Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Blue Valentine

(Blue Valentine/Weinstein Company, 2010)
           Blue Valentine—the new Sundance smash hit, the film that “showcases” the talents of A-list actors, the latest independent film that shows life as it is—is unfortunately all that and nothing more. That isn’t to say that the film doesn’t stand on its own two feet; for more than an hour it’s compulsively watchable and clever. But, like the relationship it portrays, there’s too much exasperation on both sides of the screen. The audience wants too much from it and the film is a little abusive.
The film stars Ryan Gosling as Dean, a working class would-be Casanova and  Cindy (Michelle Williams), a pretty townie who never left rural Pennsylvania. It begins with a view of a sloping main road heading out in to the woods, suggesting nothing but sadness further down. This is the road that Dean and his daughter Frankie peer down, anxiously awaiting their missing dog, who will never return. Dean smokes, paints houses and coddles his daughter while Cindy stays stressed at work and tries to instill some discipline in the house. Their backwoods domesticity—tall grass, wood and breakfasts shot in grungy close ups—is gradually revealed as a slow act of disintegration, sparked by the red-herring of a missing dog.
It is tempting to describe Blue Valentine in linear terms. In fact, the film is constructed through ad nauseum flashbacks that overlap a trip Dean and Cindy (she with reluctance) take to an erotic motel far outside town. The scenes showing how the two met and gradually got together are shot, mostly, with no visual distinction from the scenes in the present, lending the film a peculiar matter-of-fact presentation. Director Derek Cianfrance has a literary taint to his style, and at its best his story plays like something Flannery O’ Connor and Edward Hopper might have produced if they had collaborated on a film. But the rhythms of the whole piece are based on the aggressive back-and-forth from past to present, the insistence on domestic tension, and the cocky, unhinged way Dean expresses his frustration. These rhythms overwhelm the film by the last quarter. While the film could have easily ended shortly after Dean receives a beating from a key character, Cianfrance isn’t content with merely letting his story conclude. He has to take in the whole longview, and as a result, the film begins to berate us in the same way Dean begins to berate everybody around him. The climax is a cannonade of sunny flashbacks heaped on a meltdown in a kitchen; the final scene involves a fireworks show that feels heavy handed and portentous.
(Blue Valentine/Weinstein Company, 2010) 
Yet still; Gosling and Williams are there the entire time, in nearly every shot. Even when we don’t particularly like either of their characters, we at least like the two actors. Even when the goings-on get screechingly sentimental, there is a level of believability to the way each scene presents itself; on near-empty buses, high bridges, clinically miserable hallways of hospitals. It may be to Blue Valentine’s credit that the film appears to want you to change your mind about the story again and again. It could just be a sign of an audacious novice. Whatever the case, it’s a manipulative, dysfunctional, occasionally beautiful relationship.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Another Year

(Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent in Another Year/Thin Man Films)
      Mike Leigh’s films are about social class in disrepair and people in despair. Yet recently, he seems to have tried to break from that mold with Happy Go Lucky (2008), a bubbly, for him, examination of basic joy amidst the turmoil of others. With Another Year the bleakness is back, yet more reasoned. There is none of the nilhism from Naked, none of the implicit left wing sentimentality of All or Nothing, or the loopy, stylized acting from films like Career Girls. Another Year is basically a comedy for the first three acts—a comedy about miserable lives pushed up against the content life of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen). The most prominent of these lives is Mary’s (Lesley Manville). Mary is a highly strung woman who refused to grow up at some point along the way, and is the worse for it. She is clueless about the needs of others, wanting only to talk about herself, trying out a façade of politeness. She drinks too much wine and does not know how to take care of her new car, which becomes the film’s running gag.  She works with Gerri at a hospital and Gerri, a psychiatrist, is kind enough to socialize with this exasperating woman. But it is the life of Gerri and Tom that anchor the film, keeping the ruin that surrounds them in check. For once, Leigh lets us spend most of our time with people whom we might actually spend time with.
            The structure of Another Year, too, differs from Leigh’s earlier films. The film is named as such because it spans the length of a year, with each season being introduced by an onscreen title and closed by a fade out on a human face. This structure has been done again and again, but if it seems contrived, it actually frees Leigh up, and saves the film from some of the redundancies of his earlier pictures. Most of Leigh’s films feature a huge ensemble cast going about their lives and bumping in to each other before an inevitable, prolonged denoument of character and plot threads colliding. Another Year is smoothed out; the end contains no grand-bang character summary, only a whimper. While his earlier films could be so acting-workshop driven that certain characters were introduced and left hanging, nobody we meet in Another Year is a performance exercise. The only home we ever enter is Tom and Gerri’s, and all other players—including a fantastic Peter Wright, deserving of his own film—simply play off their domesticity. The prologue, featuring Imelda Staunton as a depressed insomniac woman, is the best way Leigh can think of to introduce us to the stage of life, and anguish, of the proceeding characters. Staunton is asked by Gerri what would make her most happy in her life and replies “Another life.” With this one line, she barely helps Leigh pull it off.
(Another Year/ Thin Man Films)

