Friday, September 30, 2011

Take this Waltz (2011)

The 31st Atlantic Film Festival


While I waited for Take this Waltz to begin, I was forced to listen to three quarters of the two old couples seated behind me try to convince the fourth that Sarah Polley, the film's writer and director, is, indeed, famous in some small way. They really couldn't come up with any examples; they knew that she'd done Away from Her, but they were totally blanking on her acting career, aside from mentioning that she was in that film "about the bus crash." I wanted to shout at them: "she's the kid from Road to Avonlea, for Christ's sake!" She is, essentially, the most Canadian actor in Canada. And that's something.

And, indeed, the fact that Sarah was the face of Road to Avonlea from 1990-1996--when I was ages 9 to 15--left me with a great deal of resentment toward her, which, thankfully, I've been able to brush off. For those unfamiliar with the show, it existed in the same fictional universe as Anne of Green Gables ("fictional" because it features the same characters, not because PEI is imaginary). It won four Emmys, which is impressive, since I didn't know that Canadian television qualified for that award. In any event, what seemed like the show's ubiquitous presence led me, at a young age, to the incorrect impression that Canadian entertainment was focused almost entirely on rural, conflict-free period pieces. How awful. If only I'd known David Cronenberg then...

Anyway, Take This Waltz stars the lovely and talented Michelle Williams, and the lovely and talented Sarah Silverman, and, uh, Seth Rogen. The story is nothing especially new: it focuses on Margot (Michelle Williams), a naive and spritely girl, who is married to Lou (Seth Rogen), a seemingly well-meaning fellow, who is writing a cookbook entirely on chicken. At the beginning of the film, Margot meets Daniel (Luke Kirby), to whom she has an immediately and profound attraction. This is problematic, since she loves her husband and wants to stay loyal to him, but finds herself drawn to Daniel, who lives directly across the street. And also there's Geraldine (Sarah Silverman), Lou's sister, who happens to be an alcoholic. Domestic drama ensues.

Sure, it's not an original story. So what? People are constantly cheating, or tempted to cheat, or unhappy with their life, or happy with it, but wondering if they can be happier. This shit happens. And Take This Waltz is, for lack of a better word, Canadian, and therefore worth watching.

What does it mean, for a film to be "Canadian"? It's hard to pin down. Just being made in Canada, or by Canadians, doesn't cut it. Most of David Cronenberg's films, up to and including eXistenZ, are very Canadian. The ones afterwards are not so Canadian. Most of Bruce McDonald's films qualify, but especially Highway 61 and Roadkill. Early Atom Egoyan. Norman Jewison is Canadian, but his films are not. Denis Villeneuve's films look too good to be Canadian, but one of them, Maelstrom, is narrated by a fish, and that's unbelievably Canadian. Anything featuring Don McKellar or Sook-Yin Li is Canadian, even if it isn't. Ryan Gosling is going to have to reaffirm his Canadianness soon, or I'll gladly strip him of it. Etc. I can clarify in the comments, if necessary. This list is objective.

Take This Waltz is Canadian because it assaults you with honesty. It doesn't let off anyone easy; the three main characters are all complicit in the infidelity (or the possibility of it). It doesn't make it easy on the audience, either; you can see why Margot is in a conundrum. And also, because it's so goddamn Canadian, everyone is really nice and polite while it's happening, and not in some unbelievable way, either. It also does a good job of effectively mixing dramatic and comedic modes, which can sometimes be tricky: "dramedy" is not a term that excites this particular film-goer.

A lot of the film's honesty comes from Williams. I don't know how to explain it, but Michelle Williams has the most honest face in show business. Her face is a raw nerve. That might not make sense, but that's the best way I can put it.

Based on reading the few message boards I lurk at, and speaking to a couple of people in person, I'm lead to believe that people have really soured on Seth Rogen. He gets a free pass with me. Why? Because the dude has remained unabashedly Canadian. He played a Canadian in Knocked Up and Undeclared, even though the fact of his characters' origins were totally irrelevant to those shows' plots. And here he's undoubtedly taking a pay cut to be in a Sarah Polley movie. That's unheard of. I mean, when I think of other successful Canadian comedic actors, I think of Jim Carrey, for instance, who currently seems about as Canadian as Bill Clinton.

Watching the film, I couldn't help but think about how some films, when focusing on human relationships, want you to take what happens in the two hour running time (or even an individual scene) and accept it as an encapsulation of the whole relationship; in other words, if you're shown some scenes of two people in a bad relationship, you should take it as a given that the relationship, as whole, is like this. But some directors, or artists, don't want it that way: what they're offering you is a snapshot, one that might not be representative of the whole. And it's hard to tell, sometimes, which example you're watching. Margot and Lou's relationship seems very immature--they narrate fantastic ways of murdering each other as a show of endearment--and largely sexless. But is that true of the relationship as a whole, or only the moments offered? The film leaves it up to you, and if you interpret it one way or the other, your sympathies could change.

Anyway, support Canadian films and watch this fucking movie.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Sleeping Beauty (2011)


The 31st Atlantic Film Festival

Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty has been described as an erotic drama, or even as erotica. I think that description might be misleading. I suppose that any time that you have a film with lots of nudity and implied sex, you feel obligated to warn the audience, in some fashion, about the subject matter, but "erotica" seems to imply that that subject matter will be, well, erotic. The sex (all off-screen, actually) and nudity in this film is usually just kind of sad and depressing.

