Thursday, May 28, 2009

Black Robe (1991)

One of the most gritty and downright bleak historical films I’ve seen, Black Robe follows a Jesuit priest called Father Laforgue as he travels into uncharted territory in 1600s Canada. Escorted by a party of Algonquin Indians, Laforgue and his adventurous companion Daniel are led by canoe into what is now Quebec, where they hope to find and convert a local Huron Indian tribe to Christianity. Along the way, Laforgue attempts to endear himself to his escorts, but his austere manner and strange form of dress (the black robe of the title) are seen as malevolent by the Algonquins, and as the party moves deeper into the wild, a dangerous divide forms between the two groups.

Black Robe
was released the year after Dances With Wolves, and it’s tempting to argue that its grim, naturalistic style is some kind of counterpoint to that film’s romantic idealism. Director Bruce Beredsford goes out of his way here to document the manifold complications of the relationship between Indians and colonial settlers, and his depiction of the hardships and the violence of the era is uncompromisingly realistic. So too is his depiction of the Indians (the book this film is based on is said to be one of the most well-researched depictions of Native American life ever written), who are played by a wonderful collection of actors, most notably August Schellenberg as the group’s leader, Chomina. Most movies about Native Americans paint them either as wise and noble sages or as warlike savages, but Black Robe manages to show both they and the settlers in all their complexity. This doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t include the requisite scenes of the two groups learning from one another, or that Daniel doesn’t begin a romance with Chomina’s daughter, but all of this is handled with a subtlety that is truly rare in these kinds of films.

This is partly thanks to the way that, despite the sweeping landscapes in which it takes place, the film’s story remains elegantly simple and centered around its principle characters. I couldn’t help but think of Aguirre, The Wrath of God at many points in the story, as Black Robe has the same kind of emotional and physical rawness that made that film so memorable. The two also share a certain subtle absurdity, manifested here in the form of a dwarf sorcerer called Mestigoit who counsels the Indians that Laforgue might be a demon, inciting a debate among the Algonquins about whether or not they should kill the priest or leave him stranded in the wilderness. This is only one of many small indictments of religious figures that fill the story. Beresford seems to repeatedly draw a comparison between Laforgue and Indian shamans, and between Indian religions and Catholicism in general, and always with a slight skepticism. But Black Robe is certainly not any kind of polemic, and Beresford complicates his themes as much as he does his characters, always adding new angles and perspectives, some of which are truly unexpected.

Still, all this murkiness just might be what keeps the film from achieving any real sublimity with its ending, which is as haunting as it is puzzling and unsatisfying. There’s a certain kind of fatalism and inevitability that comes with the territory in historical fiction (we do know how this all ends, of course), and even if we can appreciate the necessity of the film ending the way it does, it still leaves us wanting more. That being said, Black Robe is still notable as a strange kind of historical artifact. Few films have ever tried to capture the mood and the struggles of this particular time and place so carefully or unflinchingly, and even fewer have done it this well.

Bad Lieutenant Trailer

The trailer for Werner Herzog's pseudo-remake of Bad Lieutenant is finally available, and it definitely looks like it's going to be one hell of a weird trip. It is nice to see Val Kilmer back in action, and I suppose it has been too long since Nic Cage got to do that crazy over-the-top kind of performance that he loves so much...

Friday, May 15, 2009

Wendy and Lucy (2008)

I finally caught up with Wendy And Lucy following the surprise attention it got from critics last year, which saw it receive a deluge of praise, find its way onto several “best of” lists, and spark at least one debate on the state of modern film. At first glance, I can say without hesitation that Wendy and Lucy is a much better effort than director Kelly Reichardt’s previous film, Old Joy, which was so slight that it eventually became downright dull, but I have the feeling that I’ll never need to see a single frame of it ever again. In a way this is to the movie’s credit: Wendy and Lucy’s subject matter is so seemingly small, and the style so mathematically precise, that after you’ve seen the movie once you feel as though you’ve truly experienced it, and chances are you won’t need to revisit it any time soon.

The film stars Michelle Williams as Wendy, a young drifter who’s driving around the country with her dog, Lucy, in tow. When her car breaks down somewhere in Oregon, a chain reaction of bad luck and bad decisions ends with Lucy going missing, and with no help and little money, Wendy is stuck trying to find her companion in a city where she knows no one.

