Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Submarine


Submarine begins, as these tales so often do, with a precocious, damaged boy lusting after a moody, damaged girl. You may momentarily confuse this with own your life, but I assure you that is purely an illusion borne out of repeated exposure to the legions of wounded young men who appear to grow on celluloid like some sort of fungus. Was that me or Max Fischer? Or Antoine Doinel? Maybe Leolo Lauzon? It can be so hard to recall where the screen ends and memory begins sometimes. The past is just tawdry details and still photos. Far more preferable to watch your childhood printed to film and projected in the dark, where you can’t see anyone wince at the embarrassing bits and the soundtrack is always better.

Nostalgia is a powerful seducer, and there’s nothing quite as seductive as feeling nostalgia for someone else’s childhood. All the best bits of adolescence are there to be enjoyed, all the worst laughed away—it’s not like they belong to you, after all. How remarkable it is then that Richard Ayoade manages to avoid this trap in Submarine, his able and charming debut. True, he swipes many of his best moves from the French New Wave, right down to the adolescent Anna Karina who sends our hero into a hormonal tizzy (even the typography appears to be borrowed from Godard). The whole film could easily turn into an overly mannered nostalgia trip—for childhood, for old French movies where angry young men hated the world and wanted to get laid, for Wes Anderson before he ditched Owen Wilson as his writing partner—but Ayoade’s dark wit keeps the film lively and surprising. Submarine is often beautiful and sometimes very funny, but no one is likely to wish this were his or her childhood.

For one thing, our precocious, damaged boy is actually something of a dick, as the film takes great pains to point out. Neurotic far beyond his years, 15-year-old Oliver Tate nervously monitors his parents’ marriage for signs of cracks. He even goes so far as to chart their sexual activities, where, it must be said, things look grimly flaccid. While envisioning the demise of his family unit, he throws himself into an adolescent affair with a coy pyromaniac named Jordana, only to abandon the girl as her mother undergoes life-or-death surgery. Even worse, he begins spying on his own mother, convinced she is having an affair with the ninja guru next door (turns out it was just a hand job, thank goodness). He even contemplates poisoning Jordana’s dog, partly to prepare her for the inevitably of death and loss, and partly to open up a chance to comfort her with some sweet, sweet, awkward teenage loving. Clearly, this is a disturbed child.

Does he mature in the end? Has he learned a lesson? I’m not optimistic, but I remain uncertain, which is a credit to Ayoade’s largely non-judgmental tone. He’s less concerned with navigating the rocky seas towards a dubious maturity than he is with blurring the lines between adolescent follies and adult mistakes. The director may grant these characters a kind of happy ending—not like the neighbour’s, I should add—but for a film that seems so soft on first brush there are a surprising number of barbed edges buried here. Chances are these people will go on wounding each other in new and different ways, held together only by the fact that some out there happen to love the things (or people) that hurt them. For all the film’s whimsy, there is a certain dark logic to this conclusion. Adolescence, after all, is a horrible parade of embarrassments and accidental cruelties. I’m not so sure about young love, but young masochism sounds pretty plausible to me.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Another Earth


Deliberately—perhaps even desperately—stylish, Mike Cahill’s Another Earth tries in vain to hide a ridiculous plot and poorly conceived characters behind a lot of shaky-cam tomfoolery. Its most successful image is its simplest: a mysterious alternative version of the Earth that has appeared in the sky, lurking in the background like a watchful hero waiting patiently to swoop in and rescue the filmmakers from this mess of their own creation. And what a novel mess it is! Half Dardenne brothers’ moral drama, half Crisis on Infinite Earths, all wrapped up with a surprise! twist! ending! (tell your friends)—how many genres can a film fail in all at once? Brit Marling, who co-scripted with Cahill, stars as Rhoda, a young woman who killed two-thirds of a family in a car accident and now seeks redemption by posing as a maid for the survivor. In between doing the dishes and vacuuming, she daydreams of escaping to that alternate Earth, which remains little more than an underdeveloped distraction, one person’s vague sci-fi concept being another’s lazy plot device, I suppose. (A rocket to another planet means never having to say you’re sorry.) Key supporting characters include the mopey alcoholic crash survivor who seduces Rhoda with Wii boxing and musical saw, and a wisdom-dispensing janitor who pours bleach in his ears and eyes. Sound advice, under the circumstances.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes


