Monday, January 31, 2011

The King's Speech

God save the king? No, god save us from The King’s Speech, a harmless little trifle suddenly turned into a twelve-ton behemoth that sucks down awards with all the voraciousness of Godzilla during Tokyo rush hour. It’s all a matter of proportion, really—pet lizards can be cute, after all, but less so when they’re ten stories high with a co-ed’s leg stuck between their teeth. And that’s the problem with this film: its charms only work on a small scale. Focused on the stammering King George VI and his relationship with his speech therapist, the film finds an interesting way into the turmoil of the British ruling class during the 1920s and ‘30s. But the film inflates the importance of this humble story to absurd degrees, turning the speech impediment into a symbol of the king’s reluctance to rule and striving for an allegory of the sovereign finding his voice through befriending the common man (helpfully represented here by a speech therapist—just imagine what could have happened if the king had tried to befriend a cobbler or butcher).

Setting aside the dubious merits of democratic monarchism, this is still a deeply flawed dramatic approach. Meaning we get ludicrous scenes of people applauding and cheering the king’s address to the nation on the eve of war with Germany while the happy music plays, because that’s the logical climax of a story where the most important thing is that someone give a nice speech. Of course, I understand the need for dramatic license, but let’s not lose our heads here. You’d think the start of the Second World War might be a bit of a bummer, or at least a solemn occasion, no matter well enunciated. I mean, how excited can you get over a proper voiced bilabial plosive? Colin Firth may be good in this—his George is finely balanced between being a sympathetic man out of his depth and a spluttering, sheltered royal twit—but he’s still not good enough to stop me from laughing at the film when I shouldn’t. Such is the risk of acting bigger than you actually are. Even at the height of his power, we always knew Godzilla was just some schmuck in a foam suit too.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Summer Hours

Summer Hours is a museum piece, in the strictest sense of the term. Commissioned by the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, this gentle family drama by Olivier Assayas could easily hang somewhere on the walls of that institution. Now, there’s no great sin in hanging in a museum—certainly not one like the Orsay, where some of the greatest masterworks of the 19th century would keep you company—but Assayas seems saddened at how art once so vital can be mummified by its own beauty. One can only wonder at how the Orsay responded to this film, which suggests the worth of each piece has little to do with the institution, and more to do with the private histories and personal meanings that can never be contained within a museum.

The story Summer Hours tells is one of clarity and elegant simplicity, marked by subdued emotions and the soft light that suffuses its pastoral scenery. Three grown siblings—Adrienne, Frederic, and Jeremie—reunite to dispense with the estate of their deceased mother, who for years has shepherded the reputation of their renowned painter-uncle. The family home is itself something of a museum, cluttered with great art (a rare and valuable vase holds some flowers picked from the garden, while a broken Degas plaster is found in a plastic bag at the bottom of a cabinet). While Frederic, the eldest sibling, wants to keep the family home and choice pieces from the art collection, the younger two—both living abroad—prefer to be rid of it all.

Regrets are swallowed, arguments abbreviated. The situation is obviously rife with opportunities for showboating dramatics, but the film prefers quieter moments. There’s no more emblematic question in this film that the tender inquiry, “Are you crying?” Usually, this is asked of someone stewing in his or her own melancholy, staring sadly into space (gazing at some irretrievable vision of a paradise lost to the void of time or something similarly poetic and doomed, I suppose). The answer is typically “No”—the person in question just needs a moment to mull the innumerable sorrows and compromises of life before carrying on dutifully with the business of living.

These are fragile emotions and the film handles them with care, as if they could shatter at any moment. The three siblings' interactions are a believable mixture of tenderness spiked with the occasional irritation. Even a shocking revelation about their mother’s personal life is played in muted tones. The reaction is more one of numbed incomprehension than anger. The moment passes so quietly that only in hindsight do you realize how many other films would have played that scene to the hilt, letting the revelation become the point of the story, rather than tossing it away as an offhanded tangent.

That restraint should not be underestimated. Family dramas too often opt for shouty melodrama not because it adds grit and realism, but instead a kind of morbid escapism. Almost every family I know is built upon the things left unspoken, all those frustrations and private grievances that are never said not just because they could destroy the family, but also because you love these people, as much as they piss you off and even hurt you. There’s a pressure valve of familial rage in almost everyone. Watching a family where the members are able to crank it wide open and let all that emotion gush is immensely cathartic, albeit in the same gratuitous, messy sense that one could say pornography is cathartic.

