Saturday, December 20, 2014

Santa Monica Pier Mystérieux

I like to imagine alternate histories. I like to imagine George Washington living now and becoming the world's greatest craft brewer. I like to imagine the Aztecs whooping some Cortés ass. I like to imagine Colt McCoy's futile throwaway pass in the waning moments of the 2009 Big 12 Championsip Game not hitting that godforsaken railing. I like to imagine Little Boots playing the London Olympics Closing Ceremonies instead of the Spice Girls. I like to imagine Sofia Coppola winning the Best Director Oscar for 2003 and all the Peter Jackson fanatics in hobbit costumes looking at their TV screens bewildered while all the Sofia-ites toast their Sofia Blanc de Blanc and crank Jesus & Mary Chain.

But what I really like to imagine is Rose Dewitt Bukater & Jack Dawson living now rather than then and becoming the world's most prominent electronica duo.

And their first album cover would look like this...

Friday, December 19, 2014

Movies Lost Way Before Terrorists Won

"One could even argue that there’s an element of karmic payback at work here for all the greed and carelessness and calculated idiocy of Hollywood – as they have sown, so also shall they reap, or whatever. Except what, exactly, have they reaped? I guess the titans of America’s culture industry, which is about the only area of manufacturing where we still rule the world, have been revealed as stupid and calculating and driven by fear, as chickenshits who can’t even successfully pretend to believe in the value of their own products. We should have known that already, but maybe the reminder is useful." - Andrew O'Hehir, Salon 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Two Days, One Night

The Brothers Dardenne, Jean-Pierre and Luc, long purveyors of altruistic narratives with implicit belief in the importance of community, have typically preferred casting non-actors as a way to augment both their patented naturalism and socialist leanings. In "Two Days, One Night", however, they take a hardy gamble, opting for an Oscar-winner and legit movie star in the form of Marion Cotillard to play the lead. It's a choice that, consciously or unconciously, informs their incredible and incredibly frank film, one in which the gradually fostered passion of this particular individual eventually eclipses the collective.

Having just emerged from the shell of a staggering depression, Cotillard's Sandra learns the manager at a solar panel factory where she works has offered her sixteen co-workers the option of either electing to keep her on or letting her go to get their hands on a monetary bonus. Unsurprisingly, they choose the bonus. Sandra pleads for a new vote, and when it is agreed to in the time of two days and one night, she is forced to politick to retain her position. The script, as you might surmise, weaves it so that she heads straight for Judgment Day with eight voting for and eight voting against. Perhaps this premise is a tad contrived, but that's not so much a flaw as a means to an end, not so much forgivable as intrinsically forgiven. And besides, the ginormous swells of emotions it subsequently unleashes are entirely true because of its refusal to aesthetically go slumming for them and because of  its even-handed approach to the material.

Set in an industrial Belgian town, there are obvious overtones to the fraught European economic situation of recent years, but "Two Days One Night" succeeds so grandly because it does not revolve around a cause so much as a person. Or, more precisely, people. The Dardennes' camera follows Sandra docu-style from person to person, encouraged by a husband (Fabrizio Rongione) who transcends The Supportive Spouse archetype because the screenplay subtly captures how he must maintain his own shit while helping to keep his wife from losing hers.

Though the scenes of Sandra crusading are brief, each character she encounters is deftly portrayed as a whole human being rather than some symbolic obstacle. They generally understand her plight, save for a couple, and make it clear they didn't vote against her but for the bonus, stuck between goodwill and survival. "Put yourself in my shoes," she says. And they do. But they also ask, whether directly or not, to put herself in their shoes. And she does. Right and wrong aren't blurred so much as they bleed into one another, indistinguishable, evoking a society where any decision made is liable to harm someone aside from the unseen suits who are guiding these faux-morality plays from on high. "I'm not mad at you," she says to those who refuse to change their vote, and you know she's not. You know.

You know because of Marion Cotillard, the finest female performance in a film this year, one in which she personifies weariness by educing tortured bags under her eyes and allowing her inherent allure to fall away in a physical mixture of perspiration that seems to strain all the luster from her omnipresent bright-colored halter tops. It's like she's perpetually just woken up from a sweat-stained nightmare. Rather than a Silkwood or Joan of Arc or someone trying to "change the world", she's simply hanging on to the ledge of existence by her fingernails, and wondering whether or not she should let go. She's more reluctant than determined, more resigned than desperate, getting through on account of a fragile resolve that consistently threatens to crumble. She doesn't want pity, truly, yet Cotillard's mannerisms and her refusal to make eye contact conjures up a beaten-down aura communicating the embarrassment from the pity she engenders nonetheless.

