Jul 21, 2010

That Evening Sun

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Encapsulated by an opening shot of the elderly Abner Meecham (Hal Halbrook, one of our finest) gazing at the lush forest greenery surrounding his nursing home, That Evening Sun strikes a careful balance between no-frills naturalism and restrained poeticism. This particular example sees the reflective surface of a window juxtaposing the years of experience apparent in Abner's face with the cyclical timelessness of the natural world (add to that a touch of green-infused envy), one he damn well intends on enjoying again before shuffling off his mortal coil. Fleeing the nursing home and returning to his farm – one he owned and tended for most of his life – Abner finds his home now occupied by Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon), the property having been rented out by his son, legal expert and caretaker of his father's estate in the months following the broken hip – now healed – that saw his residential relocation.

As a known alcoholic with an abusive streak, Choat takes an immediate disliking to Abner, and vice-versa. If the emerging plot details sound on paper like the makings of a trite “us versus them” drama, such is a creative rut masterfully avoided by writer/director Scott Teems, who gives each character/performer full room to exist as a mass sum of qualities, many unknown, and through this recognized complexity examines the many social binaries at work – fathers and sons, husbands and wives, the gap of generations – with an assured calmness that allows even the more villainous types their moments of character-defining integrity. Unlike, say, The House of Sand and Fog, which made excuses for Jennifer Connolly's irresponsible homeowner in the name of a phony occupation metaphor, That Evening Sun forgoes absolutisms and sees that opposing interests can both, in fact, be in the right.

Such often feels like a generous stance given Choat's routinely indefensible behavior, one caught up in self-destructive tendencies (drinking, gambling) even as it's driven by a tragically sincere desire to do good and provide for his family (then again, the same can be said about the frightening nature in which he overprotects his daughter). Abner simply wants to enjoy what he worked hard for during his life, during the time he has left, a hard truth lost on his son, who insists – despite overwhelming evidence that Abner can be and is quite self-sufficient – that the nursing home is “the best option” (“For who?”, strikes back Abner, whiplash fast and twice as sharp). One could probably read parallels to current national issues – namely, the effects of the economy and social security on seniors – but the fact is that politics, like the film, are rooted in simple (not simplistic) notions of right and wrong.

Society sees Abner as little more than a nuisance, one that will – quite literally – go away if ignored long enough; such is but one of the necessary troubles of death that lurks in the film (and leave it to the brilliant character embodiment by Holbrook to turn one such outcome into one of the funniest moments of the year). That Abner can sometimes be said to go too far in his anger – really, who can blame him? Like a Greek drama, That Evening Sun is a shifting moral quandary, one in which losses are a given and – if justice should prevail – at best uncompounded. Forget Up in the Air: an incendiary portrait of rotting and displaced values-cum-Rorshach test, That Evening Sun is truly a film for our times.

Directed by: Scott Teems Screenplay by: Scott Teems Starring: Hal Holbrook, Ray McKinnon, Walton Goggins, Mia Wasikowska, Carrie Preston, Barry Corbin, Dixie Carter 2009, PG-13, 110 minutes

This review was originally published at the now-defunct site Gone Cinema Poaching.

Prodigal Sons

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Kimberly Reed's no-frills, diary-cum-documentary Prodigal Sons has already been compared to the ultra low-budget sensation Tarnation, and in terms of an autobiographical work crafted less on financial resources than sheer force of will, the parallels being drawn are apt. In terms of blistering emotional incisiveness, however, I was also reminded of Michael Apted's 21 Up, the last of the long-running Up series I've yet seen, and imcompletely at that. The titular age when I attempted to view the film, I found its directness and clarity too much to handle, and, feeling an almost inconceivable level of intimacy – as if God were staring right at me, and only me, from up on high – I decided to return to it at a later time. That was four years ago. Prodigal Sons is a similarly emotional, naked experience, and even sharing little in common with the specific trials of its maker and subjects, the experience it imparts was one difficult to surmount on the part of this viewer.

In an era of pop documentaries that reduce their subjects to gimmicky setups and patronizing lessons (I'm looking at you, Spurlock), Prodigal Sons is a near-profound palate cleanser. Director Kimbery Reed is also among the film's main subjects, she a former resident of Helena, Montana, last known to her friends and neighbors as the popular, high school quarterback Paul. Ten years later, her complete gender transformation seems to have been only half the battle in reconciling the fractures in her identity. Rather easily accepted by the bulk of her family and former classmates (though one senses that ugly, xenophobic encounters may have been deliberately left on the cutting room floor), Kim finds the most difficult person with whom to reconnect is her brother Marc, who maintains something of a grudge in response to both her former popularity as well as her new identity.