What is there to this drama then, if not catharsis? How about memory—or more specifically, how it’s created and how it’s nurtured? At the end, the eldest sibling and his wife walk through the Musee d’Orsay, where pieces from his mother’s house now reside. Notably, a desk from her study is prominently displayed in the decorative arts section (that’s the point at the end of the tour where the visitors all roll their eyes at the displays of artful bric-a-brac and wearily inspect the old chairs with feigned interest). It’s discomfiting to consider how the desk once sat in that house, covered in papers and books, a vase filled with fresh flowers on one corner. Once that purpose and meaning has been drained away, only the empty vessel remains—the past so incredibly close, yet now beyond all touch.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Searchers 2.0

Few films make it, but The Searchers is certainly one—it sits comfortably amongst the pantheon of classics considered nearly unassailable (well, there’s always someone), the standard by which other westerns are typically measured. So it takes a somewhat perverse filmmaker to deliberately court comparison, and it takes an especially bold one to tackle that much-loved film armed only with a micro-budget and no more plot than you can fit into the backseat of an SUV. Or in other words, Alex Cox.

Searchers 2.0 is certainly not a remake of Ford’s original. It’s not even a screwy homage or satire. Cox wrote and directed the film out of a simple desire to argue with The Searchers, the entire western genre, and just about anything else that comes up along the way. And the best way to get people going on one of those rambling movie conversations— you know, where someone asks what the best war movie is and suddenly you’re spouting your theories on the connection between Hollywood and the Pentagon—is to stick them in a vehicle and have them drive through the middle of nowhere. Throw in a couple of car breakdowns and a few random encounters and you’ve got yourself a feature film.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single contrivance, in this case the meeting of Mel and Fred, two hard-luck middle-aged men who both appeared in the same cult western as children. The two men reminisce about the abuse they suffered at the hands (or more accurately, whip) of the film’s screenwriter—Fritz Frobisher, whose name evokes nothing so much as a rogue Germanic Mountie (he's not, but the prospect tantalizes the imagination). Almost immediately, they bond over plans of revenge. The two men set out on a rather ignoble quest to kick the ass of the now-quite-elderly Frobisher at a special open-air film screening in Monument Valley, iconic setting of numerous westerns, including The Searchers.

These two are clearly not tragic heroes, as the prosaic circumstances (and questionable intent) of their scheme suggests. Mel, the more affable half of the pair, is a deadbeat dad and day labourer. Fred, a small-time working actor, watches his old films in a dingy apartment and greets guests with a gun. He is, as the film tells us every ten minutes or so, an asshole. And one of the characters telling us this is Mel’s daughter Delilah, who mocks the men’s fuddy-duddy follies while chauffeuring them to meet Frobisher.

Clumsiness of the opening aside—Cox is so hasty to get on the road it’s a wonder he didn’t just start there and skip the whole forced meeting of Mel and Fred—the film reveals an unruly charm once in motion. Less a story than a sort of free-floating debate touching on Cox’s pet subjects, the film is little more than the three characters arguing about movies and politics, revenge and morality. The director wants a dialogue—not just between his characters, but also between himself and us. Technique is a secondary concern here. Characters pause in the middle of lines not for dramatic effect, but simply because they’re struggling to remember what they’re supposed to be say (the whole thing was apparently filmed in 15 days, and it shows). This is punk filmmaking at its core: shabby, confrontational, weird.

Yes, of course, narrative is a bourgeois trap, using the candy of order and aesthetic pleasure to lure us into the oven of hidden master ideologies (or whatever), but part of me wishes Cox would just do away with the story entirely. The film still goes through the motions of a narrative, even though it clearly distrusts that whole game. But instead of completely trashing the story, Cox follows it half-heartedly until finally throwing everything out the window only in the last ten minutes or so. When you’ve got one foot over the edge, why wait so long to jump? As always, sensible behaviour is the sworn enemy of self-sabotage.

As a filmmaker, Alex Cox flirts with bad ideas in a way that is often thrilling. I can easily see him making a deeply flawed, even bad film, but never a mediocre one—there’s too much at stake for that to ever happen, even in a small film such as this one. It’s true that the film can be obvious, sometimes to the point of irritation (Delilah’s SUV constantly runs out of gas BECAUSE THE IRAQ WAR IS WRONG YOU PLUTOCRATIC GITS), but there’s also a keen humour and insight that runs through the whole thing. There’s something energizing about watching a filmmaker openly contemplate war films as product placement for the army, or question the debased ideal of revenge in westerns, and inviting us to do the same. Look at this not as a refined, self-contained work of art, but merely another salvo in a cultural dialogue that has been going on for over fifty years.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


As mesmerizing as it is infuriating, Quebec writer/director Denis Cote’s Carcasses resides somewhere in those hinterlands of filmmaking where fact and fiction transform into a single brain-melting beast. The first half of Cote’s film is a documentary, of sorts, focused on Jean-Paul Colmor, a real-life scrap collector whose isolated acreage is home to the sleeping wrecks of 4,000 cars. Cote constructs delicate tableaux of this lonely junkyard world, while Colmor busies himself with salvaging what he can from the old vehicles. But halfway through the film, a vagabond group of four people with Down’s syndrome take up residence in the detritus, scavenging food from Colmor and quietly settling atop his routine like a blanket of snow.

