March 30, 2011

DVD OF THE WEEK: Father of My Children

by Vadim Rizov

Father of My Children

Father of My Children was inspired by producer Humbert Balsan's 2005 suicide. Before his death, Balsan's company was set to produce Mia Hansen-Løve's first feature All Is Forgiven, thereby raising her name to the ranks of his prestigious collaborators: Lars Von Trier, Claire Denis, Youssef Chahine, Elia Suleiman, et al. Here, he's imagined as producer Gregoire Canvel (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), largely dedicated to financing the terminally underseen and marginally profitable, perpetually on the run, driving badly while taking calls, dealing with spiraling problems on multiple productions. His attention to family is equally intense and fragmentary: what he's really worried about is as unknown to his children as to the audience. Frantically walking down the sidewalk, he barely stops long enough to shoot himself, a shocking moment no more understandable for being seen. Such is the grim premise for this uplifting movie. "I seem to remember reading a text by Eric Rohmer in which he quotes Stendhal as referring to the 'slightly abrupt clarity' that might define French art," Hansen-Løve noted in an interview. "I look for clarity because it's what moves me." Here are five scenes where her characters experience those moments:

Father of My ChildrenItalian vacation. Gregoire is overly dedicated to his vocation/calling: in the opening minutes, he loses his driving rights temporarily, preoccupied as he is not with the road but with two different cell phone transactions (and also smoking). On retreat with his family in Italy, he relaxes, delivering a laid-back discourse on an abandoned castle's history. The site is revisited by the clan after his death, now with an extra layer of personal remembrance grafted on top of the historical material. Gregoire's full attention while bonding with his family is hard-earned: he keeps running into the woods to take phone calls until his wife Sylvia (Chiara Caselli) stops him. She takes it as disproportionate, work-absorbed monomania, but the walls really are closing in.

Suicide. Gregoire barely stops walking fast enough to off himself; his final moments are an agitated frenzy of burning papers and marching the sidewalk. By way of contrast, Hansen-Løve's first film, All Is Forgiven, elides the big event entirely. We get to see family man Victor's (Paul Blain) cocaine/heroin-fueled downward spiral and post-rehab attempts, 11 years later, at reconciling with his daughter Pamela. The realization he needs to clean up and subsequent treatment are not shown and entirely unexplained; it's too internal a process to try to depict externally. Here, we get the moment of decision and execution, but it's no more understandable for being illustrated.

Father of My Children Coffee shop. When Gregoire dies, the family moves back to Paris so his wife Sylvia (Chiara Caselli) can wrap up his remaining productions and shut the company down. Older daughter Clemence (Alice de Lencquesaing) never enjoyed staying in the country; back in Paris, she happily roams, taking in some movies and hooking up with Arthur (Igor Hansen-Løve), a young filmmaker whose feature script is left in the lurch when Gregoire dies. ("I appear in the character of Arthur," Mia noted of the part played by her brother, "but this young filmmaker could just as easily be someone else.") Clemence's morning-after scene—perkily ordering coffee before getting on with her day—shows Hansen-Løve's ability to embed moments of emotional clarity into mundane daily tasks. Clemence is euphoric, but she still needs caffeine before getting back to her normal routine.

Swedish tour. Sylvie goes off to check in with a Swedish film production behind schedule and over-budget. Instead of commiserating, the director gives her a lecture about how Sylvie's late husband, for all his flaws, was willing to give him the space to realize his vision. It's an egotistical speech, but it rings true to the world of artists (perhaps deservedly) run amok. Father dives into the nuts-and-bolts of French filmmaking, from the POV of the stressed true believers financing it. It's reminiscent of Irma Vep's opening (a film made by Hansen-Løve's fiancée Olivier Assayas), where testy producers and assistants try to figure out what to do with actress Maggie Cheung when she arrives unexpectedly early, a problem far removed from any actual sets or completed films. The visits to Italy and Sweden in this film pep things up, but they also nicely underline Hansen-Løve's portrait of how festival movies get made: money is funneled every which way, equally financing Korean and Swedish cinema.

Father of My Children "Que Sera, Sera." The Father of My Children repeatedly returns to a persuasive portrait of day-to-day film business practices, but as Sylvie immerses herself in the world that sucked up her husband, the story increasingly moves on to other concerns, as the family prepares to leave behind that part of their lives completely. As Doris Day's famous song proposes over the final shot—Sylvia and the girls leaving Paris in a taxi, destination unknown—surrendering control and putting up with whatever happens while trying to stay cheerful is a worthy goal.

Posted by ahillis at 12:13 PM

March 26, 2011

Generation Hit-Girl

by Steve Dollar

Sucker Punch

At once completely idiotic and, like, totally awesome, the gamer-geek blockbuster Sucker Punch splits the difference between Kick-Ass and dumbass as it conjures a CGI-enriched fantasy realm where unfolds a Gothic fairy tale about dirty pretty things evening the score in a man's, man's, man's, man's world.

Or maybe it's just Showgirls for third graders. The movie's Chuck E. Cheese all-you-can-eat pizza buffet chowdown on pop culture references and recent cinematic history makes it confusing to sort out. (Indeed, it tested the limits of my High Concept Motion Picture Aggregrator.) Give director Zack Snyder some real credit, because he's made Shutter Island meets Girl, Interrupted meets Moulin Rouge! meets Kill Bill meets Sin City meets Charlie's Angels meets Inception meets his own 300.

Sucker Punch One dark and stormy night, Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is menaced by her creepy stepfather, eager it seems to rid himself of competition for his late wife's inheritance. She fires a gun at him, hoping to protect her little sister from possible molestation, but the bullet ricochets and kills the poor thing, instead. The blonde, buxom, pigtailed offender is hauled away to the local asylum, a gated compound with a Hammer Studios/Titicut Follies vibe where Bad Daddy arranges with a corrupt staffer (Oliver Isaac) to have her lobotomized in five days. But suddenly! The crazy house turns into a lush bordello, where the working girls appear as captive slave labor, trained in exotic dancing by a Polish madame (Carla Gugino) with a moose-and-squirrel accent who plays fern-bar versions of classic rock hits on a reel-to-reel tape deck as they shake their groove thing. (Strangely, there is rarely any shaking or grooving on display). Everyone is kept under heel by Blue (also played by Isaac), a kind of Ricky Ricardo gangsta-pimp-pretty-boy with a cruel streak, thrilled because he's about to sell Baby Doll to a mysterious High Roller for a princely sum.

