Sunday, November 27, 2011

Beginners (Mike Mills, 2011)

As precious as it can be, Mike Mills' Beginners overcomes its occasional indie accoutrements—twee, arty montages à la Wes Anderson abound—to tell a moving story about one man's total emotional upheaval and his attempt to put his life back in order. Based on Mills' own life experiences, Beginners sidesteps as many clichés as it embraces, moving beyond its quirks to get at the real impacts of life's oddities and even avoiding the pitfall of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

Like Mills, Oliver (Ewan McGregor) finds himself in a painful spot in the early 2000s. After his mother's death, his father, then 75 years old, came out as gay. Four years later, he died of cancer. Mills fractures the timeline of events so that we receive this information at the start and get constant flashbacks both to Hal's (Christopher Plummer) new life and to Oliver's reexaminations of his childhood in the wake of his father's outing as he puts the pieces together.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Island of Lost Souls (Eric C. Kenton, 1932)

The film opens on a thick sea fog, a ship piercing out of the mist as if a ghost vessel. When deckhands spot a man floating limply in the water, this feeling is only exacerbated. But Island of Lost Souls, adapted from H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau, proves far more unsettling than some simple ghost story. Instead, its taut narrative delves into grotesque visions of amoral scientific experimentation and imperialism, where the white men so often look as monstrous as the half-beasts they create.

Kenton's direction is thoroughly shadowed, constantly preventing any moment's calm even as the protagonist remains oblivious to the horrors around him for the film's first section. Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) barely has any time at all to be grateful for his rescue, suddenly confronted with a ship filled with belligerent animals and a captain with a short temper who callously maroons the man he saved to be spared the inconvenience. Parker must go with Dr. Moreau back to his lair until he can get a ride back to the nearest proper port, but after a few glimpses at people with horrible, animalistic features, we know he won't be able to just up and leave.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 (Bill Condon, 2011)

Only the most cynical financial motivation could lead anyone to split Breaking Dawn, the conclusion to Stephenie Meyer's embarrassing and tedious tetralogy about a girl's inability to function without the sexual presence of her emotionally unstable lover. There isn't even enough material to fill this film, which goes above and beyond the already over-saturated prevalence of helicopter shots of Pacific Northwest forests, the visual trademark of this film franchise. Breaking Dawn Part 1 starts with a wedding and ends with a birth. It's like Yi Yi, only replace the rationalist evocation of life's pains and pleasures with dialogue so mortally stilted that the actors can only prolong their demises by fighting against it.

Breaking Dawn Part 1 is a film of even mores. It's got even more helicopter shots, even more Edward flightiness, even more Jacob sulking, and, amazingly, even more Kristen Stewart lip biting (how has her lower lip not fallen off?). The one exception is plot, of which there is even less than usual. Director Bill Condon gets us through Bella's and Edward's wedding painlessly enough, but soon the film languishes as their honeymoon bliss turns to crazed pregnancy fears softened by so much religious conservatism that even the occasional newcomer dragged to this film by a fan will know that everything will turn out fine for our empty shell of a heroine.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Richard Ellmann — James Joyce

Richard Ellmann's James Joyce is, quite simply, the best artistic biography I've ever read. Like the work of David McCullough, Ellmann's book is not only meticulously researched (nearly 100 pages are devoted to endnotes) but so lyrically written as to be almost novelistic. At first I did not understand the need for a biography of Joyce, given how autobiographical his work is, but Ellmann beautifully ties even the most minor incidents and acquaintances of Joyce's life into his flowing corpus. In fact, James Joyce could serve as well as a set of notes for Dubliners, Exiles, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManUlysses, and Finnegans Wake as it does a biography.


Progressing in chronological order, Ellmann sidesteps this predictable, typically tedious structure by making clear how much of Joyce's growth as an artist was specifically related to his constant change. Where others might devote chapters to the subjects that influenced and inspired the artist, Ellmann makes it clear that, more than anything else, time was the great preoccupation of Joyce. Joyce never stopped dealing with the forces that shaped him, he just added countless new observations and studies until he built from microcosmic fragments of Dublin life to a dream language of the universal man. Amazingly, Ellmann captures every nuance of this constant evolution without ever losing sight of the man. Then again, for Joyce, life and literature were one and the same.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Muppets (James Bobin, 2011)

Not three minutes go by in The Muppets before the filmmakers flaunt their unabashed reverence for Jim Henson's beloved creations. A montage of memorabilia would, in other movie, be as cynical and greedy as a filmmaker could get. Here, however, it establishes character, that of Walter (a new Muppet) and his supportive brother Gary (Jason Segel, who co-wrote the screenplay), as well as setting up the deep vein of affection the movie carries for the franchise. Segel made his Muppet love plain in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and ardor bursts from every frame of this uneven but lovable revival.

