Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Get Low (2009, Aaron Schneider)

The history of movies is filled with hermits, but few have been as precisely drawn as Felix Bush, the protagonist of Get Low. Played by Robert Duvall, Felix is a cantankerous old coot- the word “old” would seem redundant but for the agreeable rhythm it brings to the phrase- who’s holed up in his cabin for the better part of four decades, with only a mule as company. One thing I appreciated about Get Low is that it doesn’t strive too hard to make Felix seem purer or more genuine than the more sophisticated townsfolk he meets throughout the film, or to turn him into some kind of backwoods philosopher. That’s not to say Felix doesn’t have wisdom of a sort, but it’s the kind of wisdom one gains through fending for oneself for a long period of time. Four decades alone hasn’t brought Felix any closer to figuring out the meaning of life, but they’ve given him plenty of time to perfect his recipe for rabbit stew. I also enjoyed how Felix’s lifestyle has given him a distinctive speaking style that’s simultaneously colorful and no-nonsense, as if he hasn’t missed having to engage in social niceties and wouldn’t mind not having to again. Observe the way he doesn’t linger any longer than he has to in a conversation- once he’s made his point, he simply picks up and leaves.

Get Low is a film of no great ambition but plenty of small pleasures, beginning with the performances, as one would expect from a movie starring Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Bill Murray. Duvall has played more than his share of ornery cusses, but he’s never played one quite like Felix, and it’s great to see him finding new wrinkles to a character that in other hands might have seemed like a cliché. Spacek brings an un-showy warmth to the role of a woman who has a somewhat fraught history with Felix, and Murray puts just the right spin on the slick undertaker who has no qualms about playing along with Felix’s idea to stage his own funeral while he’s still around to do it, if it means Murray gets his hands on some of Felix’s “hermit money.” Just as noteworthy, in a quieter way, is Lucas Black as Murray’s less gung-ho associate, who might come off as a textbook audience surrogate but for Black’s gift (in evidence ever since Sling Blade) for performances that are free of affectation and phoniness. And Bill Cobbs gets a nice supporting role as the one man who knows the truth about Felix’s past, the cause of much speculation among the locals.

Get Low isn’t particularly distinguished cinematically- with a cast like this, Schneider seems primarily concerned with not getting in the way. But I think the unassuming direction works in the film’s favor, since instead of ladling on the cutesy touches like so many would-be festival favorites, Get Low lets the charm flow naturally from the story and the performances. I just wish that Schneider and his screenwriters had the confidence to end the movie one scene before they did, on a perfectly lovely bit of homespun poetry involving a final guest arriving at Felix’s living funeral. But no matter- Get Low is a refreshing bit of low-key entertainment, one that’s especially welcome at the end of a summer filled with bloated spectacle. I don’t think I can put it better than my friend Craig Kennedy, who said, “it might not rock your world, but it’ll make it a nicer place to be for a couple of hours.”

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Restrepo (2010, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger)

It’s a challenge for me to review a movie like Restrepo. It’s not that I think that it’s a bad movie, or even a particularly odd one. But given the film’s nature- Hetherington and Junger are journalists rather than filmmakers, and the film is almost pure reportage- that there’s almost nothing to report, positive or negative, as regards the cinematic merits of Restrepo. In other words, if you’re down with what Hetherington and Junger are doing, you’ll be down with the movie.

For me, it was kind of a wash- an admirable wash to be sure, but a wash all the same. Sure, I can appreciate the difficulty incurred by the directors in making Restrepo, being embedded for the better part of a year with soldiers in Afghanistan’s most dangerous war zone. And Lord knows I have nothing but admiration for the soldiers stationed there, risking their lives against a largely unseen enemy in an area where even the most sympathetic locals aren’t eager to have their home turned into a battleground.

But although the film does provide some vivid illustrations of what’s happening in the war in Afghanistan, I was left fairly cold by Restrepo. Part of the problem is that I’m generally cold on old-fashioned Pennebaker-style “direct cinema”, but when I think of great documentaries, I expect a little more from the filmmakers to be in the right place at the right time, camera in hand. In other words, it’s not enough to show me something. The directors must assemble their footage into something that expresses a film that stirs the mind, instead of simply trying to wow us with the footage itself.

Now, I’m not asking all documentarians to be Michael Moore (heaven forbid). But while in journalism the story itself is of paramount of importance, the most important aspect of making a film is assembling the story in a way that accentuates the themes and ideas contained therein. The biggest flaw of Restrepo is that it’s so short on actual ideas. In other words, Hetherington and Junger just don’t have a whole lot to say. And while some of the footage is indeed impressive, that’s just not enough to turn Restrepo into the great definitive document of Afghanistan that its supports insist it is.

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Dogtooth (2009, Yorgos Lanthimos)

Often, when critics extol a movie for being imaginative and creative, they do so in order to praise flights of fancy that make their hearts leap with joy, such as the works of Hayao Miyazaki or the geniuses at Pixar. So what to make of a film like Dogtooth, a film that’s as imaginative as any film I’ve seen this year, but in a particularly dark vein? True, Dogtooth is set in a recognizable real-world setting- a suburban family home- but for all intensive purposes it might as well be another world.