Sucker Punch When she dances, though, Baby Doll disappears even deeper inside her head, stepping into a video game reality where she meets a sensei—Scott Glenn! Nothing less than a David Carradine surrogate, the so-called Wise Man hands his disciple a samurai sword and some enigmatic advice, and turns her loose to battle a trio of giant killing machines before she comes back to the whorehouse. Now she knows how to escape, and she knows who she's taking with her: spunky Rocket (Jena Malone), seasoned Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), tough girl Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and, well, plug in whatever heroic attribute you like here because they're all interchangeable anyway Amber (Jamie Chung). More importantly, each character is more or less a white girl, a brown girl, a yellow girl and a crypto-lesbian, and they all look really rad in the sexy outfits they get to wear in avenging schoolgirl Baby Doll's endless and rampant imagination, unleashed any time she dances her mesmerizing routine (which, by the way, we never get to see).

Sucker Punch Thus the story progresses, a dream within a dream, as our inglourious Barbies vanquish demons, robot monsters, fire-breathing serpents, and the entire nation of Germany circa 1919, accompanied by an anachronistic pop soundtrack that blandly recycles the likes of "Search and Destroy" and "White Rabbit." Along the way, they're gathering the tools they need to escape Blue's grasp, bonding as sisters, and teaching themselves courage and self-determination. Snyder is keen on placing his heroines in a lineage that includes Alien's Ripley, The Terminator's Sarah Connor, Kick-Ass' Hit-Girl, Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider mode, Daryl Hannah's killer-thighed replicant from Blade Runner, or anything else you might think up. The code is a kind of feminized macho: a Hollywood gloss on the Japanese girl-gang mythos of the "Pinky Violence" genre.

Or, as Glenn advises in one of his bumper-sticker asides: Don't ever write a check with your mouth that you can't cash with your ass. Holla!

Sucker Punch Yeah, okay. Sure. I wanted to be excited by this, because the concept is easy to like. But if I was the father of a pre-teen girl, I don't think I would take her to a movie whose characters (even in a fantasy) are the pawns of sexual slave traders. Even if, in the context of a fantasy within that fantasy, they turned out to be ball-busting acrobatic kung-fu action babes. But the lunchbox brigade was there, probably too IMAXed-out on the CGI fireworks and rushing on the sugar from their half-gallon cups of Coke to puzzle out the PG-13 subtleties of the deeper story. That said, Sucker Punch pushes every strip club archetype without ever really becoming raunchy, which makes the movie a shameful tease. James Gunn, whose forthcoming Super boasts Ellen Page as a foul-mouthed vigilante called Boltie, coined a name for it: PG Porn.

Now that I have that public service announcement out of the way, there are certainly less enjoyable ways to burn a couple of hours in the afternoon. Sucker Punch is aptly named, yet it delivers on both sides of the equation. You will feel stupid after you watch it. And some part of you, where an unrepentant and devious 11-year-old kid resides, will be really thrilled that you did.

Posted by ahillis at 8:37 AM | Comments (2)

March 24, 2011

New Directors/New Films 2011: Critic's Notebook

by Vadim Rizov

At Ellen's Age

At Ellen's Age (Im Alter Von Ellen), concerning a flight attendant who freaks out and quits as the plane prepares for takeoff, premiered at the Locarno Film Festival days before JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater famously told off a rude passenger, opened the emergency landing door, and slid away from his job. Slater now lives as a low-tier quasi-reality star, making minor celebrity appearances and milking TMZ coverage while working on a book. (He shares an agent with Barry Manilow.) Flight attendant Ellen's (Jeanne Balibar) dramatic exit here takes her in a more meaningful direction, from neurotic, directionless woman to committed animal rights activist.

At Ellen's Age Like its protagonist, German filmmaker Pia Marais' comedy morphs twice. At first, it's a jittery portrait of rigorously put-together Ellen. Post-Dardennes tics of European filmmaking persist: the aggressive handheld camera prowling behind Ellen's head as she strides through anonymous airports is familiar, as are her relationship struggles with Florian (Georg Friedrich), which she responds to by smoking and brooding in the night. On board, Ellen goes woozy delivering the standard pre-flight instructions about oxygen masks. The sound gets thicker, the lighting slightly dimmer and more ominous and Ellen gets out of there.

There's an anti-climactic interview with the supervisors (she's summarily fired after listlessly asking to keep her job), some ennui-ridden hotel room moping, and finally a tumble into a totally different movie about animal rights activists. No longer a strict Euro-moper, Ellen becomes almost totally passive and happily non-responsive, wandering around like Wiley Wiggins in Waking Life, willing to listen to anyone talk about whatever. Her new young friends practice communal living, with daily meetings and endless strategy consultations: very '60s holdover. Brittle bourgeois Ellen responds to her new locale well. "I've never been around such idealism before," she tells her adoptees at a party.

At Ellen's Age Despite their stale rhetoric (like the 12 Monkeys gang, it's not clear what they're going to do with all the animals they free), the kids prove good company. One helps Ellen get rid of the increasingly annoying Florian by pretending to be her new partner. When Florian shows up asking Ellen to reconsider living with him, his girlfriend and his child, the young romantic tells him "That's some outmoded '60s thinking, it won't work" while rolling up a joint, without apparent irony. With Florian gone, Ellen can examine her new life: having receded to something like a supporting character in her own film, she begins wondering what she can do to help people and/or animals, perhaps not in that order.

Best not to spoil that last part of the film, which changes styles and location one more time. What you get up to that point is a neat trick: an elliptical portrait of a female midlife crisis in which the scenes where she turns catatonic are dramatically filled in by those around her, allowing for a scrupulously real-feeling collection of bratty dreadlocked girls and chain-smoking comrades arguing over their next political gesture. By giving Ellen the chance to change her life in unexpected ways, At Ellen's Age transforms dramatically, opening with generic Europe airports and ending somewhere in the jungle, as complete a makeover as Ellen's.

Attenberg

Attenberg costars Dogtooth writer-director Giorgos Lanthimos and is written and directed by his associate producer Athena Rachel Tsangari, making comparisons unavoidable, especially in its intro: a prolonged shot of a badly painted wall in close-up, held indefinitely just because, recalling Lanthimos' fearsomely controlled and systematically oblique movie. Two girls enter and begin, in the most uninflected dialogue imaginable, a kissing lesson. Marina (Ariane Lebed) opens her mouth like a fish, like she's never seen humans do this before. AttenbergHer more experienced friend Bella (Evangelia Randou) lectures her on the necessity of saliva and gives her a two-finger measurement of how much to keep her mouth open. All this is very reminiscent of Dogtooth's abused children, locked up by bizarrely hermetic parents who purposefully riddle their vocabulary with misdefined words.

