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Archive for December, 2012

Xavier Dolan’s first feature, J’ai tué ma mère (2009), was notable in part for the unpleasantness of the two leads, which made for a very edgy comedy, and that critical distance from the characters was still apparent in Les Amours imaginaires (2010), but there’s hardly a trace of it in Laurence Anyways (2012), making this his blandest film so far. The title character, a woman trapped in a man’s body (Melvil Paupaud), and his longtime girlfriend, Fred (Suzanne Clément)—who makes an effort to stand by her shman before cracking under intense societal pressure—both elicit easy sympathy; and in contrast with the neutrally framed two shots in J’ai tué ma mère, here the narration is so closely aligned with these characters that it’s sometimes difficult to know where objective reality leaves off and subjective fantasy begins. Indeed, although the story is set in the ’90s, when transexuals were still a novelty in la belle province, Dolan is so engrossed in the central relationship that one never gets a strong sense of the period (judging by the film, Montréal’s queer scene circa 1990 consisted entirely of one freaky looking gay dude who liked to hang out with a crew of hip old ladies), and the supporting characters, including Laurence’s mother (Nathalie Baye) and Fred’s sister (Monia Chokri), are accordingly sketchy.

In the opening scenes of Lucía Puenzo’s XXY (2007), a teenager from Argentina (Martín Piroyanski) and his parents travel to the home of a marine biologist (Ricardo Darín) living in a remote coastal village in Uruguay. There he meets the biologist’s daughter, Alex (Inès Efron), a feral teenager who’s been expelled from school for breaking her best friend’s nose. Instead of explaining everything right away, the film takes its time establishing who the characters are; for instance, although we learn early on that Alex is taking medication, it’s only much later that we find out what it’s for. However, rather than perpetuating such mysteries for their own sake, by delaying exposition and leaving some points ambiguous, the movie is better able to create the impression of real lives unfolding spontaneously before the camera. A very sturdy first feature, this intimate ensemble piece has a dramatic concentration that’s unfortunately lacking in Puenzo’s subsequent film, The Fish Child (2009).

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Ten years after Sweet Sixteen (2002), Ken Loach returns to Scotland with The Angels’ Share (2012) to tell another story about a troubled young man, although this time the protagonist isn’t doomed from the outset. The film’s hero, Robbie (Paul Brannigan), is a baby-faced ruffian who’s trying to go straight and be a good father to his infant son, which is especially difficult as he’s embroiled in a Hatfield-McCoy-style feud with another young hooligan whose father used to fight Robbie’s dad. However, things start to turn around for him under the guidance of his community service supervisor (John Henshaw), who introduces Robbie to the world of whisky appreciation. Starting out as a gritty drama in the bleakest sections of Glasgow, the movie eventually morphs into a beguiling heist comedy in the Highlands, proving that Loach is a more versatile director than he’s usually given credit for. And while there’s nothing very original about the story, the actors and locations feel so authentic that they carry one past the rough patches in Paul Laverty’s script.

Although its subject matter may remind one of certain films by Robert Flaherty and Stan Brakhage, formally and stylistically Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea (2011) doesn’t have much in common with either. Ostensibly the movie is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about a year in the life of Jake Williams, a hippy mountain man living in total isolation in the backwoods of Scotland, but it’s obvious that much of what we see in the film was staged for the camera. (At one point, while Williams takes a nap, the caravan in which he’s sleeping inexplicably floats to the top of a tall tree.) Apart from Williams occasionally mumbling to himself, the movie doesn’t have any dialogue, nor does it use an offscreen narrator or any onscreen text, so that we don’t learn anything about Williams’ life beyond what Rivers records with his camera. Periodically we see still photographs of people who could be Williams’ family and friends, but rather than telling us something about his life, they merely underscore how little we really know about him. Indeed, the film is so resolutely material in its documentation of Williams’ daily activities that it’s impossible to gauge his state of mind or how content he is with this hermitic existence. In other words, the movie isn’t concerned with biography or psychology but texture and timbre.

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Most of the time, I know right away if I like a particular movie but I had to think a long time about Dark Horse (2011), a grimly fascinating tragicomedy by Todd Solondz. Then again, maybe that’s to be expected from Solondz, whose films are often deeply ambivalent; he seems to empathize with his hapless characters and despise them at the same time. Here, the central character, Abe (Jordan Gelber), is a singularly obnoxious middle-aged man-child who always plays the victim when in fact he’s had plenty of opportunities in life but was too self-deluded and lazy to take advantage of them. At one point, he laments that he could’ve been a singer had it not been for his father (Christopher Walken), and it’s this tendency to cling to unrealistic goals, coupled with a lousy work ethic, that’s kept Abe from doing anything with his life.

