Friday, November 25, 2011

Pedro Almodovar's "The Skin I Live In" (2011)


by James Hansen

There are many reasons to call Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In uncomfortable. Without going into major spoilers, the first could be the overall strangeness and darkness of the plot – Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a celebrated scientist, has found a way to create a new, perfect skin, particularly burn victims, which can withstand all cuts and burns. Inside his enormous, secluded home, he runs a lab testing experiments on a beautiful patient, Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya), who lives in a locked room. She does yoga. Writing covers the walls. Soon, he is told to shut down the operation or else he face pressure from the scientific community. Obsessed, he retreats to his home to keep close watch over his patient as he finishes his project.



This may be strange enough, but it isn’t new for Almodovar whose stories have been decidedly zany and slightly deranged throughout his celebrated career. Ever the stylist, Almodovar’s has fallen into forms of self-parody throughout his 2000s film, employing sly winks to his own repertoire instead of using his plastic veneer and popping color palette to enhance his stories. In Skin, at first, it seems as if Almodovar may be back to his more productive ways. His hyper-modified world (glass doors, laboratories, contemporary domestic interiors, molecular modification) is benefited by the faux-glaze of Almodovar’s design. It echoes and deepens the space in which Skin’s narrative takes place. But. after a guy in a tiger outfit emerges for a rape scene that seems to be played for laughs, the expanding emotional tenor is completely upended and the stylistic balance abandoned for shock.


Moving midway through the film into a series of flashbacks to provide expository (and crucial) details of the scientist and his patient, Almodovar uses style as a means of revealing unexpected (not to mention unjustified) details while ignoring the turbulent physical and emotional complexities of Skin. There is a sense of pleasure in the swift melodramatic twists, but they aren’t fed through any kind of pathos. Almodovar piles on the shock without earning (or logically proposing) its moments or its catharsis. A stain is cast across Skin leaving Almodovar’s world in a state of confusion. Of course, melodrama pushes events to the nth degree, but, even as everything boils over, there is a reason for that boiling, an incident that caused the effect, and a justification for action. The Skin I Live In boils for the sake of boiling and its formula never coheres. The overall sense of emotional confusion isn’t a symptom of affective response, but rather of a filmmaker displaying his own uncertainty and discomfort in confronting the issues his film raises. This film is uncomfortable in its own skin – and it shows.

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Friday, November 11, 2011

On Naming and Animals: Sean Durkin's "Martha Marcy May Marlene" (2011)



by James Hansen

There’s something about this title, this name – Martha Marcy May Marlene. Of course, it is the name of a new movie out this week, written and directed by Sean Durkin. Within the film, it reflects the various states taken on by the lead character, most commonly known as Martha (Elizabeth Olsen). These stages are temporally dislocated by the film’s non-linear structure creating a constant slippage of who is on screen (is this Martha or Marcy May?), which events are impacting what (it certainly isn’t so easy as to be unidirectional), and who follows whom (who comes where? who is going where? when did they get there?) Because, while the plot bounces between two levels, there is a critical third register which remains absent from the narrative. This missing element has something to do with Martha’s origin, with Marcy May’s emergence, with the calling of Marlene. There’s something about a name.


MMMM begins with an ending. After a dash through the woods, Marcy May escapes from a seemingly nice group of people. There are some strange signs – the women stand outside the dining room as the men eat – but, at the start, nothing seems that off-putting. (Like Martha's own experience with the group, MMMM slowly wades into its troubling world.) Still, Martha calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson). Lucy is more than surprised to hear her voice. Quickly, Martha becomes hysterical and inconsolable. Confused and concerned, Lucy comes to the rescue. Whatever had happened before is over. But within this ending lies the potential for it to begin again, for it to violently reemerge, for it to appear like a mirage across a serene lake. For Martha, her new beginning follows this ending, while, at the same time, it is followed by the ending. The end is, then, not an end, and the start not a beginning. They are one in the same, despite personalized attempts to pull them apart. Like an alliterative series, there may be separate fragments, but they are bound together, they have a role, and they demand a chained circular cycle.

MMMM shows that the chain’s breaking is just another way of the cycle extending its reach, deepening its impact, and claiming new victims. Before long, Martha isn’t the only one damaged. Unable to remember details (or unwilling to share them) Martha cannot communicate her inner-torture to Lucy. Try as they might, Lucy and her husband lash out at Martha’s blank stares, indifference to life, and unwillingness to communicate. As MMMM develops, they perpetuate the same cycle as the one from which Martha ran away. Durkin perhaps overstates the case, reaching for unexpected (not to mention unbelievable) histrionics and building upon far too many trying-to-be-clever match cuts which come across as cutesy rather than instructive. Nonetheless, the message is clear, controlled, and effective. Once the cycle is instilled, it cannot be thought away. In all likelihood, it cannot be cut off, only extended further.


It starts so simply. It starts with a name. Martha arrives at her new home (How did she get here? Why did she come here? Only Martha knows.) She meets a group of men and women. The men hummmm songs while playing guitars. (Footnote: given what I go into later, it should be noted here that only Patrick sings songs with lyrics. He is the only one granted a voice. If, as we'll see, naming plays a large role here, then its dominance extends into larger concerns about language as a whole.) They work together in the garden. They all contribute. They are all assimilated into the group. At the start, Martha seems happy, but her role is uncertain. She meets Patrick (John Hawkes). In their first exchange, she introduces herself as Martha. With a sly smile, he responds, “You look like a Marcy May” and walks away. Following Derrida, God allows Adam, without his intervention, to name animals. Man, and man alone, is given the ability to name. First and foremost, this not only asserts man’s dominance over animals, but, indeed, the power and authority of man over all living things. This creates a dangerous position in which all living things are stripped of their subjectivity and treated as lifeless objects. Marcy May has been named. Marlene is the name which the women must answer when (literally) called. Patrick’s ability to name (and Martha’s inability to assert her own name, which came before Patrick but is obliterated by him) isn’t merely in the name of appearance (“You look like a Marcy May”); rather, this singular act of naming initiates his dominance over the secondary creatures in his Garden of Eden. Moreover, it is the first step which feeds into the systematized violence, rape, and murder which he commits, oversees, and directs throughout the course of MMMM.


It starts with the animal. Marcy May is in the woods learning to shoots guns. Shaking, her first shot flies astray. Patrick comes along and gives her a hand. Emphasizing a feeling of hate, fear, and anger, he tells her to channel those tensions through her body and into the trigger. Bullseye. But, after shooting the glass bottle, Patrick isn’t done. He asks her to shoot a cat. She refuses. He tells her it has cancer and is suffering terribly. She can’t. He gives her another option – shoot one of the men, Max. He’s worthless and doesn’t do his work. Max stutters and almost giggles until Patrick grabs her hand and raises the gun towards him. He freezes. Marcy May balks. Patrick pushes further. Death is a kind of nirvana. Max tries to walk away, but Patrick commands him to stop. He does, for a moment, until, fearfully convinced of Patrick’s threat, he walks toward Patrick and shoots the cat. “Why did you do that?” Patrick asks. “You said it had cancer.” “One of the cats had cancer. Zoe knew which one.” Max apologizes and runs away.