Despite an initially unnervingly close (but generally innocuous) relationship with her terminally ill father Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis), Marina can navigate the real world in many respects: her job involves a lot of driving, and she knows how to use a moped. She's a decent tennis player and has a deep love for the music of Suicide. (At one point she calls foosball "babifoot," but since that's her only inexplicable verbal lapse that seems to an in-joke.) As far as real live human models go, though, all she has is Bella and her dad, who's prone to bitterly allegorical speeches about how Greece skipped the Industrial Age.

Attenberg Writer-director Athena Rachel Tsangari works in a different mode from Dogtooth, a highly-directed, slickly widescreen piece of tableaux cinema. Attenberg is 1.85, shot on grainy 16mm and roams all over its small Greek town, rather than sticking to a family compound. Marina can act downright autistic, narrating her first sexual encounter in real time, but she's determined to acquire "normal" human behavior patterns (rather than the animals of the Sir David Attenborough nature documentaries she loves to mimic). For her, that means methodically identifying what about her demeanor and urges is relatively sound, and which parts of her personality have yet to be discovered. That means, generally, investigating sex and friendship, which Bella understands abstractly but has no visceral feeling for.

Because Marina has to grow, Attenberg flirts with sentimentality, which isn't a huge sin. More problematic are its occasional lapses into the generic language of Euro art-house: certain shots (opening and closing, natch) seem to be held after no one's onscreen without particular reason, mostly as a catch-all signifier of rigorous filmmaking. Your mileage may vary on the many, many shots of Marina and Bella performing little choreographed silly walk/dance sequences, which are funny and unnerving until they begin to serve more as run-time padding. It's hard sometimes not to wonder why every character talks robotically, making the formerly deadpan likes of Stranger Than Paradise seem full of frantic mugging and broad jokes by comparison. Despite those detractions, Attenberg is a portrait of a hard-fought coming-of-age in a carefully-shot town whose waterfront and gas stations get equal screen time.

Summer of Goliath

There are more serious reasons to be doubtful about Summer of Goliath (Verano De Goliat). Director Nicolas Pereda brings the rigor to small villages and offers meandering anti-narratives respectful of his modest surroundings, the unprepossessing people who live in poverty, etc. If you follow festival-circuit coverage, you'll want to see this no matter what. Not unenjoyable but nonetheless deeply frustrating, Goliath suggests art cinema is reinforcing new clichés on a highbrow level.

Here, there's a shot you can see everywhere from Lisandro Alonso's Los Muertos to Casey Affleck's I'm Not There of someone slowly wading through a river, a signifier of thought and real-time change that should be given a rest. (Judging by his Dante references in interviews, Affleck was aiming for the same tier of self-conscious seriousness) The way violence is treated is annoying as well. In one of the best scenes, two young military camo-sporting types use the ongoing threat of drug cartel wars to scare the hell out of an old man taking a rural stroll (he comes to the country to get away from Mexico City, which the dirt-poor youth resent). Summer of GoliathLater, someone or something gets kicked and beaten up hard, but it's all filmed out of focus, a coy ambiguity serving nothing, really, but budget expenses. Violence here is a "specter," but it doesn't have weight: it's implied, but never felt.

Nonetheless, Pereda's still shy of 30, and he's a good student of these kinds of festival films. Shooting in HD with colors tweaked closer to Tony Scott's token cross-processing than you'd expect, Pereda shoots with actors who seem like non-professionals. Whenever people go walking—long tracking shots from behind to keep up, naturally—he tends to loosen up. The two military-minded young men are pretty terrible as human beings, but at least they're funny in their goonishness. There's an overarching thesis here, explicitly reiterated in the dialogue: what does Mexican Masculinity mean? Is it having a job and supporting your family, as one man insists? Is it possibly just tired homophobia, casually dropped at regular intervals? Pereda has a firmer handle on his subject matter than his mode of inquiry, but when he lets people converge in groups or take a stroll, the tone gets less didactic and (for whatever coincidental reason) the film becomes prettier. As in all three films, relaxing control can work wonders.

[The Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA's "New Directors/New Films" series screens through April 3. For more info, visit the site.]

Posted by ahillis at 12:55 PM

March 21, 2011

SXSW 2011: Critic's Notebook

by Steve Dollar

The Dish & The Spoon

Everyone talks about the cheap beer, the country barbecue, the crazy parties and, sweet Jesus, the blessed transmedia synergy. But there's one sure thing you will discover at South by Southwest, early and often, especially if your advertised "downtown" motel turns out to be hell-and-gone up the Interstate. It is this: Austin's cab drivers are even wackier than the notoriously storied hacks in Las Vegas. One afternoon, sozzled after a dozen cans of ice-cold Pearl Beer, waiting for a lift back downtown from Fantastic Fest impresario Tim League's big-ass crawfish boil, I was greeted by a sight unusual even for Our Nation's Weirdness Capital. Thumping down the street was a bright yellow mini-bus-like contraption dubbed The Land Yacht. Turns out the beast was a karaoke cab! Lady Gaga gaga’d from a pair of video monitors that the driver worked from a dashboard computer screen. As we rolled into town from the hillside League Compound, the hirsute and histrionic Brad Delp of Boston—may he rest in peace—materialized as guitars squealed in power anthem ecstasy, reminding me that it's "more than a feeling."

True. The very best moments marking the film component of this year's SXSW had everything to do with emotion, the real, raw, rag-and-bone shop of the heart stuff, transfigured through the prism of cinematic art (or mayhem). And I'm not just talking about the pyrotechnic heartbreak of Bellflower.

Green

Sophia Takal, the first-time director of Green, gets to the same dark place, deploying the flamethrower glare of actor Kate Lyn Sheil to ignite her rustic psychodrama. It concerns hip Brooklyn couple Sebastian (Lawrence Levine) and Genevieve (Sheil), whose relationship goes through a loop when they retreat to a country house where he intends to write about an adventure in sustainable living. Their solitude is soon gate-crashed by Robin (Takal), a compulsively chatty neighbor whose twangy intrusiveness gradually charms Genevieve and then Sebastian, even though her lack of urban sophistication and casual regard to boundaries make her, at first, a source of condescending amusement. Pretty quickly, though, you surmise that this isn’t some micro budget riff on Green Acres.

