Saturday, January 14, 2012

Year End Recap Part Three

 And now we come to it, the final portion of Cap'n Howdy's 2011 Year End List. Today's Your Highness-free edition includes the very best in what I saw for 2011 (excluding the much lauded Hugo and The Skin I Live In, because I haven't seen them... yet). Of course, there's still Your Highness to deal with, so we'll deal with that soon. That, and the next "Cranpire Movie": Conan the Barbarian. But for now, let us focus on the positives, with the best of what's around. Only one of these films do I hesitate recommending to every single person I know, and that's because it's a Lars von Trier joint, and you have to be a particular kind of masochist to even consider watching his excellent (but soul crushing) efforts.

 Everything else? Well, get out there and see them. This will probably be the longest of the entries because I've only actually reviewed one of the movies on this list prior to today. I will attempt to make brief, cogent points about why you need to drop what you're doing and watch them, but we all know it's going to get ramble-y. That's how Cap'n Howdy rolls.

 I'm going to try to put them in order, but understand that all seven are interchangeable and leapfrog each other on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis.

 Drive - The most unfairly maligned film on the list if for no other reason than people expected something totally different from the actual film. If you look around at the negative reviews for the Nicolas Winding Refn directed, Ryan Gosling starring neo-noir, you'd swear people thought they were going to see another Transporter or Fast and the Furious movie. A one-star review on Amazon begins with "I was expecting a white knuckle thriller and instead got long periods of silence," and there's the story of the woman who sued because she felt the trailer was "misleading."

 Is the trailer misleading? Having seen Drive and watching it again, I'd say that it encompasses the plot accurately, even if it does use every single "driving" scene in the film. There's nothing in that trailer that doesn't happen almost exactly the same way in the movie, but on the other hand there's not a lot "more" of what you see in the film. Drive is a meditative, quiet film. It's about a guy* (Gosling) who is very good at driving a car. He works in a garage for a guy named Shannon (Bryan Cranston). Shannon works for Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) a gangster, who has a blowhard lieutenant named Nino (Ron Perlman). He lives a solitary life until, for reasons unclear to anyone but the driver, he decides to help his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos). Her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is in prison, and the driver knows this, but it doesn't stop him from getting emotionally attached, and when Standard gets out and runs afoul of some associates, the driver comes in to help.

 Where it goes from there should be familiar territory for film noir fans: we've set up the hero, the down-on-his-luck friend who works for shady characters, an accidental femme fatale (there's a second, more direct version of the type in the form of Christina Hendricks' Blanche), and it shouldn't be hard to figure out that the driver puts himself in the position of hurting everyone while trying to help. Film noir and neo-noir are the same songs played differently, and it's the arrangement and performance that make all the difference. Drive is one hell of a song, it's just not the kind of approach most people thought they'd be getting.

 Drive is built almost entirely around little moments. There's not much that happens early in the film - there's a game of cat and mouse in cars that in some films would be the "white knuckle" introduction to the driver, but instead there are long stretches where no one says anything. In its place is Cliff Martinez's minimalist synthesizer score, punctuated with songs that sound like (or are) from the 1980s. The driver always has his jacket on, one with a scorpion on the back, which might seem trivial save for a passing line late in the film that explains everything we need to know about how the driver sees himself without spelling it out. We learn a lot with very little information given directly, from glances, conversations between secondary characters, but it isn't until Standard gets out of jail that any sort of "plot" emerges. It's more of an exploration of the driver's life, of the people who orbit around him, and the way he ruins everything by trying to be the bigger man.

 Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, Valhalla Rising) makes the most of the silence, giving the audience plenty of time to fill in the pauses in their own way, but without testing the viewer's patience. I was never bored during Drive, even though very little happens for long stretches of time. Gosling's driver is a man of few words, but he makes them count, and we slowly learn that he's much more than just a great getaway driver - he's a very dangerous man. Albert Brooks, likewise, is a practical criminal of sincere menace who kills when he has to, but in a civilized manner. He may slice your arm open to let you bleed out, but he won't stomp your head in - the driver will. The silence in the film makes the outbursts of violence that much more potent, more disturbing.

