Monthly Archives: March 2012

Hors/Jeff/Wuthering/Alps

Hors Satan

A few notes on some recently watched films:

Hors Satan [Outside Satan], (Bruno Dumont, France, 2011): A most unusual couple—dubbed only The Guy (David Dewaele) and The Girl (Alexandra Lamatre)—traipse around a coastal village in northwestern France in this slow-moving yet entrancing drama. Despite his professed atheism, Dumont has show an interest in spirituality throughout his career.Hors Satanarrives as his most outwardly metaphysical film, but it stays grounded in the sort of naturalism that’s driven a stern wedge between his detractors and his admirers for years.

The ambiguous narrative suggests The Guy possesses some sort of supernatural ability, but Dumont, as is his wont, is more concerned with action that exposition. The character’s motives are shrouded in mystery, easily discerned as either sadistic or benevolent. Toward the end of the film, he pulls off some downright miraculous stuff. Each of these moments unfold with as little fanfare as possible, with Dumont sticking closely to his naturalistic aesthetic. He had dabbled in the mythical and metaphysical before, but Hors Satan reaches planes hitherto unseen in his work. As a result, the film emerges as perhaps the purest expression of his most overriding theme: that life and nature are brimming with sanctity, and the supposed existence of God only alienates the individual from readily experiencing it. The film is lyrical, humanistic, disturbing, and devastating in equal measure.

Formally, Hors Satan is vintage Dumont. His minimalist approach to sound design is Bressonian in nature: a single track captures literally everything—dialogue and ambient sound are culled together, placing the viewer directly into the setting to ensure a most intimate viewing experience. [A]

Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Jeff, Who Lives at Home (Mark and Jay Duplass, U.S., 2012): In the case of the Duplass Brothers, as their crews and ambitions have grown larger, the quality of their work has diminished considerably. The consumer grade aesthetic of their first two films (2005’s The Puffy Chair and 2008’s Baghead) made for an unpretentious, occasionally cathartic film style that has since been labeled “mumblecore.” In relying heavily on improvisation from their non-actors and keeping their modes of production on a decidedly DIY level, the Duplass Brothers seemed to be on the cutting edge of digitally-created cinema, declaring it a most democratic form of filmmaking.

Unfortunately, the allure of Hollywood drove the Duplass’ to more lofty projects. For Cyrus (2010), such apparent luxuries as professional actors and an inflated budget actually inhibited the unique voice present in their earlier work. Their approach to characterization was hit the hardest. Before, the non-actors in their films made for wider channels of interaction with the audience: because these actors were “nobodies,” they could, essentially, be “anybody.” The audience was free to find themselves in the film and thus relate to it more closely. Casting John C. Reily and Jonah Hill made practical sense, but their presence (and reputations) overshadowed any sort of universality that might have otherwise existed in their characters.

Enter Jeff, Who Lives at Home, which again finds the Duplass’ using professional actors (Jason Segal, Ed Helms, and Susan Sarandon among them) and a decidedly controlled visual style. The film’s cinematography has a very deliberate presence, evoking warm colors and deep shadows. While it’s certainly appealing to look at, it doesn’t match the Duplass’ documentary-esque camera movements. They use quick, jerky zooms to accentuate the screenplay’s emotional beats (freely borrowing from a similar, far more successful method used by Tony Scott) and give the film a more improvisational tone.

But they can’t have their cake and eat it, too. Jeff, Who Lives at Home, though occasionally funny, is a flimsy and thematically weightless film. The Duplass’ films have always bore the marks of their upbringing (upper-middle class, suburban, white), but when they operated on a smaller scope, it was easy to forgive their blandly optimistic themes. The chipper refrain of “What’s the greatest day in the history of the world? Today is the greatest day in the history of the world” is, on the surface, a perfectly fine sentiment, but it fails to account for the true nature of the world outside of the Duplass’ sunny milieu.