Suspense pervades the seemingly tranquil scenery. Takal came up with the story as a way to confront her own jealousy issues, casting her fiancée Levine (who played her brother in his own Gabi on the Roof in July) and their Greenpoint roommate Sheil. The same plot points could occur in the usual indie mise-en-scene—a dumpy living room, the bedroom, the shower, the coffee shop—but Takal comes up with all kinds of ways to complicate matters. Long, single-shot scenes lensed from a voyeuristic remove; use of a blissful wooded setting whose natural splendor grows increasingly oppressive; a seemingly out-of-place ambient score whose electronic dread implies we're watching a horror movie. In the mind of Sheil's Genevieve, we are.

Silver Bullets

The two women could almost be sisters, or cousins, and for a spell Takal has us wondering if the movie might be headed toward the doppelganger madness of Persona or Performance, or given Sebastian's frustration with his writing project, some flip on Antichrist or The Shining. The movie isn't about any of that at all. (Indeed, the director says she's only now catching up with all the movies that people tell her Green reminds them of). Yet, by evoking our common experience with these kinds of movies, sustaining tension and anticipation, Takal pulls us into Genevieve's emotional undertow with an equal degree of watchful unease. While sharply edged writing and resourceful camera-work fosters the sometimes painful intimacy that marks other notable relationship meltdown dramas (Everyone Else, et al), Sheil's nervous system vibrates like a tuning fork, revealing astonishingly subtle evolutions of feeling. (She also does amazing things in a werewolf mask, playing a riveting muse in Joe Swanberg's likewise raw Silver Bullets, a fragmented meditation on filmmaking and fidelity that finds the prolific director venting and reinventing himself).

Sound of My Voice

Working with a similar inventiveness amid a paucity of means, director Zal Batmanglij and his co-writer/star Brit Marling create a kind of literary sci-fi thriller in Sound of My Voice. Marling, who came out of seemingly nowhere to become the "It Girl" at Sundance this year, plays Maggie, an enigmatic young woman who leads a cult from her basement lair deep in the San Fernando Valley. Cleverly shot and edited to slowly reveal key details, the plot follows Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), a very Silver-Lakey Silver Lake couple who have turned sleuth, sneaking into the cult in order to expose it. Although they may only really be doing this because they want to spice up their relationship, they fully invest themselves in the necessary rituals: changing into pure-white garb, indulging embarrassing group encounter exercises, and learning a top-secret handshake that seems silly at first only to later serve a killer twist. Gradually, Maggie's charismatic pull begins to break through Peter's skepticism, and the arc veers darker and stranger. The terrific script also toys with tonal elements. Expectations are kept off-balance by introducing humorous scenes, by turns subtle and absurd, that take the piss out of New Age pretension and yuppie entitlement (not for nothing were the filmmakers inspired by a scary yoga instructor). One of these riffs involves the most creative use of a Cranberries song in the history of cinema. This might all add up to a soggy X-Files knock-off if every single key component wasn't perfectly executed. But it's all there, from the minimalist set-ups that leave almost everything to the imagination, to the casting (the luminous Marling is not a hype), to the screenplay, which accomplishes with dialogue what a $20 million budget never could.

Weekend

Weekend, British director Andrew Haigh's two-hander about a romance between two gay men that runs the course described by the title, won the audience award in the Emerging Visions sidebar. The leads (Tom Cullen and Chris New) are appealing as they navigate the push-pull dynamic of a bar pick-up that might be turning into something more, but the film itself never evolves past the talking stage. It looks like thoughtfully written and acted British TV, rather ploddingly straightforward and predictable. No one can say that for Alison Bagnall's The Dish & the Spoon, which tracks a similarly brief love story. Dejected, and a bit deranged, a young woman (Greta Gerwig) reels from the discovery of her husband's infidelity, but her would-be campaign of vengeance is derailed when she stumbles onto a waiflike boy (Enter the Void's Olly Alexander, unruly mushroom cloud of curls suggestive of the young Bob Dylan) passed out on the Delaware beach. He's just come all the way from England to meet a girl, and been coldly ditched himself, which makes him a handy companion in freewheeling misadventure. Gerwig, soon to share the screen with Helen Mirren and Russell Brand in the Arthur reboot, now proves far more than mumblecore's Garbo. It's a delight to watch her carry the film's in-the-moment evanescence, which feels practically early '70s in its restless spirit.

Kill List

When a man loves a woman, he’ll do just about anything to ensure domestic tranquility. Thus does the kitchen-sink gender combat of Kill List shift from the boozy, bruised-knuckled realism the English do so well into something scarifyingly creepy and bizarre. Ben Wheatley's genre-twister, which was quickly acquired by IFC Midnight, raises the ante after the subdued mordant wit of last year's Down Terrace. Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley are ex-military specialists turned contract killers who sign up for one last job, paid for by a mysterious and eccentric client. The story initially foregrounds the everyday boredom of the characters' lives as if they're just another pair of working stiffs, more disturbed by the stress of hosting a dinner party than carrying out murder for hire. The film's irreversible shifts in tone take a downward spiral into primal horror, foreshadowed from the opening title sequence, that won't easily be shaken. The soundtrack alone, a sinister electronic drone that Wheatley describes as "60% pig" squeals, will make you cry for mommy.

Posted by ahillis at 5:20 PM

March 18, 2011

SXSW '11 PODCAST: Vera Farmiga

SOURCE CODE star Vera Farmiga

Up in the Air's Vera Farmiga co-stars in Source Code (director Duncan Jones' follow-up to Moon), a twisty new techno-thriller which screened as the Opening Night film at this year's SXSW Film Festival:

When decorated soldier Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up in the body of an unknown man, he discovers he's part of a mission to find the bomber of a Chicago commuter train. In an assignment unlike any he's ever known, he learns he's part of a government experiment called the Source Code, a program that enables him to cross over into another man's identity in the last 8 minutes of his life. With a second, much larger target threatening to kill millions in downtown Chicago, Colter re-lives the incident over and over again, gathering clues each time, until he can solve the mystery of who is behind the bombs and prevent the next attack.

Sitting down together far too briefly in Austin, Farmiga and I discussed her supporting role in this "spiritual story," acting with herself, which loop of time she'd like to revisit in her personal history, and directing her first feature Higher Ground.

To listen to the podcast, click here. (10:49)

Podcast Music
INTRO: The Rocky Horror Picture Show: "Time Warp"
OUTRO: Stevie Wonder: "Higher Ground"

Posted by ahillis at 12:27 PM

March 15, 2011

DVD OF THE WEEK: The Fighter

By Vadim Rizov

thefighter3.jpg
Many people have argued The Fighter, now out on DVD, is decent but underwhelming, a get-out-of-jail-semi-free card for a filmmaker in dire need of commercial success. "David O. Russell is wasting his crazy talent on movies like The Fighter," ran a headline for Dan Kois' dispatch during this year's Slate Movie Club. "Is this really the kind of movie we want our David O. Russells directing?" he asked. "Any competent welterweight could punch his way through this story." The answer's ambivalent: do you want pure self-expression, or do you want the classical auteurist game of teasing out a director's personality through a product that initially seems reasonably generic?

