Friday, 28 February 2014

Briefly - Bubble

I think it was simpler in the "old days". In the mid '70's you could have a film like All The Presidents's Men that would be both a critical hit and a big star vehicle combined. Nowadays, it seems that talented people who want to put out popular stuff and still be appreciated for their artistic abilities are running back and forth on either side of a cinematic ping pong game - one side is where you deliver for big box office, the other is where you run to gather aesthetic satisfaction.

Sometime you also want to go small just to recharge, readjust and refocus. The now retired (but hopefully not for long) Steven Soderbergh is pretty well known for having done this. After some Ocean's Eleven this and Mighty Mike that, Soderbergh has sometimes tripped into no-frills territory with flicks like the experimental Schizopolis (1996) and, a little more recently, the low key entry called Bubble (2005).

It's small town America and middle-aged Martha (Debbie Doebereiner) spends her time looking after her father whenever she isn't slugging away at her tasks in a doll factory alongside youngish co-worker Kyle (Dustin James Ashley). Holiday rush time is coming up and attractive single mother Rose (Misty Wilkins) is hired to do some airbrush/stencil routines. The old hands seem to first get along well enough with the newcomer, with Rose even hiring Martha to do some babysitting work but things start changing once it becomes clear the younger woman is using the time to date Kyle on the sly. Rose plots to steal from her new man while also facing theft accusations from the father of her child. The problems she brings on to herself end in the worst possible way and it's up to the police to solve the tragic puzzle that results.

(Interesting trailer...although you may not think so.)

The three leads were all locally recruited non-professionals and each one turns in a more than credible performance. I will say the film does have a great sense of place, with creepy atmospherics and a realistic impression of a community that's dying.  And the crime that is committed is an interesting enough examination of a low level endeavor carried out in a low level world. The problem is the script, which collapses after the big misdeed is committed. The culprit and likely ending can be seen from a mile (or a half hour) away and torpedoes any real reason for sitting through the remainder of the movie.

Bubble is not at all embarrassing - it has a lot of a less-is-more thing going for it. Unfortunately, the one area you don't want to take with that approach - the screenplay - is what really makes this a "small" film. For Soderbergh fans only.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Rubber - A Film I Liked...For No Reason

The film:

The under-the-radar-factor:
Movies about car tires (in this case, one named Robert) who not only become sentient but develop awesome telepathic powers to boot never seem to have taken the multiplex box office by storm. Neither did this one - its haul in the U.S. theaters came in under six figures.

The review:

First, before going into the main course of the analysis of Quentin Dupieux's rather outrĂ© feature offering, I would like to serve up one of the best appetizers I can think of to set you in the right frame of mind for what will follow. I propose we take five (actually, eight minutes) to regard the amazing and deservedly legendary short by the great Norman McLaren of National Film Board of Canada fame. For those who have never seen it, and those who wish to relive the magic...Neighbours.

Now, I'm not trying to suggest Rubber is on the level of this masterpiece or that Dupieux is the next McLaren... but while I was watching 82 minutes of a car tire coming to life, I thought of Neighbours and believed the great Canadian animator would have enjoyed this 21st century cinematic experiment very much.

We've all seen films-within-films but this one goes a step further. At the start a police officer named Lieutenant Chad (Stephen Spinella) pops out of the trunk of a car that's arrived out on a desert road to seemingly talk directly to the camera (we, the audience) about things in films and life that were done for no reason. (Examples: " The Pianist, by Polanski, how come this guy has to hide and live like a bum when he plays the piano so well? Once again, the answer is... no reason!" Also... "Why do some people love sausages and other people hate sausages? No fuckin' reason!") But it turns out there is another layer to this monologue - Chad is actually talking to a group of several people standing before him who are there to watch this "other movie" play out - a film that is a homage to the "no reason" - even though there is no actual film but just action taking place in the distance. The group members are given binoculars by an accountant figure and they use the optical aids to regard this third movie unfold. (Still with us?...)

What the spectators see in the title universe of these goings-on is Robert the tire awakening in the desert, taking his first baby, spins....and later discovering he has the ability to make birds, rabbits and people blow up. Robert heads out on the highway where he comes across an attractive young woman named Sheila (Roxanne Mesquida), who he obviously becomes smitten with. The tire follows the girl to a motel where he takes over the room next door, watching television, spying on her in the shower and blowing up members of the staff. Meanwhile, the spectators in the distance comment on the proceedings before them, unaware they may be in danger from the nerd accountant. (I know you're going nuts reading this but I'm having a lot of fun writing it.)

