Thursday, September 27, 2012

New York Film Festival 2012: Hyde Park on Hudson

[This is the first of two reviews for The House Next Door to mark my coverage of the 2012 New York Film Festival. The second will be a review of Robert Zemeckis' Flight on October 14.]

While at first the idea of Bill Murray playing Franklin D. Roosevelt may seem counterintuitive to the actor's sensibilities, on further thought the combination is quite rife with possibility. Throughout his career, Murray has offered up intimate portraits of individuals whose personal vices he spun into inspired bits of comedy (the challenged greenskeeper of Caddyshack, the insufferably self-obsessed Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, etc.), and every so often into devastating visions of isolated, broken men (see Broken Flowers and Lost in Translation). In Hyde Park on Hudson, Murray is up to the task of channeling our country's 32nd president despite a scarce resemblance in appearance and voice. He succeeds in doing so by summoning the otherworldly presence of his famous comedy roles as well as the understatement of his more serious efforts, melding them into a compelling portrayal of a larger-than-life yet mysterious figure such as Roosevelt.
Despite its virtuoso lead performance, Hyde Park on Hudson is nonetheless a tonal misfire and a disappointment. The problems start with how the film is framed through the perspective of one of Roosevelt's mistresses, a quiet woman named Daisy (Laura Linney). Her modest upbringing makes Daisy both an unlikely and fitting assistant to the president as he makes stay in the secluded surroundings of rural New York. The story concerns Daisy's fascination with the president and how it blossomed into an affair that the two carried on as his administration plays host to the king and queen of England.

Click here to read the full review at Slant Magazine's blog The House Next Door.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

Representing maybe the first real step in the reflexive evolution of the horror film since Scream, Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods wades into the depths of voyeurism and pleasure that have become embedded into the genre over nearly the last half-century. It ingeniously weaves a heightened sense of self-awareness into a story that steers clear of parody despite deploying an orgy of genre tropes. Much of this can be attributed to how Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon have structured the film. At the outset we learn of an apparent experiment wherein two men—played with relish by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford—sit in front of screens in a control room and manipulate the fates of five young college students who are off to spend a weekend in a creaking cabin in the middle of nowhere. If the college student scenario sounds derivative, that’s because it is. Each character is walking horror cliché: the athletic jock (Chris Hemsworth), the bookish nerd (Jesse Williams), the innocent virgin (Kristen Connolly), the promiscuous blonde (Anna Hutchinson), and the know-it-all stoner (Frank Kranz). It should then be no surprise that the secluded settings and familiar plot turns that ensue invoke the likes of The Evil Dead, The Shining, Night of the Living Dead, Friday the 13th, and innumerable others.
The overt contrast between the increasingly violent situation at the cabin and the nonchalance of the folks watching/enacting it becomes the film’s major sticking point, and Goddard and Whedon make it work by pouring on the irony. They want to scare you and make you laugh, and then make you wonder why you’re scared and laughing. The eventual explanation for the motivations of the folks in the control room leaves something to be desired, but the resolution seems practically irrelevant and also part of the fun. Moreover, once it enters its third act, The Cabin in the Woods is firmly within the realm of absurdity, carried on by its own inventiveness long after the initial intrigue of the story wears off.
Perhaps the most unique element of all of this is how the film maintains a balance of disparate sensibilities. It actively conflates the serious and the non-serious, inviting a pensive engagement before revealing its ultimate simplicity. (In fact, some of the funniest moments come from deeply intense moments that are interrupted with obviously less important matters.) This playful approach yields an inspired if also problematic result. It’s not a terribly deep experiment and nor is it a reinvention of horror, but it’s a smart take on the ostensibly inherent fixations on death and violence that have long entrenched the genre. And in addition to its modest attempt to reconfigure the elements of horror cinema, The Cabin in the Woods is every bit an homage to their existence. (Drew Goddard, 2012) **½

Monday, September 17, 2012

Summer of '87: The Lost Boys

The Lost Boys is overflowing with memorable images, from the splashes of smoky red light filling up the frames to its vivid depiction of an emerging punk youth. But one particular sight has stayed with me ever since I watched Joel Schumacher’s film at an entirely too-young age. It occurs during the bonfire feeding roughly halfway through the film. Until this point, violence has only been implied, which lends more potency to visible dismemberment. Amid the orgy of death and futile struggle, a single ephemeral vision: One of the vampires sinks its teeth into a man’s bald head, causing blood to splash out like champagne.
The savage penetration throughout the scene is a raw rebuke of the age-old vampire legend. It deliberately eschews the traditional scenario, which usually sees some variation of a patient, soft-spoken vampire luring his victim into complacency before calmly biting her neck without her ever realizing. Rather, this is about something else. It’s messy. Painful. Unhinged. To see it now through a retrospective lens helps to better grasp how the film’s defining sensibilities elicited such a strong response in 1987. David (Kiefer Sutherland) and his vampire clan didn’t do things the old-fashioned way. “Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It’s fun to be a vampire,” the film’s rather perfect slogan read. They were here to bring down the old establishment and corrupt your children. And whether or not audiences consciously grasped these themes at the time, they connected with the material.

