Saturday, December 4, 2010

2010 Capsules: Somewhere, Winter's Bone, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

First things first: My apologies for the dearth of posting for the entirety of this blog's existence in the last month. But, you know, lack of will, appropriate subjects, and time has prevented me from partaking in the noble vocation of cinema blogging. My many thanks and most sincere apologies to my readers for putting up with my laziness for the entirety of this blog's existence the last month.

But I have a reward for all of you who have been anxiously awaiting my triumphant return to writing about the cinema of Two Thousand and Ten in the Year of our Lord: capsule reviews! Delicious, delicious capsules.

Sofia Coppola - for whom I've been a bit of a defender/apologist - attempts a minimalist (or more minimalist) aesthetic in Somewhere, and it's an experiment that, save for some truly touching moments, largely falls flat. Coppola, so often written off as a Princess who has been handed the keys to her indie kingdom, is undoubtedly a major talent, and I think her namesake prevents a more objective analysis of her work - yes, she is a rich girl, and she makes movies about rich people, but the honesty of her perspective is often overshadowed simply by her being who she is. For whatever reason, her particular method of depicting rich people seems to rub a great many people the wrong way.

Somewhere represents the first time I've understood where her detractors are coming from - while in the past I feel Coppola has humanized the rich in a meaningful way, offering us insights into a social world that many of us never have and never will know anything about, the manner in which she tries to extract sympathy for her disaffected wealthy protagonist in Somewhere is insensitive and borderline obnoxious. The film opens with a static shot of hot shot actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) driving his expensive muscle car very fast on a desolate road, and this opening image, which drags on for what feels like an eternity, pretty much sums up the problem with Coppola's film - she basically sits back and expects people who have trouble paying their God damn mortgage to feel bad for this poor, lonely, alienated little rich man. Look how boring it is to be rich! Look how dull it is to drive a really fast and expensive car, look how passe it is to sit by your swimming pool, look how "meh" it is to have an almost absurd amount of big breasted women throwing themselves at you every time you turn around. I weep for this man.

Perhaps the stripped down aesthetic is the problem - Coppola is not the most expressive of visual artists, and the use of minimalism basically necessitates that you be able to tell stories in a purely visual way. Coppola's images don't feel evocative, they feel literal, and that makes the endless static images, long passages of silence and sparse dialogue more dull than poetic. Also, Dorff is good enough, but he's not a strong or dynamic enough actor to be able to express the things that Coppola wants him to wordlessly, as Bill Murray did in Lost in Translation.

The best moments in the film depict the relationship between Marco and his daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning) - essentially, this is a tale of a father reconnecting with his daughter, and the two of them have some moments together that are truly magical; especially affecting is a sequence when a tearful Cleo is leaving for camp, and Marco apologizes to her for not being more involved in her life, but his apology is drowned out by the sound of a helicopter. In spite of this, it still feels like Coppola is reaching to places she can't quite achieve through purely visual expression. Especially after the ambitious and extremely underrated Marie Antoinette, this feels like a retread to safer, more familiar territory.

An effective balance of social realist and mystery, Debra Granik's Winter's Bone is a sensitive class portrait and an engaging, suspenseful neo-noir. There is a real poetry to the film, espeically in its quieter moments; Granik and her cinematographer Michael McDonough capture the sparseness and stark beauty of their Missouri backwoods, expressing both the desolation of their setting and the literal and figurative loneliness of their main character, Ree Dolly, unforgettably brought to life by Jennifer Lawrence. Dolly, whose father has been in jail for dealing drugs and whose mother has had a mental breakdown, is forced to raise her two siblings in spite of being only 17 herself when an officer comes to her home and informs her that her father has skipped bail and, since he put the house up for collateral, their house will be claimed in one week unless he turns up. Ree then essentially takes on the role of a detective, searching for the truth of what happened to her father, and being delivered standard noir warnings by the townsfolk along the way; "stay out of it", "mind your own business", and so on.

The biggest problem with Winter's Bone is the dialogue, which tries too hard to approximate Southern dialect - it lays it on more than a little thick, and the performers with the exception of Lawrence frankly aren't talented enough to sell it. It tarnishes the illusion somewhat when you're constantly reminded that you're watching actors reciting lines; indeed, the films greatest flaw is that it feels the need to oversell all its point via the script, which isn't any great shakes. Still, Winter's Bone brings enough new ideas to its genre to make it worthwhile. But it could have been so much better.

