Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Rachel Getting Married (2008)

2008’s Rachel Getting Married is a drama about a group of upper-class New Englanders coming to terms with their past during the wedding of the family’s eldest daughter. It’s a movie where the cliches are rolled out one after another. Parental divorce, addiction, sibling rivalry, a death that’s never been properly confronted-- it’s all here, and very little of it is even presented in any way that complicates what we’ve already come to expect from this type of film. The only unexpected thing about Rachel Getting Married, then, is how unusually well director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Jenny Lumet (daughter of Sydney) make these old standards operate within the framework of their story. For its first half, the movie almost works well enough to restore faith in the power of the dysfunctional family melodrama, but it quickly loses steam an ends up more like an updated version of Ordinary People with music. Lots and lots of music.

The story, as expected, is pretty simple. Kym (Anne Hathaway), a young woman with a history of drug abuse, is let out of her latest rehab institution for the weekend to attend her sister Rachel’s wedding. Conflict ensues, of course, and over the course of a very long few days a number of familial issues are brought to light and confronted. Where the movie works where so many of its kind fail, at least in the early running, is in the way that the conflict manifests itself. When Kym shows up at the house, we expect her to barge in like a force of nature and immediately start shaking things up. But the filmmakers don’t go for these kinds of easy setups. Things start out normal, and Kym, though she clearly has problems, is actually rather pleasant and likable, and even her relationship with Rachel seems pretty stable. Her issues are much more insidious, though, and it quickly becomes obvious that Kym resents the attention being showered on her sister. This tension finally comes out during a toast at the rehearsal dinner that, though a bit over the top, is notable for being at the same time relatively innocuous and unbelievably hard to watch.

Scenes like this one and the epic argument that follow it back at the family’s house are where Rachel Getting Married is at its best. Rarely does the conflict in these types of films arise so naturally and organically out of the situations. Usually it devolves into actors competing to see who can deliver their lines with the most venom, but here the arguments feel all too real. A lot of credit should go to Hathaway, who wisely holds back enough that Kym never feels too much like a caricature, but I was also very impressed with Rosemarie DeWitt as Rachel and Bill Irwin as the sisters’ mild-mannered father Paul, who has the unenviable role of playing referee in most of the conflicts. The scenes between the family are unbelievably tight in their execution, but never in a way that seems over-rehearsed, and most of all, the script lets the story come out of these characters and the ways they clash rather than vice versa.

Demme films all this in that jittery handheld video style that I have time and again railed against, but here I have to admit that it adds an element of immediacy that might not have been there otherwise. He just might have hit on the perfect use of the handheld style (something that John Cassavettes realized 30 years ago), and it helps to add a fluidity to scenes that could have come off all too much like theater.

The problem is that beyond this opening conflict the film has very little to offer beyond reverting to a number of Lifetime-channel cliches and confrontations that, if not delivered by such superior actors, would seem laughably juvenile. Near the end of the film, things get rather repetitive, and it eventually becomes frustratingly obvious that what we have here is the content of an excellent short film stretched and padded to feature length. Demme tries to combat this by including several documentary-style scenes of the wedding activities. There are toasts, speeches, and dinners, but outside of a few cut-ins of Kym looking troubled, they add absolutely nothing to the actual story. When it came time for the actual wedding ceremony I was truly hoping that he would cut around it. No such luck.

And then there’s the music. Scene after scene of it, throughout the movie. It’s all played by wonderfully able musicians in a number of genres, but beyond making me wonder where I could get a hold of some of these songs it has no effect whatsoever on the experience of the film’s story. Demme made Stop Making Sense. We know he can shoot the hell out of a musical performance, but in the context of the film these otherwise cool scenes are nothing more than filler.