 I think that if you know that Drive isn't the kind of movie that might otherwise star Jason Statham or Vin Diesel, you're going to be more willing to take the ride Winding Refn has in mind, and it's one you'll be rewarded by in the end. I'm looking forward to seeing it again, to put together pieces that Refn sets up early on about the driver and about Rose and Shannon's relationship and to watch how it plays out when you know where things are going. The not knowing is the fun part the first time - if we knew, we'd just watch The Transporter again.

   Midnight in Paris - Woody Allen's whimsical take on wish fulfillment (as much for himself as it is for Owen Wilson's Gil) might be a little selfish for pragmatists, but Midnight in Paris isn't mean to reflect the position of realists. It's a movie for dreamers, for tourists in fantasy. It's a film about Paris in three distinct eras that doesn't cop out and settle for "it was all a dream" in the end - everything that happens to Gil really happens because it isn't the only "objective" character in the film that it happens to. The film is delightful and balances its cameos without ever feeling obvious or tacky. And yes, I'm still skirting around what exactly it is that happens to Gil because if you knew going in you would have a little less fun when it happens for the first time. Allen's pervasive sense of whimsy is infectious, with nice touches for literary, art, and film geeks, and it's the sort of film that asks you to put aside your cynical instincts for 90 minutes. It's well worth the effort.

  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - I could say that Gary Oldman makes this movie and while that would be true, it wouldn't be the entire story of why Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is such a great film. It's true that you're never certain what George Smiley (Oldman) knows and when he knows it, but in his search to locate the mole in Britain's intelligence agency (nicknamed "the Circus"), he is left on the outside looking in at the four options left who Control (John Hurt) expected of being the traitor (Smiley was the fifth, incidentally, which is always to be considered early in the film). The agents in question? Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), and Bill Haydon (Colin Firth). One of them has been feeding information to the Russians during the height of the Cold War, possibly to the long thought dead agent Karla.

 Smiley puts together the pieces Control had in place and must rely on assistance from Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), a member of intelligence willing to help him from the inside, along with a missing agent with a price on his head who may or may not be a traitor, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy). Oh, and another spy, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) who died... or did he?

 The mystery unfolds at a languid, deliberate pace under the skilled hands of director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In). We're never quite sure what it is we know - the various pieces of the puzzle have differing agendas, including Smiley, and every conversation or flashback is loaded with subtext. Oldman's face is a study in underacting - it's hard to say whether Smiley has something figured out or is as out in the cold as the audience can sometimes be. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does require being able to pay careful attention to what's presented to you, as it is a spy film less about action set pieces and more about men (and women) sitting together in rooms and having loaded conversations about something other than what they're saying.

 It's an enormously rewarding film for fans of great acting, and the cast is loaded well beyond the central players listed above. I didn't even mention small appearances from Stephen Graham (Boardwalk Empire, Public Enemies), Kathy Burke (Sid and Nancy, Absolutely Fabulous), or Simon McBurney (Kafka, Body of Lies). Oldman and Cumberbatch, who audiences might know from the BBC Sherlock films, are the anchors of the film, but there's not a weak link in this cast. It's an exercise in the best of British cinema at their best, in a mystery of espionage that you don't tend to see in films today. I'm opting not to make direct comparisons between Gary Oldman and Alec Guinness, who played George Smiley in the mini-series version from 1979, because that's not so much the point. John le Carré was directly involved in both iterations, and they are designed a bit differently. Both are exceptional and reward multiple viewings.

 The Tree of Life - I've heard so many different reactions to The Tree of Life, all from people I know and respect when discussing film. Several were blown away by it, others liked it, but felt off-put by how "strange" it was. There are audiences who outright hate the film, but it seems to me that The Tree of Life, perhaps more than any of Terrence Malick's other films, is something you're going to have an intensely personal reaction to.

 I know what I'm going into when I sit down to watch a Malick film, because by and large every one of them since Days of Heaven has the same kind of approach: the contrast between humanity and the natural world, long stretches without dialogue or sparsely, half-whispered narration. The plots are slight, to say the most, and can generally be reduced to one or two sentences that cover the entire film (a family is split apart while working as hired hands on a farm; soldiers have a crisis of meaning in the midst of combat; the worlds of natives and colonists intersect and change, mostly for the worst). It's not necessarily what happens in a Terrence Malick film that counts; it's the experience of the film that's important.