Marcy May is off the hook, but Patrick’s dominance is further entrenched. Marcy May refuses to shoot the cat or Max. To her, they are equally living beings. Max, on the other hand, is willing to kill the cat (and save himself.) It is, after all, just a cat. Known as “cat,” it doesn’t have the same subjectivity as Max. Though Max proves his misplaced dominance over the cat, Patrick affirms his authority over everything. Patrick is willing to kill the sick cat or Max. Both are under his control and both are weak. Not only weak, but he doesn’t know them and doesn’t take their death seriously. By ignoring mortality (“everyone just exists”), every creature in his house functions as an object to be dominated. In fact, Patrick extends this beyond just his house and into all the surrounding areas. His creatures, like a well-greased machine, break into houses and steal various items. When they are caught by a man, they cannot take any chances. Patrick’s group watches as the man is killed. Patrick appears less rattled by this than by the death of the cat. It creates a sort of breaking point for Marcy May and, still, Patrick chides her weakness to which Marcy May apologizes. It starts with making the animal an object for dominance. It starts with a name.


His world is in place. Its chains are locked. MMMM begins with Marcy May breaking from it. Yet the further she gets away from it, the larger the circle becomes. The deeper the cycle goes. Once in place, it subsumes everything around it. It ensures new beginnings are neither new nor beginnings. It follows everywhere and becomes its own following. It says “follow me” while it is simultaneously in front and behind. In the film’s brilliant final shot, Durkin locates the impossibility of resolution in the recognition of the film’s own resolve. Martha sits in the back of the car. The car has nearly been hit. “Some kind of maniac.” In a medium shot, we see her confused, slightly worried face and out of the rear windshield behind her. The car starts to move forward. Yet, here, what is behind her – a lurking SUV – does not recede in the distance. Instead, it gets closer as she remains static – moving in the car to some new destination, some new beginning, some answer, while also resolutely in the same place. The SUV approaches. It gets nearer and nearer, so close as to almost hit the car. There isn’t a wreck, but the wreck is obvious. This SUV, Patrick’s world, is following from behind, but it is inevitably what she is heading towards. Inescapable, it is already waiting at her next destination. It is there before her and following after. She doesn’t know where she’s going, but she know what’s coming with her – Martha, Marcy May, and Marlene. But who is following whom?

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Monday, November 7, 2011

Andrew Haigh's "Weekend" (2011)



by James Hansen

On first glance, it seems easy to pin Andrew Haigh’s Weekend onto the tired formula of romantic dramas – guy meets girl, eyes cross, sparks and sex, consequence/decision/fallout, doom or reconciliation. Of course, the most obvious “spin” here is that Weekend is distinctly gay. Russell (Tom Cullen) meets Glen (Chris New) at a gay club, they hook up, and so the relationship fall-in/fallout begins. (Make no mistake: many critics have attempted to dilute the film’s gayness in hopes of drawing in scared-straight audiences – a respectable attempt, I suppose, but a misguided one all the same. Yes, folks, this is a Gay movie.) But is this all Weekend has to offer?


If one looks only at the surface, then, perhaps, yes. The formula is evident throughout and becomes even more so as it nears the inevitable conclusion. But where Weekend’s unique power resides is in Haigh’s gaze toward what is neither on the surface nor under it, but the deeply embedded, unspoken tensions in between. This isn’t a space that can be determined by grand formulas, sweeping scale, or grandiose ideas. In fact, it isn’t a realm that can be defined, although it defines. It is where everything happens. It is modern experience. And its identity is found in the subtle minutiae that Haigh astutely observes: an indecisive stutter, the light touch of a hand, a glance through a window, the stirring of instant coffee, the shuffling of emoticons, the clenching of a jaw – in these perfunctory, banal moments, Weekend finds a world waiting, a relationship brewing, a person forming. Yet, oscillating in the unfixed gap between one and another, there is always a sun setting, a night ending, a train leaving.


Here, Weekend reveals itself through these moments, which open further onto its conceit, its “formula” – the weekend. For Russell and Glen, the weekend may indicate the completion of a work week, but it isn’t an end to anything. It is the time when, free from the constraints of labor (lest we be too Marxian), they are free to be themselves in whatever form they want to be. The weekend, then, isn’t an end or a beginning, but it is the very space between these formal constraints of identity (work/not work, hetero/homo, single/couple, union/marriage) – the very same area that Glen explores in his art – that Weekend lives in. On the weekend, there are no tenable solutions to problems. The fracture is too large. Filled with trepidation, the critical, unanswerable question is where to position oneself outside of the gap. Can unassailable romance still be an answer? Can that question even be seriously proposed? In his final moments with Russell, Glen finds no cure, but realizes the appropriate response to the weekend’s symptom. With a hug, a kiss, and, the tables turned, an indecisive stutter– “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.” And on he goes.

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Friday, September 16, 2011

Shadowing the Spotlight: Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive" (2011)



...Refn makes it clear the Driver isn’t fit for the spotlight, nor does he want to be caught in it. Instead, he lurks in the shadows waiting for the scanning lights to vanish – a sign of his opportunity to assimilate with the rest of humanity. He is nothing if not a reluctant super hero decidedly unaware of his powers due to their quotidian function in his life.


by James Hansen

The opening scene of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (winner of Best Director at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival) provides a gut check for the stoic, passionately low key Driver (Ryan Gosling). With almost no dialogue, the Driver runs through an entire mission. Clenching his fist, he sits in his car. He waits patiently, listening to the slow crackle of his gloves, the gentle hum of his car, the reports of a police radio, and the excited voices calling the final quarter of a basketball radio broadcast. He negotiates the information gathered through this array of sounds, perfectly timing his escape from approaching squad cars and choppers with the outpouring of fans from the Staples Center.

The bright lights of downtown Los Angeles shoot around the screen, as do the flashing blues and reds of cop cars and the bright white beam of a helicopter’s spotlight. Despite these apparent dangers, the Driver’s world is understated, simple, and perhaps second rate – he waits on the end of a Clippers game, not the Lakers. He is in such control of his surroundings and the given situation, nothing comes as a surprise.