The unnamed family at the center of Dogtooth is one founded not on love but rather an insidious sort of mindfuckery, in which the parents have barricaded their children in the house from birth and taught them to fear the outside world. The high wall that surrounds the family’s property speaks most plainly to their isolationism, but many of the parents’ manipulations are more subtle, as when the children are taught words describing the outside, only to have them (mis-)defined as objects that remind them of domestic comfort, as when they associate the word “sea” with a wooden armchair. There’s even an unseen brother character, possibly apocryphal, who is said to lurk just outside the walls, until the father deems it necessary to invent a story in which he was murdered by a house cat that infiltrated the property.

What’s going on here? It’s fairly obvious that the parents are psychotic, even before we see their more, shall we say, extreme punishments. Yet Lanthimos clearly has more on his mind than simply showing a pair of nutjobs who Fate had the sordid sense of humor to allow to meet each other and breed. No, Dogtooth is a rather pointed commentary on the destructiveness of over-parenting. Throughout the film, the parents’ methods point to a desire to shelter their children from the harshness of the world while enforcing their authority over their offspring. But by isolating their children (almost) completely from the world’s evils, they have reduced them to little more than animals themselves, prone to violence against themselves and each other.

Moreover, at a certain point it’s clear that the parents are more interested in perpetuating the experiment than they are in turning their children into well-rounded adults, as most parents would desire. The key scene in the film comes after one of the daughters attacks the son in his sleep. When the father rushes into the room, the son accuses his sister, but she turns around and blames it on a much-feared cat, who invaded the room wielding a hammer. Obviously, the father (the only one who is permitted to travel into the outside world) knows this is a lie. But to admit as much would mean puncturing the elaborate lie he and his wife have worked so hard to create, so he lets it slide. Pretty telling, I’d say.

Of course, in a family so cut off from the outside world, any external influence that is introduced would be exaggerated, and this happens when one of the father’s female employees is permitted to visit the home regularly, ostensibly to provide the son an outlet for his sexual longings. The woman also sometimes smuggles in contraband items for the girls- first a headband, then some videotapes- that she trades for sexual favors. Eventually, watching movies like Rocky and Flashdance brings out a sense of rebellion in the eldest daughter, but Lanthimos refuses to make this rebellion cathartic for the audience. Sure, the girl begins to assert her independence, but after two decades of isolation she’s ill-prepared for it, and when she decides to break free, the results are harrowing.

The same could be said for the whole of Dogtooth. With only his second film, Lanthimos has created a film so unique in tone- call it “absurdist tragedy”- that it announces him as a formidably gifted filmmaker. Not only does Lanthimos tap vividly into a deep-seated parental fear- that our efforts to shelter and protect our children may be hurting them rather than helping- but he does it with such skill that Dogtooth is an exciting work of art even when it becomes borderline unbearable to watch. It’s a major achievement, and an early front-runner for my favorite film of the year.

Rating: 10 out of 10.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Kids Are All Right (2010, Lisa Cholodenko)

I honestly don’t feel like I have a lot to add to Mike D’Angelo’s spot-on assessment of Cholodenko’s latest, which might as well be titled Scenes From a Might-As-Well-Be-Called-Marriage (But For the Jackasses Who Voted For Proposition 8). The primary virtue of the film is the complexity with which its three grown-up characters are seen- Nic (Annette Bening), a serious doctor with a slight issue with alcohol; Jules (Julianne Moore), Nic’s life partner, a wishy-washy fortysomething perpetually between careers; and Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the anything-goes boho restaurant owner who, a few decades ago, donated the sperm that sired Nic and Jules’ children. Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg, along with the cast, do a fine job establishing the dynamic of the family, in which the adults grapple with everyday problems- the waxing and waning of sexual passion, the encroachment of Nic’s job into the nighttime hours, and so on. All the while, the two of them work hard to bring up well-adjusted kids, albeit of a particularly tolerant variety, and shielding them from their own issues.

Naturally, Paul’s arrival on the scene is an irritant. The kids, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser [!] (Josh Hutcherson), have a right to be curious about the man who provided half their DNA, but likewise do Nic and Jules have the right to be uneasy at the presence of a father figure in the children’s lives after they’ve spent years creating a solid family without one. For his part, Paul is genuinely moved by the introduction of his kids into his life, and he does his best to insinuate himself into theirs, even as it’s clear that his presence isn’t exactly required. The Kids Are All Right handles the dynamic between these five characters with such keen observance and subtlety that it’s something of a letdown when Cholodenko and Blumberg have him embark on an affair with Jules.

That’s not to say that I’m with Jeffrey Wells in his vocal objection to the film’s final marginalization of Ruffalo, since in the end, the family situation must resolve itself, and all else is secondary. Nor was I taken aback by the turn of events that leads the ostensibly girl-loving Jules into Paul’s bed- after all, all three of Cholodenko’s films to date have featured characters whose sexual leanings are rather more fluid than they’d originally thought. It’s just that an affair between Jules and Paul feels too dramatically convenient- too easy an “out”- for this story. Maybe it’s just that I’ve never been a big “plot” guy (which might explain why I never sold a screenplay back when I was trying), but I found the relationship between Nic and Jules’ family and Paul to be interesting enough that the film’s need to turn him into a force working against the family’s happiness felt like a cop out to me. When a movie creates characters as rich as The Kids Are All Right does, I’d rather just see them bounce off each other than be hemmed in by a plot.

Rating: 6 out of 10.