Lucy (an astonishingly beautiful Emily Browning) is a student who needs money. Or possibly just wants it. She works two jobs--one as an office assistant, one as a waitress (or bus boy)--and she also engages in medical experiments, which I assume she's being paid for. The medical experiment involves a long tube being inserted into her throat, and down into her chest; the doctor (or scientist) then seems to measure how much air pressure he can put into her. It's, obviously, quite weird. Lucy lives at a friend's house, and her friend's boyfriend (friend? husband? lover?) keeps pestering her for the rent. Lucy then answers an ad in the student newspaper, and finds a job doing a "silver service"; dressed up in her undergarments, she joins a group of semi-nude women as they serve rich old people decadent food.

And then it gets weirder. Lucy soon finds herself offering a rather depressing service: she allows herself to be drugged, so that old rich men may do to her whatever they want--except, for some reason, penetrate her. That, apparently, is out of the question. "Your vagina is a temple," the madam, Clara, tells Lucy. "No, it's not," replies Lucy. Certainly she doesn't feel that way; off the job, she picks up men for sex at a club.

Lucy also has a friend named Birdmann, whom she visits on occasion, usually to supply with vodka. Birdmann seems to be drinking himself to death. This makes Lucy sad, but not so sad as to really do anything about it. They have a very close, very intimate relationship, but it's never revealed if they are, or ever were, lovers.

It's hard to know what to make of Sleeping Beauty. It's disturbing, yes; the fact that these old men want to do whatever they feel like to a young, sleeping woman, is obviously unsettling, and somehow the fact that they don't allow full penetration makes it even more so. This opportunity that the men have--to be with a woman, unobserved, even by the woman--creates even more intimate, and obviously more unequal (and ultimately more pathetic) situation. But the tone seems quite uneven. The stilted dialogue of the old man--there is one who gets an extended monologue--seems almost satiric, or, if not satiric, then just actually bad.

But I think that the film does a lot of things right. It never tries to explain Lucy; we don't really know anything about her. I see her actions, but I don't get to know what motivates these actions. I don't know, for instance, why she needs money--she mentions an alcoholic mother, and she does speak to her, once, on the phone, but you only get Lucy's side of the conversation, and, in any event, you never see her sending money anyway (though she does give her mother her credit card number). Is this an important detail, or a red herring? There's no illumination into her relationship with Birdmann, either; how do they know each other? What is there history? And why does her roommate's boyfriend want her out so badly? Like I said, I think that this is the right decision; it would be difficult to explain Lucy's story, her motivations, and even if you did, you'd risk shifting the focus of the movie away from the situation she's in, and instead making it into a sort of melodrama. In any event, knowing and understanding Lucy wouldn't really get us any further in understanding the weird world she enters. It's less important to know why Lucy is doing what she's doing, than to speculate as to why her johns are doing what they're doing--and their motivation is something that you need to consider for yourself.

And I think that this is tied, in a way, to the fact that a movie about sex never actually shows any sex; sure, it shows some graphic scenes of a sexual nature, but any real sex happens off screen. What does happen on-screen would actually be fairly tame (by art house film standards), but the context tends to make it uncomfortable.

The film is beautifully shot, and I couldn't help but notice how few cuts there were in each scene. This is something that, over time, I've really come to appreciate. If the actors are performing one action, it's usually depicted in one shot. Conversations, which aren't overly verbose, but still involve some back-and-forth dialogue, are also shot without cuts. It slows the pace of the film down, a bit, but it gives you a better appreciation of the actual performances, and comes off as much more natural.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011)


The 31st Atlantic Film Festival

It still seems weird that Werner Herzog shot a film in 3D. And it was weird--filing into a sold-out movie theatre with a bunch of elderly cinephiles and middle-aged hipsters, overhearing pretentious discussions about Herzog's "ecstatic truth" in Aguirre, or whatever, and donning 3D glasses to watch a documentary, of all things. But despite the 3D aspect, this was, in the end, a very Werner Herzog-like Werner Herzog film. It had everything you've come to expect from him: a remote location, difficult to shoot in; odd, eccentric characters, mugging for the camera; and Herzog's incomparable narration.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams provides the audience with a tour of the Chauvet Cave, where, in 1994, the earliest cave paintings in human history were discovered--carbon-dating shows that some of them are 35,000 years old (take that, Creationists!). While I certainly don't know much about cave paintings, the ones I remember seeing were always pretty primitive-looking; just a step above stick figures, really. These paintings, on the other hand, are quite involved, and quite graceful; the artists understood shading, for one, and they attempted, in different ways, to capture motion in their still images.

And I have to admit that the 3D format really worked, at least for the scenes in the cave. The artists used the shape of the cave when making their paintings, so it makes sense that Herzog would use a medium that allowed the audience to really see these shapes and contours. Plus, it gives you an uncanny sense of the size and depth of the place. As an added bonus, at times it also gives you the sense of being crowded-in or surrounded; if you were claustrophobic, I actually think you'd have a very hard time sitting through parts of this (the fact that I was relegated to the fourth row probably added to this effect). I couldn't help but get the idea that The Descent needs to be remade in 3D. I imagine that I'm the only one clamoring for that, though.

Like I mentioned, you also get your requisite Herzog eccentrics. The three main culprits is an Einstein-looking anthropologist (or archaeologist--I forget) who tries, unsuccessfully, to reproduce Neolithic hunting techniques; a master perfumer, who attempts to locate caves by smelling them out; and another scientist (I think) decked out head-to-toe in furs, who plays "The Star-Spangled Banner" on a bone flute.

I will say, though, that there are moments when Herzog seems to almost descend into self-parody. Near the end, we're introduced to a crocodile habitat, featuring some mutated albino crocodiles. And this part is, according to Herzog himself, entirely fictitious. Whatever the case, Herzog wonders aloud what the albino mutant crocodiles would think of the cave paintings. He asks, “Are we truly the crocodiles who look back into the abyss of time?"

That's some wild shit, Werner.