In fact, The Muppets will likely play better to the parents who remember the felt-and-cloth puppets from their own childhood than the kids they take along (though the ones in my audience seemed entertained enough). Packed with self-referential jokes and the usual Muppety meta-humor, the film emerges as a true passion project for Segel, co-writer Nicholas Stoller (director of Marshall) and director James Bobin. And though their nostalgia occasionally threatens to make wall off the movie from the youngest viewers, The Muppets proves funny, and touching, enough to win the fuzzy puppets a new generation of fans.

Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011)

For the six people out there who still love 3D, Hugo will be the film of the year. To be sure, no other film from any year is so well-suited for the format. Concerning the earliest days of cinema, where the medium still oscillated between kitschy gimmick and potential artform, Hugo was directed by Martin Scorsese, a director fascinated by the artifice of cinema and how its inherent falsity can nevertheless draw in a viewer like no other art. This makes 3D doubly appropriate, and as much as I loathe the tackiness of even the supposedly advanced iteration of the technology that is already flaming out brilliantly, Hugo makes such inventive and striking use of 3D that I hate what Scorsese's done as much as I love it. Hugo is too ambitious to make any money, but even so; could the director pump some life back into 3D just as it seemed we were free of this headache that comes once every three decades?

Set in the vast Parisien train station Gare Montparnasse in the early '30s, Hugo follows its titular hero (Asa Butterfield), the orphaned child of a clockmaker, as he moves within the walls of station winding its various timekeepers and swiping meals from oblivious vendors. He also collects gears to repair a rusted automaton his father (Jude Law) brought home before he died in a museum fire, hoping that continuing his father's work will somehow bring the man back in some form. But when an old toy vendor (Ben Kingsley) catches him trying to steal parts from one of his wind-up mice, Hugo finds himself thrust into a deeper story of embitterment and rejuvenation, one that holds the key to his own issues even as it plunges him into a whole new world.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Film Club: Limelight

I greatly enjoyed my first film club chat with Allison of Nerdvampire and was ecstatic when she picked a real blind spot in my movie watching with Charlie Chaplin's Limelight, the last of his American productions before Hoover effectively exiled him. I think I liked this conversation even more than the first, and it was a pleasure not only to see a Chaplin film I hadn't previously viewed but to discuss its charms fully with someone else. So without further ado, I present out discussion below.

Plot synopsis: A washed-up vaudevillian, Calvero (Charlie Chaplin), saves a young dancer (Claire Bloom) from committing suicide and resolves to nurse her back to health. But as Thereza recovers, Calvero only slips further into obscurity. Also features Sydney Chaplin as the charming, young, American composer Neville and Buster Keaton in a show-stopping climax with Chaplin. More somber than Chaplin's classic silents, Limelight nevertheless stands as the best transplant of the auteur's trademark sentimentality into the talkies.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine, 2011)

Getting the chance to sleep for a few days on Paddy Considine's feature debut Tyrannosaur didn't do the film any favors. While I still felt it distanced itself somewhat from the limited constraints of the miserable kitchen sink genre in which it operates, the film doesn't do enough to break from the traditions it seeks to transcend. Too often, it just feels like horror overload, and not even the remarkable performances from its three principal players can fully alleviate the near-tedium of its unrelenting atrocity. Nevertheless, the thread of affirmation that runs through all but the most savage moments redeems the film, and I look forward to seeing where Considine goes next.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood, 2011)

J. Edgar is a film about a legend who cared only for respect, made by a man who seems to care only for awards. Clint Eastwood, the most shameless Oscar-baiter currently working, has nothing to say about J. Edgar Hoover, infamous founder of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, nor does he even try to tell his deflated narrative well. This is painting-by-numbers biopic, not even its limp "twist" subverting its schematic use of flashbacks and theme-articulating moments in twilight years. Judging from the mixed reception J. Edgar received, however, Eastwood's increasingly stale approach might finally be rubbing critics the wrong way.

