Thursday, March 5, 2009

Film Comment Selects 2009 Review Round-up #2

Better Things (Duane Hopkins)

Set in Cotswolds, an especially bleak area of rural Britain, Better Things features a large cast of young characters who are mostly strung out on heroin and moving in zombie-like extreme slow-mo, and is a potent entry in a particularly minimalist and miserablist school of filmmaking particularly in vogue at film festivals. This particular film had a very prominent perch in its premiere as part of Critic’s Week at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where the critical consensus was quite divided. This film, to my eye, derives at least part of its lineage to the 1960’s realist British cinema of Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, and others, as well as latter-day depictions of dead-end rural lives to be found in such directors as the Dardenne Brothers. However, Better Things, if anything, is even more despairing than any of these cinematic forebears. The fulcrum around which most of the film’s characters revolve is the heroin overdose of a young woman, whose death and whose presence in flashbacks haunt not only the girl’s surviving boyfriend (who skips the funeral over his guilt in feeling complicit in her death) and friends, but even those who have not met her, since the angst of the landscape sweeps up everyone we see. In these wintry hinterlands, far from any signs of joy or life, these heroin-addicted kids seemingly have nothing else to do but desultorily play video games, and dabble in sex games. Living alongside this lost generation are other characters who have retreated from this world. One is an agoraphobic girl caring for her ailing grandmother, who spends most of her time reading – quotes from these books provide the girl’s voiceover, which is heard intermittently throughout the film. Another is an elderly man who has checked himself into the hospital for an unspecified condition, and when he emerges distances himself from his wife, because of something that happened between them a very long time ago, a thing which is yet again unspecified. A free-floating melancholy drifts in this film, which recreates the woozy, distracted air of drug addiction, and there are many lingering shots of needles searching for an untapped vein, and heroin dissolving in a bent spoon. This is the perfect drug for the environment depicted here, stretches of wintry (the chill persists even in the warmer seasons), drab nothingness. Hopkins’ style, as immaculately and evocatively framed as it is, tends to become a bit monotonous as the film progresses, the dialogue sparse and deliberately banal. However, in the final sections, two of the characters manage to escape this dead world, in strikingly opposite ways, and in this world’s universe, it certainly comes as close as we’ll get to a happy ending, or at least the hope of living up to the film’s title.

A Week Alone (Celina Murga)

Home Alone in Argentina” could be the tagline for this brilliantly observed portrait of privileged youth left to their own devices, an Argentinean answer to Truffaut’s Small Change, which Murga herself cites as an inspiration. The film is set in an upscale gated community patrolled by private security (wryly termed “copycops” by the kids) and protected by armed guards from invasion by the unwashed masses beyond the community walls. As the title tells us, these kids have been left alone by their parents, who are never seen in the film and only heard as disembodied voices on the phone, and they try to pass the time and kill their boredom by drifting in and out of each other’s houses, their passages made easy by the fact that no one locks their doors. The kids’ world is an insular, hermetically sealed one where they are only among their own kind, going to school, shopping, and doing everything else within the community gates, never seeing anything of the outside world besides video games, pop music, and television. The only adults in sight are those who enforce the rules of the community, and also a family maid who is the closest the kids have to a parental presence. Outsiders are looked upon with great suspicion, as evidenced by the treatment of a young man invited by the maid who is given an extremely hard time getting in, and once allowed entry is treated especially cruelly by one boy. Murga’s second feature has a beautiful sense of pacing and a willingness to let things simply happen in front of the camera without insisting too much on plotting. We watch these kids play with each other, fall in and out of love, experience the first pangs of longing for the opposite sex, and what subtly emerges is their unspoken wish for a caring, permanent adult presence, something that will provide some structure to their drifting, aimless existence. The kids’ repressed chafing against the arbitrary rules they must live under, authoritarianism being a poor substitute for parental guidance, erupts late in the film as they trash one of the houses, a denouement that in a way recalled the ending of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, all the more so since the trashing is initiated by seemingly the most sensible, level-headed character. As is so often the case, the enemy isn’t beyond, but within.

You can watch the film's trailer here.

Adam Resurrected (Paul Schrader)

Paul Schrader’s beyond-weird adaptation of Yoram Kaniuk’s 1968 novel (called Israel’s version of Catch-22), gains practically all of its success to Jeff Goldblum’s brilliantly unhinged performance as the title character, Adam Stein, a Holocaust survivor who lords the mental institution to which he has been committed, deep in the deserts of Israel, along with those who have also failed to make a smooth transition from wartime horrors to the present time (in this case the early 1960’s). Stein, a Berlin magician and circus performer taken to the camps along with the other millions of Jews, manages to survive by catching the eye of Commandant Klein (Willem Dafoe), and amusing him by impersonating, indeed embodying the role of a dog, kept in a cage, fed and treated like Klein’s real dog. Stein attempts to bargain for the lives of his wife and daughters, but to no avail. He emerges from this experience shattered and ostracized by other survivors for taking the house and inheriting the fortune of his Nazi captor. In the institution, under the watchful eye of the asylum’s founder, Dr. Nathan Gross (Derek Jacobi), Adam is introduced to a young boy (Tudor Rapiteanu) who also believes he is a dog, and becomes the doctor’s experiment as he attempts to cure Adam. Goldblum commits to his role completely, going for it, pardon the expression, like a dog to a bone. His commitment to accurately portraying the mannerisms of a dog was such that Goldblum had his own dog trainer and consulted with Cesar Milian, TV’s “Dog Whisperer.” The rest of the cast, especially Dafoe and Israeli actresses Ayelet Zurer (as the head nurse Adam philanders with) and Hana Laszlo (as an especially expressive inmate), try their best to keep up, but Goldblum overwhelms them all. My main fault with Adam Resurrected is that it is too controlled and too straightforward, not quite insane enough. (It would be especially interesting to go back to the original novel and see how much of the source material’s tone survives in the film.) The film does successfully puncture the reverence that informs the vast majority of Holocaust stories, painting the camps, and especially life afterward for survivors, as a theater of the absurd – an especially murderous one, to be sure. So although the film doesn’t bring the crazy as much as it could have, Goldblum, in one of his most impressive performances, ably shoulders the burden of insanity, making this an ideal showcase for his eccentric talent.

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