If you split the difference between the creepy weirdness of the original Planet of the Apes and the hollow slickness of Tim Burton’s remake, you might come up with something like Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Rupert Wyatt’s reboot of the apparently venerable series is surprisingly modest, a rare summer epic that is actually human-scale—or ape-scale, perhaps. Usually once a budget hits a certain point, it’s all you can do to prevent a director from blowing up things willy-nilly, but Wyatt actually has a story to tell. A mediocre one, mind you, but still. Beginning as a loose remake of Frankenstein and ending as a catalogue of sci-fi movie clich├ęs—pandemic paranoia abounds, as do sinister corporations with vaguely allusive names like GeneSys—the film throws together all sorts of inert elements in the vain hope of a reaction. Meanwhile, the human presence provided by actors like James Franco and Freida Pinto (speaking of inert elements) is all but nil, leaving all the film’s pathos to reside in Andy Serkis’ justly lauded motion-capture performance as the Ape Who Would Be King. The eerily life-like eyes of the digital apes are certainly impressive, but if the most expressive part of your film comes out of a computer program, something is definitely amiss. I know this is supposed to be a film about the downfall of our species, but is a little more humanity too much to ask?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Detroit Wild City


Detroit Wild City begins with a union leader lamenting that the city’s parking lots are now empty and overrun with grass. An optimist, on the other hand, might say the parking lot is half-full (of grass, that is). Filmmaker Florent Tillon takes just such an approach, pausing only briefly to eulogize the old Detroit before moving on to capture the new. He interviews residents who explore the ruins of the city, others who fight urban blight with house-crushing parties or turn empty lots into neighbourhood gardens. There’s a measured optimism to the film, but it goes beyond any hippie-scavenger utopian thinking about how nice it would be to raise chickens in abandoned tenements. As one speaker cautions, you can’t have an entire city living on the subsistence model—there’s only so much decay to go around, after all. Man does not live by rubble alone. If the film is about nature versus the city, consider the outcome a draw. Detroit, for all the damage done, is not yet some post-apocalyptic ghost town, but neither is it likely to revive to its former might. But then what will become of it? Wild packs of dogs roam the street. Falcons nest in empty towers. Yet people still gather in the park on Sunday to listen to a man sing how the blues makes him happy. Life, weirdly enough, goes on. The city doesn’t die, so much as mutate.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Meek's Cutoff


As desolate and deceptive as the barren Oregon plain where it is set, Meek’s Cutoff is about the perils of living on too much faith and too little water. In 1845, a small group of settlers place their confidence in Stephen Meek, a scraggly frontiersman of dubious merit and questionable hygiene. The water barrels fill with dust and trust turns to fear, leading the group to switch allegiances to a captured native who they hope will lead them to water. The choice facing the settlers is simple, and impossible: the cocky boasts and false promises of Meek, or the inscrutable silence of the Indian. Everything becomes defined by what it is not: Meek as not a guide, the Indian as not Meek. “Hell is full of bears, but there are no bears here,” Meek says, the implication being that this place, no matter how awful it seems, cannot be hell. But if not hell, then what?

Director Kelly Reichardt has made a name for herself as a specialist in small films with big implications, and Meek’s Cutoff is easily the peak of her career so far. There are obvious strains of political allegory (Meek will likely remind viewers of a certain beady-eyed Texan plutocrat), but the film’s strength lies in its terrifying ambiguities: a fleeting smile across the Indian’s face as the pioneers lose a wagon, the tree at the end that appears like a mirage. Is it a symbol of hope, or is that too obvious? Apparently so, because it turns out the tree of life is half dead. But the ending is Reichardt’s best trick. Every gift is a curse here, every promise a potential lie—especially the promise of resolution. (If you’re going in circles, where do you stop?) All we are given is a morose prophecy from Meek and a slow fade-out on oblivion. The trick is that even though we may never find out what happens to these characters, we already know where this trail leads. History picks up where the film leaves off.