The idea that The Fighter is business as usual, helmed a little more vigorously, is a little silly. If The Fighter looks standard-issue, that's only in comparison to Russell's previous confrontational, oft-outre movies. Though technically working from someone else's script — four credited writers, to be precise — Russell told Sight & Sound's James Bell that he reworked the film "in a direction that was quite different from what I inherited." The two big changes from formula that got everyone's attention: the Greek chorus of seven sisters that haunt boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) at every turn — not so much a real group of women as a gaggle of unison-speaking/thinking harridans, acting as overt comic relief — and the omission of Ward's final fights, his brutal rock-em-sock-em three rounds against Arturo Gatti.

Every single boxing aficionado I knew came out of The Fighter with the same reaction: why omit Ward's career-defining last stand? The answer, presumably, is that Russell really doesn't care: he made a movie about man vs. neighborhood, not man vs. man. Here, it's man vs. family most specifically, a topic in every single Russell film besides Three Kings. Russell may not be Jean Renoir, but his movies don't have true villains (judging by set reports, Russell prefers to play the asshole antagonist himself, albeit offscreen). Instead, they feature people trying to do the right thing while butting up against those who sincerely, if wrongheadedly, believe they're being selfish and self-destructive, most often corrupting voices from within their own family: the dreadful parents of Spanking The Monkey and Flirting With Disaster and Wahlberg's needling wife in I Heart Huckabees, all voices for staying inside the overcrowded nest.

thefighter1.jpg

With Wahlberg, Russell's made three movies in which the former Marky Mark transcends his past to become his own personal hero: surviving Three Kings, breaking up his family rather than succumbing to gasoline use in I Heart Huckabees, and here telling mother and sisters, gently, to back off and leave him alone rather than falling into the traditional family industry of self-pity mixed with unearned haughty disapproval of outside. There's a sense of a man acutely conscious of his body's built-in potential for harm and destruction, tamped down.

In The Fighter, unlike his last two films with Russell, Wahlberg finally gets to do some damage, but only in the ring. Outside of it, he's as scrupulous as can be, letting the police break his hand rather than fighting back. Russell generally prefers thinking to action, positioning solitary contemplation as an absolute necessity. Enabled by a family that always averts its gaze from his drug problems, brother Dicky (Christian Bale) has to go to jail to get some perspective. There's a memorable shot of Dicky running around the prison courtyard in circles, the camera planted in one spot and spinning slowly with him, a rare physical manifestation of a thought process.

When it's time to recreate the fights, Russell's more interested in their texture, both courtside — paying strict attention to the crowd as much as the fight — and visually (he got his hands on the same data cams HBO used to film the original fights, and the blurry analog is right on). That title — not The Boxer, mind you — is a reference to Micky fighting for his right to self-definition, a burden Russell's characters insist upon.

thefighter2.jpg

To return to the original question: even with the film's many virtues — its evocation of time and place, solid performances, a refreshingly irresponsible sense of humor when it comes to the sisters — do we still want David O. Russell making a boxing movie that features an honest-to-goodness, unironic training montage? The answer is yes, for a few reasons. By explicitly presenting a man with a body built for destruction fighting an internal battle about breaking free from his background, Russell again gives us the cerebral Wahlberg: not the guy screaming entertaining profanities in The Departed, but a guy whose mookish appearance in no way contradicts his eagerness to plunge into thorny intellectual and ethical terrain.

The same goes for the film: an outwardly conventional premise doesn't stop Russell from returning to his regular concerns.

Posted by cphillips at 12:46 PM | Comments (2)

March 12, 2011

Flame War

by Steve Dollar

Bellflower

This year's SXSW Film Festival had not even officially begun before it delivered one of those experiences that justifies the entire trip to Austin, TX—where the effort to see the most amazing movies no one's ever heard of runs headlong into what amounts to spring break for the independent film (and music and interactive) industry. It was near the end of a pre-fest preview screening of a movie called Bellflower. Terrible things, whose inevitable arrival in the story's arc had been suggested in its opening moments, were coming to pass. Once empathetic characters were turning into monsters. The edge of bat-shit crazy that had felt so exciting had tipped into psychosis. A heavy-set dude sitting next to me at the world-famous Alamo Drafthouse seemed to have been enjoying himself until now. Then he began muttering under his breath: "Fuck … what the fuck … fuck it!" And, boom: He was outta there, reiterating his commentary at louder volume en route through the exit.  

I'd heard Bellflower, which premiered at Sundance in January, was polarizing—always a bonus, especially in a festival film. But the angry departure begged a question: If you sat through everything else that happened in the last hour, why waltz in the final 15 minutes?  

Bellflower

Maybe that's testimony to the film's intensity and disorienting vibe. It's the feature debut of Evan Glodell, who also wrote the script and stars as Woodrow, a seemingly mellow guy who lives in a shitty Southern California suburb, not really appearing to do too much. He gets his jollies hanging with his best friend Aiden (Tyler Dawson), modifying junked automobiles into low-rent versions of tricked-out James Bond vehicles and fantasizing about their supercar: Medusa, a post-apocalyptic death machine in which they will cruise the desolation, obliterating any obstacle in their path. It's a geek's wet dream, the visualization of their inner Lord Humungous—the "warrior of the wasteland" from The Road Warrior. The bromance never reaches a sexual climax, but the dudes go bang bang as often as they can. A typical amusement, which serves as an introduction to this berserk little world, finds the guys suspending a gasoline tank in some junkyard,  detonating it with shotgun blasts. Shocked that they somehow have failed to blow themselves up, they high-five it and declare, "Propane is for pussies."  

Bellflower

Woodrow's life takes a novel turn when he actually scores a date with a girl, a sassy wild card named Milly (Jessie Wiseman), after they meet-gnarly at a grasshopper-eating contest staged at the crappy local dive. Woodrow's shy nature is unsettled by Milly's gift for provocation. She's the dare he can’t refuse. Soon they're cruising for misadventure in "Speed Biscuit," Woodrow's jerry-rigged Volvo, complete with dashboard whiskey dispenser.  