Maybe ditching these scenes and extending the actual story of Rachel Getting Married would have made it one of the more hard-hitting films of last year, and maybe it would have watered everything down to the point of unwatchabilty. It’s hard to say, but the point is that Demme and Lumet seemingly didn’t try, they just got in contact with some good musicians and let them go crazy. Watched alone, I’d wager that the few good scenes of familial conflict rank among the best of last year. They are heartbreakingly incisive, and hit all the right notes that you look for and so rarely get in a movie like this. But in the film’s second half everything just sort of devolves into a half-baked concert film/wedding documentary. All these scenes pile on one another to the point that by the end of Rachel Getting Married, you feel as though you’ve actually attended the wedding, and the supposed family drama seems less like the actual story and more like an embarrassing scene you stumbled upon while you were waiting to get another drink.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Let The Right One In (2008)

The expertly constructed Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In is one of those rare movies that is more notable for what it suggests to its audience than what it actually shows them. Director Tomas Alfredson’s film just may be the best shot movie of last year, and the style he employs is at times so slight and subtle that the smallest look or gesture is able to speak volumes about its characters and their bizarre relationship. This is certainly a horror movie, faithful to the mythology of the vampire and with several striking scenes of violence, but at its heart it is one of the more keenly observed films about human relationships to come along in some time.

The story follows 12-year-old Oskar, a young boy living in a suburb of Stockholm in 1982. Oskar is an outsider at his school, where a group of bullies is constantly terrorizing him, and even more alienated from his parents, who are separated and seem to have very little to do with him. He is seemingly alone in the world, until he meets Eli, a girl his age who has just moved in next door. Eli is certainly strange-- she doesn’t go to school and only seems to come around at night, and her arrival coincides with a series of grisly murders in around the town-- but Oskar is happy to have a friend, and eventually asks if she’ll be his girlfriend. She hesitantly agrees, as long as he realizes that she’s “not really a girl.” Soon the two are spending as much time together as they can, and Eli is coaching Oskar on how to fight back against his tormentors.

Oskar’s reaction to learning that Eli is a vampire is certainly unexpected, and moves the story toward its more surreal final third, but it works because of how well-constructed the dynamic between the two is, and how natural their interactions have been to that point. The majority of the credit should go to the wonderful young actors playing the duo, Kare Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson, but the film’s script, adapted by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his novel, is also spot on, and features some of the most beautifully simple dialogue I’ve heard in a while. Take the oddly funny scene where Oskar, upon learning that Eli is indeed a blood-drinking vampire, asks her how old she really is. “I’m twelve,” she insists, “but I’ve been twelve for a very long time.”

Director Tomas Alfredson’s style is impeccable, and is a big part of what makes the film’s meaning so rich and multilayered. He makes use of a largely static camera to capture the unusually foreboding backdrop of the town, often using long shots to let the atmosphere swallow up the characters. After watching the film, one can’t imagine the Swedish landscape, with its snow covered streets and pitch-black night skies, being shot any differently. The comparison to fellow Swede Ingmar Bergman is probably too easy, but Alfredson’s camera seems to capture the film’s landscape and the faces of its characters with the same kind of emotional intensity that makes films like Winter Light so memorable, and like Bergman he delivers several beautifully composed shots that will stay with the viewer long after the film is over. His deliberate pacing is also Bergman-esque, but it is punctuated by some staggeringly brutal scenes of violence that rival some of the horror genre’s masters in their originality and intensity. Alfredson handles these scenes with a matter-of-fact kind of style that lends an elusive quality to the violence. Avoiding the quick cuts and shaky camera that plague so many American horror films, he uses long shots in these scenes to place the viewer at a distance and give the odd feeling of being a witness to the killings, which unfold with the speed and ferocity of an animal attack.

Outside of these scenes, the pacing and style of the film is quite subdued. Alfredson feeds the audience very little through dialogue, and his directing style might as well be a master course on how to tell a story visually. Every scene is altered and the surface meaning complicated by a simple shot or a cut scene, and as the film progresses we begin to see that the seemingly innocent relationship between Oskar and Eli is becoming more and more clouded.

