Cold Weather – Aaron Katz (2010)

sj_product_image_65_6_1449_6702

Spoilers.

After breaking up with his girlfriend in Chicago, Doug (Cris Lankenau), a listless college dropout returns to his hometown of Portland, Oregon to live with his well-adjusted sister, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), who is has seemingly had only a frayed, partial disclosure contact with over the years. When his ex, Rachel (Robyn Rikoon), visits and subsequently goes missing, Doug uses the knowledge he has gleaned in Criminal Justice classes and Sherlock Holmes novels to try and find her.

Sounds like the synopsis for a pretty decent indie mystery thriller, but director Aaron Katz does little with the film aside from use the pretty Portland scenery to good use.

It’s a problem of trying to serve two masters. It’s a quirky mystery thriller, or it’s a film about a brother and sister reconnecting. It appears to actually be the latter, but the scenes of their reconnection are so sparse and sporadically spaced out that it’s a difficult element to piece together as the film’s main course.

The bulk of the film is spent on the mystery, but really the bulk of the film is spent on misdirection. First you think Doug’s coworker Carlos (Raúl Castillo) has killed Rachel, then a guy in a pickup truck possibly killed her, then she’s alive and apparently a hooker of some sort, then someone has stolen her briefcase full of money she was really in town to deliver. In the end we find out nothing about the mystery and little about the characters.

I like a well played bit of misdirection just like the next guy, but it’s a little too heavy handed here, especially since it never pans out to anything. We don’t find out what was in the brief case, but it’s not in a cool Pulp Fiction way where you can speculate on it, instead it is left to a mundane, almost unimportant existence. Instead of cracking it open to look inside, Doug and Gail sit in the car waiting for Rachel and Carlos and listen to mix tapes he made her during high school. It is a betrayal of the urgency the rest of the plot has had.

It’s a complete momentum stopping ending that is basically unworthy of the film. It’s actually a really good film until it so abruptly stops. Like Joe Swanberg’s Alexander the Last, it was almost like they kept shooting the film in order until they ran out of money and called it a film. It just ends. Credits, that’s it.

Still, Trieste Kelly Dunn is a wonderful surprise as the put together Gail, who slightly regresses into high school mode when her slacker brother comes to stay. She plays the role smartly and gracefully, with a great ease and confidence that plays in contrast to the uncomfortable, frail-voiced girls that usually fill these roles.

It ends up being deeply disappointing from Katz, who I rate very highly as a director after his great second feature, Quiet City. I had the chance to interview him when that came out and I found him to be a smart, insightful guy, deeply ambitious (in the best possible way — he mentioned a desire to shoot a western among other things) to not be pigeonholed as one of those mumblecore guys, which he really isn’t, even though Quiet City qualifies. The skill with which he handled the entire film up until the ending gives me great hope about his future projects at the very least.

Somewhere – Sofia Coppola (2010)

SOMEWHERE4

(Cleaning out my old unpublished reviews folder.)

In the opening moments of Sofia Coppola’s new film, Somewhere, we see her protagonist, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a bad boy “it” actor loosely based on people she knows and stories she’s heard, navigating in circles around a desert race track in his Ferrari. The rest of the film plays out much the same, but for Johnny real life comes along at a more glacial pace outside of his car. Still, he barely seems to notice. Johnny is just there, somewhere, not sure where.

Physically, he’s living at the fabled Chateau Marmont, the famous Hollywood hotel, as famous for celebrity deaths as celebrity guests, and where lavish parties seem to accumulate in his room. Emotionally, Johnny is harder to locate. The twin strippers that he orders up probably brought him joy at one point, but this seems to be about the rich guy equivalent to watching the same episode of Seinfeld again just because it’s on not because it’ll make you laugh, but he is just as content smoking a cigarette and staring at the wall. Sex is habitual to him now, not sexual, and he’s as likely to fall asleep in the middle of the act as he is to finish.

It isn’t at all that Coppola forgot to explore the depths of Johnny Marco’s character. It’s just that the depth of Johnny Marco doesn’t exist at the moment. If he turned sideways, you would half expect him to be a flat layer of fabric and skin. No life seems to stir in his eyes until the moment he looks up and sees his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo smiling at him, signing his cast. In the light of her smile, we don’t see the same man that fell asleep in his place the night before.

Played beautifully by Elle Fanning, Cleo is an effervescent hit of sunshine that doesn’t otherwise exist in his world, and DP Harris Savides’ lighting scheme reflects this, almost as if the light were radiating from her blonde locks down onto Johnny. In fact, the film’s main flaw is not enough Cleo. Within the framework of the film, she is just the longest lasting of the characters he brushes shoulders with. Her imprint on the film is huge, though, because she’s the only thing that nudges Johnny out of his listlessness, but her screentime starts too late in the film and ends too early.

Somewhere is less of the tone poem that the director calls it and more of a straight character piece. She has left us mostly alone with the character and left the abundant needledrop soundtrack in a drawer. At times the film almost feels like a staring contest between audience and actor, and much has to be extrapolated from small moments about Johnny’s life that we get glimpses of. He is so detached and so empty that it almost plays as a demure middle finger to Coppola’s detractors who claim her films are filled with frivolous, moneyed characters whose drifting is something only the spoiled can experience and thus has no value. This is the most frivolous, most moneyed character, and his drifting is the most aimless. This, however, does have value, and it all works in harmony with her previous films and as a standalone, as long as you give it the time to work.

