Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Catch-Up: Summer 2013, Part 2

I try to see as many movies as possible, so sometimes I need to empty the queue.  Last month I looked at some of the summer's notable indie releases.  Here are more diversions for the dog days including character-building jobs at the shore and in the Texas countryside, a carefully-curated museum exhibit detailing the nascent days of the computer revolution, and a visit to the killing grounds of Indonesia's 1960s anti-communist purge.

Dir. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash

3 out of 5

Most coming of age movies featuring painfully awkward teenagers are afraid to be just that: painful and awkward.  Not so in The Way, Way Back - Jim Rash and Nat Faxon’s follow-up to their Oscar-winning script for The Descendants - which subjects its protagonist, the shy, moody Duncan (Liam James), to a laundry list of humiliations when his mom (Toni Collette) drags him to the beach house owned by her new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carrell), for the summer.  Trent’s callous appraisal of Duncan’s general attractiveness and charisma (he rates Duncan a “3” on a scale of 1 to 10) sets the tone for the movie’s first half as Duncan shuffles dejectedly among the party-hearty locals, including boozy next door neighbor Betty (Allison Janney) and wisecracking water park operator Owen (Sam Rockwell).

After a lengthy, monotonous set-up where James is given little to do but sulk and brood, The Way, Way Back finally picks up once Rockwell begins stealing scenes as his confidence mentor, offering the kid a job at his "Water Wizz" amusement park as an escape from his dreary home life.  And while the film initially suggests that Duncan is merely trading one form of immaturity for another, there's more to Owen behind his carefree demeanor, an soulfulness that's contrasted well with Trent's duplicitous ways without descending into cliché.  (A more obvious film would no doubt contrive a way for these dueling father figures to fistfight.)  The Way, Way Back's agenda gets jumbled at times - is it a recollection of summer memories or a postmortem on child-of-divorce traumas? - but it reveals its inclinations in the climax, an epic winning streak for Duncan that places the film firmly in the tradition of "summer makeover" movies, where all loose ends are tied, all crushes are kissed, and all moral victories are won before Labor Day.  Rash and Faxon are a little more nuanced than that, acknowledging that Duncan still has obstacles to overcome outside of his beachside bubble.  But, boy, did he have one productive summer.

Dir. David Gordon Green

2.5 out of 5

David Gordon Green's recent filmography has the look of a delayed enfant terrible phase.  After launching his career with several finely-observed indie dramas, he jumped onboard the Apatow comedy train with Pineapple Express and explored his cruder mercenary impulses - to diminishing returns - in Your Highness and The Sitter.  Green's latest, Prince Avalance, marks a return to an intimate scale and a quieter, more nuanced sensibility, at least from a directorial standpoint.  Story-wise, however, it's still about two men avoiding responsibility while they indulge their juvenile impulses, resisting the forces knocking them from their perch at the center of their self-made universe.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

An adaptation of the 2011 Icelandic film Either Way, the two-hander stars Paul Rudd as Alvin, a Texas state road worker, and Emile Hirsch as Lance, his reluctant apprentice and brother to Alvin's girlfriend, as they re-paint miles of traffic lines after a devastating wildfire.  They consistently bicker about everything - music, work ethic, and especially women.  Alvin dreams of earning enough money for a planned move to Germany with Lance's sister, not realizing that his absence during the long-term project says more than the checks he mails home; meanwhile, the caddish Lance actually returns home on the weekends but, via the myopia of youth, claims he's "getting old" and complains about his diminishing seduction prowess.  

Apart from periodic interactions with a salty old truck driver (Lance LeGault) and a former homeowner (Joyce Payne) searching through the burned landscape for her belongings, it's strictly Rudd and Hirsch hitting the same familiar beats on the road to conscious self-evaluation.  The two stars provide amiable variations on past roles (see Killer Joe for Hirsch and Knocked Up for Rudd), and film's late 1980s period setting lends itself to minor visual gags (the movie really nails the wardrobe, particularly Alvin's "thirtysomething dad on camping vacation" duds).  But Prince Avalanche also comes with a strong sense of deja vu that has nothing to do with its retro affectations and everything to do with its resigned sense of complacency as yet another solid but unspectacular boys-becoming-men dramedy.

Dir. Andrew Bujalski

3.5 out of 5

In an age where toddlers can play with their parents' iPhones before they are potty-trained, the early days of personal computing feel especially remote and alien.  Andrew Bujalski's contrarian comedy Computer Chess does its damndest to re-humanize that epoch of technological history.  It's a documentary-style chronicle of an early 1980s programming competition where bespectacled and flop-sweating men (and one woman, whose anomalous presence is awkwardly noted by the event's MC) pit their smartest chess-playing terminals against one another in a dumpy hotel ballroom.  It's somewhat ironic that Bujalski, a pioneer of the low-fi, no-fuss "mumblecore" movement in film, is paying tribute to an era where computer proficiency was a high-tech skill requiring specialized knowledge of programming languages and mathematical logic.  But his sincerity is apparent in his painstaking attention to detail, from the grainy video of the black and white Portapak cameras used to shoot the film to the interjections of technical dialogue to the quaint speculation on the applications of newer, faster computer technology.  (By 1986, a computer should be able to defeat a human at chess!)

Bujalski, however, is not trying to be Shane Carruth.  Computer Chess is populated with oddball characters from the new technological frontier - notably a young graduate student (Patrick Riester) investigating rumors that his team's entry was deliberately programmed to fail - and, as it progresses, begins to resemble a fish-out-of-water comedy when the programmers interact with an analog world that has yet to grasp the potential of these bulky metal boxes.  Bujalski's direction occasionally frustrates with its confusing, discursive narrative style and blasé approach to linking scenes together, but he coaxes some truly funny performances out of his non-professional cast of fellow filmmakers and real-life computer scientists.  Computer Chess is built to be re-evaluated from moment to moment, a sort of historical debugging exercise that allows us to laugh freely at the still-staggering gulf between artificial and emotional intelligence.  

The Act of Killing
Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer

4.5 out of 5

Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing has one of the most bizarre - and effective - conceits of any documentary in recent memory.  In Indonesia, the leaders of paramilitary death squads and criminal gangs who murdered thousands of Communists, union members, and liberal sympathizers after a 1965 military coup are extolled as political heroes and get to live long, happy lives.  Oppenheimer connects with some of these men and provides them with a film crew (many of them credited as "Anonymous") to re-enact the killings in a mixture of genre tableaux that references their favorite Hollywood films.  The result is a historical document that's hilarious and horrifying, an essential chronicle of a dichotomous century defined by both the most heinous atrocities in human history and the golden age of mass entertainment.

With its focus on giving aged war criminals their 15 minutes of fame, The Act of Killing leaves almost no taboo unbroken.  Yet the film is far from a celebration of the wicked, and acknowledges that the reality of the situation in Indonesia - where, it's noted repeatedly, the word for "gangster" is derived from the term for "free man" - is not so cut and dried.  The most disturbing parts of the film involve the killers who are not affected by the emotional intensity of the re-enactments:  one of them dispassionately mentions stabbing his Chinese girlfriend's father in the 1960s, simply because the ruling powers instructed the paramilitaries to attack any ethnic Chinese.  The Act of Killing is less like the single-issue doc it appears to be - though it includes plenty of information about this forgotten dark period of Indonesian history - and more of a broad commentary on human nature, selective memory, and the proper pursuit of justice.  It's easy to get mad at these people getting let off the hook half a world away.  But where's the sustained outrage when we allow some of our criminals to hide in plain sight?

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