For instance, if, on February 26, they had told the family of Trayvon Martin that, “Today is the greatest day in the history of the world,” they’d likely receive a hearty, “Fuck you,” in return. [C-]

Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, U.K., 2011): Taking an already notoriously maudlin story and instilling some of her own lurid preoccupations, Andrea Arnold’s latest film is an adaption of Emily Brontë’s Gothic romance. Plenty of directors have taken a stab at Wuthering Heights: William Wyler’s 1939 film remains the widely recognized, though Luis Bunuel’s delightfully deconstructionist version stands as perhaps the most radical re-imagining. Arnold’s version doesn’t owe much to either film, however.

Among the most distinct departures from the source material is a decidedly grimier tone. The doomed romance between Heathcliff (portrayed here by a black actor, the film’s other radical shift) and Catherine undergoes a psycho-sexual evaluation by Arnold. An early scene in which the two children wrestle around in a pile of mud begins innocently enough, only to move into a licentious game of cat-and-mouse that ends with Heathcliff straddling Catherine while rubbing dirt on her face—and she, in turn, willing subjecting herself to the abuse. Of course, their relationship only grows more deranged as they transition into adulthood. The film’s weakest moments arise when Arnold, who has a clear fixation on the dysfunctional relationship detailed in Brontë’s text, injects salaciousness of her own design into some of the story’s key scenes.

With that said, Arnold is wise to limit her focus in this way. The worst adaptations of Wuthering Heights are the ones that attempt to compress the novel’s myriad themes into a two-hour run time. It’s no coincidence that most of them excise the novel’s second half (which details the story of the children of Heathcliff, Catherine and others) and key in on a particular element as opposed to several—Bunuel, for instance, took interest in the novel’s depiction of class struggle, giving it a pseudo-Marxist examination while also being highly erotic, in the Bunuelian sense.

Arnold takes the social themes of Wuthering Heights into account, though does so in the same sort of kitchen-sink drama fashion as her previous works. Somewhat defiantly, she subverts the conventions of the classic novel and makes them fit her own vision. While it may not always work, the audacity is admirable—and a far cry better than Cary Fukunaga’s complacent Jane Eyre (2010). [B]

Alps

Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece, 2011): Few films have left me as shaken as Dogtooth (2010), a disturbingly pitch-black comedy about the deranged lives of a nuclear family. But while it’s followup, Alps, treads similar thematic grounds—Lanthimos continues his attraction to forged identities, human violence, and American pop culture—the film lacks the sort of energetic thrust of ambiguity that made Dogtooth such a kick in the ass.

The film tells the story of four individuals (calling themselves Alps) who help mourning family members recover from their grief by standing in as their recently departed loved ones. In a way, the characters are Lanthimos’s answer to what could happen to the children of Dogtooth once they enter the outside world: unable to cope with their own realities, they co-opt other realities in order to navigate a treacherous world, burdening the illusion in such a way that evokes Hitchcock’s obsession with duality and surrogates. But rather than advancing this theme, Lanthimos appears content with resting on his laurels. As a result, Alpsis quite easily digestible. It even follows a more conventional narrative arch as it follows its protagonist (Dogtooth‘s Aggeliki Papoulia) and her gradual unraveling.

Still, as an emerging voice, Lanthimos remains an exciting filmmaker and appears well on his way to becoming a vital presence in the international art house. His distinct visual qualities—he has a penchant for shooting his actors from behind or just out frame to ensure that we never quite see them—go far enough to keep Alps interesting from scene to scene. This is particularly helpful when Lanthimos becomes predictable: A climactic moment, in which one character places Papoulia’s fate on whether or not a bowling pin will changes colors, culminates precisely as you expect, but some precise framing and intricate composition give the scene a formal beauty that belies the grueling action.

This scene and those like it prove that one doesn’t watch a Lanthimos film as much as one endures it. The results are satisfying if you can stand the heat. [B+]

“It’s Better Not To Know,” or, Do Yourself A Favor and Stop Watching Movie Trailers

Of all the change to movie culture brought on by the Internet, the prevailing fixation on movie trailers ranks among the most annoying. Impetuous moviegoers are quick to either decry or champion a film based on its trailer alone, which is problematic for more reasons than I can articulate, but predominately because such a practice refuses to acknowledge that movie trailers are nothing more than advertisements.

