Viewing Log: March 2011
By Fernando F. Croce

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Quiet elation is the tone as the screen is inhabited by serenely striking figures, the viewer asks "Animal, vegetable, or mineral?" and Apichatpong Weerasethakul just smiles mischievously. In this lustrous pastoral reverie, the Thai director envisions a spectral family reunion as ailing Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) has dinner on the porch and a vacant seat is matter-of-factly filled by his wife’s ghost. His long-lost son, transformed into a woolly simian with burning-coal eyes, soon joins them at the table. "There are many beings outside right now," water buffalos and buzzing bees, talking catfish and phantom monkeys, all gliding around as temporal, physical and spiritual frontiers fade. Weerasethakul’s folkloric primitivism is but a façade, this is a web of interweaving souls and dreams as complex as Scheherazade’s, spun delicately by the screen’s most welcoming surrealist. People wade into lagoons and vanish into diamond-studded caves, the format refreshes itself with an oddly unnerving still-photo montage and, without a single raised voice, the dread of mortality is stared down. "Heaven’s overrated, there’s nothing there." A lovable, very funny, absolutely political, uniquely cinematic trance that filled me with memories of beloved people and places as surely as it must have filled Cannes jury prez Tim Burton with memories of Beetlejuice. As it moved with inexplicable grace from a neon-lit funeral to a karaoke bar, I kept thinking, "If only I could exit this world under such shimmering mise-en-scène..."

*

Blue Valentine. From "Let’s be a family" to "I fucking want a divorce" with the Sundance kids. An unambitious house painter (Ryan Gosling) and an aggravated nurse (Michelle Williams) comprise the couple on the autopsy slab, the contrast is between the bubbling euphoria of the early courtship and the sandpapery wreck of the subsequent marriage. At the center is a genuinely harrowing sequence set in a futuristic-themed hotel room of unspeakable tackiness, where booze, exhaustion and resentment segue into combative sex and every attempt to resurrect the flatlining relationship gets rejected like a bad organ transplant. (Panties-less and with eyes tightly shut while underneath the bewildered husband, the woman can only spit out numbly: "Just. Fucking. Stop. It.") Pockmarked with views of aged flesh and bracketed by cries from the couple’s tiny daughter, Derek Cianfrance’s anti-date movie is built for maximum feel-bad effect. Meant to bruise and tick like a time-bomb, however, the temporal hopscotching comes off as haphazardly mannered and, worse, perilously close to the time-destroys-everything horseshit of Noé’s Irreversible. Worth it for the spastic-heartfelt detailing Gosling brings to his blue-collar goofball, and for the way Williams can make herself at once radiant and stringy, but ultimately workshop-patchy and with less emotional truth than any scene from Pialat’s We Won’t Grow Old Together.

*

Another Year. The couple here does grow old together, though their blissful longevity scarcely soothes the sting of Mike Leigh’s ensemble tragicomedy. Forever snuggling and glowing and gardening, the married London suburbanites at its center -- a geologist (Jim Broadbent) and a therapist (Ruth Sheen) -- are offered as the embodiment of tranquil, autumnal contentment. But are they? As the film progresses through its seasons-of-the-soul arc, the twinkling duo are slowly but surely revealed as condescending fortresses ruthlessly reinforcing their happiness by surrounding themselves with assorted emotional disasters. Among their miserable guests are a divorced chum (Peter Wright) frenetically smoking and devouring himself into an early grave, a grimly bereft relative (David Bradley), and, most significantly, a tremulous co-worker (Lesley Manville) whose appearances feel less like visits than like the floor-by-floor demolition of a building. Lost in a haze of wine, self-pity and loneliness, Manville is the scabrous black-hole to Sally Hawkins’ irrepressible Happy-Go-Lucky comet, and, in her outsized desperation, every bit as much of a galvanic alienating effect. Not unlike a Hitchcock villain, she wrestles the focus away from the complacent "normal" protagonists until Leigh asks: Do we laugh at her, do we pity her, or are we her? A small symphony of maddening looks and recoils, simmering with Ozuisms ("Life isn’t always kind, is it?" "No, it isn’t") and a coziness that couldn’t be more confronting.