While the scene bristles with excitement, the Driver’s gaze is casual, if not practically bored. As the criminals shudder with fear in the back seat, the Driver remains defiantly neutral and unaffected by the perils of his situation. His knowledge of the darkness of the streets, as well as his day job as a Hollywood stunt man, grants him a sense of ease. He absorbs urban complexity, supposed danger, and potential failure and projects them as decidedly simple, non-threatening, and undoubted successes. With this early scene (not to mention the appropriately praised soundtrack which underlies the dated, otherworldly textures which permeate Drive’s swift running time), Refn makes it clear the Driver isn’t fit for the spotlight, nor does he want to be caught in it. Instead, he lurks in the shadows waiting for the scanning lights to vanish – a sign of his opportunity to assimilate with the rest of humanity. He is nothing if not a reluctant super hero decidedly unaware of his powers due to their quotidian function in his life.


As Drive continues, it becomes clear this is impossible. He isn’t a normal guy. He can’t escape his heroic destiny. It is just a matter of time before the spotlight catches up and shines on him. Refn confronts this notion through questions of family, allegiance, and protection. Although Driver lacks such personal qualities, he finds them through his interactions with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son. Their relationship is brief and dreamlike – they float around unexpected places in Los Angeles building a solemn, yet deep rapport through glances, sly smiles, and light touches. Refn refuses a clearly delineated romantic narrative – an element that will surely frustrate many viewers. The extreme brevity seems a hollow short cut, but it importantly mirrors the temporal nature of Driver and Irene’s relationship. They don’t have many moments together, but, when they do, it always means something. Refn understands a standard romantic narrative would never happen. Rather, like a flickering light, their “love” can only flash up for a split second before it disappears.

When Irene’s husband returns from prison, Driver sits idly by, even as the chances for a love connection are complicated. There are some brief moments of tension (benefited by the great performances), but Driver’s willingness to remain on the sidelines of the family indicate the stronger psychic willingness of his character to just be there – something Irene’s husband is unable to do. Driver doesn’t aggressively pursue Irene. Instead, he finds her husband in a difficult situation and tries to put his talents to use for them. This isn’t a competition for Irene, and Drive’s narrative seems wholly uninterested in this being deemed a love story. But if love means someone always being on your side, the Driver abides.


In the final act, the impossibility of the situation takes over. Drive, initially so restrained, is taken over by extreme violence, hostility, and heartless backstabbing. Driver can no longer maintain his blank slate status. Echoing the opening scene, as the situation crumbles around him, the Driver knows every move he has to make. This time, though, he steps into the sun and accepts his role as the hero (as the soundtrack makes completely obvious). Still, he can’t be hugged, accepted, or celebrated as such. Unable to be the heroic everyman, he must fade away, once again, into shadows and darkness.

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Monday, September 12, 2011

Lewis Klahr's Music Video for Gabriel Kahane's "LA"


Simultaneously adaptive and original, the music video lays claim to both sources of inspiration through disjunctive unity and its own originality. Is this a Didion adaptation, a distinct music video for Kahane’s song, or a Lewis Klahr video? Like the lead character in all three forms, LA maintains this wonderful, contradictory status.


by James Hansen

Adapted for Gabriel Kahane's single "LA" and based on Joan Didion's novel Play It As It Lays, Lewis Klahr's music video LA echoes the soft repetition of Kahane's song as it quietly reflects upon the larger narrative of Didion's novel. (You can view the video here). Klahr’s work may be the third element of connective tissue here, yet its unique assemblage harmonizes origin and adaptation by placing them in direct dialogue with one another. At the same time, Klahr’s LA is a dual adaptation of each dialogic element thereby becoming its own link in this inspired chain. Simultaneously adaptive and original, the music video lays claim to both sources of inspiration through disjunctive unity and its own originality. Is this a Didion adaptation, a distinct music video for Kahane’s song, or a Lewis Klahr video? Like the lead character in all three forms, the video maintains this wonderful, contradictory status.

Beginning with a highway of unsettled lights, a blonde woman drives. If not on the road, she sits in various rooms staring towards an out of focus television, busily rotating a tuning signal. The object is so unsettled it fails to serve its own function – providing a proper image. A shot of loose, dangling keys puts the woman back on the road. Shuffling through an endless array of cars and flashes of newspaper clippings, she seems to settle, briefly, near City Hall in downtown Los Angeles.


As Kahane begins to sing (“The color wheel and the western sky...”), Klahr's video fades to black then comes back to the same location. The black-and-white female figure enters the scene. She arrives in a split plan – the corner of the Klahr’s cutout of the building creates a harsh black line, separating her from the landscape. A dangling tree limb on the right side of the plane nearly matches her eyeline. Hidden from view behind this figurative tree, she recedes behind the picture plane as she moves toward the building, disappearing into an invisible, non-existent (perhaps psychic) space beyond the city. (“The reflection of a stranger in a strange fluorescent light”) Her shadow reflects on her plane – in her private space – but it cannot carry over into the public space of the city.

Suddenly amidst a colorful crowd, she wanders through a group of dancing couples who provide a view of life drastically different than her own. Echoing Didion's novel, Klahr, in this moment, reveals her detachment from and inability to communicate with the people of Los Angeles and the modern world at large. Colorless, she is unable to place herself among this crowd. Instead, she wanders through these spaces in order to pass the time. She smokes, drinks, and has casual sexual encounters with men. Distressed and exhausted, she doesn't live in her own world. Rather, as seen in the several moments throughout the video, she hovers above it, fades in and out, and is also pulled down - literally and figuratively - into endless malaise.


Through the rest of the song, Klahr reveals a series of events caused by this cycle. A series of different colored circles unites the video. Floating through the space or spinning in place, the circles rotate like a tire across a neverending landscape. Klahr plays off the imagery of Kahane’s song (“The man puts on the yellow gloves,” “She sees herself in stereo”) and Didion’s novel (needles, pills in hotel rooms, mental anguish, frozen clocks in clinics, rain) creating a dialectical narrative through his signature, cutout style. Where does this all lead? The woman continues to drive, but, caught in a closeup, a sharp, white light burns her memory away. The road is her pathway to nowhere. Still, she has to keep moving. The selfish city wins again.

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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Reviews In Brief: "A Good Old Fashioned Orgy" (2011)



Self-restricted by their punch-line premise, Gregory and Huyck fall back on their concept to an unbelievably cookie-cutter degree. By the time Orgy ends, it is nothing more than a turgid Vegas fantasy: random sex, t-shirts, and no consequences.

by James Hansen

With a title like A Good Old Fashioned Orgy, writers/directors Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck aren’t afraid of their central concept. Surprise, surprise – it actually is about a group of 30-something friends, headed by Eric (Jason Sudeikis), who attempt to configure an orgy as the final party in Eric’s East Hampton summer home. There isn’t really much development past this. Instead, Gregory and Huyck let Orgy wander hoping the cast provides the magic for their sketch.