Forgive my hyperbole, but I don’t think there’s anything more annoying than hearing someone say, “I can’t believe that movie sucked. The trailer made it look so good.”

No shit.

Given all the brouhaha that surrounded the recent unveiling of the trailer for Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s supposed prequel to 1979’s Alien, it seems that I’m in the minority of those who actively avoid watching movies trailers. Personally, I prefer to enter a film without the studio’s concept placed firmly in my brain. Even if a trailer happens to be pieced together by the movie’s director (as David Fincher is wont to do), he or she still has a vested interested in the financial success of his or her film, and therefor will manipulate the viewer in hopes they will see it.

If and when I watch a trailer, it’s only after I’ve seen the movie. It’s interesting to see the ways in which a studio has marketed the movie compared the movie itself. A perfect example lies in a movie I screened recently, The Cabin in the Woods. The trailer does allude to the fact that the film is full of twists, but otherwise, it completely misrepresents its tone.

Some chick makes out with a stuffed wolf in one of the weirder scenes in The Cabin in the Woods

I won’t spoil anything in the event you’re interested in seeing the film, but suffice it to say that The Cabin in the Woods is, nominally, a comedy—and a satirical one, at that. Judging by this trailer, however, one could easily expect something completely different.

The tactic here is obvious: the studio wants to keep the audience on their toes by subverting their expectations when they see the film proper. However, those with a predisposition to disliking horror films* wont be made aware of some of the more universal aspects of The Cabin in the Woods and, therefor, will avoid seeing it.

There are many sides to this argument, but I remain staunch in my assertion that the main function of a movie trailer is to tell the audience that they’re going to like a movie—and if one has to be told to like a film, I struggle to find a point in seeing it at all…

 

* To be clear, I do not posses a predisposition to disliking horror films. I quite enjoy horror films and likely would have sought this film out even if I had not been assigned to review it.

Apartment hunters

Throughout Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski’s camera pays special attention to the various contours and details of the apartment in which it’s set. This style is similar to that of Repulsion, the first of the so-called “Apartment Trilogy,” (of which Rosemary’s Baby is the second installment, with 1976’s The Tenant representing the third), in that both apartments are sources of isolation and, eventually, imprisonment for the main characters. Both Carol (Repulsion) and Rosemary spend an inordinate amount of time within the walls of their apartments. In the case of Carol, her psychosis keeps her from stepping foot outside; for Rosemary, it’s her uncomfortable pregnancy that keeps her mostly indoors. For both characters, the result is increased paranoia and a distrust of the outside world. Early on, Repulsion makes it clear that the disturbing images we see on screen are Carol’s hallucinations. Accordingly, the apartment follows suit: its rooms inflate and deflate in size, while its walls (when they aren’t busy cracking open for inexplicable reasons) occasionally have human arms burst through them. Carol’s surroundings become decidedly hostile.

Although the story in Rosemary’s Baby is presented as literal, the apartment does take on a number of unique characteristics. For starters, the environment itself feels much more expansive than it does in Repulsion, where the apartment is not only smaller, but Polanski takes extra steps to ensure the audience has a firm grasp of the space, both onscreen and off. There’s less geometric cohesion in Rosemary’s apartment, which evokes a more subtle sense of unease. A less pronounced setting suggests a greater possibility for danger. The fear that stems from unfamiliarity is a tacit theme of the film, and Polanski does a fine job of exploring this thematically as well as physically. It’s a bit of a red herring, then, that Rosemary, who proves adept in recognizing the details of the apartment when she notices the wardrobe has been moved in front of the closet, is the film’s victim. Then again, she also notices paintings have been removed from the Castavets walls: The last time we see their apartment, the paintings once again occupy their space.

