Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Eden Log

Here we have a science fiction film that dares to ask the big questions. Such as: if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be? If your answer is, “A mystical tree used to power cities and turn people into braying man-pigs with its poisonous sap,” then you’re in luck, because Eden Log is clearly your soul mate. Don’t get me wrong—I love me a bit of ponderous, humourless allegory (honest, I swear!), but everyone has limits, and here are mine. Shot in a murky, drained palette, Eden Log is a reflection in a mud puddle, with all the expected depth. The film moves between scenes of plodding, mostly wordless action in shadowy caverns and equally gray, talky scenes of pure exposition—not the most nimble storytelling technique, you have to admit. Franck Vestiel has a perfectly sensible idea behind his obfuscating stylistics, which is that corporate corruption and dehumanization are rife in society and must be resisted, and this is a moral choice we must all make, and it involves magic trees. But why must Vestiel be so afraid of injecting any sense of personality or character into his solemn signifying? He has a message, but lacks a film, which is equivalent to setting out to sea with cargo but not a ship. Little wonder the whole thing sinks—there’s a lot of weight with nothing to support it.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Get Low

Who wouldn’t want to attend their own funeral? Count the tears shed, mark attendance, enjoy some free sandwiches—plus, it’s so much more fun than being dead, wouldn’t you agree?

Felix Bush would. After 40 years of living in his remote shack with only a graveyard of deceased pets for company, his idea of a good time has unsurprisingly taken a turn to the morbid. He intends to throw the biggest funeral in four counties, luring people with the promise that he will raffle off his land (300 acres of pristine timberland, he claims), and all he has is one simple request—if you attend, you must tell a story about him.

As an isolated, angry coot, there are surely some colourful legends floating around regarding the man and why he withdrew from civil society in the first place. His only human contact appears to be the local children, who throw rocks at his windows when they’re feeling particularly brave. He’s the local monster, existing in the public’s mind only as a way of frightening the young. In Get Low, director Aaron Schneider sets about to the task of redeeming this forbidding figure and revealing the decency and suffering that are buried somewhere behind that scraggly beard and crazy mountain-man eyes.

The film spells out its redemptive intentions in very clear terms. At the funeral, an old friend of Felix introduces the hermit by declaring that good and evil are not separate, but rather exist in us entangled. In this rather innocuously drifting tale, such a loaded pronouncement appears as if underlined, circled, and with arrows drawn to it from a hastily scribbled note that says—nay, shouts—“THIS IS THE POINT OF THE MOVIE.” So pay attention, will you?

You could be forgiven for not watching too closely until that point. The mystery of Felix’s past—involving a torched house and the deaths of its inhabitants, which Felix may or may not have been responsible for—lends a bit of foreboding to this otherwise sleepy Depression-era tale. The drama is inert, despite some half-hearted complications intended to ramp up interest, but the skill of the actors involved enlivens the film. Robert Duvall, as Felix, is as magnetic as ever, and the film couldn’t function without his uniquely cranky charisma. (As an actor, Duvall has a special talent for making peevishness not seem ignoble. Clearly, this man has a bright future playing weirdo hermits and gummy coots should he so wish.)

And Bill Murray, as Frank Quinn, the greasy funeral director, brings his dependable deadpan to assure us we’re never too far from at least a dry, bemused chuckle or two. Yet despite being largely comic relief, Murray still finds opportunities for little doodles of middle-aged melancholy in the margins of the story. Quinn is shown as a drunkard and divorced man. He reveals himself in moments of sad, lonely desperation, such as when he asks to walk home Mattie (a widow and Felix’s ex-girlfriend, played by Sissy Spacek), only to be rebuffed with a gentle pity that hurts more than any open cruelty.

Such details are sadly rare to the film, which is partly why it’s so underwhelming despite sporting such a banner cast (a sense of detail, particularly regarding secondary characters, is not one of Schneider’s talents, meaning this film built around a single community feels inhabited by about five people and some extras). The other significant problem lies in the clumsy mishandling of the climactic revelations of Felix’s past. Actually, let’s modify that statement: Schneider tanks the entire final third of the film. Felix’s past 40 years were apparently a kind of penitent exile, except that his confession comes wrapped up with a convenient scapegoat—someone guilty of even worse sins—to ensure that he gets his teary reconciliation at the end. If the film intended to show us how good and evil co-exist in one man, then perhaps it should have allowed a bit of actual evil in Felix’s character. Otherwise, his 40 years in the woods are nothing more than one epic pity party.

If I was standing in that crowd at Felix’s funeral, I’d feel a bit cheated at all of this (I suppose, in a sense, the film’s audience is part of that crowd). Imagine: here I had come from across the county to tell my story about the time the loony hermit guy shot at me when I was picking blueberries on his land, and when I get there, all I see is some old guy giving a woe-is-me speech addressed to someone named Mattie (Mattie?), and then there’s a raffle and we all go home. Frankly, I think I would prefer a few tall tales to the mawkish truth.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Memories of Murder

Playing out against the backdrop of South Korea’s 1980s pro-democratic public protests, Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder examines a grisly series of unsolved murders in the city of Hwaseong. It’s a ripped-from-the-headlines tabloid tale with style and intelligence to spare, even if does initially feel overweighted with the clich├ęs of the moribund serial killer movie. We’ve got two rival cops—one who plays by the rules, and one who, of course, does not—and an unidentified murderer whose violence involves all sorts of arbitrary gimmicks, in this case the requisite that each murder be triggered by hearing a specific song on a rainy night and then encountering a woman wearing red. A happy confluence of these elements occurs more often than you would think, although I wonder how many rainy evenings he must have squandered looking for a red dress, or how many times he must have heard that song on a sunny day while watching crimson-bedecked ladies strolling past his front yard, so frustrated he just wanted to cry. The secret meaning of this film is that obsessive-compulsive disorder is not necessarily a detriment to achieving your dreams.

Okay, that’s just one secret meaning of this film. The other is that Kafka’s The Trial is possibly even more disturbing when told from the perspective of the prosecution. In Memories of Murder, police terrorize citizens into confessing to crimes, brutishly manufacturing guilt when there is none to be found. At first, a mentally challenged young man is manipulated into a confession, and then a pervert with a fondness for red underwear and deep-woods self-abuse is picked as a likely killer. But no matter how the police try to make it so, no one in the town seems to be actually guilty. The violence becomes a sign of the police force’s failure as they flail against an opponent they can’t defeat. They’re impotent authority figures—a point that Bong emphasizes, rather sardonically, when one of the detectives is forced to amputate his leg (his good one, too, the one he uses to kick the shit out of suspects). The real perversity of this film is that Bong tells this story from the perspective of the cops, creating a haze of empathy that almost lets you forget that these guys are forging evidence and torturing people in the police station basement. Such is life in a police state: the guilty live free, while only the innocent suffer.