Daily Film Thoughts: Youth, Boxing and Independence

Reviews for Trust, Whiplash, Cold Weather, I Killed My Mother and Aurora.

At 2007’s Toronto International Film Festival, David Schwimmer unveiled his directorial debut with Run Fatboy Run. It was received with more disapproval than tepidness and when I got around to it the following April (it had its theatrical release in late March) I despised it. So when I learned his sophomore effort about a teenage girl falling victim to an online predator was playing at TIFF last year, I assumed it would be as maladroit as is first feature and proceeded to picked Jack Goes Boating in its place as my final film of the festival. Soon after the film premiered, TIFF was abuzz with high praise for Trust with a couple of my new industry friends urging me to see it. I tried to get a ticket for it over the soon to-be-released Hoffman debut, but to no avail. I wound up hating that film and for months – until a few nights ago when I finally did get my chance to watch Trust – I wondered how, if at all, bad my complete dismissal of Schwimmer’s second feature was.  Turns out it was pretty bad.

Apart being released around the same time (March 28th for Run Fatboy Run, April 1st for Trust) Schwimmer’s first two features have very little in common. Although it’d be witty to pointedly compare the two features — like how although Trust is not at all a comedy its few moments of dark humor evoke more laughter than all of Run Fatboy Run (wink) — it’d be an exercise in ego and this film deserves a real review.

Now, this is not to say Trust is flawless or even technically great. No, Schwimmer still can’t manage to avoid all the trappings of conventional storytelling, but he’s showing much improvement. One of the film’s main problems is that it very much does conventional things with  unconventional and dark subject matter. Annie (Liana Liberato) is the protagonist in a typical teenage crisis – she can’t tolerate the sluttiness of her peers. Though she’s not quite demure and is far from being a loner, she longs for someone to understand her and find her attractive and romantically desire her. The problem with the initial set-up is that she comes from a really loving home with parents who don’t suffocate her with their love, but who are always there for her and kind to her; same applies for her brother. The “nobody understands me” cry is more in reference to a group of girls with whom she wants no relation, so the set-up to the girl’s psychology is a bit weary. As for not having anywhere to displace her nervous sexual energy, well, there are more trustworthy boys with whom to be with in person than an anonymous man you met on the internet. With her, it’s someone named Charlie and with Charlie, there is a never-ending string of deception. That’s another problem the film has and I’m exhausting myself thinking of ways to structure the flaws in the story’s set-up to care, so let me run them down.

First, when Charlie tells Annie that he’s 25 — after he’s lied to her about his age twice already — she yells at him and asks him why he keeps lying. We don’t see them makeup, but instead get a jumpcut to her on her bed smiling and enjoying his voice once again. Second, the whole loving family dynamic — the one that generally keeps children from logging onto a website and subsequently being lied to and raped — is necessary for the script to be given a superficially edgy dynamic with the father figure (Will, Clive Owen) lusting for blood and a mother figure (Lynn, Catherine Keener) who represents the “right” course of action when a family member is hurt; to tend after them and love them and not try to prevent other children from being hurt (which I think is damned far worse by the filmmakers than is justified because it is a wonderful altruistic gesture). Third, the father is the angry one and the mother is the calm one – okay, not out of the realm of possibility, but an obvious work of convention. The film has more problems toward the end where it relies on two essential pieces of information being imparted to Annie for it to reach its semi-satisfying conclusion which are more bothersome for how much the film relies on them than for how extraordinary they are.

When Annie’s parents go out of town to drop her brother off at college, she meets up with Charlie who is pushing 40. This causes her to cry, doubt many things, but she goes off with him to a motel after an ice cream serenade. Her friend sees her there – this sparks off the plot wherein the revelation of Annie’s “rape” (she doesn’t believe it was rape; the law and everyone around her insist otherwise) takes place and everything spirals out of control. Tears are shed, anger is shouted, lies become lies, and we wonder if the beautiful family that once was will ever be once more.

Now, my problems with the film seem quite heavy and I know the first few paragraphs read like I take plenty of issue with the film. I do in concept, but in actuality this is quite a good feature. Not for how it is constructed, but for how it addresses the layers of psychological mutilation that take place when a child is raped. What’s most fascinating is how the girl has been so broken that she doesn’t see the act as rape, but as one of love because her mind is too innocent to see the event for how cruel it was. Although run over by the screenwriter’s penchant to focus on the father’s revenge plot, when the daughter’s perspective is shown it’s a really upsetting sight to behold. Mostly because Liana Liberto gives the most fantastic child performance in decades — only surpassed by Madeleine Desdevises’ work in La drolesse which is a film that touches on a few of the same ideas as Trust — and creates a full character overflowing with emotions. If nothing else, this film is to be seen for her performance – and if you’re a fan of Clive Owen, Owen’s because he has never been better.