The strangest thing of all is that it almost works. Despite his friend’s sexual inhibitions and concerns – “it’s an orgy, not The Accused” – Eric eventually convinced everyone to participate in the orgy. Just as this happens, he starts crushing on Kelly (Leslie Bibb), the realtor responsible for selling the house. Sudeikis gives a great performance, playing Eric as soft and considerate while also having a real connection full of in-jokes with his friends. Charming as hell, he builds a nice rapport with the chameleonic Bibb who manages to look like a different person in every scene.



Discussing the exploits of today’s teenagers, Eric hears that “blow jobs are the new French kiss.” However, his sweet and slow approach run counter to the nostalgiac desire to relive adolescence. For a few fleeting moments, A Good Old Fashioned Orgy appears as if it may turn the corner from a summer dude movie to an effective rom-com, carefully treading through the contradictory desire for liberating, meaningless party sex and the nurturing touch provided by a caring relationship and a series of small kisses.

Self-restricted by their punch-line premise, Gregory and Huyck fall back on their concept to an unbelievably cookie-cutter degree. By the time Orgy ends, it is nothing more than a turgid Vegas fantasy: random sex, t-shirts, and no consequences. While hardly unexpected, Orgy overlooks the good it has going for it in favor of easy laughs. Though it stands out as a surprisingly decent summer comedy, if Orgy has some guts, it could have been a keeper. Instead, it was only interested in a one-night stand.

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Friday, August 26, 2011

Derailed in Creatureland



"What is perhaps more strange is that the creatures are never pleasant, entrancing, or inviting. Their maniacally hushed, whispery voices seeping from a dusty ash pit undoubtedly resemble a children’s nightmares, not their unique opportunity for fantastical escape. Why a young, scared girl follows creepy voices into a basement and down an ash pit where she finds a pile of teeth is a mysterious concept, even taking account of Sally’s family circumstances."

by James Hansen

Produced and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, Troy Nixey’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a near carbon copy of del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. A young girl, Sally (Bailee Madison), is pushed into unfortunate circumstances – a cross-country move in with her architect father, Alex (Guy Pearce) and Kim his interior designer girlfriend (Katie Holmes). Putting the finishing touches on an important redesign, the house’s strange history is buried literally beneath its surface. Among the remnants of the creepy, yet refurbished house, Sally finds the possibility of escape within a fantasy world of creatures who, unlike her parents, want her and need her.


Unlike Pan’s Labyrinth, Sally’s escape appears as misplaced. Kim shows Sally the real imaginative wonders of the house (and the film’s expectedly solid production design) – lush gardens, expanding mazes, and a small pool filled with fish from Japan. However, Sally, still drawn towards the calls of the creatures, falls deeper into trouble as her curiosity soon leads to violent acts around the house. What is perhaps more strange is that the creatures are never pleasant, entrancing, or inviting. Their maniacally hushed, whispery voices seeping from a dusty ash pit undoubtedly resemble a children’s nightmares, not their unique opportunity for fantastical escape. Why a young, scared girl follows creepy voices into a basement and down an ash pit where she finds a pile of teeth is a mysterious concept, even taking account of Sally’s family circumstances.

Nonetheless, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’s first half successfully establishes a moody, destructive atmosphere. As light wind blows through the shafts of the basement, Nixey allows the film to linger among the chilled, strange spaces. The black hole of the open ash pit signals the incoming, unexpected horror. These brief moments are among the film’s most successful. As Sally, Bailee Madison performs with a distanced, quizzical gaze as her ambivalent pouts turn into genuine terror. Madison embodies the film’s dark, dreary tone. Perhaps entranced by her own fear, Sally’s fragile psyche begins to wear down as the creatures’ presence becomes more prominent.


And, as is becoming more typical, the reveal of the creatures derails the film. The story’s most basic logic – the weakness of the creatures is light – is bent, abused, and reveals itself as a worthless plank. In what seems to be a critical set piece – pulled from the Silence of the Lambs playbook – Sally attempts to create visual evidence of the creatures. Yet, this extended sequence amount to only mild annoyance for the hostile creatures and the seemingly important, late-addition subplot is dropped. What is more, the creature’s capabilities multiply as they slowly shift from strange voices to knife-wielding bastards who can turn off lights and bound people with ropes. This creates an unnecessary imbalance between the opposing forces and ultimately flatlines the film’s final act. Even in the standard expository visit to the library amount to a recognition of truth, but no new knowledge to bring forward. Without a weakness and a mechanism for escape, the story and the film drag to an inevitable, uninspired conclusion. Once again, mystery and dread are abandoned in favor of nonsensical screeches, cheap reveals, and swelling music. Obsessed with their creatures, Nixey and del Toro merely organize scenes rather than letting the film naturally develop. This leaves the wonders of the film’s first half buried under the surface of a surprisingly standard movie in desperate need of redesign.

C+

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Monday, August 22, 2011

Morris Makes a Tabloid, For Better and Worse



"DA Pennebaker said of his 1993 documentary The War Room that if Bill Clinton hadn’t won the election, they wouldn’t have really had a movie. Tabloid certainly fits the bill as entertainment, but it is unclear whether it is much of an Errol Morris documentary without Kirk."

by James Hansen

Although it has been around since the 1820s, Mormonism seems to be having a cultural moment in 2011. There has been The Book of Mormon, which uses a Mormon mission to brilliantly situate musical theater as one of the world’s great religions, as well as Mitt Romney’s second-run for the presidency, again undercutting political debate with effervescent theology. Added to the list is Errol Morris’s new film Tabloid.


Tabloid documents the strange life story of Joyce McKinney. In the 1970s, the beauty queen McKinney moved to Los Angeles and fell in love with Kirk Anderson, a young Mormon. After Kirk leaves the country for his Mormon mission – a brainwashing disappearance according to McKinney – she flies to England in order to save him from the Mormon cult. McKinney finds Kirk at which point they either have a lovely, sex-crazed honeymoon or McKinney kidnapped Kirk, chained him to a bed, and forced sex on his pure Mormon soul for three days. His planet doomed, word of the story got to the press. Shortly after, the story became a tabloid sensation.

Like much of Morris’s acclaimed work, Tabloid cycles around the key players in McKinney’s strange story. As different versions of facts appear from McKinney, her accomplices, and tabloid writers, it becomes clear that the sensational nature of the story is also what fascinates Morris. The whole situation is pitched as rather silly and perhaps rightfully so: the virginal beauty queen chasing down the crazy Mormon and ruining his mission to become a god. Morris’s film represents its own version of the tabloid: whizzing by with more and more details that get stranger and stranger as McKinney expounds on her love affair with Kirk. She, of course, never has a chance against Morris, as his film exposé turns into something of an entertaining hit piece, albeit one with a subject that is so consumed by her untruths that recovery of a sense of sanity appears long gone.