Abe isn’t a very likable character, to put it mildly, and by having him dress so poorly (even at the real estate office where he sort of works for his dad), and by having him listen to inane pop music as he drives to and from Toys ‘R’ Us in his ugly yellow Hummer, the movie makes it easy to feel superior to him. However, because we spend so much time with Abe (he appears in every scene), one comes to reluctantly identify with him, while at the same time sympathizing with the other characters’ exasperation with him. And as much as I hate to admit it, I saw a lot of myself in Abe. (I mean, look at what I’m doing right now. It’s not like this blog is going to get me a job as a reviewer or a programmer. I’m just wasting my life online.) Although the film doesn’t paint a pretty picture, it does hold a certain morbid fascination.

Goin’ Down the Road

I generally enjoy David Cronenberg’s movies, but I found his latest film, Cosmopolis (2012), affected and sterile. Based on a 2003 novel by Don DeLillo (which I haven’t read), the story centers on a young bazillionaire (Robert Pattinson) traveling across Manhattan in a limo to get a haircut while anarchist protestors stage a mass demonstration against the president (the sole aim of which appears to be to cause a traffic jam rather than to effect any political change), thereby extending the duration of his journey so that the bazillionaire has time to eat three meals with his new wife (Sarah Gadon) in different restaurants, have sex with at least two other women (maybe three), and have a dispassionate theoretical conversation with a free market guru (Samantha Morton) among other activities, none of which carry much weight or conviction. It’s as if the characters didn’t really believe in their own lives.

The movie’s affectless dialogue, which sounds like a Hal Hartley version of CNBC, uses a lot of terms you’ve heard in the news but not in any meaningful context. In one scene, the bazillionaire watches a video of the IMF chief being assassinated on a North Korean talk show (which for some reason is in English), but the reason for his murder is as much a mystery to me as why the anarchist protestors paraphrase The Communist Manifesto (1848). As with The Dark Knight Rises (also 2012), one gets the impression that the filmmakers are just throwing out a lot of topical signifiers and seeing what sticks, which would be less of a problem if the movie had any characters instead of theoretical abstractions in search of a theory. It’s great if you’re writing a term paper (the film is about whatever you want it to be about), but as a movie it strikes me as lifeless and phony.

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Like Yojimbo (1961) two years earlier, Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963) is a stylish and absorbing genre exercise that suffers slightly from its single-mindedness. As the movie opens, Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune, who here resembles Saddam Hussein in a cardigan) is a wealthy executive who’s mortgaged everything to gain control over a women’s shoe company. But on the day that he’s to make his big move, he receives a phone call informing him that his son’s been abducted — only the kidnapper made a mistake and nabbed his chauffeur’s son instead. The film’s early scenes, which mostly take place in and around Gondo’s living room, are especially gripping in their exposition of his moral dilemma, but when the focus shifts to the police halfway through, the movie loses its most compelling character. None of the cops investigating the case have distinct personalities, nor is the kidnapper given any backstory or even much of a motive beyond a general resentment of Gondo’s wealth. Even at 145 minutes, this doesn’t have much fat but it doesn’t leave much of an aftertaste either.

No less singleminded, Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain (1959) focusses squarely on the plight of a single Japanese soldier in order to make a larger point about war in general. Set during the final days of World War II, the story is about a private with TB (Eiji Funakoshi) who’s too ill for regular duty but not sick enough to be admitted to the hospital, which is overflowing with dying men. Ragged and hungry, the private wanders across a bleak, corpse-strewn landscape in search of something to eat, and by not giving him any backstory or distinguishing character traits, the film emphasizes the universality of his struggle to survive. At the same time, by focussing so narrowly on this one private on the Philippine front at the end of the war, the movie sidesteps the issues of Japanese imperialism and war crimes altogether. (More defensible is the film’s decision not to depict any American war crimes, which might have made the Japanese soldiers seem noble and heroic for resisting them.) In other words, the movie makes the case that the war was hell because “our” boys suffered so much, which is true enough but also something of an evasion.

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