December 11, 2012

BEST OF 2012: Lo-Fi Sci-Fi

by Steve Dollar
Sound of My Voice

People have plenty to talk about when they talk about the movies this year. Most of that chatter isn't going to be about how cool, low-budget, independent films embraced genre so effectively with so little cash at hand for the kind of wowzafied 21st-century 3D and CGI effects that made spectacles like Life of Pi and Cloud Atlas next-gen harbingers of the Cinema to Come. Which is too bad, since resourcefulness of that sort generally requires all the things you can't really pay for: clever scripts and concepts, an obsessive personal commitment on the order of a handcrafted artifact (like, say, a cathedral built out of matchsticks), a kind of cerebral elegance that isn't afraid of aiming wide for a punchline.


One of the best was Resolution, Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson's little cabin-in-the-woods number (out Jan. 25 from Tribeca Film). Most of its 93 minutes consists of two guys talking. One of them, a bearded fatso named Chris (Vinny Curran), is handcuffed, confined to a mattress on the floor of a derelict shack on the fringes of an Indian reservation. His best friend Michael (Peter Cilella) has tracked him down and now stands vigil over him, hoping to reclaim his pal from drug addiction by forcing him to kick. The thing is, the dialogue and delivery—tar-black and sarcastic—works perfectly well as a kind of twisted buddy comedy (like The Hangover with real bullets). So when all manner of creepy WTF?!?! things begin to happen, as they always happen in crack houses built on ancient sacred lands with a chained-up sweaty dude in withdrawal, it's a bonus but also... of course! The filmmakers lap V/H/S in recent efforts to extract another reel of ingenuity from the found-footage conceit by introducing all manner of known media into the story, as discoveries of old Super-8 films, photos, scratched-up records and so forth yield mysterious perspectives on the uncanny occurrences, including surveillance images of themselves. (It's like a garage-rock cover of Caché). As the guys try to figure it out, amid threats from a local posse of junkies and a stern and mocking Native American who wants whitey to GTFO, the movie eases steadily from comedy to thriller—but never quite leaps into the fantastic until the final act, maintaining a delicious tension while commenting on that tension and the making of it.


Much as the exponentially higher-budgeted Cabin in the Woods (a movie that plays like a meta-genius mash-up of The Hunger Games and the 2011 French horror film Livide, or perhaps Network as scripted by H.P. Lovecraft), Resolution is about the idea of narrative, how characters drive the story and the archetypes (those "Old Gods") that rise up from the cultural subconscious to come tapping at our window, ruining our sleep and haunting our waking lives. Cabin, for all its Joss Whedon wit, is as instantly forgettable as it is thoroughly enjoyable. Resolution doesn't resolve so easily. If nothing else, because Mssrs. Benson and Moorhead couldn't afford to pay Sigourney Weaver to come out and explain everything at the end, although I'm pretty sure, given the latter's knack for homemade special effects, they might have conjured a reasonable facsimile from a jar of pixels, some Elmer's Glue and a wig.


Elsewhere across the Indie-verse, filmmakers were consumed by time travel. In midsummer, Chris Marker, whose 1962 film La jetée, if not the greatest science-fiction film of all time, has certainly been the most-emulated, and Ray Bradbury, whose stories and novels inspired countless productions, both died within respective reach of their 91st and 92nd birthdays. Rian Johnson's Looper was released in their wake, and was as surpassingly adroit a tribute to both men as anyone could ever expect to encounter in Multiplex America. Enough has been written about Johnson's inventive screenplay and the film's original twists on the plot of Marker's classic. In the earlier film, a man sent as a guinea pig from the future discovers that an indelible childhood memory of a stranger being shot was in fact the instant of his own death. In Looper, the man from the future (Bruce Willis, who played a similar role in Terry Gilliam's remake, Twelve Monkeys) has been sent back 30 years (to 2046, and a ravaged America that looks like Blade Runner re-shot by Walker Evans) where a mob assassin (called a looper) will kill him. Only the looper (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a younger version of himself. There's a kid, too, only he's anything but a passive witness.

Safety Not Guaranteed

Johnson, who revels in film noir banter and Melvillian fatalism, enriches the mind-boggling logistics of time travel with his own love of movies, balancing out the skilled special effects work (check the endless credits) and snappy dialogue with a lot of heart (and Emily Blunt in cut-offs toting a shotgun, holla!). The filmmakers behind the year's other temporal dislodgment adventures, Safety Not Guaranteed and Sound of My Voice, didn't have a budget for flying motorcycles or groovy props. Colin Trevarrow's stealth rom-com had me at Aubrey Plaza (confession: I don't watch much network TV so I was unaware of who the Parks and Recreation star was until after I saw the movie). She's the investigative reporter who falls for a Pacific Northwest whack job (Mark Duplass, in a performance that finally helped me to "get" Mark Duplass) who claims to have built a time machine. Unlike brilliant no-budget movies that feature time machines and use them to generate stories that have your mind racing around their causal parameters—movies like Primer and Timecrimes—the time machine here is almost completely a MacGuffin. The movie's really about people casting off their defense mechanisms and finding their hearts and believing in preposterous things like love... and Mark Duplass. The film's screwball affinities sell all those emo goods.

Sound of My Voice

Sundance sensation Brit Marling is the big draw for Sound of My Voice (which seemingly got less popular and critical notice in release than the inferior half of her sci-fi diptych Another Earth). She plays a cult leader, "from the future," who lands in the San Fernando Valley with a warning, and a way, for the people of 21st century Los Angeles. As in a great Twilight Zone episode, the filmmakers (Marling co-wrote with boyfriend Zal Batmanglij, who directed) put everything in your head. Which is a great place to put things when you're shooting in suburban basements on a Canon 5D. Marling-as-Maggie is so charismatic (well, Marling-as-Marling, even: "I want to maul her with my soul," commented another young actress to me on Facebook recently), that she quickly divides a neurotic Silver Lake couple (Nicole Vicius and Christopher Denham) who infiltrate the cult for their documentary exposé. Maggie would seem to be bogus when, challenged to prove she is really from the year 2056, she sings a song made popular by a singer called "Benetton." It is, of course, "Dreams" by the Cranberries—and a terrific gag that tilts the audience towards skepticism. Maggie's a scam artist after all, one who might be better off skipping town and joining Mark Duplass in his time machine before the Feds catch up with them both. But no film in 2012 had the no-budget ingenuity to deploy a special effect as simple (yet, complex: try to do this at home) as "the handshake." In the very last frames of the movie, this eccentric bit of throwaway nonsense becomes the most poignant and unexpected mindfuck.

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Posted by ahillis at December 11, 2012 8:50 AM