Written by Dustin Lance Black, J. Edgar lacks the passion the writer brought to his script for Milk. One can understand his more ambiguous feelings toward Hoover, but Black finds himself caught between sympathy for the man and clearly critical thoughts on his seedier tactics, and his own mixed thoughts inform the film's presentation of its protagonist. If you think Hoover's brand of "keeping us safe" justice is something this country could use again, you'll be disappointed by its depictions of Hoover's egomaniacal shadow takeover of government. If you see Hoover as the precursor to Patriot Act politics of paranoia and fear, you'll hate its attempts to make an unpleasant man sympathetic. But don't make the mistake of thinking this lack of extremes means that Hoover emerges a rounded, complex human being. Instead, he serves as a repository for lazy screenwriting summaries of character, and Eastwood, famously lazy when it comes to fixing the drafts he's given, does nothing to alleviate the hollow revelations of J. Edgar's character.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski, 2011)

I cannot say that The Mill and the Cross fully captivated me, for I confess I was lost during some stretches of its plotless reverie. Nevertheless, at no point did Lech Majewski's film fail to fascinate me. As a work of criticism that explicates Bruegel's painting The Way to Calvary, it reminds me of some of Godard's most structuralist early-'70s work, breaking down and giving voice to each component of the composition. As an experiment, its striking use of digital animation to blur the line between reality and painted backgrounds makes for beautifully unique CGI as that technology grows increasingly stale.

Majewski inhabits Bruegel's painting as the artist (played by Rutger Hauer) conceives of the opus. Offering no grounding element for the audience, the director launches immediately into a reality-blurring recreation not only of the painting but the historical context around it. Juxtaposing Bruegel's conception of the painting with the lives of the people it depicts, The Mill and the Cross blends its aesthetic critique with a historical one, making a subtle but unmistakable case for the importance of art as a reflection of culture even as it carves out new paths for that culture to follow.

Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2011)

For a film that can be so smart, Incendies sure does suffer from some amateurish mistakes. A mystery concerning the unraveling of two twins' lives in the wake of their mother's death, Denis Villeneuve's film splits its focus between past and present as we track the family tree from the Middle East to Québec. Fundamentally, however, this has the effect of not simply either showing or telling the audience the importance of the mother's life and the depth of her secrets but doing both. Essentially, the audience gets every key piece of information twice, if not more so; Villeneuve presents the final twist in at least four different ways, draining the moment of its impact.

The story begins in Québec, with Simon and Jeanne Marwan (Maxim Gaudette and Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) meeting with their late mother's notary (and former boss) as he reads the will. The man calmly reads out the woman's unorthodox wishes, which ask the children to seek out the father they thought dead and the brother they did not know existed. Simon, petulant and nursing a clear resentment for his mother, wants no part of this ridiculous goose chase and leaves his more amenable sister to track down her mother's past in a fictionalized stand-in for Lebanon during its civil war. What Jeanne finds will upend her and her brother's lives.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within (José Padilha, 2011)

I hated the first Elite Squad so much I could barely deign to give it a capsule review. The sequel, which initially seems like more of the same, thankfully redeems itself after the first act and makes this franchise at least interesting, if still deeply flawed aesthetically and morally. In moving away from its fascism, it now has the problem oscillating haphazardly between reactionary politics and more liberal rumination. It's still clumsy, but at least you can stomach it.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, 2011)

[Warning—contains spoilers]

I can think of no useful way to break down Pedro Almodóvar's stunningly transgressive The Skin I Live In without using spoilers. Like Vertigo, The Skin I Live In features a twist that changes the entirety of the film's meaning, not simply on a cheap narrative level but the thematic subtext itself. Also like Vertigo, Almodóvar's film deliberately divulges its secret with an entire act to go, necessitating a discussion of that upheaval to truly unpack the film's offerings.