In one moment of extreme lament, when "Needles and Pins" by Petula Clark appears on the car radio, Sandra's husband turns the stero off. She turns it right back on. "You thought the song was too depressing for me?" she asks, and then she smiles. And Cotillard doesn't overdo it. It's not a show-me-your-teeth smile and she doesn't clap and sing along. It's not damn-the-man triumph. She just takes in the momentary hard-won evanescent bliss, and every one of these triumphs, each one a bit bigger than the last, gradually accumulate until she seizes on them and takes possession of herself. In the end, her job doesn't define her, she does, and her final moment, walking away from the camera, another grin waltzing across those sorrowful lips, is a wordless hymn of exultation.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Force Majeure

Family photos have long struck this reviewer as disingenuous. They seem so contrived, so designed to get fathers and mothers and sons and daughters done up in clothes they would never wear and to sit or stand or uncomfortably, inauthentically kneel and to obey literal barked commands of "smile!" rather than simply allowing those smiles to form of their own volition. The family photo was the Facebook photo before Facebook. SEE HOW HAPPY WE ARE?! Not for nothing then does "Force Majeure", director Ruben Östlund austered Swedish drama chock full of uneasy laughs, open with images of its obligatory family of four posing for portrait to reassure themselves that, dammit, they really are happy.

That portrait takes place on a mountainside vista amidst the pristine French Alps at a luxury ski resort where Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) have brought their adolescent son and daughter because the whole purpose of a luxury ski resort is to forget your troubles and kick up powder. The artificiality of the entire excursion is slyly underlined by the resort's "controlled" avalanches, employed to keep the handsome trails properly groomed. Eventually, however, as the family sits down for a scenic meal at an outdoor restaurant, one of those "controlled" avalanches, mirroring the force majeure of the title, becomes a little un-controlled and the story kicks into gear.

As clouds of snow billow down where they sit, Tomas pulls a Costanza - that is, when George Costanza of "Seinfeld" realized the hamburgers at the little kid's birthday caught on fire and he un-heroically fled, leaving everyone, women and children and birthday clowns, behind. The avalanche of "Force Majeure" doesn't really get out of control, it just appears to, and yet it still allows a pulling back of the curtain on Tomas's real inner nature. He abandons his wife and kids, tucking tail and running, and then comes sauntering back like nothing happened.

"Relationships that start under intense circumstances," Annie Porter once observed, "they never last." The same could be said of relationships that suddenly face intense circumstances, such as your spouse running for his life rather than laying down his for the kids. This telling reaction rattles Ebba. At first, she bottles it up, until she has a couple glasses of wine at which point she can't help but mention it, telling their friends, also staying at the resort, whether they want to hear it or not. And each time she does, Tomas denies her version of events. He doesn't remember fleeing as she reached for and covered her kids. Ah, but he should know better than anyone this is the iPhone age, and in the iPhone age there can be no "Rashomon."

"Force Majeure" quickly, and thankfully, casts aside its he said/she said predicament to mine for richer territory within the male psyche and the dynamics of relationships. As Tomas, Bah Kuhnke comes equipped with a kind of vacancy in his eyes, as if he's been detached from this marital union since the cake got sliced, and when Ebba confronts him on his cowardice, he retreats to watch TV with his daughter, like a little kid who never really grew up no matter how money he (obviously) makes.

One of the eeriest passages of the year finds Tomas and his mountain-manish brother (Kristofer Hivju) reclining after a day on the slopes and an attractive lady bringing him a beer at the behest of her just-as-attractive friend. Tomas puffs out his chest. Except, as it happens, the just-as-attractive friend meant for that beer to go to someone else and awkardness ensues and then a showing of feathers in lieu of an actual fight when a couple fellas intervene, and to see the ego of a couple dudes get so publically shattered and how pitifully they react painfully exposes the male ego for the giant bag of wind it really is.

Not that the film forsakes Ebba. Not at all. As aloof and unconnected as her husband seems, her pain and confusion comes across far more immediate and appreciable. She has drinks with a friend (Clara Wettergren) who expressly talks of her open marriage in spite of their kids. Ebba can't square with this notion. Isn't marriage supposed to be monogamous? Isn't that in the vows? She keeps going back to it and her friend dismisses these ideas of one sexual partner for the rest of your life like she's just lost a game of drunken backgammon. This, we're made to wonder, is what we have to look forward to with everlasting love?

"Force Majeure's" arty, mysterial conclusion takes place aboard a bus as it ferrys a gaggle of tourists, including our main characters, down the winding, twisting mountains in a sequence that is awe-inspiring in its queasiness and simply-rendered terror. It's as stomach-churning as anything in "Gravity", the way Östlund plants those snow-capped peaks right in our faces in the window to make it seem as if we all might go tumbling down them together. And this slow-moving rollercoaster taken in conjunction with the subsequent scene seem, in their own way, to epitomize the very notion of marriage as one chock full of potential calamities that must be narrowly averted.

