September 30, 2014

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The New York Film Festival opened this past Friday night with the sadistic comedy of remarriage Gone Girl  (which is released nationwide October 3rd). It trails success in its wake, adapted from Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster novel, which has occupied the majority of bedside end tables in the United States. It is the second straight bestseller that director David Fincher has adapted, following his glacial Girl With the Dragon TattooGone Girl is another story of female victimhood and bloody revenge, except this time the narrator is highly unreliable. If you are one of the zeitgeist-less few not to have read the story, it concerns the unraveling marriage of struggling writers Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamunde Pike). After Amy goes missing after an apparent home invasion, a massive investigation is launched to find her, with the evidence continuing to pile up against Nick. What follows is a thorough autopsy of their lives together, their union a sustained performance of mutual denial and dishonesty, an act that Amy internalizes to such a degree that she stages a much larger, more entertaining production in response. Fincher and Flynn jettison the balanced 50/50 POV split from the novel and filter the majority of the narrative through Nick’s perspective. This simplifies the story but also flattens Amy into a sociopathic cipher, one who can too easily be dismissed as a hysterical female. But Rosamunde Pike’s performance is ferociously controlled, betraying no loss of agency. If men want Amy to play a part to salve their fragile egos, she will oblige only until a better role comes along, whereupon she can trash their script and obliterate them.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night depicts a different kind of determined female. Sandra (Marion Cotillard) returns to work after a bout with depression, only to find her job at a solar panel factory will be eliminated. In an either/or vote, the union chose to receive a 1,000 EUR bonus over Sandra keeping her job. Sandra successfully lobbies for a re-vote after rumors of tampering, and has a weekend to convince each individual employee to forego the bonus and keep her on staff. The film is a kind of moral procedural, the question re-framed through each employees’ personal circumstances. Sandra troops through the Dardennes’ terrain of Seraing, Belgium on foot, bus and car, continually wilting and re-forming under the stress and humiliation of her position. The handheld camera sticks tight to Cotillard (who, with this and The Immigrant is in perpetual close-up this year), whose face is a Richter scale of emotional tremors.


Gone Girl is a David Fincher movie and is thusly a very good-looking one, working again with DP Jeff Cronenweth (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network, Fight Club). Though it opens and closes with a shallow-focus close-up, the majority of the film emphasizes maximum visibility, with a lot of long shots that encompass glass, television monitors and security cameras. Much of the film has to do with the media frenzy that accompanies Amy’s disappearance, as she was the model for a popular children’s book series written by her parents. The tabloid talk shows push the trashiest and most outrageous narratives of the case, including at one point speculating on Nick and his twin sister Margo (an acerbic Carrie Coon) engaging in “twincest”. And though the movie runs a robust 150 minutes, Fincher and editor Kirk Baxter utilize a clipped editing style that always cut a beat or two before I expected. Even the opening credit titles flash on and off far quicker than usual. This clipped style kept me off balance  – as if the film was proceeding ahead of me and I was scrambling to catch up. It was fun to feel that off kilter, though the tempo distends in the climactic latter stages into something more conventional.


The acting tends to be as controlled and clipped as the editing, especially the investigative team led by Kim Dickens as Detective Rhonda Boney. Dickens is a superb no-bullshit cop, forever with an oversized styrofoam coffee cup in her hand and a bloodhound twitch in her eyes  when clues passed her field of vision. She has no wasted gestures, words or syllables. She leaves those to her assistant (Patrick Fugit), who seems to speak entirely in pithy putdowns. The only one in the cast who lacks this tightness is Ben Affleck, whose Nick floats in a boyish fog. When Amy disappears he doesn’t so much as shrug, while at the station he speaks to the police with distanced deference, as if arguing a speeding ticket rather than helping a search for his missing wife. It is an impressive bit of smarminess for a major star, but he doesn’t manage to sustain it. As Nick takes on the mantle of victimhood, Affleck becomes a genial joker, instead of the self-regarding a-hole the movie needs to balance its battle of the sexes. When the couple reforms, the movie becomes less about how spouses deform themselves to sustain relationships, but about the subjugation of Affleck’s good ‘ol boy to Rosamunde Pike’s world-devouring wife.



In Two Days, One Night Sandra is no Amy. Living in a healthy relationship with husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), she has no ability to dissemble in front of her fellow workers. It takes her entire force of will to knock on each door, and put herself under their pitying, guilty glares. She knows that her question will instill guilt, and each bonus voter is a fount explanations and justifications, some understandable, others not. Each encounter has the tension of a heist sequence, just that the stakes are much higher. Money is tight all over, and Sandra is asking these people to give up a year of gas bills. It is the rare film where bills have a physical weight, that conveys the suffocating anxiety that money problems can instill – the complete helplessness. Her path through the town in Two Days, One Night is stop-start as that force of will crumbles, having to be built up again by Manu or her few encouraging co-workers. Then there are the brief moments of happiness. Timur (Timur Magomedgadzhiev) weeps at getting a chance to reverse his vote to Sandra – and as she walks away breaks into uncontrollable smiles, Cotillard’s body a brief lightning rod of joy. The other burst occurs inside of Manu’s car, as Van Morrison’s “Gloria” crackles over the radio. The whole car bursts into song, Sandra giving herself up to the chorus, trying to escape into the tune. 