Woody Allen, while not quite "returning to form", certainly rebounds from last year's despicable Whatever Works with the surprisingly pleasant You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. Though still chock-full of token Allen cynicism - everyone cheats on everyone, every relationship is doomed to failure, and so on - there is a gentle feel to what is on the plot level standard Woody boilerplate. While Whatever Works essentially condoned immorality with its titular philosophy, Allen forces his characters in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger to confront their mistakes, and the result is a moving, if imperfect film. Anchored by terrific performances from a great ensemble cast, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is one of the year's most pleasant surprises.

We are introduced to Helena (Gemma Jones) as she tells a "clairvoyant" about her recent break up with her husband (Anthony Hopkins) , who is going through a life crisis and doing the things men apparently do when they go through said crises: break up from their boring old wife, get obsessive about physical appearance, and bag a bimbo half their age (and I.Q.) whose just sleeping with them for money (literally - his new girlfriend is an ex-hooker). While this is going on, their daughter (Naomi Watts) and her husband (Josh Brolin) are having - wait for it! - marital issues of their own; Brolin is a struggling writer whose novel he's sure will be rejected by his publishers, and Watts is resentful of being forced to be the breadwinner by working in an art gallery while her husband sits on his ass waiting for the phone to ring and stares out his apartment window at a young guitar player (Freida Pinto), who apparently only owns red clothing. Their fights lead them, naturally, to grow more fond of acquaintances than one another - Brolin begins making advances towards his neighbor while Watts finds herself falling for her boss (Antonio Banderas). You can imagine where things go from there, but Allen enriches this borderline soap opera by making his characters more alone by the end than they were in the beginning - acknowledging that the answer to your problems can't be found in the warm embrace of another person, but only within yourself.

While in his previous picture Allen just shrugged his shoulder at his characters' wrongdoing, here Allen grapples with his characters callous shortsightedness. This is typified by a scene where Pinto breaks off her engagement with the man she was to marry, and tearfully apologies to her fiance and his family for her wrongdoing. It's hard to remember the last time Allen didn't merely accept infidelity as a given - that is, didn't reductively characterize it as one of those things people do to each other - and acknowledged that it is profoundly hurtful to the person who was cheated on, and this in and of itself adds a dimension to Allen's work that has been long absent. In You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Allen does what he does best - that is, finding comedy in sadness and tragedy in the humorous.


Adam Zanzie said...

Excuuuuse me! "Desolation of their setting"? As a Missourian, I take major offense to that!

I kid, I kid. In all seriousness, you are absolutely right that Winter's Bone illuminates the beauty of our backwoods. Frankly, since I live on the bourgoisie side of St. Louis County and have never been to the Ozarks (although I've been to the LAKE of the Ozarks several times), I've never met anybody this sick and deranged in our precious state, so I don't know what Debra Granik and Daniel Woodrell (the author of the book) are smoking. Still, all the same, I liked Winter's Bone a lot. It's one of my favorites of the year. I didn't even hear about Granik actually filming on location here... wish I had. We got a ton of publicity when Clooney and Reitman shot their scenes for the tedious Up in the Air at Lambert Airpot, and no publicity at all on the production of an independent movie of actual quality.

If I hesitate to call Winter's Bone THE movie of the year it's only because the movie seems to totally drop off at the end. You know your complaints about In A Lonely Place? That's kind of how I feel about Winter's Bone. Although I appreciated the ambiguity of the ending when Teardrop says to Ree, "I know," and then drives off. Is he planning to go off and kill the people who murdered her dad? It's something to think about.

Jennifer Lawrence is oh, so wonderful as Ree. But I think John Hawkes was great as Teardrop, too; I actually didn't recognize him as that wimpy guy from Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know. They should both get Oscar nominations, I think. I also didn't recognize Sheryl Lee in that one bit part. That's probably what Laura Palmer would have looked like if she had escaped the clutches of Leland and fled Twin Peaks to seek sanctuary in the Missouri Ozarks. Except, again, I've never met people like this in our state...

Also, Thump Milton is the scariest fucking movie villain of the year.

Ryan Kelly said...

Yeah, the setting may have been my favorite part of Winter's Bone, and the film captures that beautifully. And those are the most beautifully shot sequences to, there is an immediacy to the dialogue sequences (which frequently use handheld work) that I felt was forced, honestly. Really, I'm just on the whole sick of these gritty "real life" dramas with their handheld camerawork and their pretentious brutality. But at least this one had an engaging and well done mystery element.