Still, in the end it is this relationship, in all its complexities and terrifying implications, that makes Let The Right One In work so well. Eventually, we begin to see that the title doesn’t just refer to the old lore that a vampire must be invited into someone’s home before they can enter it, but also to the interaction between the two main characters, who are slowly letting another person truly know them after a life of feeling alone. Oddly, and despite all the gothic trappings that come along with being a vampire story, Let The Right One In is at its heart an elegantly simple film about two outsiders finally finding a person they can relate to, and it’s this emotional core, twisted though it may be, that grounds the film and makes the fantastical elements seem all the more natural.


Monday, March 2, 2009

Choke (2008)

Choke is the latest adaptation of a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club. Palahniuk is known for his mind-bending stories and his black humor, so it’s no surprise that the plot of Choke is appropriately bizarre, following sex addict Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), who when he isn’t looking for his next hook-up is trying to work his way through the twelve steps (he’s been stuck on number 4 for a while), though it seems that every time he attends a meeting he ends up slipping away to a closet or a bathroom with the girl he’s supposedly sponsoring. Victor works as a “historical interpreter” at a colonial theme park by day and as a sort-of con man by night, intentionally choking in restaurants and hoping to be saved by rich people who, in order to “relive their savior experience,” will keep in touch and sometimes even send money. He does all this to help pay for his long-suffering mother (Anjelica Huston) to stay in a care facility for the mentally ill.

If that schizophrenic plot summary doesn’t make it clear enough, Choke is a movie where the plot is constantly moving in frustratingly nonsensical, thematically divergent directions (and that’s leaving out the subplots). Maybe in the book Palahniuk makes it all work (he’s always been on my “life is too short to read...” list), but on screen the story practically screams with dissonance. This movie, written and directed by character actor and first-time filmmaker Clark Gregg, is simultaneously a comedy, an addiction movie, a “head trip” movie a la Fight Club, and a drama-- which would be fine, if any of those elements cohered into anything remotely resembling a watchable story. There are a few clever scenes, most of which take place at the colonial theme park and concern Victor’s boss Charlie (played by Gregg), who is a stickler for 1700s accuracy, but after a funny start the movie becomes more droll than anything, and like all Palahniuk stories, seems to try too hard to be disturbing and unusual. By late in the film, even a scene where a woman asks Victor to “pretend” to rape her seems like nothing more than a pitiful attempt to get nervous laughter.

The film falls even flatter as a drama, suffering from that same inertia-destroying compulsion to revert to childhood flashbacks to explain every little adult problem that has plagued and destroyed so many an otherwise adequate film. And as for the plot-twists, they seem very forced and very obvious, as though the movie is trying to be like Fight Club in that “nothing is what it seems" sort of way despite lacking any of that film’s energy or inventiveness.

Rockwell is growing on me as an actor, and he’s perfectly fine as Victor, bringing just the right kind of sarcastic detachment and absurdity to a character that would otherwise be very hard to sympathize with. The real disappointment is Kelly MacDonald, who has been almost universally good throughout her career, especially in 2007’s No Country For Old Men, but who here seems to be so obviously acting that it becomes almost painful to watch as she recites line after line as though it’s written on a cue-card off screen. A late plot twist slightly exonerates her, but even this (which anyone should be able to spot a mile away) would have worked better if she had been even the least bit convincing in her role. Angelica Huston, as always, displays more acting skill in a few scenes than most do in their whole career, but after suffering through The Darjeeling Limited, I’m starting to get sick of seeing her show up as the eccentric mother in movies that try painfully hard to be offbeat. She could do much better.

In many ways, I’ve started to see Palahniuk’s Fight Club as a good movie that was bad for movies in general. Ever since Tyler Durden was introduced to the world, every other film that comes out has some last-minute rewrite of the story, where everything in the previous 90 minutes is rendered moot and useless by the sudden revelation that “it was all a dream” or “he was dead all along.” Choke doesn’t pull the rug completely out from under its audience to that degree, but it’s still ultimately a cheat, the same kind of hustle that Victor pulls on unsuspecting restaurant patrons. If Fight Club was the high point of Palahniuk’s trademark style brought to life on screen, then let’s hope that Choke is as low as it gets.