Monday, October 31, 2011
Scream 4 (2011)
Dir. Wes Craven
3 out of 5
The state of the American slasher film is not unlike the state of the domestic auto industry - once a vibrant, dependable cash cow, things have taken a turn for the worse as consumer appetites are increasingly stated by overseas imports. Meanwhile, the strategy at home seems to be based on distracting people with pale imitations of past glories or copying the successful templates of foreign competitors. We used to make things in America, dammit. It's no coincidence that the Scream series first emerged as people started to doubt our ability to keep churning out psychos and Chevys at an equal pace. If the original Scream was a fevered attempt to perform triage on the badly hemorrhaging body of domestic horror, then Scream 4 fancies itself fit to give the last rites.
The setup is familiar. Erstwhile victim Neve Campbell returns to Woodsboro, a town where an inordinate number of young people profile as serial killers and even more have met a brutal demise at the hands of various ghost-faced killers over the past 15 years. Her homecoming is predictably spoiled by the return of a knife-wielding ghoul, re-igniting the series' meta-commentary on the shifting "rules" and conventions of the horror genre. Series regulars David Arquette and Courtney Cox are bolstered by a new cast of warm bodies culled from the CW's primetime schedule and headlined by Emma Roberts as Campbell's shy, vulnerable cousin and Hayden Panettiere as her horror-flick-obsessed bestie.
The irony is that, for a film that purports to reclaim and rewrite the history of horror, Scream 4 never strays too far from the wheelhouses of Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson. Like all Scream movies, it's a cavalcade of gruesome murders leavened by snarky humor in what feels like the world's most macabre game of Clue. There are several details for genre fans to appreciate (a scene where Panettiere rattles off a slew of recent horror remakes is one to savor) but the general shape of the story hasn't changed much. In setting its sights on hackneyed remakes and franchise bloat, Scream acknowledges its own formulaic underpinnings to mock its imitators but never fully realizes its satiric possibilities. Ending in a hurried mismash of media critique (some of it admittedly clever) the movie flees toward a safe middle ground - remakes and reboots can be bad or good, but Scream, like all the enduring franchises, will always be a trend unto itself. The franchise is dead. Long live the franchise.
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Nostalgia for the Light (2010)
Dir. Patricio Guzmán
2.5 out of 5
The Atacama Desert - one of the driest, most barren places on planet Earth - is an unlikely muse. It's the kind of place loved best by patriots and poets, the kind of people who can see beauty and mystery and metaphor where others only see a unending pile of rocks and dirt. Noted Chilean documentarian Patricio Guzmán is definitely the former. In Nostalgia for the Light he travels to the desert to see if he can learn what it has to teach - and reveals its past and present uses as an ideal laboratory for history and science, not to mention oppression and murder.
Juxtaposing the work of astronomers that have flocked to the Atacama (so dry that the night sky is described as "transparent") with the desert's infamy as a dumping ground for Chileans murdered by the Pinochet dictatorship of the 1970s and 80s, Guzman wants to rescue the memories of his beloved home country, even the terrible ones. As with any nation scarred by great atrocity, says a desert historian, there's a tendency towards forgetfulness. The bloody Chile of then seems so far removed from the constitutional Chile of now. How are we to feel anything but heartbreak and pity for the sisters and mothers of the "disappeared" who still search for the remains of their loved ones underneath the salty soil? More importantly, how are we supposed to care about anything else presented in the film?
The Pinochet killings are Nostalgia's knockout punch, but Guzmán doesn't time the blow for maximum effect. The attempts to weave history and astronomy with the remnants of Chile's turbulent past are muddled at best. Even the film's subjects comment on its lack of cohesion - from both the astronomers' and the grave hunters' remarks, they seem mostly unaware of each others' efforts. Should they be? The scientists speak excitedly and abstractly about relativity; they are literally monitoring our universe as it expands. The women, conversely, seek closure and are unlikely to find it, except in bone fragments and a few teeth, perhaps. Nostalgia takes a heady mix of complex topics that could probably sustain two separate films and mercilessly trims them to fit Guzmán's grand unifying theory of Chile (and to make time for his long, fetishistic close-ups of moving machinery and dusty skeletons). There is good material on either side of this story, but it's too inelegant to be scientific and too detached to be political. The result is a documentary as dry and impenetrable as the desert itself.