Adopted at a young age and the victim of a car crash that saw part of his brain removed, Marc is a tragic outsider not just to his family but to the bulk of humanity, well-meaning in his intentions but prone to violent outbursts and immature sibling rivalry, often falling back on Christian abboration of purported sexual deviance (both Kimbery and their little-seen brother Todd are gay) amongst more general manifestations of his emotional estrangement. The sorrow evoked by his personality disorder and reliance on medication is put to serious tests as his mental stability wanes, repeatedly threatening the safety of his loved ones in a manner that appears entirely out of his control. The sight of Marc's destructive behavior seems less exploitative (during his calmer times, he actively endorses Kim's filmmaking project, even as its most scrutinized subject) than it is not fully explored, but that's small potatoes given how intimate Reed manages to be – and how thoughtfully and patient and balanced at that – under the circumstances. The slightly awkward affectations are more than worth the up-close-and-personal benefits.

That Prodigal Sons shifts from being primarily autobiographical (Kim on Kim) to biographical (Kim on Marc) indeed creates something of a tonal schism, but it's one easily justified considering the overall transparency Reed employs in her construction of the film (rather than shying away after a violent encounter between herself and Marc, we share the deafening solitude as she drives away in the truck that caused the initial dispute), the sum of which qualifies the film as nothing less than a work of profound humanitarian worth. One almost wishes for an Up-like continuation some years down the road. Once again proving the cinematic medium's inherent empathetic power, these are characters that, once known, are difficult to live without.

All of this is to say nothing of Prodigal Sons most eye-opening revelation: that Marc is, in fact, the biological grandson of none other than Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, a discovery that sadly proves less beneficial to the ailing Marc than we'd hope. Such embodies the notion that truth is indeed stranger than fiction, but it also allows for the soul-piercing inclusion of Welles' infamous musical recording of “I know what it means to be young (but you don't know what it means to be old).” Such wisdom is hard-won, and Prodigal Sons earns every ounce of it.

Directed by: Kimberly Reed Starring: Kimberly Reed, Marc McKerrow, Carol McKerrow, Todd McKerrow, Oja Kodar 2008, NR, 86 minutes

This review was originally published at the now-defunct site Gone Cinema Poaching.


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A borderline great film for the bulk of its length, Sweetgrass tragically falters for one very awkward portion that begins just after mid-point. It's sad how easy it is to fall from creative rapture, but let's forget that hurdle for now, as it can be addressed later. In a way flawless, Sweetgrass (named after one of the counties in which it was shot) suggests the opening chapter of 2001 by way of Au hasard Balthazar, watching with a dramatically-attuned documentary eye the final sheep herding through the Beartooth mountains of Montana in 2003. An opening shot in which a feeding sheep seemingly breaks the fourth wall (or does it?) is more alien than a combined half of Avatar, and with this movie we are forced to see the animals not as a product, but also, and firstly, as living creatures.

Modest in both its general premise and formal audaciousness, Sweetgrass's pleasures derive primarily from the rarely not breathtaking imagery abound in the Montana landscape, as well as a cinematic flair achieved via carefully selected off-the-cuff viewing angles. We see the chores, the feeding and herding methods, the daily routines, but the tendency to linger on the margins is one more revealing in whole than in part, documenting not just the processes but the larger behaviors on display. As both individuals and groups, the human and sheep are seen in a Godlike larger context (quite literally in a latter-end highlight) in which function, capabilities, and overwhelming limitations are seen with a nearly scientific clarity.

Where Sweetgrass falters, then, is in its inclusion of the humans, the cowboys and cowgirls driving the herd day in and out. At first caught only on the periphery of the action, the workers eventually cease to be observed subjects and begin, disastrously, monologuing to each other and to the camera like deer caught in the headlights of an impromptu Morgan Spurlock interrogation. The movie magic is killed, suffice to say, when this level quasi-direct interaction is introduced into what was otherwise a beautifully orchestrated web of love, death, and survival instincts, the basic components of life in this stripped-down vision.

Overall, this point of focus is a relatively minor one, but like falling into a gopher hole whilst running and breaking something in the process, it's a major misstep and an experience that takes time to recover from. The camera needs to be far off and out of the way to tell this story, and we should be thankful that the filmmakers (Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor are the uncredited directors) knew this for what feels like approximately 85% of the time.