The Skin I Live In is a horror film in which everyone, on some level, is a monster. Some behave monstrously, while others see themselves as creatures. The only real distinction between the monsters is gender, which becomes the crux of the entire story. Almodóvar's film is remarkable for many reasons—the outlandish plot; its enticing blend of florid, rustic and aseptic color palettes; the ever-thickening atmosphere—but none more so than its ingenious, audacious, incisive commentary of gender identity.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Film Club: Day For Night

Before Halloween, one of my very best Internet friends, Allison, proposed we watch a horror film we'd never seen and chat about it on our sites. We settled on Les diaboliques, but some snafus led to those plans falling through. But we refined things a bit and regrouped to talk about Day for Night, a film I've been meaning to watch for years (I think I even rented it at one point but ended up sending the disc back unwatched). I'm glad to say Truffaut's film more than lived up to its reputation, and I had a great time chatting with Allison about it, and I think we covered most of the film's terrific charm.

To read our back-and-forth, head over to Allison's site, Nerd Vampire, and check out her post.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Rum Diary (Bruce Robinson, 2011)

Seeing Bruce Robinson attached to The Rum Diary made me want to see the adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's novel far more than even Johnny Depp's return as the writer's stand-in. The writer-director made the greatest movie yet made about the bleak (and bleakly comic) effects of spiraling alcoholism, Withnail and I, making him theoretically perfect to bring the early days of Thompson to life. However, not five minutes passed before I instantly realized he was precisely the wrong person for this film, and the rest of the film only proved me right.

The Rum Diary, Thompson's fictionalized account of his time in Puerto Rico as a struggling writer, itself embodies a sense of emergence in the author. Imperfect as the book is, it shows Thompson on the cusp of finding himself, precisely through the substances that would later derail him. It is in Thompson's most booze-soaked, tongue-loosened moments that The Rum Diary foretells the man who would win infamy by spilling out his chemically rotted brain with each article. But Robinson's depiction of the cult hero's excess carries a sense of foreboding irony that would make him the perfect choice to survey the writer's late career, not the birth of his inspiration.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Beneath the Earth Film Festival

OK gang, so recently I was a judge for the Beneath the Earth Film Festival, which showcased short films by up-and-comers looking to prove their stuff. Of the seven films screened, I particularly enjoyed three and felt another three showed real promise (only one completely irritated me, but it shall remain nameless), and I was happy to have participated. Four of the films won for the various categories, but I'd like to briefly highlight the two big winners for Best Film and Audience Award:

Best Film: Photographs

I was extremely pleased to see this film win, though I can't conceive of how it couldn't. A brief, beautifully animated vignette of an old woman discovering a camera that doesn't seem all that much younger than her, Photographs is superb. Its wordless six minutes doesn't waste a second, yet the film takes its time in revealing the significance of the woman's innocent self-portraits. But even without the heartbreaking finale, Photographs is still a moving testament to the childlike properties that art instills in us and nourishes in even the bleakest, most unforgivingly adult situations.

Audience Award: After Ever After

I confess less enthusiasm for the audience award recipient, even if it's still not my least-favorite of the seven films. After Ever After works as a sort of mashup between the works of Michel Gondry and (500) Days of Summer, only it lacks the innovation and cheek of either. I was also ready to pounce on the occupation of its protagonist, the increasingly stale job of the adman, but reading that the director actually has worked for ad agencies mollified me somewhat. At least he's writing from experience; I feel like Hollywood just acknowledges what it really does when it puts its characters in advertising firms. But even if the film doesn't strike me as original or even remarkable, the aesthetic components are all in place: it displays solid editing, cinematography and direction throughout, which are all the things short films are supposed to hone.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Harakiri (Masaki Kobayashi, 1962)

As with so many other Japanese directors, Masaki Kobayashi used the jidai-geki genre and its focus upon the past to comment on the present. After his three-part WWII epic The Human Condition, Kobayashi went even further back in time to the beginning of the Edo period, after the Tokugawa shogunate had fully consolidated power and settled in to its two-century reign. The director specifically hones in on this precise moment of dawning peace, when the reduction of daimyo resulted in samurai suddenly becoming masterless ronin in a society that had no need for additional warriors. This reduced much of the nobility to conditions of extreme poverty even as it demanded their continued fealty to the feudal order and codes of honor.