 The Tree of Life is arguably Malick's most "experiential" film to date: it's a contemplative look at what it's like to grow up, what life as a child looks like, feels like, and in passing ways, what it is to reflect back on that as an adult. It's a film which is more about the experience of being a boy than anything else - how we relate to our parents, to our siblings, our friends, how we carve out identities apart from those influences. There are events in the film that sometimes feel like they have no bearing, per se: the film begins with Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) learning her oldest son died. She shares this with Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt), and we move forward in time to the adult Jack (Sean Penn) reflecting on the anniversary of his brother's death.

 We follow Jack's life, from birth forward, and Malick has a knack for placing the camera in such a way that you always have a child's perspective on the film. It feels like being a kid and seeing the world that way for almost the entirety of the film, something that has the effect of forcing you to relive similar moments in your mind, similar decisions and experiences as they unfold in the film. Early on, Mrs. O'Brien (in voiceover) explains that you can live by the way of nature or the way of grace, and the boys experience the contrast in their parents. Mr. O'Brien is the way of nature, a musician who compromised his dreams to be a father and wants his boys never to accept fate. He can be oppressive and cruel to the family, even as Mrs. O'Brien takes his domineering without complaint.

 The "weird" part that seems to come up repeatedly (other than the ending, which I'll get to in a bit) is Malick's "creation" section, which deals visually with the Big Bang all the way through the first Ice Age, his (figurative) depiction of the way of nature. As the film also loosely interprets the Book of Job and deals directly with questioning one's faith, the "creation" component also figures into this narrative thread, although I cannot help but think that a moment between two dinosaurs is a literalization of "the way of nature vs the way of grace" - even though it doesn't play nearly as obviously as my description makes it sound.

 As to the ending, which I am still mulling over, in part because I think I misunderstood which son Penn was supposed to be playing, is presumably all supposed to be in Jack's mind, although what you make of it is up to your own interpretation. On the one hand, you could imagine it to be similar to the way the series Lost ended, although I suspect Malick is less explicit in what the beach-side reunion is meant to mean to Jack in light of what we know about his life growing up. I'm still digesting that, so let's put it aside.

 The Tree of Life is going to polarize viewers, and I can't imagine how it would be to see this movie as a parent (because I'm not one), but I would think it would have a different affect on those audiences. The visual effects in the "creation" sequence,  including the work of Douglas Trumbull (2001, Blade Runner), is truly impressive and in large parts practical, all the more awe inspiring considering what's on screen. If you're going to watch The Tree of Life, be sure to see it on the biggest screen you can - the experience is one not to be missed. Give yourself some time after the film to let it settle in your mind. Trust me, you'll need it.

 Martha Marcy May Marlene - I know I said I didn't have time to see this film, but after Friday's write up I had a little wiggle room and decided to sit down and watch Martha Marcy May Marlene. I'm glad I did, even if I'm still a little disturbed by the film. The whole thing doesn't work with Elizabeth Olsen in the title role. Her actual first name is Martha, but she's renamed Marcy May at the commune she goes to live at by Patrick (John Hawkes), their spiritual leader. When we meet Martha, she's escaping from the commune, running into town where one of the members, Watts (Brady Corbet) tracks her down but lets her go. Martha calls her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who picks her up and takes Martha from upstate New York to her vacation home in Connecticut.

 Lucy's husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) is happy the sisters are reunited (both of their parents are dead) but seems troubled by Martha's erratic behavior and her inexplicable outlook on life. She criticizes the size of their home, mocks her sister's desire to have a child, and tries to swim naked in the lake behind their home. We learn, in small doses, exactly what happened to Martha (whose last name may or may not be Marlene - you never hear Lucy say anything and the only time Martha ever says "Marlene" is during a flashback) at the commune, all of which directly influences how she behaves when she leaves.