A film of broad themes and big questions, Sweetgrass is largely calm and tonally assured tone poem that manages to nevertheless be populated by a number of nearly self-contained high points, increases and decreases in mood that suggest – and often parallel – natural shifts in the environment, implying a Herzogian understanding of the Earth itself as a single organism populated by countless smaller lifeforms. Two singularly great sequences come to mind here, the rest less easy to describe in words and better enjoyed onscreen for it. The first is the feeding drive, shout out the rear of the vehicle, which turns into a jaw-droppingly epic foreshadowing of the much-seen fact that you really do need a whole mountain to move these creatures on (or, at the least, shut down traffic on main street). The second is the aforementioned literal Gods-eye-view shot, coming during a point in which a cowboy, unprompted by the filmmakers (they must know they're being shot so “candid” doesn't quite apply), quite literally loses it at a moment of extreme disparity. Both here and in whole, Sweetgrass succeeds in the difficult-but-necessary task of examining small things to find great ones.

Directed by: Ilisa Barbash, Lucien Castaing-Taylor 2009, NR, 101 minutes

This review was originally published at the now-defunct site Gone Cinema Poaching.

Jul 17, 2010


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Christopher Nolan's filmmaking at once evolves and regresses with Inception, a theoretically impressive, purportedly mindbending undertaking that unfortunately remains surface-bound in its chosen philosophical considerations. Not entirely unlike the justified non-subtlety of The Dark Knight (in which every boiled-over emotion and exaggerated thematic exposition functioned as part of an often-exquisite metaphorical examination of crumbling morality), Inception approaches its dreamworld landscapes with the apparent assumption that we, the audience, will require constant SparkNotes updates to remain in the know on what's transpiring moment to moment. Inception lacks a beating heart to ground its conceptually loaded proceedings with something more than sometimes-cool noirish imagery. Nolan's technical expertise is a given, but for as viscerally enthralling as his films often are, they can just as easily slip into the realm of the impersonal affectations. By taking unnecessarily painstaking efforts to reiterate its labyrinthine sci-fi rules and psychological mumbo jumbo ad nausea, Inception nearly gorges itself to death on its own ambitions.

More than those of any other Nolan film, Inception's characters tend to function less like actual people than as ciphers for overwrought screenwriting, so while the cast entire stands as more than capable (DiCaprio seems to have walked right off the set of Shutter Island with but a few tweaks of character needed), one can't escape the saddening impression that they're little more than non-playable characters in a big screen videogame. The storytelling here wouldn't be out of place in Halo or Resident Evil, and while the resultant hand-holding is less outright condescending than it is narratively tiresome, it nevertheless exacerbates what is otherwise an intellectual and visceral slog punctuated only sporadically by bits of nifty storytelling and the occasional moment of eye-popping imagery. Trying his hand at the sci-fi existentialism genre with nearly unrivaled audacity (The Matrix, Dark City and even 2001 are recalled throughout Inception's hulking mass), Nolan's story concerns professional infiltrators who enter people's minds through their dreams so as to steal ("extraction") or plant ("inception") ideas, the latter being far more challenging. Briefly recalling Inland Empire, these dreamscapes give way to deeper levels of subconsciousness, but look for no rabbits here: accurately reflective of dreams or not, Inception is essentially about psychological manipulation via your own cranially implanted videogame.

When it comes to stealing ideas, corporate agent Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the best of his kind, a skill learned in part through a deep personal loss he once endured as a byproduct of such unnatural dream meanderings. The results of that tragedy now drive his efforts to plant (incept?) an anti-monopolistic motive in the head of a young business titan (Cillian Murphy), the success of which will earn his freedom to return to the life he once knew. As a character study, Inception flounders, and while its spectacle-heavy slant sometimes yields mind-blowing effects, the overwhelming effect is that of misdirected energy and lost potential. Occasionally, such as during the film's centerpiece heist sequence (a bold storytelling juggling act that revolves around a vehicle's time in freefall), Inception's many parts cohere into something both viscerally and intellectually intoxicating (the most intriguing moments concern Joseph-Gordon Levitt's attempts to induce gravity in a zero gravity environment).