One of those codes was the ritual suicide from which the film takes its title. Harakiri is structured around the build-up to an expected act of seppuku, and it shows a particularly gruesome example of one during that escalation. Even today, we consider dying for one's cause an act of extreme nobility and resolve. For Kobayashi, however, it is merely the most repellent example of how the rules of a strictly hierarchical society efface humanity and suppress the will of the individual. The end result rates with the most biting of Mizoguchi's period pictures as Japanese cultural criticism.

Hipsters (Valery Todorovsky, 2011)

After three years, Valery Todorovsky's unorthodox musical Hipsters has finally received a proper, non-festival release on these shores. But while it displays flashes of cleverness—a depiction of sex through scrolling over pages of the Kama Sutra, the Moulin Rouge-lite framing of some of the jazzier tunes—Hipsters never truly captures the gravitas that informs its flashy, ostensibly superficial subject matter. One never feels the fear and the sense of constantly being watched that pervaded the Soviet Union, even in the relative calm of the Khrushchev days, robbing the film of its tension long before it spins off into irrelevant subplots. Even when someone gets arrested for no justifiable reason, this Russia just lacks danger.

Check out my full review now at Spectrum Culture.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöström, 1921)

The Phantom Carriage is such a spellbinding technical achievement it's easy to overlook just how gentle and suggestive it is. Its ghostly apparitions float through a world of beautifully composed frames, striking even without the layered imagery. Victor Sjöström's 1921 opus captures the icy chill of its winter setting, a sense of static, cold air, of frozen death hanging over a village that already feels necrotic and wasting.

Death is, after all, the whole point of The Phantom Carriage. The title refers to the vessel that transports departed souls to the other plain, and the driver is bound to do Death's bidding for a year. As the legend goes, the last person to die before the midnight toll of the new year replaces the old driver. David Holm (Sjöström) heard that story from his friend Georges before the man died, but it's only when he finds himself on the wrong end of a drunken fight on New Year's Eve that he learns just how accurate this tale tale is.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Capsule Reviews: Head, His Girl Friday, Elite Squad

Head (Bob Rafelson, 1968)


If you ever wanted to know what A Hard Day's Night might have resembled had Richard Lester teamed up with the Beatles post-Revolver, Head is the film for you. The Monkees, sick of their (not inaccurate) image as a gimmick, attack the issue directly, presenting a plotless skewering of their own image and the various capitalist forces that shaped them. The stream-of-consciousness, self-reflexive movie runs through genres that reinforce cheap ideals (Westerns, war films, '50s Americana), all of it filled with product placement—there's even a Coca-Cola machine in the middle of the desert. Cut with acid-tinged whimsy, Head is nevertheless as much a critique of the late '60s as it is a gonzo embodiment of its creative possibilities. Rafelson uses rapid, overlapping images and false-color to create psychedelic effects, and in the chaos are pointed attacks on the Vietnam War, police brutality and various other topics of the day. Not a lick of this movie makes sense, but it's still one of the best rock movies I've ever seen. Grade: A

His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)


Even faster than Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday doesn't reach the same heights but nevertheless displays Cary Grant at his comic best as a paper editor who speaks like a comic strip and wants nothing more than to undermine his ex-wife's planned second marriage. Rosalind Russell is no less fantastic as the woman who wants everything Walter represents but can't stand to be around him; the speed with which she falls into journalist mode undermines any pretense she has for leaving her old life. Hawks' gift for well-composed but unfussy compositions makes for perfectly staged but hands-off scenes that cede total control to the actors. Everything goes absolutely batty in the last act, but my favorite moment will always be the total aside of the mayor's dealings with a messenger from the governor, a ludicrous verbal run-around that hinges beautifully on the vaudeville chops of Billy Gilbert. Admittedly, the gags don't feel as timeless and physically huge as those of Baby or Twentieth Century, but comedy isn't about timelessness but moment-to-moment pleasures, and few films contain as many of those as His Girl Friday. Its last half hour is simply aces. Grade: A-

Elite Squad (José Padilha, 2007)


An artless piece of trash that stylistically rips off City of God and glorifies police brutality to boot, Elite Squad is so bad it's actually saved from outright offensiveness by how poorly constructed it is. Just as it nears the tipping point of fascism as cops viciously clear out Rio's crime-ridden favelas, the film gets sidetracked into a lengthy aside that makes light of police corruption after already showing some of its dark side. Take a page from GoodFellas: go from light to dark, not the other way around. But don't worry, soon it gets back to tearing apart the slums to prove that civil rights are impeding cops from doing the right thing and bashing in brains. The use of handheld cameras is some of the worst I've ever seen, so disoriented that even when a shot holds you can't make out anything. In some ways, that's a blessing. Grade: D

