Sunday, July 28, 2013

What I've Been Watching - July 2013

Celeste and Jesse Forever ** 1/2 (2012) – dir. Lee Toland Krieger

Penned by Rashida Jones, Celeste and Jesse Forever, co-starring Andy Samberg, is a cute, sincere, and occasionally funny romantic comedy. Unfortunately, it is anchored by a messy script and kitchen sink direction by Lee Toland Krieger, who can’t decide if he’s shooting a Kate Hudson rom-com, or something more French New Wave.

Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) are a divorcing couple still living together as best friends. This freaks out their friends, and clouds their own feelings for each other. So, they work to find themselves by finding happiness with other partners. When Jesse knocks up Veronica, a look-alike foil for Celeste’s type-A “Betty,” Celeste is forced into a lot of self-examination. The plot is very similar to the Greta Gerwig rom-com Lola Versus, which was released around the same time, and I don’t mean that as a compliment.

Two things really bugged me about this movie. First, most of the drama takes place off screen, requiring lots of expository dialogue, inevitably followed by emotional reactions to situations we were not allowed to see. Relying on all this explanation wastes any goodwill the stars' chemistry creates in the early moments, makes the movie feel too long (at only 92 minutes), and ruins two strong climatic moments.

The other thing annoying me was how Jesse is missing from the self-examination storyline. After the film gives him a few moments away from Celeste, it abandons him, depriving us the opportunity to see how a man in his situation deals with the frustration and heartache of genuine separation. Celeste becomes our sole focus character, and while Jones gives the role her all, it’s not an uncommon role in romantic films these days; she’s a career minded woman in love with a man child she is trying to change, but needs to have a change of heart before she can either truly love him, or love him enough to let him go. This is a cliché, but the only thing keeping the film from being loathsome is the idea that we’re seeing this relationship at its end, and that Jones has such incredible charisma. Had the script invested more time paralleling Jesse’s growth, instead of dealing with 99 percent of it off screen, Celeste’s journey would have had more emotional impact. I imagine the rough draft of the script did this, but time and budget probably left several choice scenes on the cutting room floor. If so, the film is lesser because of it.

This saddens me. I wanted to enjoy Celeste and Jesse Forever, but while it shined in individual moments, and the cast’s chemistry was fun, the end result was a squandered romance.

Smashed ***1/2 (2012) – dir. James Ponsoldt

Pure and simple, Smashed is an actor’s showcase. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul take what were mere sketches of characters and imbue them with remarkable humanity and passion. What they accomplish here is important because on the surface, Smashed is quite unremarkable. Kate (Winstead) is an elementary school teacher who comes to discover she is an alcoholic. Charlie (Paul) is her equally alcoholic husband. Their world turns upside-down the moment Kate decides to go to AA at the behest of a co-worker (Nick Offerman) who recognizes addiction when he sees it. Kate’s choice is predictable, as is much of the film’s thin story, but Winstead’s commitment to her character’s journey makes the film powerful and riveting.

Films about overcoming addiction are not usually that interesting, mostly because the story rhythms are so contrived, and because the victory at the end is overshadowed by the exploitative elements of the initial fall. The best decision that writer/director James Ponsoldt makes here is in making this a story about the way being sober affects marriage. The moment Kate chooses sobriety, her husband becomes her enemy whether he knows it or not. His presence is a constant reminder of who she was, and who she is worried she might still be. It’s a battle of worldviews, one cancerous, and one on remarkably shaky ground. Winstead and Paul always play the notes with such honesty that we feel like we’re watching the collapse of something real.

Rust and Bone*** (2012) – dir. Jacques Audiard

Rust and Bone is a French neo-realist film in the tradition of Italian films like Bresson’s Pickpocket and de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, only done in a more modern, independent film style. The pacing of the plot unfolds at a snail’s pace until suddenly you’re struck by a moment of remarkable emotional impact. It is the story of a wayward boxer named Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) who is trying to figure out how to be a father and a man; and about a woman, Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) who is rediscovering what it means to be a woman in the aftermath of a horrible accident that takes her legs. The fact that their lives cross at all is a wonder, but their path to love is full of self-discovery.

Cotillard’s performance is beautiful, especially in the early going after she loses her legs. The scene in which Ali takes her swimming in the ocean for the first time since her accident is overflowing with hard won joy. Her Stephanie is every bit as much a fighter as Ali, and she gains her inner strength from his physical strength. When she’s on screen, the film is powerful, electric, and real.

Unfortunately, it’s the scenes with Schoenaerts that seem to drag the film at times. Ali is the traditional silent type – he seems fashioned after Anthony Quinn’s Zampano in La Strada – and while Schoenaerts plays silent and brooding well, he lacks nuance in scenes when basic brutality is not enough. His scenes opposite his sister are almost excruciating to watch, especially when compared to his scenes opposite Stephanie.

When Rust and Bone is good, though, it’s often great. Audiard goes to great lengths to connect us with these characters, so whenever he allows for deus ex machina contrivances, we are still remarkably affected.