Monday, October 24, 2011
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
Dir. Sean Durkin
3.5 out of 5
Memories are like especially pernicious chalkboard lessons staining the tabula rasa of the human mind in writer-director Sean Durkin's debut feature Martha Marcy May Marlene. The slate in question is Elizabeth Olsen, a troubled young woman who spends the film's opening moments fleeing an upstate New York commune for the relative safety of a Connecticut lake house owned by her concerned, judgmental sister (Sarah Paulson) and her well-to-do husband (Hugh Dancy). Olsen is gripped by melancholy and confusion during her re-assimilation with a paranoia stoked by constant flashbacks to her recent life as a member of a Manson Family-style cult lorded over by a vulpine John Hawkes. It becomes clear that this group which promises cleansing and nirvana is rotten at its core, couching sinister ideals in meaningless spiritual psychobabble. What Durkin is trying to suggest is that a vulnerable mind, once poisoned, finds it easier to succumb than to seek an antidote.
Olsen's recovery is complicated by her family's misguided attempts at amateur deprogramming. The affectations of their yuppified detox program - protein bars, boating lessons, summer dresses - are as curious as the idiosyncrasies of the cult. Of course, it's much more than waiting for the men to finish before having her own supper that's unsettled her. More of a dead-ringer for Vera Farmiga than her famous older sisters, Olsen's taut facial expressions and ungainly movements convey the trauma that she cannot bring herself to describe. ("What the hell is wrong with you?" is her sister's common, unhelpful response to her lack of communication.) She gives a fantastic and fearless performance in a claustrophobic role that would have swallowed up so many other ingenues. Hawkes is also great and chilling in a riff on his similarly unrepentant, quietly menacing character in last year's Winter's Bone.
Durkin does his best to distinguish Martha from the typical indie miserabilia that creeps into theaters just as temperatures begin to drop. Pointed, jarring cuts juxtapose Olsen's increasingly untenable life at the neo-hippie compound with the emotional prison constructed by the oblivious Paulson. Shot in half-light, around corners, and squeezed between doorframes, the heroine seems to sink from reality as she slips deeper into the drama replaying inside her head. Locked out of Olsen's mind, however, Paulson and Darcy feel like convenient scapegoats. Their behavior strains the credulity of the film; it's hard to believe that they would accept Olsen's "fleeing a bad boyfriend" alibi at face value even after she interrupts their lovemaking by casually slipping into their bed. And while the ending comes across as an abrupt gotcha! from Durkin, he's made a mostly honest film here, sliding between past and present almost as imperceptibly as Olsen transitions between emotions and identities (the title is a reference to all the pieces of her fractured self-image), learning with mounting dread and desperation that there are parts of ourselves that, try as we might, we simply can't erase.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
An article? A "think piece"? An indulgent journal of an LA cinephile? It's all part of my non-reviews in 'Wide Angle'
One of my favorite Roger Ebert sayings is this: “A movie is not about what it is about; it’s about how it’s about it.”
I think about this little grammar-taxing axiom often in relation to sports movies. Conventional wisdom holds that a movie or television show must be careful about how much sports action it employs, lest it alienate those who are indifferent toward athletics. Even then, the sports movie operates within a strange economic niche in North American cinema (you can forget about international, especially if the sport in question is baseball, football, or hockey), where a modest world-of-mouth hit with mostly favorable reviews qualifies as a smashing success.