Alas, the effect is enthralling in the moment but more so does it illuminate the frustratingly schematic storytelling otherwise being employed. For a film about dreams, Nolan's images play it relatively safe, avoiding surrealism like the plague and frequently neutering any accruing sense of visual wonder (an invocation of M.C. Escher's "Ascending and Descending" turns sour when the visual trick is rendered obvious for the sake of the literal-minded groundlings in the audience), while the seemingly endless scientific exposition amounts to little more than high-minded, metaphysical heavy lifting wanting for a more fitting emotional context in which to flourish. Certainly admirable for its ambition alone, Inception nevertheless only goes halfway in its aspirations of greatness, the successes routinely, tragically undercut by misguided and unnecessarily overt attempts at narrative clarity. Dead weight and needless redundancy plummets the proceedings; Nolan should've expected a bigger leap of faith from his audience.

Directed by: Christopher Nolan Screenplay by: Christopher Nolan Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Pete Postlethwaite, Michael Caine 2010, PG-13, 148 minutes

Jul 5, 2010

Viewing Log #2

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Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010) The better they get, the tougher it is to reconcile Pixar's storytelling flaws from their commercial art savvy (which is to say, the more sublime their surroundings, the more strongly said flaws will stand out). Structurally, Toy Story 3 extends the arc of the previous two films with what seems like retrospectively inevitable perfection. If the 1995 original was about who we are and the lauded sequel where we come from, this long-gestating, final chapter (so they say, and I sincerely hope so) primarily concerns where we are going. The usefulness of our familiar characters (some of whom have departed since we last saw them, gone from Andy's room via trash or trade) is waning in light of their owners growing up, but Andy's intentions of saving his toys goes awry, their ultimately being donated to a nearby daycare center. The manipulative, greedy actions of other toys test the resilience of Woody, Buzz and company once again, with the the plotline's similarities to earlier adventures masked in part by endearing genre indulgences (a Great Escape-inspired jailbreak sequence involving Mr. Potato Head is downright trippy and positively the shit), and, less successfully, by comedic deviations that tread close to the snotty territory of the Shrek sequels. Ken and Barby's time in the spotlight should be reduced by half, and a misguided running gag has the audacity to impede upon a moment of shocking brilliance, yet 3's hit to miss ratio remains remarkably high even with these blemishes. The philosophical bend – that all things must, ultimately, come to pass – culminates in a profound image of solidarity as soul-searing as anything this side of Snow White, animated or not (and even manages to one-up the hellmouth sequences of The Brave Little Toaster). But for a nip tuck, Toy Story 3 might be a masterpiece. Heck, I'll take it anyway. [Rating: 4 out of 5]

Green Zone (Paul Greengrass, 2010) I'd likely be damning Green Zone for relatively facile political messages if it weren't for the regrettable fact that more than a fair share of people out there are in desperate need of them. More than just Americans ignorant to the business side of politics (a corruptive force host in both major parties – democract with a small d, thank you), the general possibility, likely probability of hostile manipulation on the part of the powers that be is the primary learning point routinely lost on those mentally tamed by media noise in virtually any developed country. This stylistic, if not outright thematic follow-up to United 93 (which, as a plainly presented dramatization of recent history, is already starting to look better as the part of a larger whole) will likely prove irritating to those who smelled bullshit early on in the Iraq invasion; that being said, a pivotal statement dramatically shifts the tides at about the halfway point, succinctly, devastatingly encapsulating the experiences of Matt Damon's Roy Miller (based on real-life Army chief warrant office Richard Gonzales), a weapons investigator whose experiences in combat have made him determined to send word up the ranks that their lies a disconnect between the intelligence being provided (active weapons labs in Iraq) and the actualities on the ground (there's nothing there). When the picture shifts into action mode, it becomes a probing meditation on truth, from Washington politics to more basic xenophobias. Greengrass's shakicam is honed, precise, and linear, a step in the right direction from his gaudy Bourne sequels. The script remains formulaic yet fully felt, elevated by tender humanitarianism and poetic gashes of emotion, none more brutal than the body of a defensive young man – having made the foolhardy decision of reaching for the family gun when American troops raid his home – collapsing, instantly, into his wailing mother's arms. [Rating: 3.5 out of 5]

The Wolfman (Joe Johnson, 2010) While the final product is only arguably necessary as far as remakes are concerned, Joe Johnson's respectable ode to Universal's classic horror films certainly has fun on its side. Knowingly precise in its new school replication of old school filmmaking styles, this generally faithful retelling of the 1941 classic gives the Lawrence Talbot character (then, Lon Chaney, Jr.; now, Benicio Del Toro) a Freudian twist, complicating his lycanthropic curse with the damning bonds of family. The whole thing only occasionally becomes more than a capable homage to what came before, but it's one expert and loving enough to float the proceedings on borderline cheesy enthusiasm alone. The broadly skilled cast (Hugo Weaving is tops, but Del Toro, Emily Blunt and Anthony Hopkins bring their game faces) might have you think it was great literature being enacted, and while The Wolfman often veers towards the realm of camp, no irony is to be found herein. The broad monster violence and novel cinematic devices used to milk said gore's potency (less is more, tried and true) offer modest delights, which is far more than can be said for most horror outings. [Rating: 3.5 out of 5]

Jul 3, 2010

Viewing Log #1

In which I take inspiration from RWK and attempt to give voice to more of these thoughts.