You wouldn’t think that a movie about a girl looking for her lost dog could be all that compelling, but Reichardt’s meditative style and a great, subtle performance from Williams really draw you in. It’s become a huge cliche at this point, but the real achievement here (yes, as in The Bicycle Thief) is that this small, seemingly insignificant struggle eventually takes on tragic implications, and by the last few minutes of the movie we truly are hoping against hope that everything will work out for this character. This may just be because of the hopelessly sentimental girl-and-her-pet-dog dynamic that’s at work here, and there’s no doubt that stories about animals are one of the easiest ways to tug at the heartstrings of an audience, but it's a real achievement that this film is able to take this easy, readily available device and makes it stand for so much more at the same time that it strips it down to its barest parts. Beyond all else, we are involved.

And this is strange, because we know almost nothing about Williams’ character or where she’s coming from, and other than her vague aspirations of going to Alaska to work in a cannery, we don’t know where she’s going. What is clear is that she’s a person who’s hell-bent on living in the present, and it seems that as a director Reichardt is equally set on building this conceit with her camera. Her style of placid, stationary landscapes and slow, fluid tracking shots can definitely get a little tedious, but it does succeed in grounding the viewer in the here and now of her story, and helps us to identify with Wendy even though she seems so anonymous. As the story builds and the stakes get higher, it becomes obvious that this movie is not just about a girl searching for a lost pet, it’s about someone searching for a way to survive in a world that seems cold and indifferent their existence.

For all its economy of style and content (this movie clocks in at barely over 80 minutes), Wendy and Lucy is chock full of subtext, but unfortunately not all of hits home the way it probably should. I could have done without the supermarket clerk who catches Wendy shoplifting having to prominently sport a cross necklace and spout off conservative ideology--a none too subtle attempt to create a counterpoint to Wendy’s free-spirited lifestyle--or a short scene featuring independent filmmaker Larry Fessenden (who pulls off creepy very well) as a menacing homeless man, which seems oddly out of place. Still, there are also some real standouts here, especially Wally Dalton, who is a real delight to watch as a Walgreen’s security guard who is seemingly the only kind soul that Wendy encounters in the whole film.

Ultimately, it seems that Wendy and Lucy is a movie that probably got praised more for being a novelty in American cinema than it did for accomplishing anything groundbreaking. It doesn’t necessarily stake out any new territory, cinematically speaking, and the struggle at the heart of its story is nothing new either. Foreign filmmakers have been hitting both fronts for at least fifty years. It's too early to tell whether or not it marks the beginning of a sea change in American independent cinema, but all hype and theorizing aside, this is a well-made and superbly acted little film that builds to a truly elegant ending. At the very least, you have to respect Reichardt and Williams for being willing to take on such a slight, muted story. Sometimes it takes a lot more courage to a make a movie that is stripped down and meditative than it does to make something sweeping, and even if Reichardt's films aren't necessarily as transcendent as some have claimed, I'm still glad she's making them.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Doubt (2008)

Certain movies are bad because they try too hard to be unpredictable and end up sacrificing the logic of their story in the process. Other movies are bad because they become so utterly predictable that the act of watching them comes to feel less like an experience and more like reading a laundry list of plot points and reversals that are supposed to be affecting. Writer-Director John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, which is an otherwise well acted and tightly constructed little story, suffers from a problem that I can’t say I’ve encountered that often: it is predictably unpredictable. From frame one-- hell, from the title alone--we know that this movie is going to be an exercise in how little can be revealed and how little can be explained. While this willingness to embrace mystery and uncertainty is something that I have championed time and again, here it ends up draining the story of its energy and meaning, to the point that all we’re left with is a number of not unimpressive shouting matches between great actors. We’re never really able to have an opinion on who is right, because we’re never allowed enough information to truly know what the stakes are. When the film ends, the only thing worth considering is not the substance of what this story is supposed mean or the complexities of its characters, but simply whether or not we believe a plot point actually happened.

The story is set at a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the new priest, Father Flynn, a liberal, worldly man who believes that the church should try to be “friendlier.” His ideas put him at odds with the austere Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the school’s principal, who feels it’s her job to be feared by the children. Caught between the two is the sweetly shy Sister James (Amy Adams), the only young teacher at the school, who is torn between her respect for Sister Aloysius and her admiration for Father Flynn’s new ideas. When Father Flynn’s relationship with a young boy is called into question, it sets the stage for an epic clash between he and Sister Aloysius, who is set on proving Flynn’s misconduct and having him removed from the church.