I am referring to Moneyball, the true-life story of the general manager of a pro baseball team (Brad Pitt) who uses unconventional strategies to field a competitive squad despite considerable financial disadvantages. And if that synopsis sounds more like a cerebral workplace drama than a stand-up-and-cheer sports flick, well, that’s because it is. Moneyball’s dichotomous reception is especially fascinating; it’s been lauded by many movie critics but picked to death by baseball analysts and insiders. This is, to some extent, normal. Any film about a specific subculture or pastime – anything, really, that can be described as a ‘______ movie’ – has inaccuracies or omissions that send aficionados into a pedantic rage.
While the baseball blogosphere did respond positively to Moneyball as an entertaining movie with stellar performances and a sharp script, some people like Yahoo! Sports writer Jeff Passan were left cold by a perceived lack of emotion. Passan argues that baseball movies used to give the impression that the game could teach us something about our shared humanity, but Moneyball’s topic isn’t sufficiently human. It’s not teaching us life lessons via the trials of ground-down minor leaguers or corn farmers with daddy issues. It’s a decent film, he acknowledges, but it’s “just not a baseball movie.” With a damning sense of get-off-my-lawn finality he laments, “ They don’t make those anymore.”
To which I say, “Good!” Assuming that the standard for a successful, resonant sports movie hasn’t changed in the past 20 years ignores the massive changes in sport culture in that time span. In the 21st century, two major innovations have completely altered the public’s relationship with sports: fantasy games and the microscopic scrutiny of athletes under a 24/7 news cycle. The former has fostered a greater understanding of the capricious mechanics of games and the business of sport, and the latter has been demolishing the myth of the athlete-as-hero brick by brick (or sext by sext). The best narrative sports movies of the past few years all recognize the increasing savvy of even the casual sports fan. Not one of them is “about” sports in the literal sense, or even the slightly metaphoric sense favored by Passan.
Moneyball is one, of course, and is plenty emotional is this baseball fan’s opinion, a fable (that happens to be true) about how people affect and respond to change. The 2008 indie drama Sugar is another, the best baseball movie you’ve never seen where the game represents the most untenable parts of the American Dream and illustrates how this dream is truly realized by defining it on your own terms. 2009’s Big Fan might be the best of the bunch, a character study of an obsessive loner (Patton Oswalt) whose chance encounter with his favorite football player forces him to consider whether his fandom is worth the psychological torment that goes along with it. It’s quite dark at times, but also very funny and ultimately bittersweet and completely indicative of what it means to be a sports fan in the oversaturated ESPN era. All three movies are real cinematic treats in a sub-genre that typically has televisual aspirations. Instead of merely attempting to replicate what it’s like to have a life in sports, they take a widescreen perspective and investigate what effect sports have on life.
The conventional sports movie is not going away. You can still choose from The Blind Side or Gridiron Gang or Coach Carter and follow along with the up-from-the-bootstraps narrative that has dominated sports coverage since Jim Thorpe was winning at everything. You can get the warm nostalgia fuzzies from a mashup marathon of The Invincible Rookie Miracle. You can watch the interchangeable Remember the Titans and Glory Road to see if the dialogue eventually syncs up. You can be a Warrior or a Fighter (or just be Fighting). These movies are all very direct. That can be enjoyable – some of the films I mentioned in this paragraph are quite good. They are about what they are about. They are movies about sports, but they are not “sports movies.”
They are just starting to make those.
Sunday, October 16, 2011
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
4.5 out of 5
There's no shortage of speculation on the full meaning of Lynch's highly symbolic tale of a gorgeous amnesiac (Laura Elena Harring) who leads a naive Canadian starlet (Naomi Watts) into a bizarre web of intrigue in the heart of old Hollywood. Indeed, unlocking the secrets of the non-linear narrative provides its most satisfying visceral thrill. Loose threads will still be visible to the eagle-eyed (Mulholland Dr. was originally conceived as a television pilot), but it mirrors the elliptical storytelling and dissonant logic of dreams better than the majority of movies that are explicitly about the subconscious. However, the film's uniquely unsettling mood might be its greatest achievement. Mulholland Dr. strives to penetrate the walls that we set up between ourselves and big-screen illusions and accomplishes its goal so well that you can't help but look over your shoulder after it's finished, just to be sure that the nightmare didn't follow you into the waking world.