Like they say, it's all fun and games until someone gets their eye put out. Or, in this case, busts out a homemade flamethrower. But for all its pyrotechnic, motorhead glee, Bellflower is an impressively artful piece of work. Glodell spent the better part of three years making the film, working with a cast and crew of 11 and no money. He built the cars—including the super-charged Medusa itself, which he drove to Austin from Los Angeles—and he designed custom optical effects around the Silicon Imaging SI-2K Mini Digital Cinema camera. Those account for the film's unusual look. Some scenes appear to have been lensed through a biopsy slide, others use tilt focus to create a blurry effect as if shot with a leaky Holga camera. Manny Farber once described Godard's Weekend as a movie in love with its own body odor. Glodell and his cinematographer Joel Hodge, have achieved something similar—and thrown in a hangover for good measure. The slacker dudes and dudettes who inhabit this cheap-beer demimonde hover lower on the food chain than the urban twentysomethings in your average mumblecore flick. They're prone to sudden brawling and desperate measures. They've got some trailer park in their blood.  

Bellflower

Glodell evokes all of this while suggesting elements of many other films, from Two-Lane Blacktop to Fight Club, with some of the brain-addled fog of Memento. Yet the film's funky aura is entirely its own. Its unpredictable (and outrageous) dynamic heightens an emotional catastrophe born of a broken heart. Glodell said he wrote an early draft of the story after a bad breakup, taking literary revenge that was actually much more horrifying than what's depicted in the film. Its commentary on the transfiguring face of rage hits a raw nerve because he's made this world his own, daring the audience to come along for the ride. When bad things happen, the feelings are all too painfully mutual.

Posted by ahillis at 10:28 AM

March 8, 2011

TRUE/FALSE '11: Critic's Notebook

by Vadim Rizov

You Are All Captains

You Are All Captains is a hard movie to synopsize: it's not confusing, but the component parts initially sound boringly familiar. A director—playing a jokey version of "himself"—helps refugee children in Tangiers make their movies, in a series of scenes that repeatedly blur the line between what's "real" and fake, the children's vision and his own. This isn't just meta-reflexive game-playing: You Are All Captains is a movie arguing for the importance and pleasures of a very particular strain of art-house filmmaking that also happens to be an outstanding example of it.

You Are All Captains That tradition isn't necessarily the kind of hybridized, artful documentaries Dennis Lim wrote about recently. Despite its presence at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, MO this year (a fest devoted solely to documentaries, which just finished its eighth annual run; this was my second time attending), director Oliver Laxe cautioned during an introduction that everything here is, in fact, false. Laxe's film was mentioned in Lim's piece, as was Abbas Kiarostami, whose frequently exposes its own artifice. Taste of Cherry ends by exposing the set, and all of Close-Up plays with overtly blurring the line between reenactment, staged reality and actual trial footage.

Laxe toys around with these elements, but his affinity with Kiarostami has less to do with the structural ambiguities than the way he films children: as curious and bright but often stubborn or recalcitrant. Early on, workshop director "Laxe" tries to lecture them about the way images are transmitted through lenses. The discussion goes over their heads, and Laxe sets about staging their lives without telling them what his broader goal is. Later on, the kids complain that what Laxe is shooting "isn't even a movie." It's just a collection of scenes, "without any story." "You cannot make a movie like that," one scores. It's a funny scene, but also a sly way of calling out real critics who actually complain about this children (like the trade reporters from Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, who panned this film by basically saying they were bored).

You Are All Captains After Laxe leaves, the children go to the country to film what they'd like to see themselves: nature, with a particular emphasis on swaying fields in the wind and olive trees. This is firm formalism in the vein of Kiarostami's long, serene nature shots and penchant for watching cars drive over landscapes for extended periods of time, and an interest in rural poetry similar to the soothing jungle landscapes of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. With "Laxe" as director's negativity omitted—he has the children stage a chicken-stealing scene—the troubled refugee kids find moments of grace.

It sounds awfully heavy-handed—it's hard to describe without sounding overwrought—but it's a really soothing experience, for audience as well as the children, a riff on like-minded filmmakers' more ambient moments. The first half (playful without being grating) sets up an argument for what the film becomes: a series of mostly plotless incidents, a slightly different way of looking at narrative and the natural world that ends up surprisingly uplifting without overtly accomplishing anything. Laxe has referred to his presence in the film as portraying a "neocolonial" director, and the question of how a European director can depict or mediate the depiction of Moroccan children figures into the mix. The politics, though, exist at a sublimated level, the film eventually escaping those kinds of concerns to momentarily release you from those fears.

At the Edge of Russia

At the Edge of Russia shares unintentional overlap with Alexei Popogrebsky's How I Ended This Summer. The latter is a narrative film that pits an older, inexplicably rude walking example of Russian macho pathologies against his younger, more timid assistant at a remote government weather data-collection station in the Arctic Ocean. It's compelling but also a little overheated: it doesn't seem to realize that everything happenings is bordering on absurdity. At the Edge of Russia ups the ante by actually sending a young, relatively wispy recruit into a whole house full of these older macho types deep in the Siberian snow. The difference here is perspective: Popogrebsky is Russian and takes himself almost a little too seriously, but director Michal Marczak is Polish, so he thinks all this is very funny.

Presented without overt comment, At the Edge of Russia is 72 droll minutes of a sheep thrown in with some old wolves. The snowy fort is one of 12 left over from Soviet times to guard the "borders" of Siberia, which no sane person would ever go, let alone attempt to invade from (the snow's just too much). Here, in a womanless environment—something they spend a lot of time lamenting but seem to enjoy—grizzled men have savage arguments about the proper way to wrap one's foot in cloth against the cold, play mournful songs about their mother on acoustic guitar, and have vodka-fueled emotional freak-outs.

At the Edge of Russia Recruit Alexei looks on warily—"you have a gaze just like a little fox," one of the men tells him—and eventually learns to hold his own: after spending 36 hours in an ad hoc snow cave for a hazing initiation, he's just grateful to be inside again. Early on, things are rough, with angry demands to do the wake-up drill one more time, but eventually Alexei proves his physical worth enough times to be accepted. Not that the timed obstacle-course runs are necessary: there's nothing to defend against out here except bears.

Marczak seems more amused than alarmed by all this, which makes a difference: his film is a portrait of old-school nationalists acting boorishly that doesn't take itself too seriously, wry fun trumping tragedy. With Vladimir Putin's photo prominently displayed in the background and many hypothetical discussions about how to fight/disarm a border transgressor, the point about Russia's frequent antagonism/chauvinist treatment of immigrants, foreigners and citizens of their former satellite republics is made lightly rather than polemically. (Since shorts get so little press coverage, a shout-out here to Chase Whiteside and Erik Stoll's Lifelike, a hypnotic, mostly silent and admirably gruesome depiction of taxidermy from gutting to the final oddly convincing mounted dear-head, an appropriately macho-but-distanced prelude to the feature.)

