Three Films – January 15th, 2010

Man, what a downer this week has been – Conan leaving the Tonight Show, Raimi being kicked off (or leaving of his own accord, depending on who your ear is tuned in to) of Spider-Man 4, The Book of Eli being released to middling reviews, and so on. However, on the upside, there have been a couple of interesting rumors floating around that are enough to pique anyone’s interest – Brad Pitt and Matt Damon in Miller’s Happy Feet 2, all of that kind of thing.

And so, it doesn’t seem strange at all that I’ve got three films, here – two of which are focused almost exclusively on death and monotonous hardship, and the other on success and self-individualization. How – appropriate.

Australian director John Hillcoat’s adaptation of McCarthy’s The Road comes to us enshrouded in a constant, suffocating and enveloping greyness – in the air, on the ground, in the houses, everywhere; even in the terse, gauntly-drawn faces of The Man and The Boy, wandering perpetually toward “the coast,” and a vague promise of salvation that’s only just kept the both of them going. This is Hillcoat’s attempt at presenting the apocalypse without mythologization, or context – the film moves in a manner very much like McCarthy’s fractured yet rhythmic prose, with sudden, short fits of dialogue that come with vaguely implied italics. There is very little room for grand heroism, here – these people are far too hungry and cold for that; death and suicide have become commonplace here, so much so that it’s become a daily habit of practice for the father and son pair.

The film seems to find itself in those long stretches of time where The Boy and The Man wandering from one side of the frame to the other in Javier Aguirresarobe’s low-lit and lyrical cinematography, through the rubble of humanity – their meeting with Michael William’s and Robert Duvall’s characters, or a piece of sleep in an abandoned eighteen wheeler on the side of a highway bypass, or the escape from a house of cannibals, who’ve rounded up on starved and skeletal stock and locked them all in the basement, where they seem to simultaneously emerge and shrink from the smallest crack of light. It’s at these points, these ‘day to day’ explorations of the horror and amorality that’s infected the world, like a long, unending walk through a perpetually rainy day – that the film strikes upon something sudden and immediate, a vision of the future as frightening and terrifying as any. There are very few people wearing anything as nice as a leather jacket, here – instead, everyone is all smelly, gnarled flesh and rotted teeth, and wild eyes that bug out from the skull as a result of a lack of sustenance. And, then it hits you – the thing that’s so visually familiar about the characters – they’re homeless that you pass on the way to work, every day, and they are the future. There’s a constant fear of being followed that pervades the film, with Mortensen’s character attacking the nearest approaching strangers under that same assumption – one that finds itself reversed, near the end. The father’s needful simplification of the world the two of them face finds itself challenged, and ultimately expanded – in lieu of compassion.

Hillcoat’s problem comes in when he attempts to force McCarthy’s wildly undulating and purposefully contextually ambiguous prose into something resembling a linear narrative – and, one with a great deal of reliance on the occasional flashback, none of which really add especially anything to the film, which is a little strange, now that I think about it –  and away from the tropes of the genre that McCarthy’s book had sprung from. He’s made an honest effort to keep his film out from under the shadow of Mad Max – which is something very few films of this sort do – but, the whole point of the novel was presenting those tropes and situations without their backing, and in a few cases subverting them, and the novel acknowledges this a couple of times, with its use of Western iconography that is strangely absent from Hillcoat’s film. There’s also a strange set-piece involving an earth-quake and rumbling trees that feels out-of-place given what the film has established about itself before. Still and all, the film’s frequently lyrical nature – a lot like the kind that Michael Haneke utilized in Time of the Wolf, although perhaps a bit more formally involved than that – gives it a starkly hypnotic power that can’t be denied under any circumstance.

Mortensen and Smit-McPhee forge an honest relationship, as father and son – this is one of the former’s best performances, most certainly. And, it’s going to be interesting to see what becomes of the latter. He’s got a head on him, and  a pair of eyes that carry well past the barrier of the screen. It was said that, in his off time during the film’s production, Mortensen hung out with the homeless who’d settled around the film’s shooting locations, using them to reinforce the mood and the disposition of his character – and, it shows well. His face is constantly slack, weary, tired – his voice monotonous and gravelly, yet underneath there’s an edge of pleading that makes it seems very much like he wouldn’t feel out of place asking you for fifty cents so he’d be able to get something to eat. And, you’d give it to him, without argument.