Life During Wartime – Todd Solondz (2010)

3b792699d7ff176724d102d2baf39336

(Cleaning out my old unpublished reviews folder.)

In Life During Wartime, writer/director Todd Solondz’s latest sojourn into the awkwardness and fragility of the demented human experience, we are brought up to speed on the characters that inhabited his 1998 indie film, Happiness. However, it’s not quite as simple as calling it a sequel.

In the 12 years since Happiness was released it’s become something of a mythic line in the sand amongst film fans, fanatic and casual alike. It is the very definition of a love-it-or-hate-it film, with its supporters preaching it needs to be seen because of how fucked up and brilliant it is, while its detractors vocally and viciously deride it because of how fucked up and miserable it is.

The characters, even a decade plus later, are still stunted by their delusions and emotional walls, and as such tend to look more towards breaking even in life rather than getting ahead. Any thematic sense of a positive move forward the film possesses is shouldered handily by the youngest Maplewoodson, Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), who, on the eve of his bar mitzvah, has learned his father is not actual dead, but an imprisoned pedophile and rapist. This news throws an abrupt and considerable – but not impassable – hurdle into his path towards manhood. For everyone else, it seems to have caused them to skew into an alternate 1998 and live imitation lives.

But this is likely Soldonz’s intent. As with his previous films, his characters are, in equal measures, loved and pitied by his camera. They are not quite easy to root for sad sacks as much as living, breathing wads of neuroses and baseness. But it’s tough to root against them either. Especially Joy.

Jane Adams is replaced by Shirley Henderson as Joy, the waifish songwriter and failed do-gooder. She is still a floundering mess trying to figure it out, but is now burdened by the specter of Andy (Paul Ruebens, not Jon Lovitz) haunting her neural space, still trying to get laid. In fact, every character is bodied by a different actor, adding to the absurdity of Solondz’s charm. While not offputting, it does set the film into more of a companion piece area than a sequel, but works despite these character facelifts.

But the most remarkable makeover is Bill Maplewood. If the saying “prison changes a man” ever came to life on screen, it would be here. Once the slight, effete suburban dad played by Dylan Baker, the kind of man you might imagine jumping up on a chair and shrieking upon seeing a mouse, the character is now a sturdy, serious man who might stomp on and eat the mouse played by Ciarán Hinds. His mission, somewhat oddly, is a noble mission. Not exactly redeeming one (there is no redemption for him, ever), but it is a good and necessary first step for such a malignant, fractured character.

While Wartime may end up in the discussion for worst film of the year by some, I find it hard to dismiss so easily. Yes, gone is the shock value of the fifties throwback American family man serially raping little children and the depravity and criminality of a lonely apartment complex. But to replace it, Solondz had to try and find real stories within his characters, and he does. And, more importantly, he succeeded.

The Illusionist – Sylvain Chomet (2010)

concours-lillusionniste-1-dvd-jacques-tati-5-L-2

(Cleaning out my old unpublished reviews folder.)

Anyone who has seen Sylvain Chomet’s last film, the Oscar Nominated animation The Triplets of Belleville, will know that the director is capable of conjuring pure magic out of the simple tools of ink and paint and music. In The Illusionist, an animated rendering of an unproduced Jacques Tati screenplay from the 1950s, Chomet conjures visual magic and creative controversy in equal measure.

The story centers on a traveling illusionist and showman in the 1950s as he goes from town to town, entertaining rapidly diminishing crowds with his tricks and sleight of hand. While performing in a pub in rural Scotland, he comes across a young girl, around 15, who becomes attached to him and his magic. She follows him toEdinburgh, where he becomes attached to her as well, but where work is an even harder grind.

The oncoming rush of Rock N’ Roll and television are largely responsible for the small crowds his kind of show can attract, eventually leading the illusionist to take odd jobs when he is not on stage to pay the added expenses of a young girl that he likes to dote on, buying her shoes and dresses, making them magically appear to her, an extension of his magic off of the stage.

The relationship between the girl and the illusionist is a suddenly deep one, built mostly upon a foundation of gestures and glances. It’s an automatic, easy trust, but not a cheap one. It starts out as a sleight of hand that they are both willing participants in, but does not stay that way for long as she matures and he comes to grip with the change in the wind.

Chomet and his team of animators have done an astounding job bringing this story to life, even if it is over the objections of Jacques Tati’s living relatives. I wish I could list every single animator here, because they all deserve recognition. It was no simple task to bring this to the screen, and the film relies almost entirely on the quality of the animation. Words don’t get in the way because they are few and far between. It doesn’t need words. It’s about the emotional faces and the measured motion, and the whimsical interplay of shadow and light is of particular beauty and note.

It’s an understandable thing that Tati’s family should have reservations about someone else completing his work. Tati was singular; he made Tati films and only Tati films. Chomet is singular as well, however. There is no mistaking this film for another director, not even Tati. But there is a good balance struck between the two worlds, and if Chomet has perhaps misunderstood some of Tati’s motives, it was clearly not out of disrespect. It’s a controversy that doesn’t need to exist in public. It’s something for Tati aficionados to squabble about, but not of material importance to what the film is any more than Krzysztof Kieślowski’s intentions were to Tom Tykwer filming Heaven after his death. Heaven was a brilliant film in and of itself, a part of Kieślowski, but a Tykwer film. So is The Illusionist, and that’s how it should be taken: by itself, as an exceptionally well made, heartbreaking film.