 It's probably for the best that we learn in measured portions the depths of physical and psychological damage that Martha experienced - if the film played chronologically there would be no doubt what happens at the end, but we are instead introduced to parallel flashbacks. Or so we think. It's an interesting narrative trick that writer / director Sean Durkin employs - what we assume are simply flashbacks may actually be moments Martha is experiencing in real time. At one point, while cooking with Lucy, Martha asks her sister "is this really happening or is this a memory?" She is unable to distinguish the present from the past, so the flashbacks we assume are part of a narrative design might simply be how Martha deals with trauma, uncertain where she is in her own mind.

 I won't lie and pretend that the film doesn't go to some very dark places, or that even after they've passed that things get easier to understand (in particular the commune's "initiation" scene plays out for two different characters in two different positions and the second is admittedly more upsetting than the first because of what Martha knows is going to happen). By the time we fully understand how the commune functions, what they're capable of, and how far down the proverbial rabbit hole Martha is, we're already to the films inevitable, unsettling conclusion. It's probably a bit of a spoiler to say this, but comparisons to Funny Games are going to be inevitable. Nevertheless, Olsen's performance is a tour de force and she's someone to look out for in the future, as is Durkin. I can't wait to see what he does next.

 The Guard - To say The Guard is a cinematic sibling to In Bruges isn't just figuratively true - it's literally the case. John Michael McDonagh, the writer and director of The Guard, is the brother of Martin McDonagh, the writer and director of In Bruges, and the comedic sensibilities are very similar indeed. I'm certain McDonagh is sick of hearing his film compared to his brother's, because nearly every review mentions that fact and points out that Brendan Gleeson is in both films, so I'll leave it at that. The Guard stands on its own as a modern classic comedy / crime / police procedural as it is. It's clever, surprising, periodically violent, and full of great characters.

 Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Gleeson) isn't a bad cop, so to speak - he's just learned to embrace his vices. At the beginning of the film, he casually watches some drunk hooligans crash their car and die before wandering over, searching one of the deceased's pockets, and finding some LSD. He then drops the tab on his tongue and so begins The Guard proper. Boyle is the man on the Irish police force who could, at best, be seen as "unpredictable": he has a fondness for prostitutes and schedules his days off to organize role-playing escapades with them, he has a mother on death's door that wants to ask him what taking heroin is like, he's not afraid to jot off to the pub for a drink during an investigation, and he's certainly not aware of the ignorant-to-borderline-racist questions he asks visiting FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle).

 Everette is in the coastal town because drug traffickers are trying to smuggle in a "half million" worth into the city, and he needs the mostly corrupt force to help him. Boyle, who Everette determines is "really motherfucking dumb or really motherfucking smart," is already working on a case linked the the drug trafficking, and the two end up working together for lack of any other help. And it's true - it's hard to tell if Boyle is a fool or just playing one to lower the expectations of others. Everette doesn't believe most of what Boyle tells him, or tries hard not to be offended by his questions about "growing up in the ghetto."

 Meanwhile, the trio of drug smugglers - Liam (David Wilmot), Francis (Liam Cunningham) and Clive (Mark Strong), are introduced debating the relative merits of philosophers while driving around. They're certainly more interested in the philosophic side of what they do than the actual practical job at hand, and the trio are responsible for as many chuckles as the mis-matched lead pair. I need to apologize to Mark Strong for suggesting he was a weak presence in the first Sherlock Holmes film, because between Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Guard, he's more than capable of being funny, menacing, touching, and unnerving onscreen.

 The Guard is, from the first moment to the clever final scene, filled with fine writing and sneaky jokes that hit you a moment later. It's not much of a mystery in that we know more than Boyle and Everette do (having spent some time with the criminals) but the way their paths cross and the climax, which takes on notions of American action film "showdown"s are sure to keep you laughing well after the film is over. It's irreverent, a little naughty, and certainly smarter than most of the comedy on this side of the pond.

 Melancholia - And I saved Melancholia for last. It's appropriate, as the film is about "the end," in every sense. I could probably write about nothing other than the impressionistic opening sequence and have enough for three reviews: it does encompass the entirety of the story to come in ambiguous but representative images. Better still, I could mash it together with the "creation" sequence of The Tree of Life and have one magnificently bizarre interpretation of the beginning and the ending of Earth and everything on it.