Subway Preacher
Subway Preacher is a brutal portrait of self-styled evangelist Brian. So "humbled" he doesn't have a job—the better to hand out Chick Cartoon Tracts and harangue passers-by in subway stations, with signs venomous enough to be posted on the same block as the Westboro Baptist Church—Brian runs a small ministry with a miniscule clientele. At home, devoted wife Rose (his second) makes spaghetti and meatballs on command and doesn't mind that they live in one room of his brother's house. Rose quit her job because Brian believes the man should provide, but he has nothing to provide. That doesn't stop him from criticizing Rose whenever she so much as asks him to turn the TV down a little bit, describing even such a mild request as "Satanic."

Subway Preacher Though Brian doesn't seem to perceive any of his own problems, even he can see trouble coming when he falls for Kaitlin, a super-pretty Columbia student who starts dropping evangelical dogma into her social counseling class papers. His solution is to divorce Rose (while still living with her) and then marry and move in with Caitlin, while still doing his ministerial work with the two. Ruthlessly un-self-aware of how badly he behaves, Brian blunders through this film resolutely unfazed. Up to the last scene, he's still hustling, scrounging up donations to buy more tracts telling unbelievers they're going to hell. He's consistently the least sympathetic but compelling documentary profile subject in recent memory.

First-time director Dennis W. Ho breaks up the high drama with very nicely framed static shots of New York's many subway stations, conveying the daily reality and feeling of these regularly overcrowded, brutally utilitarian-looking stations. The core of the film, though, is unambiguous vérité; the result is strong, sometimes cringe-inducing drama. Subway Preacher puts you in the headspace of a devout former bowling champ/porn addict who now conceives of himself as a model of Godly living despite all evidence to the contrary, which proves a grimly enlightening experience.

Posted by ahillis at 3:11 PM

March 6, 2011

Dicking Around

by Steve Dollar

The Adjustment Bureau

Charlie Sheen can rant about tiger's blood until his face turns blue, but he's a pussy compared to Philip K. Dick. The visionary novelist and short story writer (1928-1982) was a notorious pill-head who averaged one marriage for every decade of his life. Philip K. Dick's VALISA prophet of paranoia and meta-reality, the author spent his final eight years on the planet processing hallucinations he attributed to a divine cosmic intelligence he called VALIS. No mere Vatican assassin, he became convinced that he was a 1st-century Christian named Thomas—the target of Roman oppression—or, variously, under the spirit possession of the Old Testament prophet Elijah.

Nearly 40 years later, it might seem that just about every word Dick typed (and he typed a gazillion of them) has been optioned for or inspired a movie, miniseries, opera, comic book, rock album, video game, trans-fat-free snack or 3D holographic installation—you name it. Only William S. Burroughs can claim as much hipster cachet as a one-size-fits-all generator of cultural phenomena, underpinning everything from cyberpunk to postmodern philosophy.

A Scanner Darkly Of course, not all of said cultural phenomena makes for great shakes, since Dick's fiction was more about ideas than literary flourish. Ridley Scott first established the writer as a cinematic template in 1982 with Blade Runner (adapted from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), still the most celebrated and influential of Dick adaptations, if compromised enough in its vision that the director has repeatedly recut and reissued the film in different versions over the decades. Nonetheless, Dick's dystopian speculations offer challenges that agitate the right sort of filmmaker in creatively rewarding ways. Though flawed by a weak third act, Minority Report is one of Steven Spielberg's best films (especially for Spielberg haters). A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater's second rotoscoped feature (after Waking Life), finds a clever parallel for Dick's fascination with split personalities and shadow spirits in the animation process, a technique whose optical tremors could make viewers feel a bit druggy themselves.

The Adjustment Bureau Based on a short story published in the September-October 1954 issue of "Orbit Science Fiction," The Adjustment Bureau is never really Dickish enough to count as a significant part of the canon. The film makes use of its fantastical premise: Human affairs are overseen and manipulated by teams of supernatural beings who periodically "adjust" peoples' lives to keep them on track with the cosmic game plan. On one particular morning, the system falters and a mere mortal stumbles onto an adjustment in process. (It mostly involves freezing bodies in place while they get vacuum cleaned). A freak-out ensues, and matters are dealt with, although the often-divorced author makes a punch line out of a nagging wife. Director George Nolfi (screenwriter of Ocean's Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum) doesn't so much take liberties with the story—there's not much there to start with—as use it as a launching pad for a sci-fi rom-com thriller whatzit.

The Adjustment Bureau The movie is disposable junk that we'll all be watching on cross-country flights by summer, but it punches so many buttons that it disarms through sheer vigor. Matt Damon is David Norris, a hotshot Senate candidate from Red Hook whose falls to defeat after an old photo of a drunken "mooning" incident turns up, his bare ass splashed across a full page of a New York tabloid. (A silly notion in this day and age, but this is science fiction). While rehearsing his concession speech in a fancy hotel men's room, he meets-cute with a willowy redhead named Elise (Emily Blunt), who has been hiding in a stall. (Like I said: science fiction). They fall in love instantly. And just as instantly, veer off on their separate tangents, never to meet again. Only they do, the very next day, because one of the adjusters (played by Anthony Mackie) falls asleep on the job and lets fate take its own course. As mentioned, Damon later wanders into an adjustment at his new consulting job. Mad Men's John Slattery—dressed, like all the adjusters, in a fedora and dark suit, as if he just walked over from his hit show—warns him that not only can he never see Elise again, but if he reveals anything to anyone about the "Bureau," they'll vacuum-clean his brain.

The Adjustment Bureau Yeah, right. Like Jason freaking Bourne is going to let a bunch of meddlesome dudes in Don Draper drag tell him what to do. The next hour juxtaposes romantic interludes with chase scenes and cosmological explications that mash up elements from Wings of Desire-cum-City of Angels (the grumpy adjusters always chill at the New York Public Library), Stranger Than Fiction, Vanilla Sky, 1930s screwball romances, and that Bourne trilogy, since Damon never stops running. While the star-crossed leads are never less than passionate and full-blooded, this is the kind of movie that establishes the characters' reality in broad, superficial strokes. Their conviction seems out of scale and therefore phony. Meanwhile, the actors who are in the genre flick whirring around Damon and Blunt—including Terence Stamp as a celestial heavy you might call "The Exterminating Angel"—make the silliness as fun as it ought ot be. They're in on the joke.