Of course there are inevitable showdowns for all involved but anything else written here will lead you into an even more confused state, so I think it's time to regard the trailer, don't you?

This is not a review begging everyone to give this film a chance. Needless to say, a lot of folks will feel like they just can't be bothered by a premise this silly. Some will criticize the movie as padded (not deserving much more of a running time than, say...Neighbours?), and won't share the comedic tone established by Dupieux. Some could also be a little offended by what may appear to be an attitude of contempt directed at movie audiences in general and the horror crowd in particular.

On the other hand, if elongated Python-type absurdity is your bag, combined with a really well-executed look and sound that this film has...and if you are just tired of the usual mainstream paint-by-numbers predictability that we are surrounded by, Rubber could be the fresh air you seek. It may be true that someone can appear outrĂ© only by looking slightly less middle-of-the-road then the 99.9% of everything out there but in the case of this Dupieux offering we are really talking about something from another planet. As much as Rubber is preposterous it does not run amok - the deliberate pacing, exceptional framing of Robert in shot after shot and the lack of CGI technology (a puppeteer was used for much of Robert's motion generation, with some remote control augmentation) creates a very organic feel that demands that this absurdity be taken with some seriousness. This is where I see the closeness to what a genius like McLaren would do in a film like Neighbours. Also contributing to the feeling of verisimilitude embedded in the off-the-wall actions is the talent of the cast, hitting the right notes at the right time, regardless if sincerity or tomfoolery was required in a scene.

One of the things I also like about Dupieux is his embracing of the DSLR technology that's out there in a way that explores new possibilities rather than create pseudo-Hollywood-on-a-budget entries. It's a call to arms that I've heard expoused by Robert Downey Sr. (regard the beginning of this video interview) and seen followed in practice by people like the UK filmmaker Ben Woodiwiss - the look of the movie and the manner in which it explores physical settings suggests an expert control over the components in use.

Oh yes - even thought the film is a bit uneven and occasionally drags, it's funny. Often very, very funny.

Rubber is a film which will extract polar opposite reactions - for myself this was one of the more enjoyable pure cinematic experiences I've had in some time.

Friday, 14 February 2014

In The Loop and Laughing (When Not Crying)

The film:
In the Loop (2009)

The under-the-radar-factor:
The BBC Films production and IFC release made its bow at the 2009 Sundance Fest. North American receipts tailed less than $3 million despite huge critical acclaim on both sides of the ocean for this satire.

The review:

A quote from a mid-level minister in the British government sends tongues wagging and spin doctors spinning in this feature debut from Scotland's Armando Iannucci - he of The Thick of It fame, a hit UK tv show, and more recently as executive producer/writer of the Julia-Louis Dreyfus vehicle Veep on these shores.

There is tension between the U.S. and forces in the Middle East which, according to British Secretary of State for International Development Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), lends itself to a situation where "war is unforeseeable". This quote from a radio interview - a statement which Simon himself is unclear on as to its meaning - fits in (or doesn't) with the desires of various factions in both the UK and American governments. Foul mouthed communications director Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) sends Foster packing off to Washington D.C. His job is to make it clear that war is foreseeable...if it's not...and to represent the UK speaking to as few people as possible. The Englishman discovers the Yanks are just as good at talking out of both sides of their mouths as the same chaos, vested interests, backstabbing and secret dealings abound - but with perhaps even more delusion involved. A showdown occurs between hawkish State Department official Linton Barwick (David Rasche) and the dove side that includes Lt. General George Miller (the late James Gandolfini). Foster finds himself shipped home to look after mundane local matters in his constituency, namely the concerns of a bombastic working class bloke (Steve Coogan) who's concerned a backyard wall could cave in on his dear mother at any time and insists the matter is as urgent as any in the entire country. Still, local seniors must take a backseat to pending bloodshed as Simon later finds himself with Tucker and company at the United Nations, where a critical vote looms on the war issue. Complicating matters is a memo that everyone wanted leaked... but by others, not themselves...which may end up doctored...or not.