Blue Velvet (1986)
4 out of 5
A severed ear is college boy Kyle MacLachlan's entrée into a sub-domain of perversity and evil that festers underneath the suburban idyll of Blue Velvet. His ill-advised decision to float between these two worlds forms the crux of Lynch's dark satire, considered so unreleasable in 1986 that Dino De Laurentiis had to create a new production company just to get it into theaters. Its notoriety is justified by the central mystery that introduces MacLachlan to a damaged nightclub singer (Isabelle Rosselini) and the violent, gas-huffing lunatic (Dennis Hopper) who wields terrifying psychological and sexual power over her. Less iconic is MacLachlan's stilted romance with good girl Laura Dern, though one could argue that this relationship is deliberately corny. Its heightened wholesomeness only makes the movie's dark side even more twisted. There's a lot of mental legwork required to process Blue Velvet's conflation of two historic veneers - Eisenhower-era normalcy and slick Reaganesque artifice - but the film's lurid neo-noir trappings and indelible surrealism (like Dean Stockwell lip-synching Roy Orbison's "In Dreams") make the challenging journey worthwhile.
The Straight Story (1999)
3 out of 5
There's plenty of conventionality in The Straight Story, based on the true story of an Iowa retiree (Richard Farnsworth) who rode a John Deere tractor for six weeks and 240 miles to make amends with his ailing brother (Harry Dean Stanton). The collection of sentimental vignettes is a curious departure for Lynch - to date, it's the only film he directed for which he did not also receive a writing credit - but a perfect showcase for Farnsworth, a screen veteran who received an Oscar nomination for his determined performance. Though the movie's glacial pace does a poor job of hiding its lack of connective tissue, the minimal dialogue really intensifies the bare-bones plot; Farnsworth is always a beat away from slipping a heartfelt personal monologue into a conversation with a perfect stranger. The Straight Story can and does turn into Tuesdays With Farnsworth at times, although Lynch tries to keeps it fresh with beautiful shots of golden grain fields and a rustic score from longtime collaborator Angelo Badalamenti. It's a sweet little movie that belongs to its subject and his onscreen proxy, and we, like Lynch, are just along for the ride.
Thursday, October 13, 2011
Dir. Jonathan Levine
4 out of 5
Joseph Gordon-Levitt does not go gently into that good night as a healthy twentysomething who discovers that he has a malignant spine tumor in 50/50. More accurately, his garrulous best buddy Seth Rogen won't let him. Hell, he's probably used to it. Gordon-Levitt is plenty morose even before he learns of his life-threatening condition. Through the shock of Gordon-Levitt's diagnosis and the exhaustion of his chemotherapy treatments, Rogen keeps up the chatter, drags him to bars, and secures medicinal marijuana for his straight arrow friend (the audience is left to draw its own conclusions about who benefits more from this arrangement). In this we see that combining the cancer weepie and the buddy movie is not so unusual as it seems - on the contrary, they are one and the same. Everyone confronting terminal illness should have a friend like Rogen.
Of course, Rogen can't help but slip into the role of cancer confidant. He played the same one in real life. 50/50 is the semi-autobiographical account of its writer, Will Reiser, who contracted Schwannoma neurofibrosarcoma at the same young age as Gordon-Levitt's character. He was convinced by Rogen and producer Evan Goldberg - who both helped Reiser cope with the disease - to share his story, and here we are. The result is a film about illness that is particularly sensitive to the balance a patient must strike between acknowledging his mortality and living the rest of his life. It helps demystify a disease that only crops up in pop culture in its extremes. Cancer is typically the garnish on triumphant stories of superhuman resiliance ("Every celebrity beats cancer!" notes Rogen) or the tragic accident that claims our loved ones and makes us want to appreciate/avenge them. It's no coincidence that Gordon-Levitt opens his post-diagnosis conversation with his overbearing mother (Anjelica Huston) with "Have you ever seen the movie Terms of Endearment?"