            Most of Leigh’s previous films have been shot by Dick Pope, a cinematographer as adept in gray lighting and washed out color tones as he is in ebullient color. But only here, for the first time since Naked, has he been able to get some real photography done. Another Year favors the human face over any other object and the medium close up as the only effective way to tell a story. But it also contains possibly the only use of slow motion in a Leigh film—of a hearse coming to a stop, no less—and a dramatic visual shift in the ‘Winter’ section that just oozes death; because that’s exactly what has happened. The way Pope depicts people—an overweight Peter Wright stuffing food in his mouth, two women embracing in a kitchen—makes him something akin to a Dutch master of film, and an asset Leigh cannot possibly work without.
            None of this is too suggest that Another Year ever feels style-heavy. Yet even talking about style in a Mike Leigh film creates its own problem, because it feels like Leigh has no wish for us to think about anything other than his characters. For him, atmosphere is something that comes from a person’s eyes and mood is something that comes from the way they slouch in their seats. This sounds like a theatrical way of making a film, but it is in fact what has made his films progressively more cinematic cinematic and gloriously overstuffed in a way only films are allowed to be. Even the genuine theatrical aspects of his work are toned down here; the performances are not so gesture heavy any more, and the way the film jumps from one season to the next is something alien to the stage. Leigh has worked off and on in the theater all his adult life. He didn’t even come in to his own as a feature filmmaker until his late forties. Only now has he really decided on what a film should be, and found an agreeable middle ground for cinema and theater. Perhaps this late blooming can account for his sympathy for the middle aged or older characters in this film, who expected things they didn’t get, and never bloomed.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

News: A long way back

(from The Way Back/Newmarket Films)
    One of the most anticipated films this year for The Collector (read: Damon Griffin) is surely Peter Weir's The Way Back. Weir's last film was 2003's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and in the eight year gap that followed, it appears that he was attached to several projects that he dropped out of before finally taking on this story, about a few soviet gulag prisoners who manage to escape and find their way back home, across hostile terrain. The film stars Colin Farrell, Ed Harris and Saoirse Roman and is set to open in theaters on January 21st.
     Weir has always been unique amongst filmmakers in that each of his films concerns itself with an enclosed, sometimes claustrophobic location or set of locales-- a girl's boarding school in Picnic and Hanging Rock, an Amish community in Witness, an artificial community within a massive dome in The Truman Show-- and shows how the inhabitants of said location either try to escape, or attempt to assimilate, often with frustrating, or alienating results. This fascination with space puts him in the same rank of all great space-orientation filmmakers, including Werner Herzog, Carl Dreyer and Alfred Hitchcock. These are directors who have made location, and the movement within that location, a central character, or the root of all happenings, in their films. For Weir, this preoccupation may stem from his native country, Australia; an estranged island, cut off from other countries by hundreds of miles, settled by people who were essentially cast out of England. The Way Back concerns itself with the space of a gulag, yet the difference here is that we know the character does escape, and it seems most of the film involves a journey across great open space. It will be interesting to see how Weir confronts this dynamic.
See the New York Times article for more information, as well as this semi-interview with Weir published on The Playlist. Note how, in the Playlist article, he mentions turning to silent films for his cinematic answers. Would that the rest of the industry's cadre did the same...

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Motion Studies: Svankmajer’s objects

(Faust/ 1994, Kino International)

Rural-brown, vegetable soup. A tractor chops up a field. The grass flies all around. Six female dancers with big perfect lips sip the soup with large spoons; the ecstasy of performance becoming the ecstasy of a good meal. The sound of choral music; a Vivaldi choral pieceDr. Faustus himself (Petr Cepek) appears on the field in a zoom out, singing his heart out. The set pieces of a theater surround him on two sides, but the theater he stood in a moment ago has transformed in to the same rural landscape the dancers inhabit, because he chose to sing after all. One shot of a dancer’s legs, sprawled on the ground. Another shot of the same, then another. The soup was a sedative; the dancers are asleep. The grass lies shorn. The tractor starts another round. Faust belts out his vocals with all his might. He doesn’t have a choice. He chose to play this game of theater and life. Cut. He stops singing. He’s back on stage.
(Faust/ 1994, Kino International)

These are a few of the objects—soup, lips, legs, chopped grass, a singing man in costume—that figure in to Jan Svankmajer’s craft. The film this time is Faust (Lecke Faust, 1994), the Czech objectifier’s second feature, and this scene looks like the way every other scene does; a bit of lavish surrealist fun that could have been a short (up until the late 80’s, Svankmajer made only shorts). Yet Faust nonetheless manages to be a linear, fairly faithful adaptation of the story of Dr. Faustus, making it all the more remarkable that Svankmajer found a way to have such a bit of close-up, fast-cutting, symbolic fun within its form. How does he do it? How does he film a  representation of the theater becoming life and let us take it lightly? And why does he chop it up in to so many close-ups?
The best answer: The symbolism is genuine, and the cutting is a way of taking it lightly. Like taking many shots of a complex liquor. Svankmajer’s objects may be closer than they appear.