Follow this? Does it sound like anything makes sense? That's one of the points the film is making.

In the Loop crosses Dr. Strangelove with The Office - instead of the War Room and matters conducted at the highest levels, this film displays the behind-the-scenes insanity of practices done around the relative grunt level of institutions (which on the American side includes a lot of wet-behind-the-ear types). Careers come first, awareness comes last, and chaos reigns supreme. People know what they're doing, even if they really don't know what they are doing it for.  Gibberish is used to clarify. Alliances are made in a split-second, only to be dissolved as quickly. Kissing-ass is the rule but one never forgets to carry the back-stabbing knife for when needed. You use or will be used - it often depends on who acts the quickest, not the smartest.

The film moves at a frenzied pace and is not always easy to keep up with (I've heard more than one person say a second viewing is almost mandatory) but the experience is definitely worth it. Capaldi would make even a grandmother burst out laughing with his artfully crafted vulgarities, Hollander is excellent at conveying the average type who finds himself in over his head, and Gandolfini shows his untimely death has robbed us of someone who could have provided many more comedic master strokes, as he does here. Rasche is great at synthesizing greed, corruption and lying into the alpha-male embodiment of his character. Mimi Kennedy is spot-on in displaying a state official whose intentions are good but approach is a losing cause. And Coogan steals the scenes where he portrays the man-on-the-street who shouldn't be left off the hook for having outlandish misplaced priorities fueled by delusional self-importance. It would be difficult to imagine a stronger, more perfectly suited cast.

Hitchcock could make you laugh and scream in close succession. In the Loop will have you chuckle throughout when not leaving you uneasy. The world of warfare and diplomacy on display here looks ridiculous but feels a little too real. The film doesn't so much have an ending that concludes matters but rather more of a sudden halt to allow all - some of the characters and all of the audience - to finally contemplate what really has been done.

The film is a bit flat looking in regards to the visuals and you may not care much for these people (some of the minor characters not mentioned above are a little too superficial and merely decorate at best and take up space at worst). Still, you will care about their world, which also happens to be ours. In the Loop is a satire worth taking in.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Briefly - Make-Out with Violence

Everyone misses Wendy Hearst, the character in Make-Out With Violence, a 2008 (not exactly comedy, nor horror, nor art house) first feature indie release made by a pair of filmmakers who credit themselves as the Deagol Brothers. Wendy has disappeared from her affluent suburban community and, inevitably, family and friends arrive at the conclusion she has perished. A memorial service is held but shortly afterwards the three Darling Brothers (that would be twins Patrick and Carol, newly graduated from high school, and the younger one named Beetle) come across a zombified version of their beloved friend in the woods. Taking advantage of the departure of a peer and his now vacant property, the bros use his house to hide this sort-of dead girl, encouraging her to eat chocolate cake... and live rats. Romantic angles emerge as Carol would like to get closer to Wendy's old friend Addy, while Patrick would just like to develop some sort of intimacy with the living-dead babe he has lying in the bathtub.

Imagine a couple of student movie-makers who have watched nothing but Ingmar Bergman films all their lives and are then approached by the CW TV Network to come up with a pilot for a zombie romance series to follow Supernatural on Tuesday nights. Yes, agreed...I also don't think that would be a good idea. But the resulting product would have looked and felt much like most of Make-Out with Violence.

I suppose one has to admire the filmmakers for making as smooth looking a production as this is on what must have been a limited budget. Still, flat dialogue, bland performances and an overall self-important pretentiousness do in the end product. Messages in the film?..oh, there seem to be several. Apparently one is that suburban living is rather boring ("Revelation" No.1!). That youth have issues with acceptance, longing and identity (Really?? "Revelation" No.2! Hey, now we're on a roll). That love is often a one-way street, not to be reciprocated...

Enough! - skip the eye-opening "revelations", please, please, please!

The bottom line becomes...who cares about any of this? Indie productions should hold a special place for injecting fresh air into the stale cinematic landscape, not for having produced some "it looks good enough" type of efforts. Someone once said there is nothing more irritating than a dumb film that thinks it's smart. Perhaps a runner-up would be a simpleton, unimaginative effort that thinks it's arty...while pretending to be many other things as well. There are really few good reasons to watch Make-Out with Violence, let alone few good reasons for it having been made in the first place.