The movie's frequent tonal shifts are handled skillfully by its cast and its director, Jonathan Levine, last seen helming The Wackness, a similarly funny-but-frank film about confronting the facts of life. Reiser's main stumbling block seems to be providing a villain that the audience can point to and identify. Enter Bryce Dallas Howard continuing her autumn of evil as Gordon-Levitt's unfaithful girlfriend. Primarily used to goose the protagonist's relationship with his sweet, overmatched student therapist (a luminous Anna Kendrick), Howard's character carries a conspicuous lack of nuance in an otherwise thoughtful film. 50/50 is also less than kind to medical practitioners, who are curt in the way that I've experienced with overbooked doctors blazing their way through a day of routine checkups, not ones advising patients to undergo a potentially fatal surgical procedure. But there's no shortage of emotion from Gordon-Levitt and his support system, some amusing, some uncomfortably raw. In the end, 50/50 doesn't only describe Gordon-Levitt's initial chances of survival, but rather the perfect blend of humor and heartbreak in a satisfyingly subdued story of persistence.
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
What's Your Number? (2011)
Dir. Mark Mylod
2.5 out of 5
An Anna Faris vehicle is different from most star-driven projects in that it tends to inspire pity rather than awe, as in "poor Anna Faris is once again asked to use her comedic gifts to bolster a mediocre script." We don't do this to, say, Emma Stone when she shines in amiable-but-shaky fare. Faris inhabits a curious purgatory within the star spectrum - the Faris Zone - where she is too sharp to play the daffy blonde over and over but considered too infantile to move any further up the rom-com pecking order. (Part of this is, of course, the lingering assumpion that the woman need only handle the "romance" side of the equation and leave most of the funny to her male costar.) So of course there's no way to watch her navigate the regressive gender panic of What's Your Number? with anything except a weary compassion for "poor Anna Faris."
The movie introduces Faris as a single woman in personal and professional crisis mode, exacerbated by a magazine article claiming that a woman's probability of getting married plummets if she's had more than 20 sexual partners. Tallying her conquests at 19, Faris swears celibacy until she meets Mr. Right then promptly notches her 20th after a chance encounter with the boss (Joel McHale) who fired her at the beginning of the film. Her chastity now dictated by the ironclad science of women's magazine research, she begins a frantic inventory of all her ex-boyfriends to see if any of them have ripened into marriage material. Aiding her search is hunky next-door neighbor Chris Evans who "comes from a family of cops" and therefore possesses the requisite sluething skills.
There isn't a whole lot standing in the way of the inevtiable coupling of Evans and Faris. Their courtship is fun and playful and even they quickly realize that they like each other a lot, which makes the traditional third act breakup seem especially contrived. It is refreshing, though, to see Faris wear the comedy pants in a relationship. By sheer force of personality she helps What's Your Number? retain a progressive veneer. The character's diverse, if checkered, dating history is enhanced by Faris' loopy charisma, making her quest seem more like proof of her impressively broad appeal in the dating pool than the indiscriminate act of a desperate woman. She's too cool and too unapologetic to have a conventional ending to her story. Too bad the movie requires her to act like she should.
Monday, October 10, 2011
Dir. Ivan Reitman
1.5 out of 5
In what sounds like a perfect premise for David Cronenberg, Junior involves the planting of a monkey embryo inside a male fertility scientist (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who carries the pregnancy to full term. Somehow this turns out much less outrageous than it sounds. In fact, the movie is aggressively restrained - an errant shoe landing on the table at a fancy dinner party counts as its most outrageous gag. Despite the flummoxed chemistry of Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito (who previously teamed up in Reitman's Twins), Junior is proudly prosaic when it should have been over-the-top.