It doesn't surprise me that you've never met anyone like that in Missouri - something tells me this is more someone's idea of what the Ozarks is than what it actually is. There's nothing wrong with fictionalizing, of course, but the films treatment of its characters bordered on condescending, in some instances. I still liked it quite a bit, and would really like to see Lawrence get some accolades at the year's end.

Greg said...

Hey, where'd this come from? Everybody, come look! There's a new post at Medfly Quarantine!

I thought I'd never see the day.

Ryan Kelly said...

Yeah, on those long, lonely nights when I find myself hanging over every word while I'm writing, I picture you, standing over my shoulder, whispering in my ear, encouraging me, egging me on. I'm oddly grateful for it.

But hey, you haven't exactly been heavy on the posting before the last week!

What do you think of the shorter review format, by the way? Part of why I update frequently is because I feel like I have to write 2000 words every time I publish something, and finding something I feel that strongly about in either direction is a challenge. If I don't feel arbitrarily obligated to write such monster posts, I'll definitely be posting more frequently.

Ryan Kelly said...

Why I update infrequently, I mean.

Ed Howard said...

I for one will weigh in by saying I'd love to see more posts like this here. Or, hell, just more posts here, period. Heh. Always a treat.

Sorry I don't have anything more substantial to say, but I haven't seen any of these films yet. I've got a screener of the Coppola at home but haven't been in a rush to get to it, and your review pretty much confirms that. I always look forward to new Woody, though.

Ryan Kelly said...

Ed, thanks for the kind words - this post was an experimental one for me, and it felt good to be able to write a little more freely and not with arbitrary self imposed constrictions, and your positive feedback ensures that I'll be doing this sort of thing more often, along with my once in a blue moon absurdly long post.

I can't deny I haven't really been able to shake Somewhere; I still think it falls short of where it wants to get, but it's fascinating, and there's something that compels me to it that prevents me from dismissing it outright.

And again, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger was, for me, an incredibly pleasant surprise, and I know quite a few people who were taken aback by the film's emotional authenticity and generally good natured spirit. Definitely recommended.

Greg said...

But hey, you haven't exactly been heavy on the posting before the last week!

Well, yeah, but I still managed at least one a week.

Anyway, I like the new format and might - might - even watch the ...Dark Stranger although Woody has let me down so thoroughly, and so often, in the last ten or twelve years that, uh... yeah, I probably won't see it, come to think of it.

Ryan Kelly said...

I can't say I blame you... I always try to keep up with the new Woody's because I have a sad hope that I'll get to experience a great Woody Allen film in its first run. Hasn't worked out that way so far, and Whatever Works (sorry Ed!) made me think that he may never make a good movie ever again. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger shows that he, at the very least, has good movies in him, and that's still an immense pleasure.

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, but Vicky Cristina Barcelona already showed that he still has *great* movies in him. Whatever Works had its moments, but I certainly had my share of substantial problems with it, too.

Adam Zanzie said...

Reading your review of Somewhere again made me reflect back on what I think of Sofia Coppola as a filmmaker. I wasn't impressed with Marie Antoinette. I felt it reduced the period piece genre to a teen comedy, and although this certainly made it accessible for younger audiences it didn't really make the film into any kind of absorbing experience, ever. Kirsten Dunst was fun, but she was the only strong asset it had going for it. Some people say that by not showing Antoinette's beheading at the end, Sofia Coppola was making some sort of wise artistic decision; to me, however, the omission of that ending felt more like a fear of avoiding depicting the absolute atrocity of how it all ended. The movie missed an opportunity for the tragic conclusion that was badly needed--just for the sake of its alternative rock soundtrack and its PG-13 rating.

But, regardless, Kirsten Dunst works well with Sofia Coppola, which is why I'm gunning to see The Virgin Suicides any day now.

Ryan Kelly said...

Adam, your criticisms of Marie Antoinette are not unfair, and you're certainly not the only person to feel that way. But I must say I thought the film was spectacular, a true aesthetic delight, and I thought that by dramatizing it like a teen comedy - by making it a period piece directed by John Hughes - she said something genuine and meaningful about who Antoinette was; that she was essentially a clueless rich girl. I loved the way it ended, personally - she sends the point home quite clearly that the party is over.

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