The Adjustment Bureau Nolfi is, too. The movie doesn't care about what extraterrestrial big band leader Sun Ra once described as "the prospects for altered destiny." It exists so that cameras can map all sorts of postcard-ready New York City locations (downtown Manhattan's skyline, as viewed from the Red Hook piers, looks enchanting), and so that the rebel angel played by Mackie can show off the nifty door trick. (The adjusters move from one location to another by passing through doors that serve as wormholes). As in Lost, all roads lead to the infinite, but even divine intervention can’t keep two lovers apart. Hollywood endings, though, never had a place in Dick's universe.

Posted by ahillis at 2:54 PM

March 4, 2011

PODCAST: Topher Grace

TAKE ME HOME TONIGHT's Topher Grace, with Dan Fogler

You might not expect that Topher Grace (In Good Company, Traffic, Spider-Man 3) would be quick to return to retro comedy after seven seasons on TV's That '70s Show, but lo and behold, the 32-year-old actor both executive produced and co-wrote the story for the '80s-set Take Me Home Tonight (in theaters today):

As the summer of 1988 winds down, three friends on the verge of adulthood attend an out-of-control party in celebration of their last night of unbridled youth. TAKE ME HOME TONIGHT is a raunchy, romantic and ultimately touching blast from the past, set to an awesome soundtrack of timeless rock and hip-hop hits.

Recent MIT grad Matt Franklin (Topher Grace) should be working for a Fortune 500 company and starting his upward climb to full-fledged yuppiehood. Instead, the directionless 23-year-old confounds family and friends by taking a part-time job behind the counter of a video store at the Sherman Oaks Galleria. But Matt's silent protest against maturity comes to a screeching halt once his unrequited high school crush, Tori Frederking (Teresa Palmer), walks into the store. When she invites him to an epic, end-of-summer party, Matt thinks he finally might have a chance with the girl of his dreams.

With his cynical twin sister Wendy (Anna Faris) and best friend Barry (Dan Fogler), Matt embarks on a once-in-a-lifetime evening. From stealing a car to a marriage proposal to an indescribable, no-holds-barred dance-off, these friends share experiences that will change the course of their lives on one unforgettable night in the Go-Go '80s.

At the Relativity Media offices in Manhattan, Grace and I met to discuss how cocaine almost sunk his movie's chance for release, being forced to watch "maybe the worst film ever made" on repeat one summer, and the famous actress who babysat him during those totally tubular '80s.

To listen to the podcast, click here. (13:43)

Podcast Music
INTRO: Yaz: "Situation"
OUTRO: Every Avenue: "Take Me Home Tonight"

Posted by ahillis at 12:52 PM

March 1, 2011

DVD OF THE WEEK: 127 Hours

by Vadim Rizov

127 Hours

James Franco took the stage at the Kodak Theater with an iPhone, which he used to tweet his way through the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday night. (Two people taped him additionally.) Jokes about apps were made. Franco had only joined Twitter on February 20, but now he was taking the Oscars to a whole other uncomfortable level of hyper-technological referentiality, documented on every single platform available. The ever self-aware multi-hyphenate actor/writer/performance artist—the most successful self-aggrandizer since Vincent Gallo's rise—piled on the ironies by being nominated for a role in a film about a man who thinks technology will save him. It doesn't.

James Franco, mid-tweet Danny Boyle may well be one of the most overrated big-name directors working today, constantly cutting between anything and everything like a frenetic coke fiend unaware of context. And yet, 127 Hours is easily his most rewarding movie since 2004's undervalued Millions, which was a genuinely sweet movie about urchins getting in over their head after lucking into a big pile of stolen cash. Part of what made Millions so adorable was the way it gestured toward the larger world by inviting the audience to donate money for water wells in Africa, what the children dream of doing their money. A random event catalyzes awareness of the larger world, which happens again in the spelunking tragedy flick. As far as gory movies go, this is pretty heartwarming.

MillionsIn its unbeatable one-line synoptic hook, 127 Hours is the ripped-from-the-headlines movie about Aron Ralston, the guy who went mountain climbing without telling anyone where he was going or when he would be back, got his arm tracked under a rock, and had to saw it off. The children of Millions had an excuse for their often staggeringly wrong interpretation of events (they think the money came from God initially); the hero of 127 Hours has much less justification for being an idiot when it comes to his personal safety or behaving carelessly to his family and loved ones.

127 HoursThe catalyst for personal redemption here comes from Nature, very much with a capital N. When Ralston first gets stuck, he fights with all his technological tools. Most notably, he records his entrapment in video diary segments that will be very familiar to anyone who's spent more than five minutes on YouTube. This is what Ralston did for real, and Boyle used the footage from his real ordeal—footage that, in reality, is locked up safely out of the public eye, but was made available for Franco and Boyle to study. When Ralston got into trouble, his first instinct was self-documentation, an understandable but dangerous instinct for anyone who's ever felt too plugged in.

127 HOURS' James Franco and Danny Boyle The filmic Ralston thinks nature is a video game that can be synced up to the music in his headphones, but he learns how wrong he is. Boyle's unthinking hyperkineticism is a snug fit, both as problem-solving for a claustrophobic trap of a premise and as genuine thematic counterpoint. Ralston can squirm, vlog and shout, but he can't escape the unmediated reality around him. He doesn't answer his phone unless he feels like it, and he only starts communicating with others on his phone/video camera when it becomes clear no one's around. He's Mark Zuckerberg under a rock, only with last-minute self-awareness: he doesn't realize how much he disdains people until he realizes how badly he's treated them. As FourSquare might hiccup, he's the mayor of canyon introspection, an honor documented in real time.

Boyle's frantic over-direction both keeps things lively and mirrors his protagonist's technology addiction. One of the most fascinating things about the way Ralston sets out to Conquer Nature—something he did regularly and avidly—is that he didn't like to hear the ambient sounds around him. (The real Ralston is a big Phish fan, something Boyle thankfully keeps off the soundtrack.) He wanted to experience the native world on his own terms. Unlike the hiking duo of Gerry—who trudge through a world of meticulously layered wild sound—Ralston tried until the last possible second to put up a buffer between him and that environment, and utterly failed.

GerryYet like Gerry, 127 Hours regards nature as savage, pitiless and indifferently so. This is a smart, unsentimental attitude. That Boyle editorially dances around the hard realities makes sense: he undertook the movie as a challenge in the same spirit as Ralston's hikes. Whether Boyle realizes that his movie embodies the same combination of technological festishizing and reckless risk-taking that got Ralston into trouble is irrelevant. Franco live-tweeted the boring ceremony into oblivion, having failed to learn what his character did: if your situation sucks, your portable hotness won't save you.

Posted by ahillis at 9:06 AM