters. He also decides not to show any of the explicit content, only leaving suggestions of what happened. By doing this for us, he prepares us for hints at even more upsetting possibilities.

The film centers on the pedophile titular character (Michael Fuith), who has imprisoned a (sadly nameless except in the credits) boy (David Rauchenberger) in his house behind retractable shutters, soundproofing, and barricaded doors. He feeds the kid and lets him watch television, but he also does unspeakable things to him. And he wretchedly stamps out the child's forms of escape (storing all the letters he's written to his parents in a hidden box).

Though one scene may have shown Michael having a cry, there's no indication of ethics for him. He apparently can go on with his life without moral reproach (which is emphasized via religion). So one has to wonder: what happened to him as a kid? What led to this despicable man? At the film's ending (sure to be extremely divisive), we see members of his family, but they seem completely oblivious to the horrific depths to which Michael has plunged.

Another query Schleinzer is raising is: how does the rest of the world view pedophiles? Obviously they're detested, but what about when people don't know who they're dealing with? Michael is an insurance person, and he talks on the phone a lot with many people. It reminded me of the Mr. Show sketch with the rapist who has to identify himself as one everywhere he goes. But this is the real world, and that doesn't happen.

Since Schleinzer tries to make the style as cut-and-dry as possible, the way he sequences the events is the channel through which we sense his judgment. The ending is probably most prominent in sensing what he's trying to say, as it's incongruous in a natural sequence. I would agree that the ending isn't handled in exactly the best way possible. A friend called it manipulative and that it is. But it also sheds some light on mothers and sons in general, as well as a terrifying semi-absolution. At 96 minutes, "Michael" is short and insubstantial. It definitely has its problems. But it does have some things to say, with impeccable craft to say them with, and it does a good job of taking apart every bit of Michael's life. B

Saturday, October 15, 2011


The indie cause celebré of the moment, Kenneth Lonergan's eventually tiresome yet often extraordinary "Margaret" has gained a large amount of champions who profess about its nearly-lost greatness. The film went through some terrible post-production problems when it was being completed a few years ago, and almost never hit screens. And even now, the distributor Fox Searchlight is said to be not marketing the film with the gusto that is usually employed. But what can you really say? This is an 150 minute film that was originally intended to be over three hours long, the title an obscure reference to a poem that's read quietly by Matthew Broderick, and the plot one full of loose ends and scenes that don't exactly match up with each other.

But, for the first hour and a half or so, the film feels like one of the strongest works in a while. These sections may be scattershot, but they're extremely enjoyable, brilliantly composed, and dexterously made. Lonergan shows remarkable economy in his storytelling: seeing the main character, Lisa (Anna Paquin, who does histrionic well), in a couple scenes at school, and one with a suitor named Darren (John Gallagher, Jr.), we already feel like we have a good idea of this character. More depths are uncovered, to be sure, but a very solid foundation indeed is laid down here.

Then the central incident of the movie occurs: Lisa gets into a gestural back and forth with a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), which distracts him and leads to him running a red light. He hits and kills a woman (Allison Janney), whom Lisa tries to save and whose cause she ends up taking for the remainder of the film. She aggressively pursues getting the bus driver ousted from his job, which seems noble and all except for the fact that it'd probably destroy his life. Lisa never thinks at all about this, and, though her Broadway actress mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) originally says something (which, as a friend pointed out, is eventually ruled out in an inconsistency), no adult does either.

The film rips through scores and scores of characters on its way, but I don't think any work as well as the ones found in Lisa's private school. Broderick plays an English teacher there, but there's also Matt Damon as a geometry teacher Lisa is a bit too close to, and a whole bunch of talented teen actors who take Lonergan's script and run with it. The movie is at its best in its most trivial scenes, the ones that have really no consequence in what's happens ultimately, but do in fact sometimes comment on the action. These are the scenes that, when cutting a film down, are the first to go (I'll bet Lonergan probably had more of them in the director's cut), but, even though this film would be better if it was tighter and shorter, I would hate to have missed them.

Perhaps the biggest problem here, in my view, is not allotting more time to Ruffalo's character. He's only given two scenes to make his character, and he does a very good job of it, but there needed to be more. The film splits its perspective between Lisa and her mother Joan (going out dates with a bore played by Jean Reno), and it would have been nice to have a share of time to Ruffalo as well. Instead, the film takes on the annoying Emily, the accident victim's closest friend, as a main character, which turns out to be an incredible mistake. As Emily, Jeannie Berlin, Elaine May's daughter and an Oscar nominee back in the '70s for "The Heartbreak Kid," turns in a terrible performance, making a lot of hand motions and yelling in what can only be described as a Upper West Side Jewish Woman stereotype. Her scenes, coming towards the end, are lazily directed, and it's disappointing that the film goes through all it goes through just to lose its focus. That may be a result of the production issues, but I still bemoan it, especially since the film's final scene, an opera shared by mother and daughter, would have had a resounding emotional impact if placed correctly but, forestalled for this long, doesn't work nearly as well. B-

Thursday, October 13, 2011


*If you want to go into this film cold, I would suggest not reading this review and waiting until after you've seen it to see what I have to say. There's a level of detail I want to go into that having to dodge spoilers prevents. I also reveal plot information about other films by Lars Von Trier. Of course, just in case you're curious and read on anyways, I've supplied a plot summary.*

Lars Von Trier continues to deal harshly with humanity in his work. "Dogville" saw the vindictive main character massacre the residents of the town that brutally mistreated her. "Antichrist" (which I have yet to see in its entirety, fwiw) was not shy in its violent sexual content. And in "The Five Obstructions," he subjected a former hero of his, Jorgen Leth, to tortuous filmmaking exercises in order to prove that the man who made "The Perfect Human" was not indeed perfect. I'm not critical of his employment of these (in some light, perhaps) nihilistic events, however. In continuing to wield a heavy hand, Von Trier sheds light on some unsavory attributes of mankind: our capacity for horrible acts and our burning need for closure and revenge, mostly. He may be obvious (he's been criticized for it), but his output is all the more powerful for it.

