For Your Information: Star Ratings Out Of Five (★★★★★) Stars

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Art House Pitstop: Upstream Color, To the Wonder, and The Place Beyond The Pines

If Upstream Color were the future of independent cinema, as some have suggested, then the American art house would be doomed indeed.  For starters, the movie is both too ambitious and incoherent.  An interpretive sci-fi romance about a young woman (Amy Seimetz) who gets preyed upon by a botanist-conman-hypnotist (Thiago Martins) and then falls in love with a lonely divorcee (played by director Shane Carruth), the film’s two storylines never exactly sync-up—at least not satisfactorily.  There’s also an evil pig farmer lurking about controlling everybody, in case you were wondering.  I ascertained that much from a single viewing.  A second might uncover more, though that would mean sitting through Upstream Color again!  No thank you.  I’ll admit, however, that the first thirty minutes are nearly good enough to justify it.  Straightaway, the aforementioned huckster breeds mind control larva, then kidnaps the heroine, temporarily lobotomizes her, and orders she sign over her life savings.  The director dispels traditional dialogue or exposition and instead allows the crime’s peculiar details to tell the story.  The thief convinces his victim that she must earn sips of water (“The greatest thing you’ve ever tasted”).  The parasites grow and slither beneath her flesh.  Both disturbing and creative, the setup is fascinating and the promise of coming explanations keeps you in suspense.  Don’t hold your breath.

In film school they say: the second act is where your movie goes to die.  And that’s precisely where Upstream Color settles in for its long and laborious death rattle.  While recovering from her amnesic episode, the woman, Kris, is approached by nice-guy Jeff, who rides the same train.  Although it’s difficult to believe this movie actually had a script (I imagine there were actors and a camera crew, but little planning beyond notes on napkins), the director does provide some characterization.  Kris lays her history of mental illness out on the table, literally showcasing her assortment of prescriptions.  Jeff, in reply, talks candidly about his divorce due to substance abuse (somehow his wife didn’t realize she’d married a junkie).  The relationship develops sweetly and listlessly and the movie never seems interested in connecting back to its prologue.  To shroud the narrative weaknesses, there’s plenty of vacuous “style”.  The cinematography is wan and naturalistic with perpetual soft-focus suitable perhaps for Kris’s initial delirium, though hardly for the lovers’ romantic melancholy.  The editing is staccato pseudo-impressionism, like falling dominoes of match cuts, jump cuts, and geographical ellipses.  While I often applaud audio-visual experimentation, and can usually forgive leaps in rhyme or reason, it’s the film’s shallow pretention and self-consciousness that bugged me. 

Then of course, there’s the diabolical pig farmer (Andrew Sensenig).  Nicknamed the Sampler, due to his obsession with Foley recording, the farmer, we suspect, was the puppet master behind Kris’s abduction.  Part abstract entity and part Peeping Tom, the Sampler acts as omnipresent observer, watching human beings like they’re livestock worthy of study and dissection.  Sometimes he’s imperceptible, notably in a tangential subplot where a troubled married couple argues while he snoops from the corner.  The film makes frequent juxtapositions between pigs and people, mostly through associative editing and symbolism.  Are the two rebellious porkers in the pen supposed to be Kris and Jeff?  Who knows?  Who cares?  Carruth clearly has something to say about the nature of man and beast.  I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what that is.  The parallel stories of the Sampler and the lovers eventually intersect.  I won’t explain how or why (even if I could), but I will say that by the time they finally dovetail, the director can’t scramble the shards into anything adequately cohesive or satisfying.  For the record, Upstream Color’s greatest asset, I believe, besides its squandered beginning, is the lead performance.  With a face like young Jennifer Jason Leigh and a delicate voice like Natalie Portman, the auspicious Seimetz could be worth revisiting.  The rest is slop for the hogs.

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Speaking of slop.  Writer/director Terrence Malick indulges his worst appetites in To the Wonder.  Our most patient filmmaker-philosopher-poet, Malick once waited twenty years between projects (1978’s Days of Heaven and 1998’s The Thin Red Line).  To the Wonder arrives a comparatively meager two years after his groundbreaking opus, The Tree of Life, and although similar in tone and style, the former feels as premature as the latter felt millennially evolved.  Malick’s drama is about one man’s erratic relationships with two beautiful women.  It shares elements with his previous works—gorgeous cinematography, minimalist story, whispered narration (now in French and Spanish!) and excessive metaphysical pondering—but none of their (ahem) wonder.  His prior pieces each utilized strong dramatic/historical foundations (mass murder, turn-of-the-century labor, war, the discovery of America, and the Big Bang) to anchor all the ontological meditating.   Set in the present and not around a momentous event, To the Wonder has little ballast for its freeform meandering.  The film premiered to cold reception at Cannes last year, and while I echo the disappointment, I can’t call To the Wonder completely dull.  Malick’s loose companion to The Tree of Life may be a chore to watch yet it’s still spottily profound.