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(Matthew Vaughn, 2010) Like a runner lacking both legs and prosthetic replacements, Kick-Ass fails for two reasons, and is an equally unfunny sight. With both lack of focus and lack of thesis, this comic book inspired bit of tomfoolery at once doesn't know what it's saying and yet refuses to shut the hell up during what amounts to a genre dress-up play date from hell. A conceivably cool riff on Spider-Man's tale of empowered adolescence scatters its potential here on dead zone teenage sex comedy stuff and ironic, thoughtless violence. It's energy sans release. The movie invites parallels to “Watchmen”, so the comparison seems fair, even if Moore's magnum opus squashes it like a bug. Whereas that novel's escapades gained meaning and substance through that story's fully realized alternative world (to say nothing of rich characterization), Kick-Ass is pure good guy/bad guy cartoon simplicity, a watered-down setting in which its intended subversions are rendered moot. Nick Cage's Adam West antics should have been indulged more, while the prepubescent Hit Girl's sexual lingo is mere posturing, scarcely provocative, a iceberg cap without the foreboding mass hovering beneath. My man Fernando said it first, but the jab is worth repeating so pick your alternative title of choice: Half-Ass, Slow-Ass, Dumb-Ass... [C-]


Dear John (Lasse Hallstr̦m, 2010) Whether it's the wannabe Home Alone inanity of Getting Even With Dad or the Hallmark romance of Dear John, it would appear that movies can't invoke coin collecting in any fashion without making me smile. Past hobby biases notwithstanding (shit gets expensive...), this latest film based on the work of Nicholas Sparks (nevermind, I forgot about The Last Song) isn't so much offensive as it is relatively lifeless, a technically competent (if only just), decently acted bit of straight-faced cheese unfortunately based on a template wanting for genuine passion. Props for a mainstream movie going full-force with a relatively unconventional love story Рconcerning love's resistance to time, war, disease, distance, and more of life's heavy blows, it's more Scenes from a Marriage than Dirty Dancing. If you've seen both of those films, you're less likely to enjoy this one than if you've only seen the latter. [C+]


Valentine's Day
(Garry Marshall, 2010) With an interlinked plot to make Paul Haggis's Crash look like a virtuous embodiment of subtlety by comparison (read: I really dislike 2005's “best picture”), Valentine's Day is slick and watchable enough to make one occasionally forget just how stupid the whole enterprise is. From Queen Latifah's boringly racist phone sex banter (movies of this sort are so boring these days that Blazing Saddles is on the verge of being outright revolutionary again) to Jennifer Garner's faux waitress performance to what may be the most thanklessly gullible wife in screen history, this rom-com-dram-zzz flick barely musters a single genuine laugh to bolster its otherwise routine “all you need is love” proceedings with a bit of memorable flavor. That a third-act bit of sexual subversion aims to qualify as such seems to speak more to the regression of our culture than the nature of the flick, but whatever, it's lame either way. If it isn't terrible, it's certainly forgettable. I imagine it might make good mental comfort food for the occasional, most likely female broken heart. Plus, with this cast, I'm sure about half of Hollywood got a paycheck out of it. [C-]


Remember Me
(Allen Coulter, 2010) Sometimes the worst filmmaking choices are those in which the good intentions can still be felt. Take Remember Me, a brooding chunk of Gen Y malcontent gone for soap opera legitimacy. An opening act of violence sets the standard for a necessarily awkward witness to humanity's capacity for inhumanity, but it's a bar this politically conscious tale altogether fails to rise to in subsequent efforts, and them some. Two young adults, a boy and girl, fall in love amidst their raging against their parental machines in modern Brooklyn. Without spilling details, suffice to say that, in what is at best a misguided attempt to respect violence by averting it visually, Will Fetter's script takes some godawful missteps in its final pages in rendering the events in the cocktease style of a trashy thriller. That lump of coal notwithstanding, the framing and lighting are notably precise, if perhaps over-thought, the acting capable if less than truly inspired. I'd probably dislike it more if I lived in New York. [C]