Yet, also like a tabloid, Morris’s film becomes increasingly entertaining just as it reveals itself as strangely shabby and devoid of serious consideration for its subject matter. Morris’s editing establishes an ironic banter with both Mormonism – an ex-missionary unrelated to the story details notorious aspects of the Mormon religion with an unkempt tie and frazzled hair – and Christianity via McKinney’s claims of chastity with God channelled through her star-crossed, brainwashed Mormon. But where is Kirk in all of this? An end credit states that Kirk refused to be interviewed. In the film’s latter stages, Tabloid strains through this non-presence. Rather than adding to some sort of mystery, Kirk is a distracting elephant in the room, a crucial element missing in action. DA Pennebaker said of his 1993 documentary The War Room that if Bill Clinton hadn’t won the election, they wouldn’t have really had a movie. Tabloid certainly fits the bill as entertainment, but it is unclear whether it is much of an Errol Morris documentary without Kirk.


All the same, this may explain why Morris gives so much time not just to the Kirk story and its fallout, but also the rest of McKinney’s tabloid-filled life. For an invested audience, this is certainly fun and games. Nonetheless, the final third illustrates its fatuousness with an overwhelmingly tangential aside regarding McKinney’s extreme love for her dog, Booger. This makes it clear that Tabloid isn’t really a religious intervention, nor an encounter with versions of the truth. It is a Looney Tunes documentary of the living tabloid Joyce McKinney.

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Friday, July 8, 2011

Reviews In Brief: "Horrible Bosses"



by James Hansen

There are several scenes in Seth Gordon’s Horrible Bosses in which the main characters, Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), Dale (a painfully unfunny Charlie Day), and Nick (Jason Bateman), scream at each other while driving around in a car. Trapped in this environment, their voices create a cacophony of screaming (Sueikis), squealing (Day), and mild-mannered whining (Bateman). It is a messy collision of noise, the likes of which is fairly typical in buddy comedies. Nonetheless, it manages to seem egregious, not to mention particularly symbolic, of the Horrible Bosses’ pitfalls.

Gordon places three comedic styles in a car, turns up the volume, and hopes for magic. However, Sudeikis, Day, and Bateman consistently perform completely different styles of comedy. While this may create some chaos for the inept, scantily-written characters and the obnoxiously obvious storyline (“We were just joking the other night when we were talking about killing our bosses, right?), there is no comedic sense from the mini-ensemble. Save the brief, pleasant turns from Colin Farrell as a coked-out boss’s son and Jamie Foxx as suspiciously uninformed hitman, the only thing that comes out is cobbled-together, tone-deaf clutter.

Further destroying the case is perhaps the film’s major “buzz item” – Jennifer Aniston’s supporting role as Dr. Julia Harris, a sex-crazed dentist. Only slightly less disparaging than message board and blog discussions of whether Aniston will or won’t show her boobies is her actual performance. Pitched via the screenplay as an extra-textual cry for attention from an “aging and sexless” actress, Julia is so desperate for sex that she performs a striptease in order to hook up with someone who stalks her from a parked car outside her apartment. (This someone is the ladies man, Kurt, who teaches the important lesson that every woman is just waiting for an anonymous man to screw them). The rampant sexism and homophobia are the ultimate insults in a movie that absurdly relishes in them.


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Monday, May 16, 2011

Caves, History, Humanity, Herzog


by James Hansen

What is it exactly that is being forgotten in Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams? Following his recent line of “nature documentaries” (Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World), Herzog locates a strange, uninhabitable place in which he finds traces of unique humanity. Crucial is the idea of forgetfulness which is more present in Cave than the prior documentaries. And it is easy to forget. The humanity in the caves has been temporally displaced by 35,000 years and is, in some sense, unrecoverable.

Scientists and archaeologists speak with educated hypotheses. Herzog uses this model to grant himself leeway to make many of his boldest claims. Are these caves and cave paintings signs of the foundation of the modern human soul? Are the figures in the painting calling out to the present? Art lovers should find this of inherent interest, as art is the thing that crosses the void of time and space between the present day researchers and the mythic man with the crooked pinky finger who has forever left his mark on the cave walls.


Here, we may find the strongest link between Cave and Grizzly Man. If Timothy Treadwell used video and documentary to create a endless archive of his experiences with the grizzlies (and, perhaps, as Seung-Hoon Jeong and Dudley Andrew argue, it becomes a vision of man becoming-animal), history is written not in video, but on the cave walls – the nature of man inscribed in nature itself. What then of animals? Although there are exceptions which Herzog seems more drawn to in Cave, the majority of the paintings are of animals: skulls and ancient footsteps of wolves cover the ground of the caves. The paintings indicate a deep connection and fascination with animals – their movement, shape, and sounds. Is this a sign of a model of the world that Timothy Treadwell dreamed of? Was everything united? And would a permeable conception of history reestablish this supposedly utopian vision?


What can’t be overlooked in this equation, however, is Herzog. To some extent, Cave lets the caves speak for themselves. There are countless, stand-alone images of the paintings calling out to the audience (and in 3D no less!) Still, Herzog – as The Modern Man – plays an essential role. He not only writes Cave’s narrative, carrying with it his oftentimes tiresome, sometimes engaging, musings on art. In his attempts to recover the origin of man, companied with Cave’s mutant coda and a remembrance of Grizzly Man, Herzog brings in a new dose of old modernism. Given its failures, Herzog attempts to overcome this modernist gap. Cave won’t let us forget how rare an opportunity it is for the cave’s to be recorded. This is the last chance for them to be filmed, seen, experienced, and recovered. With Cave, Herzog reenacts Treadwell’s archival process as a means of capturing this fleeting place, space, and moment – a moment when recovery and origin appear possible.

Nonetheless, Herzog, in his brief coda, wipes out the aura crafted throughout Cave and turns us again toward a rehash Grizzly Man. Power plants suggest a transformation of humanity into contemporary mutants. If Grizzly Man captures a uniquely modern encounter with the violence of nature, then perhaps this is what is being forgotten – or, at least, what has changed. As humanities bond with nature has broken down, violence overtakes both nature and man. The violence of nature cedes to a nature of violence. Humanity has forgotten nature and, in so doing, has transmuted into a version of our own forgotten selves.


Yet even if the caves call to us from the past, Herzog wags his finger at the audience for not listening to them and puts himself in the place to be the man who hears. The power is placed in the creator and crafter of all images, whether an ancient man, Timothy Treadwell, or Werner Herzog. Herzog’s call for permeable history and interaction with the paintings, however, splits from this sense of grand arbiters of humanity. Is democratic, unified humanity to be celebrated by the trumpeting of a single man? Herzog interjects himself into the caves (and into his movie) too far and runs counter to his own method. It nearly becomes the mark of a man who came, saw, recorded, and went, leaving claw marks instead of bread crumbs on the way from the darkness of caves into the bright light of nature. When the researchers asked for silence to let the caves speak for themselves, it might have been best for Herzog to turn down the megaphone.