Time Bandits (1981)
Dir. Terry Gilliam
3 out of 5
Terry Gilliam is a lot like the smart kid in school who nonetheless spent all his time doodling fantastical creatures and terrible machines in the margins of his composition book. Time Bandits has a similar lack of focus in its first two acts, following an imaginative boy (Craig Warnock) as he tags along with a band of diminutive time-traveling thieves hiding a stolen treasure map from the aptly named Evil Genius (David Warner). The time travel element, sadly, is mostly an excuse for stars like Sean Connery and John Cleese to turn in glorified cameos as various historical figures. While there's plenty of funky mischievousness in Gilliam's script (which he co-wrote with fellow Monty Python member Michael Palin), his kitchen-sink approach to visuals is the best part of Bandits, particularly in a climax where Warnock and his cohorts face off against Warner and his menagerie of otherworldly (and highly combustible) henchmen. It's a ramshackle sugar rush of a movie that makes little distinction between charming whimsicality and sensory overload.
Layer Cake (2004)
Dir. Matthew Vaughn
3.5 out of 5
In a performance that essentially made him the next James Bond, Daniel Craig is very un-Bond-like in Layer Cake as a high-end drug dealer finding it difficult to sever his ties to the criminal underworld once he's made his fortune. More businessman than thug, Craig is unaccustomed to getting his hands dirty and balks at direct confrontation until he's made to see who he really is by Michael Gambon, a leonine crime boss who runs away with every scene. Layer Cake is also stylish as hell. Vaughn exhausts the entire playbook in the telling of novelist J. J. Connelly's jigsaw puzzle of a script, jumping back and forth through time and across a large number of colorfully-nicknamed characters. To be honest, it's hard to find a mechanism in Layer Cake that isn't a lift from or a minor enhancement of something that belonged to Tarantino or Richie or any other successful gangland thriller of the past 20 years. But that hardly seems to matter as the film sweeps you up in tense negotiations and a parade of double-crosses. It's derivative, yes, but effective all the same.
Sunday, October 9, 2011
The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence (2011)
Dir. Tom Six
1 out of 5
In 2010, the internet briefly collapsed under an avalanche of incredulity regarding The Human Centipede, the film with the gag-inducing premise of a crazed surgeon who stitches three human beings together mouth-to-anus to create a new multi-limbed creature with a single digestive system. Director Tom Six had the sangfroid to suggest that his movie was inspired by the residues of European fascism and the hellish "experiments" performed on concentration camp prisoners by Nazi surgeons such as Josef Mengele. That dubious justification seems quaint with the arrival of the sequel - subtitled Full Sequence to indicate a fourfold increase in surgical victims - which is full of the same reprehensible acts but inspired by nothing except itself. This might be palatable if Six were genuinely interested in cinematic self-criticism, but his contempt seems to be reserved solely for his audience. I have to say that the feeling is mutual.
The viewer surrogate is a physically and mentally stunted British mute (Laurence R. Harvey) obsessed with the real-life Centipede phenomenon and harboring a desire to replicate the infamous procedure. He starts to gather specimens from the parking garage where he works and stashes them in a warehouse (offscreen, Harvey somehow seems to have mastered the art of non-fatal crowbar blows to the head). When it's time for the surgery, Six shows us what we all ostensibly wanted from him the first time, dragging out the excessively gruesome spectacle of the centipede's creation and fate by Harvey's decidedly amateur hands. It is all the stuff that was tastefully (if I can use such a word) omitted from view in the original movie, and these are the sequences in particular where THC2's black and white photography feels like the director's lone act of mercy.
THC2 is mean, ugly, and interminably smug. Six attempts to implicate all of us with Harvey's single-minded quest for ever more extreme violence and depravity. What he really wants is to direct our attention away from his severe desperation and narcissism, trying to scold us for buying into (or perhaps for making fun of) a concept that he has shamelessly promoted and defended from day one. Our culture's penchant for morbid curiosity deserves to be questioned, but not via tut-tutting torture porn from a filmmaker so far up his own ass that one cannot readily discern where he ends and the next guy's mouth begins.