April 9, 2013

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To the Wonder, Upstream Color and Spring Breakers have been speaking to each other in my head. I would rather they go away so I could do my taxes, but here we are. Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, which opens in limited release this week, is a memory movie, swirling around a couple straining to recapture the ecstasy of love’s first blush. The couple in Upstream Color have nothing to recapture, their minds wiped by parasites, forced to forge new identities by pulling from the world and each other. Spring Breakers is also a kind of love story, one in which kids with dwindling Great Recession prospects escape into the sticky embrace of pop culture. All use a structure filled with repetitions and a slippery sense of time, with flash forwards and flash backs bending their linear timelines into circles.

To the Wonder opens with grainy cell phone video of Olga Kurylenko and Ben Affleck in the throes of dizzy silly passion on a European train ride. They are getting high off each other, each pawing advance  eliciting unselfconscious laughter.  In voice-over, Kurylenko whispers (in French): “Newborn”. It is an innocent state for which they will be unable to return, and Malick and his DP Emmanuel Lubezki trace their attraction-repulsion from the romantic heights of Mont St. Michel to their unadorned suburban home in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. The image of Mont St. Michel, a small tidal island off the coast of Normandy capped with a Romanesque church, acts as a talisman for their moment of bodily transcendence, when, as Kurylenko intones, “Two become one”.

It presents a natural progression of Malick’s late style, in which impressionistic fragments are edited together in symphonic arrangements, and where actors are broken down into their constituent parts: hands, necks, hair. There are mini-movements that swirl around the central romance,  of doorways and windowpane shadows (which eventually Kurylenko’s daughter hopscotches through), but also of muddy water, rhymed across the continent from the coast of Normandy to a stream of runoff that Affleck tests in Oklahoma. His actors have essentially become silent performers, a tactic that balances them with the world around them – the fluorescent light at a Sonic is as privileged as his actors. Malick was trained as a Heidegger scholar, but allow me to dust off my prized Bachelor of philosophy degree and propose that this approach is more reminiscent of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a phenomenologist who arose in Heidegger’s wake. I’ll cherry pick a quote from his Phenomenology of Perception: “I am, thus, not separate from being, but rather ‘a fold’ in being where being touches itself through me.” Malick’s actors slip into this fold, conduits that the world flows through, instead of its center.

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Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color has been incessantly compared to Malick, and its editing patterns are similar with its looping repetitions. But while Malick came out of a Continental Philosophy background, Carruth is more concerned with the science of mind, how the brain might react if forced to construct a personality out of nothing but its own perceptions. The story concerns Kris (Amy Seimetz), who is implanted with a parasitical worm that erases her memory. The worm is part of an enigmatic organic cycle, as it emerges from the soil of orchids and finishes its life inside pigs, who maintain a psychic link to the parasite hosts. Kris tears down her old life and begins a new one, joining up with Jeff (Carruth), who has also been through the destructive process and is beginning life anew. They form a co-dependent bond in which memories flow back and forth, threatening their grip on individuality. Carruth is a builder of intricate systems who prefers to leave out the instruction manual, so connective tissue regarding the cycle is elided in favor of Kris and Jeff’s scramble back into humanity. Carruth is stilted and cold, his analytic personality unfit for a guy wiped by a worm. But Seimetz gives the movie its grounding, her transformation from consciousness to blank slate is a true metamorphosis, her bright energy dulled into cow-eyed sloth, her movements slowed as she were still mapping out the world in her head.

In Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, teenybopper darlings Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson and Vanessa Hudgens are adrift in college, racking up debts for an American Dream that is no longer viable. Their days are spent ignoring lectures and watching Kimbo Slice street fights on YouTube. Desperate for escape and something joyful, they rob a fried chicken joint in order to fund a trip to spring break in St. Petersburg, Florida. Korine, like Malick and Carruth, uses repetition to create a sense of circularity, characters caught in a loop. In Spring Breakers, though, it is a loop the characters have created for themselves, an ecstatic embrace of the vulgar as an escape from the mundane. If the film has a philosophy it would be directed by the Twitter feed @KimKierkegaard, which mashes up the Kardashian and the Danish existentialist. The girls have gone through the looking glass, except they’re not entering Wonderland but a Reddit thread. The film clicks from Girls Gone Wild debauchery to teen queen balladry to glamorized drug violence, an adventure into the unknown, but at least it gives the girls control. They meet the love of their lives in Alien (James Franco) a flamboyantly conspicuous consumer who has also decided to give up the life in the world for one self-made pop glamor. The most moving scene is a robbery montage set to Britney Spears’ heartbreak ballad “Everytime”, the girls done up in Pussy Riot gear – their self-willed self-destruction a private revolutionary act.