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Friday, May 6, 2011

Rubber (2011): Self-Destructing Detachment


by James Hansen

It would seem fitting to start this review by asking the question “What the hell is this movie?,” but I fear that already gives too much credit to Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber, a puzzlingly simple-minded take on Hollywood’s recent obsession with object-based horror and the implicit violence contained within the simple-minded bemusement of captive audiences. Here, the killing object – Jimmy the Tire – is given a powerful subject position, while the viewing audience (in and outside the film) revert into dumb(founded) objects. Rubber tries to mediate these experiences and challenge the agency granted to subjects and objects in both art and industry. Dupieux hopes to do this through a Beckett-like strategy described by Adorno as “the abdication of the subject.” These lofty aims are difficult to meet – so perhaps I shouldn’t be as hard on Rubber as I’m about to be – but, in the end, Dupieux shows a misunderstanding of his own project. Instead of challenging the audience and moving the bizarrely relevant narrative basis to unique heights, Rubber sputters and implodes. But is that exactly what it wanted to do?


This is all quite unfortunate considering that Rubber, after a prologue which begins the film, has an incredible sequence with layered concerns central to its philosophical premise. The tire’s first moments of life establish a connection between subject and object, which is to be navigated and confronted. That this is a tire naturally adds to the allure of Rubber. Buried in a pile of dirt, the tire begins to spin and rises from the ground. It shakes some dust and tries to get to its feet. Moving slowly in circles, it travels short distances before collapsing. Again and again, the tire tries to roll but sputters to the earth. Like a fawn rising to its feet for the first time, the tire looks for traction and can’t seem to find it.

After several attempts and a night’s rest, the tire stays standing and strolls along peacefully through nature. Winding down the road, the problem’s begin when the tire confronts another object – a plastic bottle. The tire stops in its tracks, rotates back and forth and back and forth. The bottle, somehow, appears as a threat to the tire. The tire rolls on the bottle until it is flattened. Soon, the tire comes across several other things – a glass bottle, a scorpion, a rabbit, a man. Given animated life, the tire stops and destroys each of these object/subjects. The tire doesn’t talk, but, granted subjective agency upon its birth and independent movement, all other subjects with potential agency become a threat to the tire’s existence. Subjectivity immediately becomes a sign of life. The subject must establish power and dominance over the other subjects. Otherwise, they may position the subject as an object causing it to plummet into nothingness.


Unfortunately, Rubber’s problems started even before this scene. The failures don’t come so much in the repetitive nature of the killer tire. In fact, Dupieux may have done himself some favors in the long run by just making a horror movie about a killer tire. (Hey, it worked for Killer Condom). But he has larger, metaphysical aims not only related to the phenomenological concerns of subject/object, but also concerning audience engagement with objects, social aspects of viewing and its relationship to violence.

Perhaps because of this, Rubber is nothing if not prescriptive. It certainly doesn’t try and hide what it is. An opening monologue shows its cards and instructs the audience as to how its deck is stacked. Dupieux lays out what he calls the Hollywood history of “No Reason,” which Rubber uses to avoid a logical narrative and instill a detached audience. The audience is given binoculars (like in theater! kazzzzing) to view the story of a tire from afar. They comment as it kills a rabbit and moves about town. When night comes, the audience members are given sleeping bags. They sleep in the desert and are awoken when the tire’s story continues. They are given no food and begin complaining about the narrative and their hunger. When they are brought food, they devour it like insane animals. All things considered, the tire is perhaps the most sane character of this modified epic theatre. Still, no matter this up-frontness, the conceptual premise functions not as an experimental destruction of its own formal, narratological underpinnings, as in the work of Brecht and Beckett whom Dupieux is clearly channeling; rather, this socially and politically radical basis serves only as a cop out for tonal ambivalence, abject contempt, and heedless dawdling.


Each of these steps could be defended if Dupieux followed Brecht and/or Beckett’s mode of “interruptions,” but the strategies are merely a ploy and fail to disrupt. What Rubber regurgitates is pure bile – an elementary, if not completely vacuous, critique of detachment. That it purposefully uses detachment to critique detachment is a potentially brilliant move. Nevertheless, Dupieux misses the mark. His own destructive nature, mirrored by the complete demolition of all subjects by the tire, blows up everything in sight without stepping back and surveying the destruction site. Dupieux fails to recognize that the double bind he crafted (between object and subject, audience and story) is actually a triple bind. He has forgotten himself in it. The subjects in the story are detached from the unliving/living object of the tire. The audience wandering around witnessing the tire’s carnage watch captively, from a distance, until their ambivalent distance becomes carnivorous and they destroy themselves.


However, there is one audience member – a man in the wheelchair – who avoids this pitfall and remains committed to the story of the tire. Like Dupieux, demanding a complete narrative, he sits and waits for the story to progress, and, when it doesn’t, he makes suggestions as to how the story should operate. Yet, in the end, his attachment brings him too close to the scene of the crime and he too becomes a victim to the process. This moment shows Rubber’s unwillingness to commit to its own project and Dupieux’s ultimate failure in the triple bind. He only showcases destruction rather than any kind of contemplation. There is no escaping the destruction precisely because Dupieux condemns everyone and everything involved in this series of relationships. The man succeeds with distance until he comes too close. When he transforms into a narrative subject rather than a distanced object, he interrupts his safe distance and threatens his existence. He, Dupieux, and the audience have been placed in the position of the tire in its opening stroll through nature. In so doing, Dupieux ignores his own demands and never removes himself from the simple-minded bemusement and implicit violence he means to critique. He is stuck and we are stuck. The only thing that keeps moving is the tire, the wheel, the destructive object itself. By disowning its own conceits, Rubber becomes mere clay. But, then again, perhaps that’s the point.

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Friday, March 4, 2011

No Doubt


by James Hansen

Let me suggest that movies battling through issues of free will and determinism require an individual character trait to sustain their prerogative. If Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report has brains, Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day has courage, and Richard Kelly’s The Box has balls, George Nolfi’s The Adjustment Bureau wants to have heart. Taken quite literally, the driving force behind free will in Nolfi’s film is the desire for romance, connection, and intimacy – or, in one word, heart. However, unlike the similarly themed films mentioned above, The Adjustment Bureau ducks the complications of its thematic basis. Instead, it retreats into “heart” and action as simple answers and rejects the basic (although challenging) questions of its chosen framework.


David Norris (Matt Damon), an up and coming politician, first encounters contemporary ballet dancer Elise (Emily Blunt) at a moment when his planned out future suddenly becomes uncertain. Amidst an unexpected loss on election night, Elise, in this one meeting, provides David with unexpected inspiration which reestablishes his desire, re-ignites his ambition, and puts his life back on the right track. Naturally, David falls instantly in love with Dream Girl. Nevertheless, the nefarious plan of The Adjustment Bureau – a group of urban space-traveling individuals who ensure that people don’t exercise enough free will to stray from their mapped life paths – is for David and Elise to be apart.