Friday, November 4, 2011

Stuff I Like: Ornette Coleman

It’s a wonder I ever got into Ornette Coleman at all. When I first started assembling some basic jazz albums for a starter collection for the genre, I included The Shape of Jazz to Come, Coleman’s breakthrough third LP, among my selections. After I’d listened to primer albums by Bird, Miles, Mingus and Satch, I queued up Ornette on my iPod...and damn near broke the thing flinging the device away in shock. What in the hell WAS this?


It’s not that Ornette was so radically unlistenable that I couldn’t come to grips with it; I had, in fact, already listened to and loved works by out-there artists who bore Ornette’s influence, chiefly the magnificently weird Captain Beefheart. But even what little work I’d heard by his disciples didn’t come close to capturing the full energy, the urgency of it. What threw me was not some crackling wall of white noise (which is what I had been expecting) but how asymptotically close the music came to conventional melody, only to burst at the seams with impatience, with exuberant overeagerness. Everything I’d read to prepare myself for Ornette talked about the avant-garde otherworldliness, the historical impact of so daringly titled an album. What they hadn’t mentioned was the joyousness of it all.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

In Time (Andrew Niccol, 2011)

It almost pains me to dismiss an Andrew Niccol film, as I think he should be encouraged. He takes the notion of "high concept" to heart, even if those concepts lead to inconsistent and oversimplifying conclusions. In Time may be his simplest yet, a film that takes its social commentary to such a ludicrous endpoint that even this liberal was howling at some of its conclusions about the rich.

You see, in the future, babies are genetically engineered not to physically age past age 25 but to die a year later unless more time is bought. As such, time is literally money in this society, where the rich can live for centuries while the poor give a whole new meaning to "living from paycheck to paycheck." (I apologize, but the time puns are endless.) The problem with In Time is not that it unfairly posits extreme wealth as soaked in the blood of the poor—that's been true forever. It's that the metaphor barely extends to the hour mark, and the film subsequently falls into a muddied action thriller that prevents Niccol from playing to his strengths.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Three Musketeers (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2011)

The Three Musketeers is stiff, awkward, preposterous, and defiantly stupid. It is also, to my bafflement, a remarkably fun time, with equal pleasures to be had laughing at its inanity and wooden performances and with them. That's not to say that it is particularly good, but there's something about watching Athos perform aquatic maneuvers like some kind of Navy SEAL or a 17th-century man-of-war looming over the Louvre that is just too absurd to hate. Most big-budget spectacles pumped out by Hollywood are obliviously asinine. The Three Musketeers commits to its idiocy.

The only outright serious moment in the film is its dolorous opening narration, recounting some half-assed play at historical accuracy before immediately cutting to Athos (Matthew Macfadyen) rising out of Venetian waters like Capt. Willard from Apocalypse Now. This exposes even the 10 seconds of seriousness as part of the gag, the first of many in a film that makes goofy fun of both sex and violence. And period costumery. Mustn't forget about that.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)

Take Shelter is not merely a gripping psychological thriller about whether a man is losing his grip on reality or his hallucinatory visions are omens. It is also a tragic portrait of that man's response to his affliction and his desire to protect his family, even if from himself. Jeff Nichols, whose debut, Shotgun Stories, displayed the clear influence of early David Gordon Green and William Faulkner, pushes deeper into that territory. He mixes naturalism with dark poetry, creating fractured views of people trying to overcome the conditioning of grim pasts and never truly succeeding.

Shotgun Stories also offered a breakthrough performance for its star, Michael Shannon, who consolidated 15 years' worth of character performances—typically as a man always on the tipping point of civility, even sanity—as the embittered son locked in a feud with his abdicated father's second family. The work Shannon does here makes that role look like a mere primer. Shannon, a character actor who has found himself in demand for a range of high-profile projects (see him now as a main cast member on Boardwalk Empire), found his first plateau with Nichols. Now he has reached the second. Even if the film around him were mediocre, Take Shelter would be worth the price of admission.