Drew Barrymore’s Whip It! wraps what is ostensibly a pretty conventional story in the dense atmosphere of Texas that the director renders with a considerably tangy aplomb – from the small, two-horse towns that the two main characters come from, to the eye-opening urban cityscapes of Austin that acts as an escape from the perpetual doldrums, scattered here and there with an emphasis on local landmarks and underground musical figures like Daniel Johnston. It’s funny, because none of that comes off as the type of cloying name-dropping personified by someone like a Diablo Cody – it’s cultural context, and a part of the subculture that these characters move around in. Although, something I did find a little weird about this was – and, it’s nothing too big, don’t get me wrong – there is such an implicit focus on these things, and yet there’s no Spoon on the soundtrack. There’s a lot of stuff by The Dambuilders, but they’re from Boston – yet, no Spoon. Very strange, Barrymore.

What’s intriguing about this film is that there are so many familiar elements here – including a few smaller ones, like a romp in an indoor swimming pool, that don’t come off quite as well as the rest – and yet, Barrymore’s found a way to present them in a such an honest light that there’s a bit more life than usual, in these common tropes. She’s taken the outline of past films of a similar nature, and she’s invested in it a great deal of care – in the relationship between Bliss and her parents, in the yearning to escape from the confines of Bodeen that comes off with a great deal of unexpected potency for anyone whose been in just such a situation, and in the roller derby itself, in particular.  Of course, a lot of this is also due to Ellen Page, who here demonstrates that she’s possessed of far tougher stuff than we’ve seen of her, previously.

Austin’s all-girl roller-derbies are the stuff of legend, folks. I’ve never been to one, myself – Austin being a helluva long drive from here, you understand – but, man. Even here, there’s a greater sense of honesty than you’d see elsewhere – it’s basically held in a basement with dingy lighting, and there’s the faint tinge of beer and sweat hanging in the air, everywhere. More than anything, it’s a social event, like any other concert or gathering – it kind of reminded me of the time I saw My Bloody Valentine play the Palladium, last year. People just kind of wandering around the building with an aimless look in their eyes, not really paying any attention to what they’d came to see initially, stopping at stands, wandering outside. Here, Barrymore follows her skaters, and Page in particular, through long and elaborate tracking shots as they make their way round and round the track – it’s visceral, and when there is body contact, or when someone’s head ends up smacking against the hardwood, you can really feel the brunt of the force behind the blow.

It’s a familiar story, and it’s told with a great deal of personal familiarity. And, Ellen Page in a bikini – let’s have more like this, please.

I don’t think there’s anything more to say about Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones after Roger Ebert’s astounding – and yes, entirely spot-on – ball busting of the film from a couple of days ago, but for the sake of being a relevant Filmist, I’ll throw something up here. The source the film is based on is another of those relatively saccharine young-adult novels with the back-lit covers that’s received a bit more critical attention than most of its brethren – although, according to most reviews that I’ve read, it still falls victim to most of the problems that commonly infect the rest of the book-rack, and in some cases, in an even greater fashion than most, being that it’s a book about the rape and murder of a child.  For his part, Peter Jackson has eschewed most of the latter half of the novel, which falls into such ridiculousness that Ebert’s head might just have exploded if they’d kept it all. But, unfortunately, the film keeps several of those larger points of ridicule – including the laughable death-by-icicle  of Stanley Tucci’s Mr. Harvey, near the end.

It’s a shame that Jackson is working with such sub-sub pot-boiler level material, here, because he occasionally strikes upon some poignant imagery, mostly in the personal afterlife of the main character, which allows him free-reign to throw up his imaginary pastels and giant ships-in-bottle in all his surrealistic want. And, it’s a shame about the girl playing the main character, because she does well as the center of the film, with an almost luminous pair of blue eyes – and, Marky Mark, who plays her father, as well.

Take it away, Roger.

***

Ooh!

…Also, readers of mine, I’ve been offered a place on the writing staff of Chazz Lyon’s  Gone Cinema Poaching web-zine, where I’ll be writing a biweekly column alongside good ol’ boy Glenn Heath and other assorted company, come some time in the next few weeks or so. So, keep an eye out, y’know.

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