Category Archives: Notebook

Notebook 3: Prometheus/At Sea/Color/Palaces/Moonrise/Dreamer

A few notes on some recently released films:

Prometheus

Prometheus (Ridley Scott, U.S., 2012): So much of this film has already been said and written that it seems somewhat pointless of me to share my two cents, so I’ll keep it brief: Prometheus is a good movie and the sort of escapist cinema that’s actually worth watching. The story isn’t nearly as smart as it think it is—the ideas it explores are no more intellectual than the kind teenagers explore the first time they do ‘shrooms—but I found the film valuable for its classic approach to setting and characterization: The Fordian approach to archetypes, plethora of studio or otherwise handmade sets, and reliance on genre are all tropes of Ridley Scott, who, after the abysmal Body of Lies and Robin Hood, appears have a spring in his directorial step.

Unlike some people, I wasn’t bothered by the obvious holes and ramshackle plotting in the script. Yes, it didn’t make much sense, and yes, not everything was explained in a neat and tidy fashion, but the central theme here is one already explored far more successfully in Jacques Tourneur films like The Leopard Man and Night of the Demon—namely, Dana Andrews’ assertion that “it’s better not to know.” If the film ends unsatisfactorily from a narrative standpoint, it’s in service of this theme and this theme entirely. Personally, I welcome this sort of ambiguity, even at the expense of logic and particularly when it comes in the form of a Hollywood blockbuster, where plotlines are painfully cut and dry. [B]

Two Years at Sea

Two Years at Sea (Ben Rivers, U.K., 2011): Perhaps more than any other contemporary filmmaker, Ben Rivers stresses the importance of an image: The emotions they sustain, the information they share, the language of their form, and the vitality of their presence. His newest film is Two Years at Sea, which is his first feature length film after working entirely in the short form. Like most of his work, it blurs the line between documentary and fiction, but in a way that’s far less conceptual—and gimmicky—than it sounds. It chronicles the day-to-day of a Jake Williams, an elderly man who’s sequestered himself away from society and spends his days in a dilapidated hut in the middle of the Scottish countryside.

The film unfolds with the greatest of ease. It’s entirely dialogue-free and follows only the slightest of narratives, but its use of sound, light, and composition create a story all their own. Two Years at Sea is a portrait, in the purest sense of the word—an impressionistic reverie that evokes a sort of introspection I find unique to Rivers’ style. Throughout the film, I found myself reconciling with Williams’ way of life; whether or not I agreed with it; whether or not I thought he had all the answers or none at all. Of course, the point of the film isn’t to answer any of these questions, but the way Rivers is able to carve such deep avenues of thought from seemingly innocuous images is both a rare gift and true feat. [A]

The Color Wheel

The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry, U.S., 2011): Here’s a unique case: A film that’s so hilarious yet beleaguering, formally precise yet crudely amateurish, and intellectually stimulating yet thematically burdensome that even after a second viewing, I’m still not sure exactly where I stand with it. What I do know is this: The Color Wheel is unlike any movie to be released in a decade—at least of those that I’ve seen. It follows a stylistic logic all its own and makes no apologies as it ambles between classic road comedy, absurdist chamber drama, and psycho-sexual diegesis.

That said, I’m still not sure how much I like the movie. Its reliance on intersexuality, usually cited as one of its greatest strengths, places it squarely within a reoccurring and increasingly tiresome trope of contemporary indie filmmaking. Perry has made no allusions to the film’s sampling of Phillip Roth and Jerry Lewis, but rather than contextualize these influences via theme or characterization, they’re used more like footnotes, or, to put it bluntly, an excuse for Perry to wax intellectual on what he learned as a clerk at the lauded Kim’s Video.

I can see why this would impress and even stimulate some viewers, particularly the kind of people who enjoy conversations about art and cinema that equate to little more than a dick measuring contest—”Oh, you’ve seen this movie? What about that movie?” “I own the Region 2 copy of that movie and have seen it more times than anybody every”—but these are by far the least interesting elements of The Color Wheel. What makes the film great and possibly important is the way it makes zero apologies for whatever it is it’s trying to do. There isn’t a feeble or unnecessary scene in the whole thing—even when Perry reaches for moments he hasn’t earned (I’m speaking of the climactic scene, in particular)—which can’t be said for most films, independent or otherwise. [B+]

Palaces of Pity

Palaces of Pity (Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt, Portugal, 2011): The opening sequence of this enigmatic parable begins with the lines “The country has changed, but we are the same,” muttered by a wealthy old woman who’s watching her teenaged granddaughters run drills in an empty soccer stadium. We soon learn that one of these granddaughters—either Ana (Catarina Gaspar) or Margarida (Andreia Martins)—are directly in line for her inheritance, although grandma’s yet to decide on who it will be. Rather than focus on the conflict of this scenario, the goal of the narrative is to contextualize history as an ephemeral and ethereal ghost story. In addition to her wealth, grandma is intent on passing down Portugal’s violent past: A flashback takes us back to the Portuguese Inquisition and we see the grandmother—portraying some sort of high-ranking official—condemning two gay men to burn at the stake. It’s within this symbiosis of past transgressions and contemporary malevolence where the characters find themselves, and, additionally, where Abrantes and Schmidt harvest their thematic concerns. Also, fire, as it turns out, winds up having a distinct roll in the film’s climactic moments.