Saturday, October 8, 2011
The Skin I Live In (2011)
Dir. Pedro Almodóvar
4 out of 5
Shocking transformations abound in The Skin I Live In, including that of the movie itself. Pedro Almodóvar sets the stage for lurid horror in the first half-hour, detailing the obsessive nature of a brilliant cosmetic surgeon (Antonio Banderas) illicitly testing a new synthetic skin on a mysterious female captive (Elena Anaya) sequestered in his sprawling mansion dotted with surveillance cameras. The hint of romance in their otherwise hazy relationship is crystallized when an intruder forces himself on Anaya and is shot dead by Banderas. With the audience now thoroughly confused, a long, unfolding series of twists reveals that Skin is not a kinky sort of horror flick, but another one of Almodóvar's patented queer mysteries in the vein of Bad Education.
We learn that family tragedy once stoked a thirst for revenge in Banderas. He seeking recompense beyond the law, he squares in on the young man (Jan Cornet) who sexually assaulted his mentally unstable teenage daughter at a wedding reception. It's a crime story without any detective work. Aside from a few scenes showing the anguish of Cornet's family regarding his sudden disappearance, the film trends toward the gratification of Banderas' experimental schemes. It becomes apparent that what he's seeking isn't justice exactly, but another chance to reassemble his broken world, a series of acts similar to the facial reconstructions he performs on his patients - operations he notes as the most moving experiences of his life.
Almodóvar's reputation as an aesthete permeates this gleefully licentious film. His refined-yet-grotesque sensibility is present in the impeccably decorated home that doubles as Anaya's prison. Banderas' taste in art mirrors his preoccupation with body amorphism - he's a man who likes to relax under the gaze of classical and abstract nudes after a long day of rearranging human flesh. And though Almodovar seems to be straining for a reaction with some of the movie's more clinical elements, it would be a mistake to call The Skin I Live In a dispassionate provocation. Much credit should go to Anaya, who lends poignancy and feistiness to a character that is otherwise a plasticine toy. Even the most outrageous events reach a satisfying emotional conclusion in the final scene, transforming the ostensibly unnatural into something beautiful and empathetic.
Saturday, October 1, 2011
Take Shelter (2011)
Dir. Jeff Nichols
3.5 out of 5
A character study of a concerned family man sliding into the abyss of paranoid schizophrenia, Take Shelter is a low-key phantasmagoria of internal demons and waking nightmares. It's psychological horror bereft of any supernatural exaggeration. It's simply not necessary. Few things are scarier than being acutely aware that you are losing your grip on reality. Such is the situation facing stone-faced Michael Shannon, a taciturn construction worker and doting father who is convinced that a calamitous storm is about to beset his sleepy Ohio village. To protect his loved ones, he begins digging out a tornado shelter in his backyard, a practical eccentricity that begins with Life magazine images of jumbo Campbell's soup cans but quickly morphs into an obsessive brand of survivalism.
Approaching the topic of mental illness in an artful way, Take Shelter has two major advantages. One is its detailed and disarming portrait of suburban solitude. Nichols takes his time establishing the rhythms of domestic life, following Shannon and wife Jessica Chastain to Saturday swap meets and Sunday dinner and sign language classes taken for the benefit of their daughter, born deaf but holding out hope for a cochlear implant. The other is Shannon's masterful performance as a crumbling pillar of mental, social, and financial stability. He does not ride the bullet train into madness. He digs himself into it, dirt clod by dirt clod. "I need to do something normal," Chastain pleads with Shannon after a low point in their increasingly trying relationship; what's surprising about Take Shelter is how "normal" life really seems despite all the forces arrayed against it. Families are families, whether or not daddy can't stop tearing up the backyard with a borrowed backhoe.
For all of its natural ease, though, the film stumbles with its symbolism. The script mixes its biblical metaphors - Shannon is Job! No, wait, now he's Noah! It's a risky proposition and would have failed in the hands of a lesser actor. Take Shelter also goes for some easy scares in its vivid nightmare sequences that build to its main character's breaking point. It's a tactic the movie hardly needs. Shannon in full froth is scary enough, propelling Take Shelter into a place past conspicuous insanity or hallucination into a realm that is recognizably, terrifyingly human.