When a bureau members snoozes through a planned adjustment of David’s morning, a chain of events results in David witnessing the world and inner workings of the Adjustment Bureau’s evil geniuses. This revelation opens a window for David to doubt the world around him and his place within it. Threatened with a resetting of his mind if he speaks of the evil geniuses or their plans (i.e. does anything to move the plot along), David stays quiet and continues along his pre-determined path. While often bemoaning the system for keeping him from his true love, he maintains hope of breaking through his role as an automata, human robot in a rigged world.


As soon as these questions are referenced, however, The Adjustment Bureau becomes oddly uninterested in its mysterious Cartesian world. Removing all questions of doubt, it has each character clinging to their certainties. The bureau is certain that their maps cannot be re-written, despite acknowledging that David and Elise’s maps had changed. David clings to his only certainty – love, man – and uses it as a catalyst for each of his dangerous actions. Meanwhile, Elise breaks off her engagement with a famed choreographer when she meets David, but quickly becomes re-engaged as soon as David removes himself from the picture. Ultimately, The Adjustment Bureau stagnates in its environment of certain certainties – known knowns, if you want – by refusing elements of certain uncertainties and/or uncertain uncertainties of which its system and characters are resolutely aware.

What this really means – lest you think this has just been a fun, backhanded academic exercise – is that The Adjustment Bureau is snooze. Nolfi’s script sets up a single either/or question – should he stay or should he go? – with which it hardly tinkers or deepens during its running time. There is one obvious question (often stated in different scenarios by each member of the bureau) and one even more obvious answer (which is as certain as can be, else there be no movie). While Anthony Mackie spouting goofy vampire-esque rules of the bureau with faux-seriousness and Matt Damon (w/ Emily Blunt) space-traveling through New York City are not without pleasantries, The Adjustment Bureau, too pre-determined by its star-crossed romance, lulls itself into an inactive stupor. Forgoing fundamental nuances of plot and character (not to mention epistemology), The Adjustment Bureau spends it entire running time treading water without noticing it hasn’t even set foot in a pool.

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Monday, February 28, 2011

On View: André Guerreiro Lopes' "The Flight of Tulugaq"


by James Hansen

André Guerreiro Lopes’ The Flight of Tulugaq is a short, reflective piece fitting for the Wexner Center’s The Box. The Box’s intimate screen confronts the expansive flight of ravens across the Alaskan skyline, yet Lopes’ film undoubtedly suggests the intimacy of this mysterious act. The Box allows the viewer to stand amidst the expansive universe, yet also get close enough to interact with the patterned actions of the unbounded, expansive mythology built around Flight’s 9-minute running time.

Seen first coming out of and around a series of trees, a group of ravens ravens fly together in a group. They quietly rattle the branches of the trees, their movement altering the limited sounds of the landscape around them. The ravens bound from tree to tree, or rise just above. The birds, seen from the view of Lopes’ camera, are impossible to contain. They start closer to the frame, but quickly move further away, becoming dots in an empty sky. They glide across the landscape with an indefinable sense of freedom.

Flight
continues as the birds move further away from the trees, slide upward and away from the abandoned world below them. Once isolated, they begin a strange dance in the sky. The ravens seem to play off one another, rolling downward before turning back up. Bouncing from side to side, up and down, they become partners of this mystical tango.

Yet, one by one, Lopes freezes the birds in the air. Forcefully stopping their flight, they are slowly brought together, peering out (and in) as two isolated eyes, two undoubtedly connected presences in this wonderful “song of the winds.” The ravens are no longer really flying so much as hovering, situated in a far off space to which Lopes’ camera cannot have access. They embody some long forgotten transcendent figure, always floating amidst an inaccessible, ungraspable expanse – one that can be seen and reflected upon from afar, yet can only be experienced and known by those part of its unique, distant flight.

The Flight of Tulugaq screened in the Wexner Center’s Box from February 1-28. See Jennifer Lange's conversation with Mr. Lopes for more information.

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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Love Is A Battlefield


by Chuck Williamson

At its core, Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine is an experiment in teratology: a stripped-down sideshow attraction where the toned, juvenated, hyper-sexualized bodies of movie stars mutate into scuzzed-out white trash grotesqueries. Moving fugue-like in odd atemporal rhythms, the film cruelly alternates between vesuvian post-marital meltdowns and the fumbling flirtations of a new relationship; it deliberately counterpoises every moment of halcyon romanticism with its self-destructive inversion until a final cataclysmic crescendo set against a literal barrage of fireworks.

Unfolding in a series of startling juxtapositions, Blue Valentine relishes in the perverse thrill of using its performers as blank canvases that can be hyperbolized and rendered ghoulish in the service of (over)enunciating its one-note “love stinks” theme. But even as Williams and Gosling exhibit a brutal and implosive intimacy, their transformations into working-class caricatures are symptomatic of the film’s confused oscillation between naturalism and hyperbolization; it continuously sledgehammers its myopically apocalyptic view of romantic ruination, punctuates several scenes with a veritable exclamation mark, and often nullifies the subtle, poignant poetry of moments that capture the minutiae and quiet interactions that form (and fracture) its central relationship.


As a pair of punch-drunk Brooklynites in love, Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) exude a youthful effervescence and raw libidinous energy: scrawny, spontaneous, matching every furtive glance with an act of carnal physicality. As embittered parents, they resemble a corn pone fever-dream of working-class miserablism: doughy, droopy-eyed, abjectified into a grotesque bodily spectacle that feeds our illicit love for the freak-show aesthetic. Little else exists beyond these extreme polarities as the film boils down the messy intricacies of relationships into simple, surface-level dichotomies.

Small, poignant moments of intimacy and despair—the incredulous laughter produced from an off-color joke, the small gestures lovers use to urge one another up a staircase, or the mournful response to the death of a family dog—subside in favor of combative, bare throated histrionics where each performer tediously implores some variant of, “What do you want me to do?” Blue Valentine uses its structural juxtapositions to render context and causality opaque, a potentially radical narrative device that merely makes the downward spiral of its central relationship frustratingly superficial. We never see even a glimpse of the intermediate five-year period where, with apologies to Annie Hall, “love fades,” but are instead disingenuously bounced between two extreme polarities: the idyllic beginnings and the purgatorial breakdown where bodies are dramatically deglamorized. Their relationship is reduced to dueling sound-bites.