Click here to read the full post at Slant Magazine's blog The House Next Door.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Monthly Retrospective: Rashomon

[This is the first entry in what will be a regular feature at the site, in which I offer reflections and considerations of movies that aren’t on the reviewing circuit of the past year.]

First-generation innovators rarely give us the best version of an idea or expression. Often they provide the groundwork for others to harness and perfect, which has certainly been the case with technology and also to a lesser degree in various artistic modes. In terms of movies, many of the most revolutionary entries (e.g. The Wizard of Oz, The Jazz Singer, Star Wars) are known primarily for how they changed the medium rather than how their advancements helped set a new standard of aesthetics or storytelling. Citizen Kane is one of the more famous examples of a film that offered both visual and narrative invention that few films have approached thereafter. Equally significant in this regard is Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. The film is renowned for ascribing a dimension of reflexivity to cinema that had been mostly unexplored until that point. It asks elemental questions about vision and storytelling, specifically: How do the two enter into a relationship through cinema, and what are the roles of truth and perspective in that relationship?
Rashomon offers several different accounts of the same event, which is recounted by the different characters involved. Kurosawa frames this through a trial-like setting in which the characters look directly at you, the viewer, and gives their own description of what happened. But before I discuss Rashomon’s benchmark achievements, I want to point out just how rich it is purely from a visual standpoint, as this can be overlooked. For example, the interrogation scenes—with the witness in the foreground and lookers-on in the background—have a downright avant-garde sensibility that contrasts nicely with the sumptuous visuals that Kurosawa creates in the forest. For a film that notably oscillates between perspectives and points in time, Rashomon is fluid in its storytelling and presentation. In addition, the film’s focus on faces lends an expressive layer to its already complex inquiry into to human nature. Moreover, Kurosawa’s full use of the expressive influence of images and narrative to explore a deep range of emotion makes Rashomon one of cinema’s most significant entries, as well as one of its most poetic.
Rashomon deserves to be renowned for carving out the structural and visual methods that would eventually be incorporated in all types of movies and ingrained into our movie-going minds. But almost entirely apart from it’s pioneering of these techniques, Rashomon employs them as a means of exploring the full breadth of potential that visual storytelling enables. This is evident not only in the film’s groundbreaking techniques, but also in how it moves and feels. In the hands of Kurosawa, something as simple as beating rainfall is eloquent and moving.
To see Rashomon having internalized its DNA in so many other movies is to experience a potential and sense of newness about movies that precious few of them still cultivate. (Akira Kurosawa, 1950) ****

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Separation

“He is a good man.” So says Simin (Leila Hatami) about her husband in the opening scene of A Separation, in which she explains before a judge (off-screen) why she seeks a divorce. Not the words one would expect to hear in a divorce hearing. Nevertheless, sitting next to Simin, her husband Nader (Peyman Moadi) is indifferent to the proceedings. We gather that he loves his wife, but he obliges with her request because his priorities lie with his ailing father, who requires care that would prevent the couple and their child from leaving their home country of Iran. Simin and Nader’s situation is not unlike the conflicts that many married couples face. What distinguishes A Separation is how perceptibly it articulates the circumstances within which the two become entangled.
The film unwinds as an uncommonly observed tragedy about Simin and Nader, as well as a handful of other characters that play in the evolving drama. The conflict eventually escalates and results in a chain of events that is as compelling as it is unpredictable. All the while, writer-director Asghar Faradi keeps a tight focus of the human scale and what really drives these folks to their actions, even as misunderstandings heighten and deceptions occur. None of these individuals wishes to inflict pain on those around them but nonetheless do—out of pain or mistrust or simply fear. A Separation never resorts to violence, but it resolves in an arguably more devastating way. And it plays out so convincingly because Faradi doesn’t have the agenda that shapes many other stories about broken connection and communication. Thus, the drama unfolds smoothly and with the further aid of an understatedly intimate aesthetic that sharpens the film's emotional verisimilitude.
A Separation went on to win the Oscar in the foreign language film category at the 2011 Academy Awards, but there was little doubt that it would have performed otherwise. Due largely to the influence of the Weinstein brothers on Oscar campaigning, the race in many categories is seldom about artistic merit. However, A Separation represents an example in which a genuinely great work deserved the recognition it received from being awarded Oscar Gold. It resounds beyond its own intimate settings and focused dramatic scope to channel a much broader human struggle of navigating the complex trappings of political, religious, and cultural identity. A Separation is about the intersections of these facets of ourselves and where and how they collide in our relationships. (Asghar Farhadi, 2011) ****