Role Models (Wain, 2008)

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Not a timeless comedy, but certainly an entertaining and often hilarious one, even if the film fades from memory soon after it ends. Anchored by the indispensable Paul Rudd, doing exactly what he does best as a cynical, beaten middle-class man forced into adulthood by his experiences mentoring an imaginative but troubled youth (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Role Models develops a clever and poignant theme concerning individual purpose. This pertinent subtext shouldn’t be a surprise, since Rudd and director James Wain have a dynamic comedic relationship dating back to their sometimes brilliant ode to 80’s comedy Wet Hot American Summer. The film never feels false or ripe with unearned sentiment and a lot of the genuine moments, both comedic and heartfelt, stem from Wain’s blocking of his adult actors with the child stars centralized around key thematic concerns – race, class, communication, and responsibility. When Role Models addresses these ideas, the result is both funny and honest, a rare commodity nowadays.

Synecdoche, New York (Kaufman, 2008)

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I’ll preface these thoughts with a caveat – one viewing of Charlie Kaufman’s epic mind game isn’t enough, and I can’t wait to return to this haunting and problematic film. Most off all, Synecdoche, New York exudes the texture and density of its characters and mise-en-scene, often hiding clues behind walls, within parallel scenes, and around conventional narrative cues. What’s most interesting is Kaufman’s use of cinematic time and space, shifting the emotional and physical backdrops without much recognition by the screenplay or the characters themselves. Caden Cotard (the great Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a theater director of much acclaim but not much mainstream appeal, sleepwalks through life while constantly worrying about death. When Cotard gets a McArthur Grant to construct a play of “great importance”, the cast of characters in his story inevitably line up for a chance at something timeless. Cotard begins to construct a mammoth recreation of the various scenes of his own life, then begins reconstructing the recreations, adding layer upon layer until reality and fiction literally merge together. This doesn’t come close to properly describing Kaufman’s narrative, and maybe the point is you can’t truly break down one man’s life into a simple distinction of good and bad. For Kaufman, the process of living becomes contradicted by the obsession of mortality, feeble and tragic attempts at controlling one’s world, be it real or meta, by dissecting every nuance down to it’s core. Cotard re-presents his fictional existence onto those around him, creating a sprawling monolith to his own suffering and weakness. Or at least that’s the opinion I’m re-presenting onto a complex work that might change with each life experience, morph with each broken heart, and shift with each passing glance.

Chungking Express (Wong, 1994)

Watching Chungking Express some odd years ago I remember dismissing it as overrated, overdone, and overstuffed with style, second-rate “mainstream” compared to masterpieces In the Mood For Love and Happy Together. A second glance at Wong’s beautiful and mesmerizing duo of intersecting love stories (on Criterion’s Blu ray no less) definitely adds perspective and clarity toward the importance of movement in the film, and not only the kinetic slow motion either.

Chungking Express contains a magnitude of grace within its twisting mise-en-scene, maybe as much as In the Mood For Love, a surprising fact considering this film seems to be so popular for its hyper-cool aesthetic. Aside from the overwhelming visuals, Wong injects silence into the moments of exchange between his pairs, their eyes locked together by fate, battling every inclination to reveal the hopeless romantic inside.

Wong obviously went back to the Chungking Express well during his ending for My Blueberry Nights, another destiny-infused meeting at a food establishment that elaborates on the hidden pleasures within the frame. However, Chungking Express feels more original today for these universal reasons, a rambling quest to allure, reveal, and hypnotize the one that got away before time runs out.

Rachel Getting Married (Demme, 2008)

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Rachel Getting Married, an “indie” glance at family dysfunction and past trauma, is certainly the most overvalued movie in years. I don’t get why critics like David Edelstein hailed the film as the best of the year, since it’s ultimately a frustrating and dramatically inept experience. The performances are all all worthy, especially Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie Dewitt playing sisters Kim and Rachel constantly in emotional flux due to Kim’s post-rehab angst and sketchy past. But director Jonathan Demme’s handling of the upper middle class family and Rachel’s wedding weekend feels like a series of theatrical skits between characters practicing for a different film, an emotional purge session plagued by melodramatic hogwash and obvious performance crescendos. A few scenes work beautifully, like the actual wedding ceremony, which offers a glimpse at the potential greatness the film could have achieved. As Rachel and her charming groom Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe) exchange nuptials, Demme allows the couple’s words to sink in for the first time, the silence of the crowd coming as a relief after an eternity of bickering. In the end, Rachel Getting Married shows how good intentions washed in apathy build up over time, creating more problems than it solves within a family dynamic leaning over the edge. While interesting at times, the film is nowhere near as engaging as it’s filmmakers and critical choir make it out to be.