*

The Way Back. "Nature is your jailer," says the warden, "and she is without mercy." Except for one brief passage in a Dantean coal mine cracked with roaring geysers, the opening section in the Soviet gulag circa 1940 plays like a vault of mossy prison-flick chestnuts occasionally perked up by Colin Farrell’s thuggish pantomiming. It isn’t until the ragtag caravan of escapees (which includes Jim Sturgess and Ed Harris) flees into the arctic darkness donning protective masks improvised out of tree bark that Peter Weir’s gift for sifting environments into the faces and bodies of his characters kicks into gear. The 4,000-mile march is from Siberia to the Himalayas and beyond, or rather from hell to purgatory to something like heaven (the tipoff is Saoirse Ronan’s pale Polish refugee, who’s eventually congealed into Maria Goretti poses). Ranging from frosty woods to sandy expanses, the terrain doesn’t starve for immediate elemental grandeur. Next to the uncanny topography of Picnic at Hanging Rock or The Mosquito Coast, however, the scenery remains too fastidious to lend the prosaic forward-push of the narrative a sense of real, transformative danger. It could have used flashes of madness and absurdity from a Herzog or a Roeg. Shot with Weir’s tasteful worthiness, the physical-spiritual ordeal is sweetened and the landscapes are flattened into academic calendar shots -- screen-saver metaphysics.

*

The Illusionist. So wistful it just about dissolves as you watch it. The Forgotten Artist this time is a fading magician in late 1950s Europe, trying to hang on to his anachronistic gallantry while losing the music hall to limp-wristed rock ‘n’ rollers. Cooling his heels at an Edinburgh hotel with such fellow outdated artisans as suicidal clowns and alcoholic ventriloquists, he’s joined by the last believer, a naïve teenage chambermaid who’s enthralled by his conjuring tricks. When she becomes even more enthralled by high heels, coats and other grown-up finery, the old gent is reduced to donning pink tuxedoes and hawking corsets to avoid disappointing his new surrogate daughter. It sounds like Limelight, though the legendary comic whose shadow looms large here is not Chaplin but Jacques Tati, whose unproduced script served as the basis for this wispy animated feature. Sylvain Chomet, who previously channeled Tati in his very fine The Triplets of Bellevue, crafts pleasing facsimiles of the filmmaker’s miniaturist frames and gags perdu, and the melancholy tenor is aided enormously by the hand-painted animation, which nowadays comes imbued with its own poignancy. But is retrograde whimsy all Chomet sees in Tati, who at his Playtime peak could have modernists like Kubrick and Kienholz furiously taking notes? On its own, the film has gauzy charm; as an evocation of another artist, it’s reductively forlorn.

*

Rango. Like The Illusionist, it’s about changing times and reluctant heroes. But there the similarities end. Where Chomet keys the animation to the languid, graceful fumbling of his main character, a proverbial old stork, Gore Verbinski attunes his to the anxious darting of his eponymous protagonist, a literal reptile. Johnny Depp provides the vocals, and the first of many movie-buff nods comes when the Hawaiian shirt-clad chameleon finds itself bouncing off the windshield of a car driven by a certain gonzo journalist. Indeed, the movie’s entire anthropomorphic populace seems to be comprised of gnarly beasties dreamt up during one of the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas freakouts, with gleefully outsized spaghetti-western archetypes -- a rattlesnake wears Lee Van Cleef’s gaucho hat, the Man With No Name turns up as the presiding divinity -- adding to the hallucinatory effect. Though the plot’s echoes of Chinatown nihilistic rot are slightly diluted by conventional romance, the film remains striking in its rejection of the cute for the risqué and the grotesque, with an emphasis on scaly-quilled-matted textures that boast a richer, stranger cinematic flavor than anything in Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies. It’s something of a jumble, but the kind of risky jumble in which the sun-blasted desert brings to mind Jodorowsky's El Topo as much as Chuck Jones’s Road Runner.

*

Of Gods and Men. When does martyrdom slide into martyrbation? The nobility of committed faith stands side by side with its folly in Xavier Beauvois’ earnest account of the 1996 massacre of a group of French monks in Algeria, a ponderous crowd-pleaser with stray moments of grave beauty. The setting, a Trappist monastery on the outskirts of a small Arab village, is a modest idyll where "the principle of community" seems to trump thorny colonial history and the Bible and the Qur’an tolerate each other. It’s not long until fundamentalist Islamic rebels enter the scene and the abbey is reduced to a rarefied, endangered crumb of order in the middle of the chaos of a warzone. Should the monks get out while the getting’s good, or stay and face the danger (and the limits of their commitment)? The best passages come early on, a lightly formalist observation of quotidian activities (praying, chanting, gardening) composed of faces and silences sometimes worthy of Philip Gröning’s truly inspired documentary Into Great Silence. Lambert Wilson effaces his innate slyness credibly as the pensive abbot, and the redoubtable Michael Lonsdale radiates bottomless wry tenderness as the group’s resident doctor. And I cried, even while deep down wishing for a tougher, less insistently uplifting look at the story’s clashing forms of radicalism, perhaps one directed by Bruno Dumont.