The film’s best feature is the delicious irony that Shanley constructs around his characters. We take an instant dislike to the strict Sister Aloysius, described by Flynn as a “hungry dragon,” but we know she means well. Similarly, although Father Flynn strikes us as the kindest of men, we know that his affability may conceal a dark secret. For the first thirty minutes or so, Doubt works thanks to this neat trick, where the perceived protagonist could be the antagonist, and vice versa, but it quickly becomes obvious that Shanley has no intention of ever resolving this dissonance. While this is certainly in keeping with the film’s literary style (Doubt originated as a stage play) and all-too-obvious themes, it prevents the story from carrying any real moral weight, and leaves the audience with no point of reference.

The film’s literary origins mean that the metaphors, of which there are many, are going to be placed front and center. Shanley’s script is chock full of reversals and visual cues and clever foreshadowing, but the film wears these devices on its sleeve to the point that they carry little meaning. It’s as though Shanley wrote this story with the intention of it being easily deconstructed. (This is exactly the kind of film that high school English teachers should show their classes, because the metaphors are plentiful and easy to point out.) So if Sister Aloysius has a peculiar hatred for ball point pens and sugar, you can bet Father Flynn writes with one and takes his tea extra sweet. This is not to mention that the weather outside is particularly windy and ominous for the whole of the film, or that-- no kidding-- a light bulb literally blows out in the middle of one of the more heated arguments. This heavy-handiness translates to Shanley’s visual style as well, which makes use of several comically miscued dutch angles at different key points in the narrative.

What saves the film from being a complete miss are a number of excellent performances. Hoffman’s turn as Father Flynn just might be my favorite performance of his career, if only because it was so refreshing to see him play a character that is upbeat and confident instead of the melancholy sad sack that he seems to have become typecast as. For her part, Adams probably has the easiest role as the demure Sister James, but she brings a certain intellectual depth to her character, who could have easily come off as annoyingly wide-eyed and naive. Surprisingly, and though she’s undoubtedly the class of the group, Streep just might be the weak link here as Sister Aloysius. She’s certainly enjoying herself, and really sinks her teeth into the role, but she does take it dangerously over the top in a lot of her scenes. A big part of the problem is the strong Noo Yawk accent that she insists on doing (but only some of the time), which brings a weirdly comic quality to a lot of her lines. I have a theory that great actors often get themselves into trouble with accents. They seem to latch onto them a little overzealously, probably because they see them as a challenge, but the results aren’t always as convincing as one might hope. Streep seems to be one of the repeat offenders in this regard, and here she is outdone on more than one occasion, most notably in a towering ten-minute scene with the great character actress Viola Davis, who completely deserved the Oscar nod she got for her role.

Unfortunately, it seems that every time these great actors manage to build something here it gets undone by the fatal flaw of Shanley’s script. Not ever following through on any plot point means that he robs his story (and his audience) of ever having a chance to explore any ideas of real depth. Because of the route the film takes, all the well thought out ideas about the role of women in the church, or how uncertainty is a part of faith, or how convictions operate, are ultimately trumped by a simple question: “Did he do it?” In a way, this movie is criticism-proof, because any objection to the writing or lack of clarity only further reinforces the theme of uncertainty. The problem is that this uncertainty was such a certainty all along that it lacks any kind of punch. Without getting too pretentious here, let’s just say that mystery only works when there is some mystery about whether or not there’ll be a mystery, and knowing all along that Shanley intends to leave us in the dark prevents the story from gaining any momentum. Maybe it all works a lot more elegantly on the stage, where themes, performances, and metaphors can be employed with a lot less subtlety. But as a film? I have my doubts.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Goofy Movie...As Directed By David Lynch

Apparently there's a new internet meme where people re-edit classic, happy movies and make them look like they were made by the master of all things weird and unsettling. My personal favorite is this re-cut of The Goofy Movie, which is truly some kind of small masterpiece. Watch and be amazed:

While it doesn't quite reach the same level of strangeness as Goofy, this re-imagining of Dirty Dancing is also worth a look:

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Moon Trailer

Moon is a science fiction movie about an astronaut (Sam Rockwell) who starts cracking up after 3 years spent alone on the lunar surface, his only companion a talking robot, oddly voiced by Kevin Spacey. It played at Sundance and the Tribeca film festival, where it got a lot of attention for being a throwback to classic science fiction films like Solaris and Silent Running, and many have already predicted that it will find a cult following. Sam Rockwell is definitely hit or miss as an actor, but this one does look pretty interesting, and it's already been picked up and is set to release in June. The big draw for me? The film's director, Duncan Jones, is the son of none other than famed musician David Bowie. Apparently he shares his father's fascination with outer space.