Largely silent, the second half of the film takes on the air of a compressed fable as the outsiders find refuge amidst the discards of Colmor’s home. Cote’s daring is laudable, even though his extreme choices threaten to throw this precarious film out of balance (one might also question the wisdom of comparing people with Down’s syndrome to car wrecks, although I don’t believe any malice is intended). Perhaps I’m simply dismayed by the way the film essentially drops a curtain right down the middle, rather than letting the documentary and fantasy blend together more naturally. But the film poses difficult questions of discarded lives, and even though much of what we would consider a plot is hidden or suppressed, the proceedings are marked by a quiet playfulness that I found endearing. He may stumble at times, but nobody doesn’t tell a story quite the way Cote doesn’t tell a story.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

127 Hours

In the late, lamented Arrested Development, there’s a running gag involving a one-armed man employed by the father to impart valuable life lessons upon his children. Typically, these lessons would take the form of some sort of elaborately staged scenario in which the children’s fecklessness would cause the one-armed man to lose his prosthetic limb in a mess of fake blood and real screams. Then, menacingly, he would crawl towards the traumatized children to utter today’s instruction. Say, for example, “Always leave a note.”

I thought of this while watching 127 Hours. Partly because it was a fun way to pass the time while watching Danny Boyle’s latest film, but also because 127 Hours happens to be another story about a one-armed man who wants to teach us to always leave a note. The difference is that Arrested Development is smart and hilarious, while 127 Hours is stupidly sincere in its desire to promote responsible social behaviour through staged dismemberment.

Based on a real person, Aron Ralston (James Franco) is a free-spirited outdoorsman who spends his weekends exploring canyons. On this particular trip, he encounters a couple of lost girls, shows them some nifty caverns, then amicably parts ways as he heads out exploring on his own, only to slip into a crevasse, his arm pinned by a boulder. As the days tick by, his arm begins to rot, water runs low, and he agonizes over his foolishness in not telling anyone where he went. You see? Always leave a note.

This being a true story, we know we’re heading towards the inevitable scene where Ralston must cut off his own arm to escape. But to get there, we must first survive five days’ worth of cinematic flash-bang distractions. As a purveyor of sensations, Boyle is ill suited to a story built around immobility. He films from every possible angle in the crevasse, throws in flashbacks and memories, hallucinations and visions. Essentially, he does everything possible to keep the audience from sharing Ralston’s sense of confinement. This is the story of a man stuck in a hole in a ground, and it’s more kinetic than an action film.

The obtrusive style overwhelms the rest of the film. Much as I like James Franco as an actor, he can’t really compensate for Danny Boyle at his most Boyle-ish. For instance, Boyle imposing a distracting laugh track and applause mars a showcase scene like the one where Ralston acts out a fake radio interview for his video camera, playing himself, interviewer, and caller all at once. Never mind the fact that a good performer doesn't need the director running interference for him—since when do radio morning shows have studio audiences?

Apparently, the prospect of even briefly giving the film over to someone else’s performance is too much for the vain director to bear, which is a pity for the rest of us who must suffer Boyle’s ego. Franco tries to construct a skewed portrait here, a Ralston who remains self-effacing and bemused even in moments of despair, but his window of opportunity is slammed shut by the director’s meddling style. Otherwise, Franco never has much of a chance. Do you think even Brando could do much if he had to spend most of his screen time grimacing at a rock?

Okay, Franco doesn’t just grimace at the rock. He also thanks it, tenderly and sincerely, for teaching him the true meaning of Christmas or friendship or whatever (Franco deserves an Oscar only—ONLY—for thanking the rock without gagging or otherwise betraying any other involuntary reflex against the taste of such shit on one’s tongue). If not for this accident, he might never have realized that he needs to let other people into his life. And so, after chopping off his arm with a dull multi-tool, he takes a moment to express his gratitude to the rock for this valuable life lesson.

In Arrested Development, the children weren’t exactly happy with their father’s manipulative, dishonest teaching methods, which were rather excessive for the meager wisdom they produced. So why thank the rock? Maybe it’s just me, but I happen to think permanent disfigurement is a large toll for a rather small lesson. Is it even necessary to the film’s meaning that Ralston address the thing? No, of course not—it’s pure gratuitous emotion. The whole film is a lesson all right, but one of excess, right down to those distracting trick shots that take us inside Ralston’s camera or show us the inside of his straw or the view from the bottom of his water bottle while he’s drinking. Clearly anxious about his story’s simplicity, Boyle compensates with all manner of indiscriminate filmmaking.