Palaces of Pity is daring in its concept, but at the same time, there’s something very derivative about it—it evokes the loose narratives of Manoel de Oliveira and the diaphanous characterization of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but to fairly diminished returns. That said, the film is outright gorgeous to look at. The way Abrantes and Schmidt blend long shots with medium close ups, as well as images of the actors and images of landscape, are quite inventive. Their eye for composition, as illustrated in the shot above, also cannot be undervalued. [B-]

Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, U.S., 2012): The director who inspired a thousand shitty Halloween costumes returns with this touching, hilarious, and deftly realized fantasy about two twelve-year-olds who fall desperately in love and set out to start a new life together in the woods of their island town. Full disclosure: I’ve had my fair share of qualms with Anderson in the past. Though I have admiration for Bottle Rocket and consider Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums two of my very favorite films, his output from The Life Aquatic to The Fantastic Mr. Fox felt, to me, less like a director moving forward with his craft and more like a director content to rest on his creative laurels. Richard Brody has since come to the defense of Anderson’s oeuvre, essentially stating that to love one Anderson film, one must love all Anderson films. I’m not sure I agree with the logic, but I understand the sentiment: Anderson’s filmography is one of stylistic unification, a veritable tapestry of moods and colors that are truly unique to him. So ingrained in his style are his films that the style has become inseparable from the text, which strikes me as both remarkable and infuriating.

That said, Moonrise Kingdom feels to me a culmination of years of work, a true step forward in the sense of what Brody calls the “intensification of [his] characteristics, or even just their more explicit revelation.” It may very well be his best film, and I think that’s thanks in large part to his subjects: The aforementioned star-crossed lovers. Anderson’s films have all featured adults as their main characters (or young adults, in the case of Max Fisher), but they often suffer from an arrested development that renders them childlike. In Moonrise Kingodm, his two main characters are, in fact, children, which I suppose made them easier to sympathize with. But make no mistake: These are acutely Andersonian characters—in fact, they’re highly reminiscent of Richie and Margo Tenenbaum, and I imagine the short-lived excursion to the Natural History Museum detailed in their film played out quite similarly to the one Sam and Suzy embark on in this film.

Like all Anderson films, their visual and literal text are imbued with cinematic history. Watching his films is like playing a game of Cinephile Bingo. In this film, there are touches of Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (particularly in the scenes set on a the beach), Louis Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants, and Francois Truffaut’s The Wild Child. Something I noticed this time around: Anderson’s famous pans and tracking shots are usually attributed to Orson Welles, but aside from the film’s opening sequence—an exhilarating overture that magnificently sets the tone for what will follow—not much else felt particularly Wellesian. Instead, I sensed a great deal of Brian de Palma in the way he used his camera. Perhaps I’m wrong in this, but I couldn’t see past it. [A]

I Have Always Been a Dreamer

I Have Always Been a Dreamer (Sabine Gruffat, U.S., 2012): Sabine Gruffat‘s visual essay examines the cycle of urbanization, using Detroit and Dubai as examples if its lowest and highest points, respectively. Video essays are an interesting from in that they’re entirely subjective. While many documentaries strive for objectivity—an ultimately impossible endeavor given the conscious efforts of a filmmaker to show certain images—film essays function as the exact opposite: They encourage and require the personal touch of the director and don’t possess any sort of formal or conceptual “rules.”

Gruffat illustrates this by eliminating talking head interviews and experimenting with synch sound. She’ll often show images of herself talking with an interviewee, and rather present what he or she said, simply relay the information as she interpreted it. The result is a highly personal, daringly original survey of two cities that share more in common than meets the eye. For me, the most interesting aspects of Gruffat’s film were the way she juxtaposed each city’s financial wealth with its cultural wealth. Dubai has the benefit of billions of dollars on its side but appears to be culturally bankrupt. There’s a deep infatuation with all things American—its materialism and its consumerism, primarily—but any true form of expression on behalf of its residents is stymied at every turn, such as a photographer who makes good money taking commercial photos of resorts and apartment buildings but keeps his highly political and highly disobedient art prints a secret in order to maintain his business. Meanwhile, in Detroit, the city’s funds are more or less nonexistent but its citizens enjoy certain freedoms those in Dubai do not, such as one person’s efforts to run an arthouse movie theater in an abandoned high school.