 I guess that's a bit of a spoiler, though I can't imagine anyone who is planning on seeing Melancholia doesn't already know that this is Lars von Trier's "Apocalyptic" film, the one that is a literalization of the themes in Antichrist. The world does end and the Earth is destroyed as the planet Melancholia crashes into it, despite the promises from scientists that it would just "pass by us." Life ends, fade to black. Cue the credits.

 In between the beginning and the end of the film are two hours of unmitigated cruelty. There is no hint of kindness on display in Melancholia, only characters who hate each other almost as much as they hate themselves. It's the tale of two sisters, broken up into two chapters: One for Justine (Kirsten Dunst), the bride who undermines her entire wedding night in every possible way, and the other for Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who planned the wedding with her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) and hosted it at their lavish estate, complete with trails to ride horses and an 18 hole golf course.

 They gave her a lavish wedding because they felt the perpetually depressed Justine would be happy if they did so, and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) goes along with it in the interest of lifting her spirits. No sooner than Justine and Michael have arrived for the reception are they admonished by Claire and John for being late and the wedding planner (Udo Kier) refuses to look at the bride who "ruined" his occasion. Justine and Claire's estranged parents Dexter (John Hurt) and Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) are in attendance, although their mother objects to the wedding entirely (and may not be as far off as we first believe in her assessment.) Michael's father, Jack (Stellan Skarsgård), who also happens to be Justine's boss, is more interested in her providing him with a tagline for their advertising campaign than the wedding, to the point where he sends his nephew Tim (Brady Corbet) to follow the bride around until she comes up with one.

 Chapter One, devoted to the wedding reception, is little more than repeated examples of people behaving horribly towards each other, being spiteful, making cruel comments or acting out frustrations on undeserving targets. It's somewhat ironic (and appropriate) that Gaby, who seems to be the most openly bitter person at the reception is actually the only one of the attendees who really knows Justine well enough to give her honest advice. She provides the only act of kindness in the film when she tells her daughter to run away from Michael and the whole event. I have already explained how chapter one ends, so it shouldn't surprise you that Justine doesn't quite take her mother's advice.

 Chapter Two is, by comparison, a smaller affair: Justine, Claire, John, and their son Leo (Cameron Spurr) are the only characters (aside from fleeting glimpses of butler / housekeeper Little Father, played by Jesper Christensen). It takes place some time after the wedding implodes, when a depressed to the point of incapacitation Justine comes to stay with her sister, much to John's dismay. In the meantime, the planet Melancholia has been discovered (hiding behind the sun) and is giving Claire constant fears that it will crash into Earth and kill everyone. John, the Astronomer, assures her this isn't the case, but appears to be preparing for the worst behind her back.

 If the second section of the film is not as emotionally mean-spirited, it is nevertheless more bleak, more hopeless than the portion devoted to nuptials. Justine is now the sober contrast to irrational Claire, and her blunt response to her sister's fears may be as summarily dismissive as anything that happened in the first half of the film. It's not that roles are reversed necessarily: Justine is no more rational than she was before. She is perhaps more comatose, but her outlook is clearer than Claire's: there is "no other life" and Earth "won't be missed" when it's gone. She welcomes their extinction, even as her sister tries in vain to persevere. John, on the other hand? Well, I'll leave that for those of you brave enough to watch Melancholia.

 You won't have an easy time with it - that's not really possible (or to be expected) with Lars von Trier. This is a film unconcerned with human decency, or the value of life or anything else. It is a film consumed with hatred, a film where hope is the sad punchline to some cosmic joke. It is a beautiful and captivating film, but one that dares you to find something to feel good about when it ends. I cannot possibly recommend it to anyone I know with young children - you won't want to watch any part of the second chapter, particularly as it careens towards oblivion. Melancholia is a reminder that art does not need to be safe to be effective, that it does not need you to approve to make its point. It's a combative film, one that will send you to the nearest bar for a stiff drink afterward. It is one of the finest films of the year, and yet I must consider very carefully who it is I send in its direction. Take that for what it's worth.

* By the way, unlike the movie Faster, where the main character has a name but every review keeps saying "The Driver," Gosling's character does not have a name. They call him "kid" or "driver" but no one ever says his name, if he even has one.

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