Consider: why show the water’s perspective? Is this story about the water? Is this a tragedy about some water in a blue bottle? I mean, really. We see the water get swallowed up (the hero suffers his first setback, trapped by a giant ogre), pissed out later (the hero makes his bold escape, transformed by the ordeal), only to be swallowed up again when Ralston resorts to urine drinking (oh, the cruel vagaries of fate! Alas, sob, farewell! Curtains, applause, etc.). Why should anyone possess such close knowledge of the dramatic arc of this guy’s bodily fluids? Just what the hell kind of story is Boyle trying to tell here, anyway?

I realize there’s a certain tradition to be upheld: survival stories typically have that squirm-inducing aspect where the trapped hero is forced to do something completely disgusting that he would never do under normal circumstances. Indeed, that’s part of their appeal, whether or not we care to admit it. Sure, we want to see a person cope with the most difficult challenges the world can throw at them, but we also want to see the limits of the body, all the icky realities that lie just beyond a couple of days without showering. Deep down, all of these stories really aim to answer one question: if I really had to, could I _________? That blank can be filled with anything from “drink my own urine” to “chop off my arm” to “eat an entire rugby team from Uruguay.” The rest, as Boyle so ably proves, is noise.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Tony Manero

Political horror mergers with black humour in Tony Manero, a startling Chilean film from Pablo Larrain. Raul, a 52-year-old dancer working in a dive bar where the floor is rotten and the disco ball is broken mirror glass glued to a soccer ball, obsesses over John Travolta’s character from Saturday Night Fever. He watches the film over and over, committing each move to memory, memorizing the lines even though he doesn’t know English. And along the way, he casually murders anyone whose death might somehow aid the pursuit of his grandest dream—first prize on a third-rate Chilean afternoon talent show where contestants imitate the likes of Travolta or Chuck Norris. All runners-up receive a lovely poncho for trying. Failure is not an option.

Filmed with a painful intimacy (the camera hovers over Raul’s shoulder like a sour, whispering devil), there’s a shock to the violence that never quite recedes. Raul is terrifyingly numb, a dead-eyed sociopath who would be pathetic and laughable if not for his viciousness. As he dances in his pristinely white suit, the expression on his face contains all the warmth of a corpse—and this is when he’s doing what he loves, keep in mind. Around him, there is talk of curfews, army trucks rumbling through the street, police shooting political dissidents dead by the river. The grand dream of the Pinochet regime plays out like an off-key song on the radio in another room, while Raul abuses and betrays everyone around him in pursuit of his own meager ambitions. There’s no starry-eyed romanticism about escaping the crushing world through the power of pop culture here. Raul’s feeble fantasy offers no respite from reality, but merely another version of Pinochet’s brutality and cruelty, as if everything that touches this foul time and place withers. Under the dictator, all pleasures are debased, all dreams nightmares.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Wild Grass

At one point in Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass, we’re told, “After the cinema, anything is possible.” In a different time and place, this might have been a manifesto. Here, it’s an epitaph. The old master uses contrivance and absurdity in an attempt to create a sense of endless possibility, a technique that would be far more effective if the contrivances were genuinely startling and the absurdity truly funny. No such luck—it’s all snatched purses and oops-your-fly-is-down jokes, little worthy of a man of Resnais’ experience (he was 87 when the film was released). For a farce, this is a rather joyless affair. I would have dared to laugh a few times, except that it seemed somehow inappropriate. It would have been a shame to shatter the solemn mood with something resembling human pleasure, after all.

The film charts the unlikely twists of fate that bring together Georges (an irritable husband and father hunting for a mid-life crisis) and Marguerite (clumsy dentist and weekend pilot, god help us). But it’s less concerned with exploring the emotions of its characters than it is with reveling in its own cinephilia. Movie-geek jokes abound—the two mad lovers embrace in a kiss that signals a traditional Hollywood ending, even though the film isn’t quite done forcing half-baked frivolity down our throats just yet—and the whole thing is a masterful formal exercise, to be sure. Resnais’ camera is as god-like as ever, swooping down from above the mess and at least creating the illusion that a guiding intelligence presides over the film. Unfortunately, Resnais shows more sureness with cinematic passions than human ones—the narrator’s plot summary of The Bridges at Toko-Ri bursts with unexpected ardor, while the relationship between Georges and Marguerite, by comparison, remains a theoretical affair.