Then there are times where you’ll feel like the screenwriters are afraid of their own subject. Not completely – they dispiritedly handle the rape scene in a way that crushes our spirits – but things come about, like an hour after the rape we learn that before they met Annie was telling Charlie she wants to know what his cum tastes like and so on, but in an ephemeral scene. Her promiscuity so ignored as to (and this is my assumption) not offend viewers and blame her at all for what transpired.

One last problem – or rather an expansion on a quibble I had above – is how dismissive the film is of Will and his actions. The ending essential has him admit his trying to stop sexual predators with hopes of protecting other families is wrong and that the right course of action is to love your child and be sensitive to them and only them. I don’t know where I personally stand on this – “If I was in the same situation what would I do?” – but I know that no matter my choice I wouldn’t treat those who felt the other the right course of action with contempt. It’s a difficult state of contemplation that Schwimmer and company absolutely flatten by the end. It’s made all the more unjustifiable because the final act is essentially two ideologies repetitively clashing: Will acts, his daughter reacts; Will acts, his wife reacts. In a sense I get where the filmmakers are coming from – the character decides to change his outlook because it’s hurting his family too much – but he does it with such finality that it’s impossible to find the resolve at the very least a bit dishonest.

Throughout the film there is discussion about what is right and wrong when it comes to age difference in sexual and/or emotional relationships – it’s even a point of conversation at the beginning of the film where Will’s work associate (Noah Emmerich, six years older than the actor who plays Charlie) hits on a nineteen year old waitress. Subtract the six, the waitress is the age Annie is at the very start of the film and there’s your food for thought. Of course the way the film develops leaves little room for a rational discussion to occur since the film’s focus does brush it to the side, leaving that idea very unfulfilled and viewers dissatisfied.

In the end, Trust is mostly an exercise in traditionalist ideologies which knows what’s black and what’s white, too afraid to openly discuss or even believe of a gray. However, when it isn’t being a surface-y cautionary tale, it can be quite dark and as dramatically compelling as anything that has or will come out this year. It is technically flawed, structurally convenient and lacks panache, yet is commendable for how boldly it tackles pedophilia and the unconventional distress its protagonist undertakes. If nothing else, this film will attack your emotions and leave you drained. It is a mixed bag, surely, but for all its errors and irritants, Trust somehow manages to be more than the sum of its parts and a film that is both worthwhile and memorable.

Starring “Who’s?” Dane Clark, Alexis Smith and Zachary Scott, 1948’s Whiplash is a film that has the appearance of a B movie, but comes together more like an A.

It’s the story of a man loving a mysterious woman only for her to up and disappear and for him to take no other course of action but to find her. Michael Gordon (Dane Clark) is an amateur boxer with a passion for painting and his woman is the wealthy, but lonely Laurie (Alexis Smith). When she disappears, he follows a package from the beaches of California to its New York destination and discovers that she’s married to former professional boxer Rex Durant (Zachary Scott), a man who was forced into retirement before his chance at gold when was involved in a serious car accident. Self-flagellating at the news of Laurie’s depressed intent to remain with Rex until her last breath, Michael allows himself to be managed by the pernicious Rex who, since the crash, lives vicariously through his prospects in hopes to achieve the gold he himself was never able.

This film has many very interesting psychological underpinnings – especially in the Rex and Dr. Vincent (Laurie’s brother, Jeffrey Lynn) characters. It is plotting is very unconventional; straying from formulaic structure the way I’m sure Rex wish he could have before his accident and keeping interest at a high until its end credits. The lead performances leave something to be desired — this film would have been a classic if John Garfield played Michael as opposed to Dane Clark who tries to channel the preliminary method actor and if, lets say, Gloria Grahame had the role of his hopeless love interest — but all in all this is a perfectly structured little film that really only lacks inspiration in the least offensive of ways. The music could have been better, the cinematography (which is actually quite neat) could have been more elaborate/more noiry, and the lead performances could have been deeper, but nothing that is offered is remotely bad and for 90 minutes you’ll be charmed, and maybe even impress, with what this little feature has to say about how the mind and conscience struggle to coexist in times of great sacrifice.

