Friday, December 7, 2012

Orphaned Films of 2011-2012

My year-end movie lists only take into account films that received public theatrical screenings in the Milwaukee area between January 1st and December 31st of the year in question.  Because options for seeing many independent and international films theatrically are limited in Milwaukee, a number of films manage to slip through the cracks and miss the city entirely.  Some relatively high profile films are deemed by their distributors to be too important to screen at the Milwaukee Film Festival or at the UWM Union Theatre, even as the management of the Landmark Theatre chains decide that the films aren’t commercial enough to devote screen space to.  The films listed below are all fairly major releases that came out in some parts of the U.S. in 2011 or early 2012, but never made it to Milwaukee theatres, most likely for the reasons outlined above, thereby making them ineligible for either my 2011 or 2012 year-end lists.  They are all movies I was interested in seeing, so I caught up with them either on DVD or on Netflix streaming, and my brief thoughts on them are presented here.

The Future (Miranda July, USA, 91 min.) 
Ever since her impressive breakthrough Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) made her a well-known indie figure, Miranda July has had to battle against naysayers claiming that her art is overly twee and precious.  The Future seems like a direct response to July’s critics. The film follows two stunted thirtysomethings (July and Hamish Linklater) as they set aside a month to do all of the vaguely defined awesome stuff that they’d be doing if they weren’t tied down by their menial jobs.  July is clearly critical of her characters’ inability to grow up and be productive, and her incisive takedown of post-grad stasis has real sting (and hits pretty close to home, honestly).  Her various methods of stylizing her points have mixed success, though.  Periodic narration from a cat that the couple plan to adopt and a bizarre interpretive dance are surprisingly effective, but asides featuring a young girl burying herself up to her neck in her backyard and an eccentric old man reading sexually explicit love letters seem less purposeful.  B-

 House of Pleasures (Bertrand Bonello, France, 122 min.)
Bertrand Bonello’s look at a financially troubled Parisian brothel circa 1899-1900 manages to simultaneously work as a dreamy piece of vintage eroticism and a matter of fact look at the brutal struggles that have always accompanied the world’s oldest profession.  The hazy, impressionistic tone is frequently disrupted by moments of stark brutality (the slashing of one prostitute’s face, the acting out of a creepy “human doll” fetish).  But rather than overplay the misery of the sex workers’ situation (or the boorishness of their clientele), Bonello turns the film into an oddly touching tribute to the camaraderie between them.  The director’s more eccentric stylistic choices yield somewhat mixed results – he makes effective use of split screen at several points, but his anachronistic use of classic R&B seems a little pointless.  Still, no one can say that House of Pleasures isn’t distinctive.  The film’s most audacious image, involving a prostitute crying tears of milky semen, reportedly inspired derisive laughter at Cannes, but is genuinely disquieting in context.  B

Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, USA, 150 min.)
Margaret was perhaps a bit overhyped by critics sympathetic to its tortured production history (it was filmed in 2005, then endlessly delayed when the studio insisted that writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s epic vision be cut down to 2 ½ hours or less).  While the film’s messiness is ultimately purposeful, in the sense that it mirrors real life rather than conforming to a familiar story structure, it is true that some of the supporting characters (portrayed by an exceptional ensemble cast that includes Matt Damon, Jean Reno, Kieran Culkin, Mark Ruffalo, and Matthew Broderick) get short shrift in this somewhat compromised cut.  That said, it’s hard to think of another film that provides such a thorough look at the life and psychology of its main character (Anna Paquin in a fearless, career-best performance), a high school student who manages to turn the accidental death of a woman (Allison Janney) into the center of her own personal melodrama.  It’s only because the film is so long and rambling that Lonergan is able to touch on virtually every facet of his protagonist’s life, exposing her undeveloped yet passionate political views in classroom debates one moment and revealing her vulnerability in an awkwardly tender bedroom scene the next.  Though the film mostly plays out in a series of raw, Cassavetes-style personal interactions, it is ultimately more intellectually engaging than some of the more obviously ambitious films of recent years.  Where The Tree of Life (2011) and The Master (2012) reference a few big themes without really having much to say about them, the seemingly more modest Margaret manages to make compelling points about topics ranging from the solipsism of youth to the stress of living in post-9/11 New York to the relationship between art and life.  B+

 The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski, Poland, 92 min.) 
Lech Majewski’s wildly stylized film follows the creation of Pieter Brueghel’s 1564 painting “The Procession to Calvalry,” which depicts a huge cast of characters going about their daily business even as Christ is crucified among them.  Using a sophisticated combination of studio sets, CGI, and massive reproductions of the painting, Majewski imagines that Brueghel (potrayed here by Rutger Hauer) is actually roaming about inside the world that he is painting.  The conceit is certainly gimmicky, and the film arguably never amounts to much more than a pleasant bit of art appreciation, but the power of its images (whether taken directly from Brueghel or created by Majewski) shouldn’t be underestimated.  B-

 Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo, Mexico, 113 min.)
Miss Bala boasts one of the most audacious premises of any film in recent memory, as it finds an impoverished beauty pageant contestant (Stephanie Sigman) getting caught in the middle of an inexplicable drug war.  Considering how wild the film’s plot is, and how technically impressive director Gerardo Naranjo’s many lengthy tracking shots are, Miss Bala feels oddly bland on a stylistic level.  It’s as if Naranjo couldn’t decide whether he wanted to go for surreal allegory or gritty verisimilitude, for exploitative action or harsh drama, and instead settled on a muted neutral style that makes the film feel less distinguished than it probably should.  Unfortunately the lack of a clear aesthetic prevents the film from being as gripping as it seems like it should be, though there are some strong moments scattered throughout.  C+

Project Nim (James Marsh, UK, 93 min.) 
James Marsh showed a talent for chronicling bizarre pieces of recent history with his terrific 2008 documentary Man on Wire, which detailed the events surrounding an illegal tightrope walk between the Twin Towers.  Project Nim, which documents a group of hippie researchers’ barely scientific attempt to raise a chimp as a human child, boasts a similarly eccentric subject but has a considerably more predictable story.  You can probably guess exactly how well the researchers’ project is going to go without knowing anything about the unusual real life story or without seeing a second of this film.  Still, the tale is swiftly edited and never less than compelling.  B-

Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman, USA, 121 min.) 
Before becoming a full-time film professor, Monte Hellman made an interesting career out of directing films like Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Cockfighter (1974), which intriguingly straddle the line between grungy American-style exploitation and moody European-style art films.  Sadly, Hellman’s first feature since 1989 is a tediously self-indulgent attempt at psychodrama.  The story follows the troubled production of a noir film based on a real-life political assassination, with the director (a sleepy Tygh Runyan) becoming increasingly unable to distinguish between his film and real life.  Hellman continuously pulls the rug out from under the audience, which makes it impossible to get invested in the film as a suspenseful thriller, but because he keeps doing it in the same way (by either revealing that scenes that seem to be part of the film production are actually supposed to be happening in real life, or vice versa), Road to Nowhere also fails as an arty mind-fuck.  Hopefully this boring mess won’t be Hellman’s last testament.   D

 Tabloid (Errol Morris, USA, 87 min.)
Veteran documentarian Errol Morris tends to be at his best when dealing with eccentric “truth is stranger than fiction” stories rather than following controversial famous people or current hot-button issues.  So it’s really no surprise that the outrageous true story of a beauty queen’s possible abduction of a Mormon missionary is Morris’ most compelling work in decades.  The ambiguities surrounding the case – it seems equally likely that the missionary was a victim of sexual abuse or that he was an enthusiastic participant in a bizarre globe-trotting publicity stunt – only make the tale more interesting, and the beauty queen’s inexplicable eagerness to detail her possibly criminal acts ensure that the story remains wildly entertaining at all times.  Given how intriguing the story is, Morris’ attempts to stylize it by adopting certain techniques of tabloid journalism seem unnecessary and a bit distracting.  Still, this documentary is about as purely entertaining as any narrative film released in the past few years.  B

The Woman (Lucky McKee, USA, 101 min.) 
Considering how controversial The Woman was when it screened at Sundance, where an audience member leapt to his feet to demand that the film be banned, I expected it to at least be provocative and interesting.  Alas, this attempt at a feminist take on the “torture porn” horror subgenre is too ridiculous to be truly disturbing, and too poorly made to be taken seriously.  Director Lucky McKee (who co-wrote the script with author Jack Ketchum) deserves some credit for having more on his mind than simply filming his most grisly thoughts (and honestly, the violence here is less graphic than what is routinely seen in the popular Saw series).  The film’s premise, which involves a small-town businessman (Sean Bridgers) attempting to “civilize” a feral woman (Pollyanna McIntosh), has all sorts of dark satirical potential as a sort of rural horror version of The Wild Child (1970).  But because Bridgers is immediately exposed as a wife-abusing, child-molesting rapist, the film wastes whatever points it might have been able to make about our society’s warped concept of “normalcy” by failing to make its protagonist/villain recognizably human.  The Woman also loses points for including an incredibly stupid twist toward its end, and for featuring some of the lousiest background music in the entire history of cinema.  Some movies simply don’t deserve a wide release.   D-

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