Happily ever after cedes the roadway to an uncertain forward march.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


Staring down the barrel of a three month, eleven-hundred mile hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) endeavors to simply strap on her elephantine backpack, sprawled out on the floor with its full weight pinning her down. It is, of course, a moment of palpable physicality in which director Jean-Marc Vallée fluently communicates the arduousness of his character's almost reckless desire to test her mettle. It is also, however, a 210D Nylon metaphor for Cheryl's whole existence, one woman's struggle to get out from under the weight of all the crap that is her life. If it's a blunt metaphor, it's a no less apt one, and blunt metaphors are permissible in films where the protagonist is made to rip off her own toenail. She is going into the wild, yes, but more than that she is going into the wild as a means to go mentally into her past.

Adapted by author Nick Hornby, "Wild" communicates its main character's adventure not as a linear journey stretching from the unbearable heat of the Mojave to the wintry peaks of the Sierra Nevada, but as one hopping back and forth in time in Cheryl's life. The flashbacks paint a portrait of a woman who has, more or less, lived two lives already by the age of 26, one as a Tracy Flick-ish wunderkind motivated by a mother (Laura Dern, a winning performance that believably conjures a loving free-spirit) who has fled an abusive husband to make a new life and one as a Vanessa Lutz-ish bad girl driven to the edge of self-destruction when her mother passes away from cancer. Ruining her marriage to a man who clearly still loves her but also knows it's in his best interest to get distance, her life devolved into the requisite bacchanal of drugs, booze and sex.

Admittedly these present/past episodes seem a bit too tidy in their construction to truly invoke the film's title. "There's no way to know what makes one thing happen and not another. What leads to what," Cheryl sermonizes in voiceover even though the film spends its entire two hours illustrating exactly what leads to what, what makes one thing happen and not another. If, say, she hitches a ride then the guy giving her a ride will turn on the car radio and if he turns on the car radio then it will immediately cue up a song that immediately cues up a flashback to some long-ago incident that allows for another blatant filling in of another one of our protagonist's blanks.

Yet simultaneously these repeated intrusions of what brought her to the trailhead fit seamlessly by evoking how anyone's most notable companion on a solo quest is him or herself and when left in the company of yourself for so long you can't help but pour over every celebration, failure or regret. It's funny, isn't it, how journeys into the ostensible unknown dredge up things we know too damn well.

If the film is noticeably light on hair-raising action-adventure exploits despite its material, it is hefty on the physical vulnerability Cheryl is forced to experience in a generally unaccompanied environment. Otherwise good-hearted male hikers she encounters along the way jocularly anoint her the "Queen of the PCT" because of the many helping hands she receives, from other backpackers, park rangers, etc. They say it good-heartedly but that doesn’t fail to mask the underlying obliviousness. They make a point to explain they receive no such generosity while failing to grasp that a lone woman in the wilderness means every encounter with the opposite sex comes cloaked in uneasiness and potential full-on fear. That nothing happens can perhaps be attributed to her gradually mounting emotional fortitude, or her to pure luck, but the omnipresent idea of menace nevertheless remains palpable.

Certainly this raises the notion of Cheryl's non-recreational walk as one of self-flagellation as much as spiritual rejuvenation. When she loses her hiking boots and ducts tapes sandals to her feet and presses forward there is a discernible attitude of I Deserve This. "Fuck you, bitch!" she screams at her departed footwear, even though she's really yelling it at herself. As an actress, Reese Witherspoon is generally viewed as one of the queens of the rom com (which makes the label "Queen of the PCT" all the more acerbic), a ferocious ball of perky energy. Here she unplugs, deftly playing someone who is exhausted, drained of all power, and even before she sets off on her odyssey. She simply seems tired – tired of walking this trail, tired of living this life, tired of standing in these shoes. This is decidedly at odds with the sort of character that usually inhabits these kinds of Jack London adventurer tales. There is a moment when a fellow hiker she briefly meets references training and the look Witherspoon lets play on her face reveals that "training" for her was not merely an afterthought but never thought about.