Placing Rosemary’s Baby within the horror canon is a tricky task. With its lurid subject matter, the film has the sort of B-film sensibilities that betray its “A” status. The reason it remains something of a middlebrow—if not occasionally highbrow—piece lies in the relative tameness of its imagery. Rosemary’s Baby is not a graphic movie; there are no scenes of explicit sex or violence. Even during the infamous rape scene (an early motif of Polanski’s that, thanks to what would transpire in his personal life, has an added layer of tragedy attached to it), a pair of ghoulish eyes and a pair of not-so-ghoulish arms are the only elements that are obviously horrific. The film is terrifying because of its implications and its emphasis on mood and atmosphere. Acts of betrayal and bouts of guilt effectively replace blood and guts. Even when iconography or scenarios typical of horror films crop up—such as Rosemary’s confrontation of the Satanist’s with a kitchen knife—Polanski continues to subvert audience expectations by having his main character relinquish her anger and give in to the dire sins committed against her. Though it might not seem like it, this ending is a most horrific outcome. Rosemary’s latent Catholicism has rendered her meek, but it’s not the Earth she inherits…

The absurdity of Cul-De-Sac

Telling the story of an oddball couple held hostage in their seaside home by an American gangster, Polanski’s odd sense of humor is on full display in Cul-De-Sac. Working with his triumvirate of characters—the gruff Dickie, the meek Georgie and the flighty Teresa—the director tinkers with their psychology in ways that confuse the audience. The movie’s best scenes tend to involve all three of them in a single location, the dynamics of their persona shifting as they struggle for superiority over one another.

At no point does any one character have the upper hand, either in terms of the narrative (no matter how intimidating Dickie becomes, he’s still forced to wait for Katelbach) or their characterization—though not for a lack of trying. Each player in this pitch-black comedy of manners possesses unique traits that, if fleetingly, put them in a place of superiority: Dickie and his strength; Teresa and her sexuality; and Georgie and his intellect.

Beyond these quirks, not much is known about them. Though their personalities may be broadly defined, Polanski has proven up to this point to be less concerned with characters as people unique unto themselves and more concerned with characters who, conceivably, could be anyone.

As a result, Cul-De-Sac is filled with a number of propositions but, ultimately, very few solutions. Without making mention of the film’s virtually non-existent expository elements, examining the other contextual components mostly results in dead-ends: the film finishes abruptly and without resolution; the ubiquitous Katelbach never arrives; and a number of surreal images (notably the encroaching tide that inexplicably engulfs the castle’s surroundings in seawater) are presented as commonplace.

This forces the viewer to delve into the film’s subtext, where information is similarly scarce. The free-roaming chickens that populate the grounds could be read as extensions of the characters—chickens are flightless, after all, and appear to be just as incapable of leaving the castle as their human counterparts. But then Polanski, in cynically Eisensteinian fashion, inserts a painting of a chicken amongst Dickie’s numerous, crudely drawn portraits of Teresa, captured in a long tracking shot. Given the implied lack of sex in their relationship, and considering chickens (or more appropriately, hens) tend to symbolize fertility, trying to connect the dots quickly becomes a futile effort.

Polanski, a director with a penchant for red herrings, favors incongruity in his narratives, images, and characterization. However, this seeming lack of cohesion is the product of a distinct aesthetic, that of the Theatre of the Absurd. Eugene Ionesco’s assertion that, “It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question,” is the central theme of Polanski’s early films. Everything present in Cul-De-Sac’s narrative—from the shifting and ill-defined characterization to the strangely plotted story—not only questions traditional film structure, but it also subverts audience expectations in a way unique to Polanski’s films.

Because audiences see themselves in movies (in the characters and their actions), when the narrative circumstances are presented as curiously as they in Cul-De-Sac, they’re forced to grapple with a different set of questions. Very quickly, the question moves away from “what” (as in, “What are the characters doing”) and arrives at “why.” Of course, Polanski doesn’t present an answer in the text. But the film’s final image, of Donald Pleasance sequestered on a rock surrounded by the ominous sea, says enough.