Gruffat intertwines the political and the personal in often profound ways, but never quite takes the steps to make any assured proclamations herself—never quite takes full advantage of the film essay style. She shares a unique relationship with each city and I wish she had explored that further. [B+]

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Notebook 2: Sea/Anatolia/Film/Cigarettes/Hunger/Engagement

The Deep Blue Sea

A few notes on some recently watched films:

The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, U.K., 2011): The newest film from Terrence Davies isn’t his best—I’ll grant that distinction to The Long Day Closes (1992)—but The Deep Blue Sea is unique for the way it contextualizes memory as its main mode of storytelling. The elegant dissolves Davies uses are the perfect tool the propel a narrative that jumps back and forth through time. Images come and go with a graceful fluidity that’s not only a testament to Davies calculated mise en scene, but also David Charap’s editing chops.

It’s a style that differs from Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), which also relied on the act of memory to contextualize story and emotion. For Malick, it was a rootless camera that articulated the sensation of memory. Davies, meanwhile, relies more on the rhythm of montage. Both styles work well, although Davies’s approach is more elegant, more tactile, which, to be frank, sometimes gave The Deep Blue Sea a less lively and less invigorating aesthetic.

Davies’s first three films, known collectively as The Terence Davies Trilogy (1976-1983), are more amateurish in comparison but possess a stronger thrust of personality than The Deep Blue Sea, thanks not only to their autobiographical elements but also their realist tone. However, they do fail in one aspect where The Deep Blue Sea does not, and that is the contextualization of memory. The crude pacing of each film—particularly the first installment, Children (1976)—render certain flashback sequences hamfisted and unrefined. The Deep Blue Sea made me yearn for a Davies film that merges both styles, not unlike The Long Day Closes or his other masterwork, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988).

Still, any Davies film is worthy of note. Even a less successful one is better than most. [B]

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, 2011): I have little patience for “slow cinema.” Not the stuff itself—in fact, I actively revere the work of such “slow” cinestes as Bela Tarr, Jia Zhang-ke, and Carlos Reygadas—but rather the notion that “slow cinema” is somehow different than “cinema,” and, even worse, somehow better. The thing I—and I imagine most other people—admire most about the work of Tarr and his ilk is the respect they show to time and temporality. In particular, Tarr’s films feel more “real” to me than any other filmmaker’s precisely because of their extended run times and lengthy, fully realized long takes. The Turin Horse, thus far the best film of 2012, is perhaps the finest example of contemporary “slow cinema” we have.

However, I’m hesitant to claim Tarr’s films to be more thematically resonant than that of, say, Robert Bresson, whose longest film is A Man Escaped (1956), which clocks in at a comparatively meager ninety-nine minutes. Lisandro Alonso, for my money one of the very best filmmakers alive today, also works with pithy run times. Comparatively, the absurd run times of a Lav Diaz or Jacques Rivette film are, frankly, in direct opposition with human nature. Out 1 (1971) might be the greatest film ever made, but no human being was made to sit indoors, in the dark, for 12 hours straight, and to require someone to do so is nothing short of pompous. Besides, as Hitchcock once said, “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.”

Meanwhile, Nuri Bilge Ceylan is among the finest purveyors of “slow cinema” working today, even if his latest Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a somewhat uneven effort. The first half of the film is its best, when its narrative is still ambiguous and its sweeping landscapes and breathtakingly deep focus frequently put the guy behind the film’s namesake to shame. Then it shifts to a more conventional and procedural narrative in its second half. Ceylan seems to be trying his hand at the sort of conversationalist drama that David Fincher has come to more or less perfect, but I found myself longing for the mysteriousness of the film’s open spaces. [B+]

This Is Not a Film

This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2011): Jafar Panahi is a fascinating person. This was only made more evident in This Is Not a Film, which he made while under house arrest after the Iranian government targeted him for the insubordinate nature of his work. He was banned from filmmaking for twenty years (hence the title) but set out to document his imprisonment in an attempt to both quench his artistic thirst and also shed light on his precarious circumstances.

Panahi’s films have always straddled the line between documentary and fiction, efforts that have been rightly labeled by many as “humanitarian.” Indeed, as highly political as Panahi’s films are, references to and critiques of contemporary Iranian culture are tacit but no less crucial elements in what are predominately human stories, with The Mirror (1997) being perhaps the best example I can think of. In the eyes of the government, this made him, well, ungovernable.