In France, love grows between Neil (Ben Affleck), an American tourist, and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a lovely Parisian.  The country’s stony architecture and overcast skies offer Malick the slick, monochromatic surfaces that his camera adores.  The transition from Europe’s gothic facades and cobblestones to Oklahoma’s sagebrush plains occurs in a single cut.  Neil brings Marina and her daughter home with him as souvenirs.  “Everything is beautiful here,” muses the child when discovering the cereal aisle at Costco.  The honeymoon optimism fades and from the darkness emerge colder feelings of resentment and misery.  The community priest (Javier Bardem)—a wandering sage who frequents ramshackle neighborhoods—offers his guidance.  Christianity is the connective tissue of Old and New World values.  For reasons I shouldn’t divulge, Neil rekindles an old flame (Rachel McAdams), the down-home country-girl to Marina’s exotic outsider.  Throughout To the Wonder, the filmmaker’s usually transcendent and instinctual lyricism comes deprived of poetic power.  All his tried-and-true strategies—collage editing, observant dolly moves, and enough nature photography to provide a decade’s worth of calendar art—seldom achieve the emotional and spiritual vastness that distinguishes his finest pictures.  To the Wonder often plays like imitative I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-Malick!

Still, the director manages to expand on his favorite ideas anyhow (God’s presence/absence, humanity’s place in the natural world, lost innocence, etc.).  On further reflection, I recalled that Kurylenko’s performance evoked a doe, some other graceful creature, or the spiritual sister of both Jessica Chastain’s ethereal mother in The Tree of Life and Q’orianka Kilcher’s Pocahontas in The New World.  In addition, casting Hollywood’s flattest leading man and then asking that he play even flatter must be part of Malick’s grand design.  I believe Neil is intentionally stolid and banal.  As portrayed by the tall and handsome but stiff and expressionless Affleck, Neil isn’t a man, but the director’s symbolic Man.  Considering that he’s a construction surveyor who reshapes America’s frontier splendor into highways, stoplights, supermarkets, and drive-thru restaurants, it’s clear the central, vacillating romance is actually meant to express the ongoing incompatibility of God’s gentle grace and humanity’s destructive nature, a continuation of concepts investigated heavily in The Tree of Life.  Were the movie intended as captivating drama, it would certainly fail miserably.  Yet Malick’s failure is still a kind of success, for To the Wonder is really about the folly of Man.

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In contrast, The Place Beyond The Pines succeeds often as entertainment yet rarely as intellectual exercise.  From sophomore director Derek Cianfrance, Beyond The Pines is closely associated in both construction and theme with his inaugural drama, Blue Valentine.  That movie’s bold experiment was to crosscut a couple’s courtship and divorce and exclude the marriage.  While novel, the conceit ultimately left an important element frustratingly nebulous.  Beyond The Pines is segmented also, into three separate but correlated stories about fathers and sons.  As in the earlier work, the movie depicts young families and explores the tragedies that arise from their failure and dysfunction.  Personally, I appreciate Cianfrance’s humanism more than his narrative gimmickry.  After attempting trisections, I wonder if he’ll quadrisect his next picture?  Beyond The Pines sometimes overreaches, falling into Alejandro Gonzalo Inarritu’s (Babel, 21 Grams) phony universe of structural vanity, far-fetched plotting, and easy epiphanies.  The movie is also long and uneven.  The first part starring Ryan Gosling is undoubtedly best.  Even so, I was impressed with Cianfrance’s compassionate direction and his desire to dismantle the masculine armor that commonly alienates fathers from sons. 

Fittingly, the movie opens with a demonstration of foolhardy bravado.  The Globe of Death highlights the traveling carnival where daredevil Luke Glanton (Gosling) plies his trade.  An attraction featuring motorcyclists enclosed in a metal sphere who crisscross at high speed, the stunt is a nail-biting spectacle.  It’s obvious, though, that the hotdog heroics mask the character’s loneliness and despair.  Introduced via extended tracking shot, he’s something of a smalltime celebrity who genially scribbles autographs between cigarette drags.  In Drive, Gosling mostly glowered through Steve McQueen’s toothpick, yet here, dyed platinum blond with tattoos doodled on his arms and face, his performance shows nuance in its mixture of vulnerability and hubris.  After discovering an infant son, Glanton turns motorcycle bandit to support him.  The film understands the morally ambiguous reality that sometimes men do wicked things for honest reasons.  Additionally, Cianfrance makes us painfully aware of the futility, even if Glanton is not.  The child’s mother (Eva Mendes) has long since moved on to another man.  As his world becomes a different sort of spherical deathtrap, it’s devastating knowing that Glanton’s crimes are expressions of love for a child who’s no longer his. 

The story abruptly switches protagonists on two occasions.  After Glanton, we meet the young father Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper).  A patrolman, his recent fieldwork earns him many accolades, but also leaves him haunted by the associated violence.  Once the king of romcom douche-bags, Cooper has proven to be a great dramatic actor as well.  In one scene, Cross reluctantly confronts his PTSD, and Cooper, framed in tight close-up, intimates all the encompassing fear and guilt.  Under the thumb of a Machiavellian patriarch (Harris Yulin), he becomes a political pawn within his department’s shady bureaucracy.  When the movie transitions again to a couple of parentally misguided teenagers (Dane Dehaan and Emory Cohen), it becomes clear that, in this case, three narratives are one too many.  If Dehaan effectively recalls the angry adolescent he played in Chronicle, Cohen evokes a refugee from The Jersey Shore.  Alas, the concluding chapter lacks the excitement and complexity of its predecessors.  Definitely over-ambitious, The Place Beyond The Pines is an emotionally charged drama that’s weakened by its wobbly structure.  Still, the picture tenderly observes that decent men often become victims of uncontrollable circumstances.  What’s most moving is how the director never withholds sympathy from his characters, be they fathers or sons. 

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