Silent Light (Reygadas, 2007)

In Carlos Reygadas’ challenging and sublime Silent Light, the stunning beauty of the natural world slowly unearths the turmoil hidden in each character, most notably Johan, a man torn between his wife and lover whose family resides in a desperate Northern Mexico Mennonite community.

Bookended by what may be the greatest fade in and out shots in decades, Reygadas’ story is seeped in symbolism and layered mise-en-scene. But as each long take unfolds and Johan’s stricken decisions begin to weigh on both devoted women, ambiguity overwhelms any simple qualifications or answers, leading down an unexpected path riddled with narrative gaps and visual prose.

Much has been written about Silent Light already and most detractors of the film seem hellbent on calling Reygadas to task for being “opportunistic” in his camera movements and blocking, as if his visual creativity instills a dishonesty, or fabricated artificiality to the proceedings. In fact, Silent Light harbors a deep affection for its conflicted characters despite the “pretty” visuals, and Reygadas goes out of his way to show them as shifting souls coming to grips with emotions at odds with their belief system.

Like Reygadas’ far grittier and disturbing Battle in Heaven, Silent Light reinforces the stark struggle between visceral emotion and faith-based religions. However, Silent Light grapples with a place (physical and psychological) few films do – the contradictory heavens above.

– Screened at the 2009 San Diego Latino Film Festival

The King of Marvin Gardens (Rafelson, 1972)

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Bob Rafelson’s brilliantly strange film The King of Marvin Gardens defies narrative expectation and convention, building its story – of brothers David and Jason (Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern) attempting to reunite over a shady business deal – completely out of subtext, nuance, and past trauma. Set against the changing facade of Atlantic City, depressed David and ambitious but delusional Jason spend weeks together rehashing old times and dreaming of a future together in Hawaii, kings of their own success and leisure for the first time. Except the entire plan dwindles into an abyss, and like David we realize it wasn’t there in the first place. The fantasy of togetherness, wealth, and harmony are just as fake as the crumbling mise-en-scene around them. The power of the performances, the writing, and the direction lie dormant until the final few scenes, which unleash the bustling anger that’s been building under the surface for so long. Action matters, especially when dealing with the lives of others, something David understands immediately and Jason never quite ponders enough. The King of Marvin Gardens is a long lost relic of 1970’s American ambiguity, more a tonal achievement than a manifesto-based movement, one defined by the weaknesses, failures, and uncertainties of characters on the verge of inner collapse. Here’s one of the few times I can actually say and mean they don’t make them like this anymore.

La Cienaga (Martel, 2001)

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Through the relentless use of constricting ambient sounds, Lucrecia Martel creates a smothering atmosphere in the opening sequence of La Cienaga (The Swamp), beginning a long and winding road toward a particularly devastating sudden death. But Martel’s emphasis obviously lies in the process of suffocation, symbolized by a dead cow stuck in an ocean of mud, a stagnant pool cloudy with dirt and grime, and the countless interior shots of people lounging, sweating, and sleeping away time. La Cienaga charts the long summer days of one wealthy Argentine family anchored in quicksand by an alcoholic matriarch and an almost inconsequential male presence. Martel offsets this brood with a working class parallel, a family who comes from the city to spend time at their friend’s countryside villa, one flanked by endless foliage-topped mountains and swamps. La Cienaga visualizes some damning social critiques, the centerpiece being an obvious tension between the lighter skinned upper class the the darker toned “Indians” on the fringes of every scene. These conflicts often break out suddenly, leaving the viewer to piece together the altercations during the submerged moments of solace after the fact. Even though her style seems at first heavy-handed, Martel is an obvious talent, someone eagerly committed to challenging the realms of cinematic sound and space and their direct relationship to character.