But Panahi isn’t some politicized radical or capricious ne’er-do-well. He has the soul of an artist and a need to express himself. This is Not a Film may be an act of protest—indeed, it is an act of protest, and a fervid one at that—but it’s also a desperate yawp for the necessity of self-expression. Whether or not it’s a “film,” is irrelevant. The title is a joke, for starters, but ultimately, like any movie worth a damn, This is Not a Film is a statement. It might not be a “film,” but it’s a masterful piece of cinema. [A]

Twenty Cigarettes

Twenty Cigarettes (James Benning, U.S., 2011): The film’s of James Benning present a special sort of problem for me. Namely, I don’t consider them experimental. I can see why others do, of course: Films like 10 Skies, 13 Lakes, and the much-lauded California Trilogy are so non-narrative that audiences are quick to label them as unconventional. What some don’t realize is Benning’s films do tell a story, often in the most pure and unadulterated way possible. As Jonathan Rosenbaum asserts in his review of the California Trilogy, “The linear thrust of narrative tends to be hypnotic. In contrast, Benning’s movies demand to be read rather than simply followed.”

In opening oneself to the nuances of a Benning film, one will find that “experimental” is inaccurate phrasing and something like “untouched” becomes far more apt. Before long, one might even find that, in comparison to Benning, narrative-driven films would be more accurately labeled “experimental,” considering the myriad channels of sight and sound that pulse through them.

Twenty Cigarettes, his newest film, is another simple concept: twenty people (friends of Benning’s), framed in a medium close up, smoking a cigarette. Benning set up the camera, placed the “actor” in front of it, and left the area until he or she finished smoking. The result is vintage Benning—with the added twist of it being the first time he’s worked in the digital medium—in that the images he captures are left to their own devices. The added human elements makes the film that much more stirring. My favorite aspect was the way in which the “actors” were usually hesitant to look directly into the camera, as if it made them uncomfortable—not at all unlike the way people avoid looking directly into the eye of another person. [A]

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, U.S., 2012): Prior to seeing this film, I knew very little about its source material other than that it was exceedingly popular. This put me in a minority, of course, but it didn’t keep me from more or less enjoying what I saw. The central conceit of the film is interesting if not a bit gimmicky: Forcing youngsters into a deadly battle royal (see what I did there?) is a disturbing prospect, but the film itself can’t be labeled as such.

In truth, most of the film’s most intriguing elements aren’t in the Hunger Games themselves. The socioeconomic backdrop of the film’s alternate reality bears striking resemblance to our own, a sort of 99% vs 1% configuration that juxtaposes the extravagantly wealthy against, well, every one else. To play this up, The Hunger Games boasts an extremely ornamental style. Each character’s class level is instantly recognizable by their costuming and manner of behavior—the peacocky garb and grand gestures of Elizabeth Banks as compared to the drab rags and timid movements of Jennifer Lawrence, for example. Whenever the film leaves the acutely realized world of the Capitol, things get considerably less interesting. [C+]

The Five-Year Engagement

The Five-Year Engagement (Nicholas Stoller, U.S., 2012): There’s a classic quality to Jason Segal I can’t help feel compelled by. He’s like Jack Lemmon, only more shlubby and inelegant, and, by extension, exceedingly sympathetic. I could easily see him slipping into the character of Buddy in The Apartment (1960) or even Joe Clay in Days of Wine and Roses (1962). At the same time, Segal possesses the sort of insecurity that leading Hollywood men of the ’60s and ’50s—or even the ’80s and ’90s, for that matter—simply didn’t have. The character he plays in The Five-Year Engagement—Tom, a gifted chef with aspirations to run his own kitchen—is emotional in ways that are unique to 21st century masculinity. In sacrificing his career goals for his fiance’s, Tom swallows much of his pride in an act of good faith that would have painted him as spineless in the age of Cary Grant. This, of course, leads him to resent his fiance and becomes the source of the film’s drama, but the act in itself is unique to modern masculinity.

For this and other reasons, Jason Segal is a sort of neo-classical actor, while The Five-Year Engagement is a nifty neo-classical romantic comedy that views the genre with a distinctly contemporary lens. For instance, if this film had been a Wilder/Diamond joint—Wilder being the film’s most noticeable filmic deity, alongside Howard Hawks and a dash of Frank Capra—the conflict that faces the couple would have had far more to do with their prolonged marriage rather than their divergent career goals. But Tom and Violet live a life that’s akin to marriage, in that they already live and sleep together.

When considering this, The-Five Year Engagement quickly becomes less about the politics between a man and woman on a romantic level and more about the politics between a man and woman, period. Ultimately, the film is a successful examination of reappointed gender expectations and their indisposition to classic Hollywood forms. Segal and his collaborator Nicholas Stoller likely didn’t intend for the film to be a deconstructionist effort, but that’s how I saw it. [B]

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+]