No ***1/2 – dir. Pablo Larrain

American films are all about heroes. Individuals rise against the opposing forces of government, society, family, conspiracies, etc. to overcome great odds and establish a better, newer order. The heroes of American films mainly stand for freedom, individuality, and capitalism. In foreign films, though, there is often a different concept of what a hero stands for. No, the story of the 1988 campaign against the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, may be a Spanish language film, but it is decidedly American in attitude and structure … at least until the end.

Our hero is Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), a rising star in the world of Chilean advertising. He is approached by a member of the “No” campaign against Pinochet to be their creative supervisor. Rene decides to join the cause after he witnesses his estranged wife, Veronica, get beaten by police for speaking out against the regime. His idea is to abandon the negative, fear mongering principles of the current creatives and focus on a simple concept: happiness. His “Chile: Happiness is Coming” campaign – while initially controversial for its very American-esque use of jingles, music video editing, staged images of happy Chilean people, and positivity – becomes a such a threat to the “Yes” campaign that Rene and the rest of his team soon find themselves fearing for their safety and that of their families.

Rene is a hero in the American tradition. Among the many people responsible for the “No” campaign, he is our focal point and savior. I think I would have found the movie to be an effective, quality film if it had ended with merely this thought in mind. After all, years of American movies have trained me to feel good when individuals win out over totalitarian dictators. But, (spoiler alert) the win over Pinochet leaves Rene in a world of uncertainty, making him not just an individual, but a representative of the soul of Chile itself. His ambivalence over his victory is best exemplified in the final scene, which ironically displays what the future has in store for his beloved country. Rene may be a hero, but he is a hero whose contribution to the end of one regime may have contributed to the reign of an entirely different – and possibly more nefarious – one. Most American films would be unwilling to challenge its audience with ambiguity like this – our heroes may be dark and conflicted now, but unless they are on cable network television shows, once they decide to cross the threshold into adventureland, they are definitely not ambiguous.

The look of the film goes to great lengths to highlight this. Director Pablo Larrain decides to shoot the film in a 4:3 aspect ratio, and with a video style that looks like we’re watching VHS tapes from the 80s. It’s a bold move that pays off. The movie feels real and dangerous, like history itself.

I imagine this would be the time to call “bullshit,” but I suggest watching No back-to-back with last year’s Best Picture winner, Argo (a movie in my year end top 10). The two films are about lone heroes who use the media to deliver oppressed people from terrible dictatorships. Argo delivers on everything American movies have represented over the last hundred-plus years (with one slight exception involving its explanation of Iranian political history that does an outstanding job of revealing the complexities of the situation the audience finds the characters in). No uses the American aesthetic and rides it to victory until it reveals that this aesthetic was both the solution and the problem all along. Did Chile sell its soul to the American devil of advertising, which promises happiness that it ultimately cannot deliver?

No isn’t just a film about Chile’s past, it’s a film about its present.

American Mary * (2012) dir.Jen and Sylvia Soska

No matter how you slice it, American Mary is an awful movie. To one end, it’s a pretentious rape-revenge story that wants to seem like a profound feminist statement. To another, it takes an intriguing premise for a horror film and pushes it to absolutely ridiculous places. And, if that weren’t enough, it is a technical nightmare, with acting, editing, and staging that should border on embarrassment for the filmmakers.

Mary is a pre-med student with financial problems. To solve her issues, she decides to go to work at a strip club as a sexy masseuse, but winds up getting herself involved in performing a back alley surgery on someone owing the club manager some money. From there, she is hounded by a woman with a Betty Boop fetish who wants Mary to do some experimental cosmetic surgery on a friend. Eventually, Mary takes to liking the money and power she gets from performing body modification surgery and decides to use her skills to get revenge on a college professor who took advantage of her at a party.

American Mary suffers from the childish narrative disease of “and then…” As in, “and then Mary was asked to perform a creepy surgery to make a woman look like a doll, and then she was raped by her professor, and then she was doing surgery on her professor, and then the police were talking to her, and then…” Cause and effect plays little role in this movie. It reminds me of when I started writing horror fiction as a teenager, and would rush my way through all the important transitional scenes in order to get to the “good parts.” This movie is a collection of “good parts” with little else, meaning that there are no good parts, just moments of blood and mayhem for their own sake.

It’s bad enough that the movie is a narrative train wreck, but it is also so full of itself. The Soska sisters, who wrote and directed this, no doubt thought they were making a profound statement about society’s definition of women as sex objects, and embodied their free expression sentiments in the form of their eponymous surgeon. Mary’s surgical acumen is supposed to bring liberation to those she touches, and nightmares to all those who seek to objectify her. But Mary is such a dull character, such an obvious symbolic avatar that the overt symbolism is condescending, especially at the end when a final shot of Mary reveals her to be yet another cinematic Christ figure.

I've spent too many words writing about this movie.

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