As such, Blue Valentine is streamlined to the point of suppressing its contingencies, trading in moments of quiet observation for a collection of eruptive, overplayed, on-the-nose encounters that spell everything out in big, capital letters. Why else would the film so nakedly strain for dramatic irony through Gosling’s full-bodied ukulele rendition of “You Always Hurt the One You Love,” or foreshadow its central dramatic set-piece—set in a sci-fi themed love-motel—with winking one-liners like, “Pack your bags, babe, we’re going to the future?” Why else would it telegraph its marital dissolution with two fussy, overwritten exchanges where Dean and Cindy philosophize on the nature of love with their friends and family? Why else would the characters lack an interior life outside their combative romantic entanglements?

Even its structural conceit hinges on over-explicit juxtapositions that contrast multiple scenes from past and present to the same eye-rolling conclusion: love is easy and marriage is hard. Set against the din of meatloaf-tossing patriarchs, vituperative ex-boyfriends, and sleaze-bag doctors (“I thought you were promoting me because of my talent,” Cindy demurs at one point), Blue Valentine leaves little to the imagination as it repeatedly hammers the same note with a single-minded relentlessness.

But even at its most problematic, Blue Valentine still succeeds as an actor’s showcase for Williams and Gosling, who anchor even the most overblown and preposterous scenes with a bruised and battered humanism. Often transcending the more overheated passages from Cianfrance’s screenplay, the two principle performers make even the most repetitive shout-fests compelling and emerge as a source of pathos that almost makes up for the film’s clumsier solicitations for our sympathy—and that includes its perverse, rubber-necking fetishization of their deglamorization.


Which brings us to the veritable teratogenesis. Williams, for instance, slinks into frame like a haggard, sleep-deprived somnambulist who never seems to physically recover from having been forced out of bed by her shrieking five-year-old daughter; at times, she seems to sink into the cluttered and perpetually dingy mise-en-scene. But it is Ryan Gosling, as a harried, “too-old-for-this-shit” hipster past his sell-by date, who embodies the film’s worst impulses. Bleating out absurd pronouncements like, “Let’s get drunk and make loooove,” Gosling plays Dean as a twitchy, tattooed, balding, chain-smoking, pot-bellied loser, sloppily dressed in paint-smeared cargo pants, a Salvation Army eagle sweatshirt, and a pair of pedotastic tinted aviator glasses; his body, in a sense, is specularized into a ridiculous, pathos-hungry white trash spectacle that visualizes his fall from grace in a blunt, overreaching, semi-comic fashion.

Rendered ghoulish under the auspices of method acting (extolled in celebrity gossip columns in narratives of courage, commitment, and precipitous weight gain), their bodies denote a wild, larger-than-life exhibitionism that, to some degree, disrupts the inherent voyeurism of Blue Valentine’s unhinged emotional fallout—aided by intimate handheld camerawork and extreme close-ups—by privileging hyperbolized exteriors over psychic or emotional interiors. Their broken-down bodies double as objects of a fetishistic display that externalizes (and embellishes) Cianfrance’s contention that, well, “you always hurt the one you love,” and ultimately become hyper-visible in his last-ditch effort to show the literal damage of fading love. At its most poignant, the film opts to decenter corporeal grotesquery as the prime source of spectacle, as in an assaultive sexual encounter where claustrophobic framing and camera movement blur their bodies into a diaphanous tangle of torsos and limbs. But most of Blue Valentine puts us in an odd position where we are asked to empathize and gawk.
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Friday, February 4, 2011

Obsessed and Confused


by James Hansen

Befuddlingly bland, The Roommate has a stock set up with plenty of room for crazy, but can’t even match the bizarre terror unleashed via the naming privileges of director Christian Christiansen’s parents. Perhaps trapped by its PG-13 rating (although it is consistently so cobbled together that placing blame is quite difficult), The Roommate never feels like horror movie, at least certainly not a scary one, and its attempts at psychological terror are equally ill-conceived and ineffective. The jumbled direction and screenwriting, punctuated by a distressing causal justification, leaves it terribly confused. Uniquely inept, The Roommate plays out as a completely different movie than the one pieced together before the viewer’s eyes.


Sara (Minka Kelly) is a college freshman moves onto campus at the University of Los Angeles without her boyfriend, Jason, who snubbed their deal to go to school together for a last minute spot at Brown. Eventually, she meets her roommate, Rebecca (Gossip Girl’s Leighton Meester), who comes off as a bit strange – a trip to see Richard Prince’s Nurse Paintings doesn’t help – but mostly stays in her room and appears to be relatively kind. Rebecca starts cracking when Sara’s attention turns elsewhere: the friend down the hall, the suave fashion professor (Billy Zane!), the sexy boyfriend (Cam Gigandet aka that dude from The OC and Burlesque!). Rebecca can’t handle anyone getting between her and her obsession.

Sadly, The Roommate is miscast, poorly written, edited, and directed, or all of the above. Meester, as Blair Waldorf on Gossip Girl, has proven she can play a complex queen and evil bitch quite effectively, swinging from the world of backstabbing, artificial validation (and great clothes) to the world of a deeply effected, vulnerable, privileged teenager trying to figure out the world around her (while still wearing great clothes). Here, Meester’s nonchalant charisma and charm turn Rebecca into something more than the purely evil roommate. It is rather clear The Roommate wants nothing to do with these added dimensions, as Meester’s performance contradicts the dangerous tone proposed by many of the Christiansen’s horror-based directorial choices.


But what is calling for Rebecca’s straight up craziness? Christiansen’s direction pushes her in that way. The script, on the other hand, calls for Meester’s characterization through its building of a narrative beyond its standard set up. The contradiction, then, that we feel coming off the screen does not involve Meester, but rather the disconnect between the screenplay and its direction. Screenwriter Sonny Malhi provides us with a strange amount of exposition about Rebecca, complete with a Thanksgiving trip home to her supportive, concerned, upper class parents. Christiansen and Malhi construct this scene merely as a way to reveal a downplayed, explanatory plot point, yet it shows not only that Rebecca has two sides, but also poses a much larger problem.

The parent’s revelation pinpoints a fundamental shift in The Roommate’s schema, which goes unrecognized by Christiansen or Malhi. Malhi’s half-hearted, yet fully invested justification for the Rebecca’s unstable actions – she’s schizophrenic and/or bipolar and off her meds! – inadvertently turns this horror saga into a strangely sad one. [I would have included a major spoiler sign if it seemed like The Roommate actually cared about said “spoiler.”] Rebecca isn’t some crazed slasher, terrorizing the friends of her roommate out of sheer delight. (Truthfully, that would make for a better horror movie and seems to be the movie Christiansen & Malhi think they are making). Instead, she’s a mentally unstable girl with no friends whose problems potentially could have been offset by a helping hand and a trip to the guidance counselor. At least when Buffy wanted to kill her college roommate, she made sure it was a conspiratorial, soul-sucking demon first.

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