*

The Housemaid. The 1960 original was a tremor of concentrated luridness that rippled through South Korea’s Second Republic veneer not unlike the way Viridiana would rattle Franco’s image of Spain the following year. For the remake, Im Sang-soo hoists the sexual and class skirmishes to the fore, brings the heat level to a simmer, and pours on the sleek camerawork. Also changed is the titular servant, now a working-class naïf amid moneyed gargoyles, less an intruding force than a suffering one -- a dim role, but Jeon Do-yeon, so tremendous in Secret Sunshine, gives it emotional intensity and traces of surreptitious, humid desire. A pampered scion (Lee Jung-jae), his pregnant wife (Woo Seo) and mother-in-law (Park Ji-young) embody bourgeois entitlement, corrupted and corrupting; between planes is the sarcastic old keeper (Yun Yeo-jong), who (shades of Ichikawa’s Odd Obsession) becomes the household’s raspy moral voice in spite of herself. There’s plenty of cleverness in Im’s cunning mise-en-scène: The shift from the rapid cuts and handheld framing of the opening sequence to the sprawling dollies and crane shots of the mansion, the old Joe Losey trick of making the house an accomplice in the intrigue, wolfish wine-gulping and ominous swaths of marble and glass and dark wood. Still, even with a literally incendiary climax and an out-of-nowhere coda (a child's vision? a parody of Lynch?), it can’t touch the original’s spiraling perversity.

*

No Strings Attached. Not as noxious as Love and Other Drugs, but really, can we please stop with the montages of magazine-cover cuties schtupping on kitchen tables? Teeny, tinny and smugly cute, Natalie Portman is a med student whose hectic schedule and commitment-phobia make her a firm believer in the Fuck-Buddy System. Aspiring TV writer and professional plank of balsa wood Ashton Kutcher is happy to oblige. Their carnal arrangement works, but how long could it be before emotions and rom-com conventions kick in and the two bunnies are reminded of the importance of spooning and breakfast together? Some salt comes from supporting sharpshooters like Greta Gerwig (a sort of neurasthenic Joan Blondell) and an almost Elaine May-ish Lake Bell. Otherwise, the most intriguing aspect of this calculated mix of raunch and adorability lies in the rivalry between Kutcher and his dad (Kevin Kline), surely some kind of submerged metaphor about Ivan Reitman crossing into his son Jason’s slick Up in the Air turf.

*

Hall Pass. Another example of an impudent concept employed to ultimately reinforce conservative mores, Peter and Bobby Farrelly’s comeback farce nevertheless has enough bite and generosity to outclass Reitman’s plastic confection. The theme is the aging American horndog, personified by Owen Wilson (shading rue into his patented mellowness) and Jason Sudeikis as domesticated roamers pining for lost coolness. Tired of their roving eyes and furtive jack-off sessions, their wives (Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate, both good) give the fellas (and themselves) a week off from marital fidelity, a gambit that kicks off a string of scatological gags, naturally, but also a maelstrom of self-deception and mutual dissatisfaction. Perpetually like the Coen brothers in reverse (zero filmmaking chops, plenty of compassion for their characters), the Farrellys remain fuzzy Horaces masquerading as excremental Juvenals -- despite a choice cameo by Richard Jenkins as a leathery nightclub lizard, the climax’s frenetic pileup of mismatched couples makes it obvious that the model isn’t Cassavetes’ scratchy Husbands but Mazursky’s bet-hedging Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. And yet, how many other comic auteurs today could follow fecal-splatter jokes with outbursts of naked emotion? With Blake Edwards gone, Mel Brooks in self-recycling hibernation and Judd Apatow’s tentacles in every other comedy, their humane vulgarity still matters.

*

Cedar Rapids. Miguel Arteta could use some of the Farrellys’ empathy. From to Chuck & Buck to Youth in Revolt, his mining of humor in discomfort has often trafficked in patronizing snippiness, a trait all too amply displayed in this blobby hybrid of frat-dude slapstick and Alexander Payne-approved Middle America smirking. The plot is knowingly microwaved Capra, its Mr. Smith a small-town insurance broker (Ed Helms) who travels to an annual convention at the titular Iowa burg, gasps at big-city wackiness (key cards! lesbian weddings! black roommates!), and sheds his innocence when faced with corporate hypocrisy. "We are all selling something," the protagonist is told, though the threat of corruption is less significant here than the assumed hilarity of shirtless guys standing too close to one another. Seemingly edited with a spork and with more shadows than a slasher flick, it twitches to life whenever Anne Heche (nicely red-tinted heartland fox) and John C. Reilly (back-slapping Id Bigfoot) take over.


Reviewed March 14, 2011.

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