Retracing his steps back to his roots in Portland, Oregon, director Aaron Katz has left the quiet city of New York to dabble in genre and present to us his spin on the mystery genre. For about forty minutes, Cold Weather is a film about a young man who has lost his scholastic ambition to become a crime scene investigator who works part time at an ice factory. For forty minutes, the only mystery to behold is “Where is that young man’s personality?” because its protagonist, Doug (Cris Lankenau) does nothing but waif around like a hipster with a lobotomy. For the following fifty minutes, there’s plenty more in terms of plot and character relationship – not development, just in how its characters interact with one and other – but that first question still strongly burns.

Though purposely vague, the story is essentially about a Sherlock Holmes loving 20-something teaming up with his coworker and sister to uncover the reason behind his ex-girlfriend’s questionable disappearance. Carlos is the easily fascinated coworker; Gail marked by the same blandness as Doug (must be in their DNA – guess that solves the ever-burning question); and Rachel is the ex-girlfriend who is sweet and has verve and who I personally couldn’t believe would have any interest dating someone like Doug at any point in her life (then again, I can’t see anyone being interested in the anhedonic Doug, especially romantically).

For as poor as the development of story (forty minutes? really?) and character (why is Doug this way?) are, Cold Weather is worth a watch on its genre twisting merit alone. It certainly won’t have any value on a rewatch, but the unpredictability of independent artistic control coupled with the uneasiness of the film’s settings — dimly lit bedrooms and cold, dark corridors — make this mystery one of potentially fatal consequences and subsequently, a rather engrossing watch.

However, when Katz is not deftly focusing on the mystery at hand, his feature has a tendancy of being and feeling monolithic with its monotony; its too frequently misplaced wry humor which is neither clever nor funny and its aforementioned lifeless protagonist.In turn, the scenes in which his protagonist cracks jokes are severely misjudged because it encourages his viewers to doubt the competence and morality of its protagonist; competence and morals being the only two positive aspects Doug possesses. For example, he spends crucial time that should be spent figuring out clues which may lead to the rescue of Rachel driving to a smoke store and picking himself out a pipe with hilarious consequences because, oh, he forgets to purchase tobacco, and oh, he makes low energy remarks on how underwhelming his pipe is.

Another point of ridicule can be the fact that Doug neglects to inform the police about Rachel’s mysterious disappearance. Now, personally I had no problem with this because it is meant to be a journey of self-discovery and his renewed appreciation for sleuthing, but at the same time this can be characterized at nepotistic (which it is, but the degrees of annoyance vary on how much you buy the set-up) and then what you’re left with is this dimwitted guy willing to risk someone’s life so that he can kill time doing something fascinating on what is essentially his lonesome.

From my perspective, Cold Weather is half of a great movie marred by complete self-indulgence on the part of Aaron Katz. It’s not quite offensive, but it is onanistic and resultantly only for like-minded nepotists. Passable for the tension amassed in the final stretch, but negligible for its tediousness.

In 2009, at the age of 19 — every critic remarks on this — Xavier Dolan debut his feature debut I Killed My Mother at Cannes, winning a few prizes out of competition in Un Certain Regard. Being a Canadian film, I passed on it at TIFF that year. It had had its cinematic run in Quebec a few months prior and I figured either the DVD would be out soon and I could rent it or the film would be soon released in cinemas. February 2010: it gets its Toronto release (nine months after its run in Quebec). It plays at Varsity theater for three weeks – I miss it. The film is never released on DVD in Ontario or anywhere else in the world with English subtitles. It was only until a few weeks ago when it made its DVD release in the UK did the film have any proper English subtitles and thus it has been two years since its debut cinematic release for this highly talked about film for be viewable by myself or any other non-French speakers. And really, after all this wait, the most positive thing I can say of this film is that it is an easy watch only because its style is so present and never once intrusive. (I apologize for the prelude, but believe me, when you’re waiting for subtitles to arrive every month for nearly two years, you’ll want to vent about it a little when it passes.)

Exuding teenage angst in every scene featuring sixteen year old protagonist Hubert (Xavier Dolan), I Killed My Mother does exactly what you’d anticipate a film by a teenager to do. Where it succeeds in stimulating the senses, it fails in presenting an unbiased account of a teenager’s loneliness. In fact, Dolan does the opposite for his image and struggling teenagers by making his protagonist appear as insolent and unsympathetic as a character has been in recent memory. If this were a satire on the selfishness of Generation X, it would be hilarious if rather abrasive. As it is, it’s simply a self-indulgent, self-satisfying feature.