In "Melancholia," Von Trier settles on obliteration as the fate of his leads (and, to be sure, all the souls on Earth). And this time, though I can definitely admire his precision and control with his ideas, it's hard for me to say what he's doing. The people of the world are seriously down in the dumps, and things are not helped by a planet called Melancholia crashing right into the Earth. I get that. But the purpose of the movies that came before feels a lot less present. Von Trier seems to think he's making a parable (he's limited the setting to an expansive mansion in the middle of nowhere and its surroundings, and limited the events to a wedding and a visit not soon after), but the key element, the lesson or statement, was neglected.

Yet, as I noted before, on a surface level I liked what LVT was doing. Ultimately the film is structured around the decision to have the world end or not. I found the last image of the film incredibly cheesy. That being said, the film would have possibly felt like a surrender to convention if the director hadn't had the determination to orchestrate such a explosive moment. LVT's level of control and detail is also enthralling: he focuses intensely on the ensemble cast, though especially on Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg (who have marked sections of the film dedicated to their characters, Justine and Claire). The film also looks beautiful, courtesy of the glossy, intoxicatingly lit cinematography by Manuel Alberto Claro.

The movie follows Justine (Dunst, who won Best Actress at Cannes for her punishing work) from one of the highest heights of human elation (getting married) to one of the lowest lows (severe depression). One of the first scenes, where her wedding limo gets caught on a narrow road on the way to the reception, shows her laughing with her husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). But as she arrives (late) to the party (filled to the brim with characters) and carries on increasingly more slugglishly with the elaborate proceedings set up by her overplanning sister Claire (Gainsbourg, who won Best Actress at Cannes two years ago for appearing in a Von Trier work), things are clearly wrong. In the sky, this is mirrored: the stars get out of line, and Melancholia looks to be coming closer (indicated by Claire's rich and astronomy-fancying husband John, played by Kiefer Sutherland).

This is an interesting scenario, purposefully directed as stilted and made ever the more drawing by the opening barrage of possible outcomes at the end of the world (i.e. you want to see the route between Point A and Point B). But in the end, it's not a whole lot more than that, and thus I will forget it a lot sooner than I will other cinematic creations by Von Trier. The precision on display should be appreciated, but to me that doesn't mean all that much in the end. C+

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Separation; Miss Bala (New York Film Festival)

Unable to catch "A Separation" by Asghar Farhadi at Telluride, I relished my second chance to see it, this time at the 49th New York Film Festival. I'm not sure if the film as a whole is quite as good as many have been professing it to be, as there are a few kinks that I wish were worked out. But I was definitely dazzled by the acting and the screenwriting. It took me a little while to get into, but once I was engrossed, it played superbly.

Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to leave Iran with her child Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), but her husband Nader (Peyman Moaadi) feels that his daughter should live with him. He sees his father (Ali-Agshar Shahbazi), though pretty far gone with Alzheimer's, as still worth building his life around, and thus he continues to stay rooted. However, with his wife gone, he has to find someone else to make sure his dad doesn't have problems while he's at work. He settles on Razieh (Sareh Bayat), who has a daughter named Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini) and another kid on the way. We see her as faithful to the job (despite her religious qualms that she calls a hotline to address), but also a little careless, and when Nader comes home one day, he gets extremely upset and ends up forcefully throwing Razieh out of his house. She ends up in the hospital for having a miscarriage, and Nader is charged with murder, at the behest of Razieh's troubled husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), whom Nader tried to hire for his care-taking spot at one point as well.

The film examines how people, under pressure, do disagreeable things to help their loved ones. Nader is looking out for his daughter, and Razieh wants to support her husband get through his spot of trouble with creditors. It also shows the courts as black and white, stripped completely of respect for human emotion, and in incredible contrast to the fraught shouting matches at the center of the work.

It's a relentless piece of cinema. I can see what people mean when they say that it's hard to watch visually. However, that ultimately works to its advantage. The four spellbinding lead performances are among the strongest acting jobs this year, especially Bayat as Razieh. And, though I feel that the script sometimes takes easy ways out (the ending) and doesn't cover things as much as it should (Simin is left a little underdeveloped as a character), the dialogue grabs you and hits very hard. I think "The Turin Horse" should have maybe won the Golden Bear, but "A Separation" is a strong piece, overhyped but all the same worthy of attention. B+

Gerardo Naranjo's "Miss Bala" at certain points captured my attention entirely. At others it nearly put me to sleep (though it is worth nothing I saw it at 9 PM after a long day). It follows Laura (Stephanie Sigman), who sells clothing but who really wants to be Miss Baja California. Due a bizarre takeover of a nightclub, she loses her friend and also, since she's late to her rehearsal the next day, her chances in the competition. But, when she's tapped by a gang to do some risky jobs, she could get both back.

The film's much-praised bravura cinematography, which involves a lot of ostentatious long takes, feels more thought out than the story. Laura could save herself easily, but instead makes a lot of tiresomely silly decisions (albeit for friends and family) so that the film continues. The film is mostly about her being manipulated, and I was less than enthralled. But certain moments do indeed pack a punch (when Laura is caught in the middle of firefights) or sicken (the first driving sequence, when light is shed upon it). "Miss Bala" isn't all for naught, but I can't help wishing that I was a little more satisfied. C+