Cheryl Strayed is woefully ill-prepared, out of her element, resistant to myth-making. And no matter how many times she turns to the collected works of Emily Dickinson for inspiration, she is not in the throes of a quest to "find herself" but to shake free of who she is. She, to quote Bruce Springsteen who himself is momentarily referenced in the film, walks a thousand miles to slip her skin.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Inherent Vice

If "The Master", Paul Thomas Anderson's ginormous puzzle of God-knows-whatism, pertinently established a prevalent theme, it was that its auteur had become The Master of the engimatic cinematic behemoth. Mr. Anderson's run times are colossal, his themes plunge to unknowable depths, his films demand incessant re-watches (has there been a modern-day director whose work so often elicits the comment "I can't wait to watch it again"?) and even then it can be a Herculean struggle to make heads or tails of what's going on. "Inherent Vice", however, while copying the length of PTA's predecessors, is nowhere near as psychologically impenetrable. Oh, it's confusing, definitely, but that's simply on account of an intentional runaway plot. Grasping its innumerable parts is not as consequential as drinking in its refreshingly slack vibe.

The film's kaleidoscopic story is seen through the tinted glasses of Doc Sportello, played by that most physically present of actors, Joaquin Phoenix, with a Lennon-ish mane, a feelin'-groovy strut and a voice that suggests a mellow if firm belief in brotherly love, even if that belief is not always reciprocated. He is a 40's gumshoe re-imagined as a late 60's beatnik trying to keep on keepin' on at the dawn of the 70's, Philip Marlowe if Philip Marlowe preferred bare feet to Florsheims and liked his cannabis anywhere, night or day, rather than his brandy in a glass.

Doc is approached by his ex, the marvelously named Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katerine Waterston), like Cerie Xerox crossed with Michelle Phillips. Her current squeeze, a real estate magnate of some renown (Eric Roberts), a none-too-subtle harbinger of greed and excess, has disappeared and she winsomely asks if Doc might help. He agrees to snoop, but less as a sucker lured by a femme fatale than a guy who simply wants to remain right-on for the gal he still adores. That's a critical delination, marking the film as a noir colored in kodachrome as opposed to stern black & white.

"Inherent Vice" is based on a 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon which I have not read, but which seems saddled with a permanent disclaimer of "Unfilmable." And if that's true, it seems at least possible that someone like P.T. Anderson would take such a disclaimer as a personal challenge. His finished product is leisurely and long, even though it feels entirely present in its individual moments, of which there are so, so many. It's akin to a two-and-a-half hour shaggy dog story. If P.T. closes a door, he opens a window. If he closes a window, he opens a portal to some other dimension. At one point, when conducting an "interview", Doc jots down in his notebook "something Spanish." That's essentially the language of the tale being communicated: something Spanish.

It's an able-bodied proposition in keeping everything straight, the names and places, the comings and goings, the vanishings and re-appearances. Martin Short, I'm reasonably certain, wearing a plum suit that makes him look like a deposed emperor, was merely a hallucination from the halluconigen wafting off the screen. That character couldn't have been real. I don't even remember how he factored into the story, which theoretically rules this critic out of order but then watching this film unfold is like being one of the mafiosos in "True Romance" listening to Floyd try and give directions. Who the hell knows? We'll get there when we get there. Jena Malone's one-scene walk-off is sheer magnificence but I'm not sure where it fits either.

Well, maybe I am. She's an ex-heroin addict who's cleaned up in the name of her baby girl and though she summons Doc because she needs him to track down her husband who's also gone missing (and who's played by Owen Wilson with an air that suggests he showed up in the middle of filming and just said "Cast me"). She makes time for a mind-bending monologue with a sunflower coffee cup about her past, present and future, illustrating the delicate line between the counter-culture and the squares. It's blending, and when it's gone, it'll be gone, and it's why the real pre-eminent relationship of the film isn't so much Doc & Shasta as Doc & Detective Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen.

He's played by Josh Brolin with a severe buzzcut and a deadpan gloom denoting a belief that the world is fucked and that vile hippie scum did the fucking. He can't stand Doc and seems eternally out to get him, and yet needs him as an informant much like Doc relies on him for information. They're in this together, like it or not. In the most hysterical sequence in a film this year Doc hallucinates a late-night commercial starring "Bigfoot" in the role of precisely the sort of vile bohemian he despises. Brolin's impeccable monotone makes every flower-power aphorism ring with a hilarity Ron Burgundy could never hope to match. It's also emblematic of the whole film, not just its laconic wit but the way these dueling aspects of America - Dude and Groovy, Man - have run headlong into one another.

We know which one eventually wins, yet whereas anger has so often spilled from the pen of Paul Thomas Anderson, this one is coated in a warmth foreign to the rest of its auteur's oeuvre. Not even in "Punch Drunk Love", a film which felt studious in its glow whereas the glow of "Inherent Vice" feels innate. The characters may mock one another but the film doesn't mock the characters. It's a judge-free zone, observational, and uproarious, and even romantic. It may capture the dying embers of a more free-thinking era, but it doesn't seek to bitterly deconstruct it so much as plaintively wave goodbye.