However, the key to appreciating this film is in its mother-son relationship. In order to feel for Hubert we must look toward his maternal combatant to understand why he is the way he is. In this way, the film partially works by having one abhorrent – and again, selfish – person resulting in the psychological makeup of another. But then at times Hubert is much worse than his mother (Anne Dorval) – he’s far more snide and spiteful toward her than she is of him – which, by the end, makes her the more sympathetic character… and she’s not sympathetic herself.

Here’s a rundown of all the things I disliked about Hubert: He’s too shouty, he’s very hyperbolic, he’s completely insincere – even in the self-recorded monologues he says things wherein I doubt the truth – he tells his father that he’s hanging out with a girl when really he’s studying with his boyfriend, he feels superior to everyone and everything around him… there’s nothing to like about the guy. It’s made all the worse because Dolan isn’t a very convincing actor. He has a few good moments – the scene where his father/mother confront him; the little tirade he puts on is great – but for the most part he lacks genuineness. Even in the self-recorded monologue he sneers in a false way. If he weren’t so busy also directing the film, perhaps the performance would have been more honest and consistent and the character more redeemable, but it doesn’t work as such.

The script has great problems too. Xavier Dolan wrote the script (he really put all of himself into this) which has good bits of dialogue here and there and one really hilarious scene involving his mother meeting his boyfriend’s mother at a tanning salon (brief, but had me in stitches) but on a whole it does a poor job in piecing together how Hubert regards his mother. There’ll be scenes where be derides her for being a slob while eating or lambasts her for treating him poorly, and then that’ll be all the communication they have for the film, but he’ll say in his monologues how, if they met each other as strangers they’d be friends, or that he loves her. I don’t see this in any of the encounters he and she share — not even remotely — so it’s impossible to buy these sympathetic offerings as true.

That brings me to the film’s most impressive aspect: its direction. Although I have great reservations with the script and Dolan’s performance, I must give him high marks for how he composed the feature. It’s very derivative, but its done in such a way which harkens on films aficionados love and admire. Framing devices are ripped right out of Jeanne Dielman, a slew of Godard films and a few others from the French New Wave, but it isn’t at all offensive because Dolan handles these shots with such poise and respect. He knows he’s not doing anything new, so it all comes together in a very modest way. Same goes for the music – he’s using pieces that he holds dear to himself, from classic orchestrations to a track by Crystal Castles – which has the exact same effect. So while I Killed My Mother wasn’t a good film, I’m still really interested in what Xavier Dolan will do with his career. He’s got a great handle on how to craft a film from a director’s standpoint – all he needs is to mature as a writer and actor (or cast other people and focus on his strong suit) and he’ll be a great asset to cinema.

What can I say about Cristi Puiu’s Aurora? It’s large (three hours long), it’s cold, it’s distant, it’s bleak… it’s monolithic. It’s intelligent, it’s suspenseful, it’s fascinating, it’s engrossing… it’s brilliant.

I’m not going to reveal the plot of this film, so you’ll have to trust me when I applaud it. If you’d like a taste, it’s essentially an hour of a middle-aged man, Viorel (played by Puiu) walking around collecting debts and getting pieces together for a gun. The next two hours are him planning to use the gun and using it in mysterious and never completely understood ways. When I wrote my review for Tuesday, After Christmas I said of the Romanian New Wave – (it) has only worked perfectly when the script possessed and required in its direction ominousness – and Aurora is replete with exactly that.

While watching the film, it was funny to think to myself all of the relationships Aurora has with other features. Be it Puiu’s debut work Stuff and Dough wherein we don’t know what’s in the box the teenagers are transporting (the same can be said for Viorel’s psychology and what exactly it is he’s trying to convey with his actions) or The Godfather which runs at the exact same length, is about the criminal underworld, and strives to say a lot more and present a lot more to its audience in its run time than Puiu’s latest. The last comparison isn’t one many people will have, but for me it was surprisingly to be far more engaged by the sparsity that is Aurora in comparison to how I felt watching the word-heavy, action-ready Coppola masterpiece. They’re each successful for different reasons, but I’d say Aurora is all the more so by so adeptly representing human psychology. The final twenty minutes are outfitted with more dialogue than the rest of the film – perhaps a page out of Police, Adjective‘s playbook? – which, unlike Porumboiu’s second feature, doesn’t outwardly express what the feature had been about up to the point of confrontation, but rather diverges its course from what we would expect or desire him to say (something conclusive) and says something much more profound about how we judge one and other. We can’t know a person from their actions, from what they do in the privacy of their own room, from how they speak; this is Puiu’s outcry for society to readjust its speculative ways and resist the urge to rumor and know that you only know yourself to be sure. An observational masterwork by the best director going. His performance is wonderful, too.

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