Away We Go (Mendes, 2009)

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Sam Mendes’ Away We Go attempts to capture the many moments of uncertainty leading up to parenthood by fluctuating quirky comedy and serious drama. These tonal shifts thankfully never stray into the extreme, instead relying on the subtlety of framing to reveal the small moments of character. And the film is brave enough to completely focus on the intimate journey of two people justifying their love outside the realm of type-cast family units.

But the underlining tension protagonists Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) feel with the responsibility of having a child becomes too simplistic, especially when juxtaposed with the four situational couples they visit throughout the film. These vary from nightmarish (Allison Janney and Maggie Gyllenhaal) to the damaged (Chris Messina), and none make the impact they should. Moments of pain can be found within each scene, but Mendes often undermines this progress with conventional action and dialogue.

Unlike Mendes’ genre efforts, Away We Go lacks a visual authority, floating by seamlessly into the ether of everyday life. Yet despite this casual structure, Mendes hammers his point home so bombastically with ironic music cues and character motifs that by the end Burt and Verona are stripped of their charm and vulnerability. Instead of standing alone strong and independent, they just seem lost, staring into the open hoping for more guidance.

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Seattle Here I Come…

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The next five days will find Match Cuts exploring the grand North West, Seattle, WA in particular. When I return, tales of the epic mountain ranges, crisp cityscapes, and Scarecrow Video will be told. I leave you with the above image, a stunning still from the opening sequence of Alan J. Pakula’s still-mesmerizing conspiracy film The Parallax View, a doosy set on the top of the Space Needle. I’ll let you know if I get embroiled in any intrigue a long the way.

An Epic Project…

…is in the works. I’ll be unveiling this joint venture in the next few weeks, as soon as the final touches have been ironed out. In the meantime, I’ll have some more thoughts on Inglorious Basterds, which I just saw for the second time today and think is most certainly the best American film of 2009. Only Spike Jonze has a chance to top it.

-GH

Observe and Report (Hill, 2009)

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Observe and Report has teeth, fangs even, tearing through tones while reveling in the mania of its unstable hero, head of mall security Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen). This focus on absurdity allows Jody Hill’s film to take liberties with plot development while highlighting extreme mood shifts, constructing a modern artificial world based upon the need for power, consumerism, and control. Ronnie’s existence is a roller coaster of shock and awe, and the rest of the world stares on in amazement, in collaboration with the audience, wondering what to make of such an intrusive character.

Ronnie has delusions of grandeur, believing he’s actually a force to be reckoned with inside and later outside the mall. Even though every character sees Ronnie as a menace, or at the very least a nuisance, Hill never judges him no matter how insane the situation gets. But Ronnie often stands at the edge of mass murder, only to be pushed back by narrative convention, and Hill tends to gloss over these uncomfortable moments. Taking this character all the way might have been too much for mainstream audiences.

So the film boils down to the dreams of losers, the desires of bruised people living on the fringe of what modern society deems acceptable. Ronnie is one crazy bastard, but at least he’s a sincere, passionate bastard. Ronnie’s heart is in the right place but his methods are diabolical, terrorizing to pretty much everyone. But instead of sneering at this complex character with irony, Rogen incarnates Ronnie with a special verve for the unpredictable and the unending dedication to transcend outward oppression.

Despite his best intentions, Ronnie’s end-game involves brutality and conformity and this ideology leans toward fascism, making Observe and Report one frantic and disturbing picture. Hill wants both darkness and light, however in this instance the two go together like oil and water. Ronnie’s sentimental moments complicate the director’s vision of his psychosis, and this makes Observe and Report both interesting, uneven, and problematic.

The Headless Woman (Martel, 2008)

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In her short career as a feature filmmaker, Lucrecia Martel has deepened the complex well of Art Cinema, developing an enigmatic collusion between close visual framing and layered ambient sound design, all while mining for universal contradictions and local tragedies within Argentina’s widening class divide. With The Headless Woman, her latest and most harrowing film, Martel finally transcends the minor failures of La Cienaga and The Holy Girl (vague characterizations, scattered plot-lines) and focuses her gaze, constructing a singular vision of trauma, guilt, and disavowal, a perfect realization of her previous obsessions.

The Headless Woman begins quietly enough, in the barren outskirts of an Argentinean town where three boys chase each other through the thick brush. Two are brothers, and one jumps down into a canal, asking his sibling to follow. The younger boy jumps in, only to find he’s been tricked. The older, stronger brother has already catapulted himself from the space. Martel holds the camera on the younger boy attempting to get out, running up the slab of concrete, failing to rise to safe ground. Then darkness, as Martel moves on leaving the boy’s fate ambiguous but indelible.

This opening is crucial for many reasons. The boys represent the native Indian lower classes often found in Martel’s films, emblems of repression that are pushed to the fringes by people of wealth and status. Also the concrete canal evokes a clear visualization of the unending quagmire between classes in Argentina. The film then cuts to Veronica (Maria Onetta), Martel’s focus on the Argentine elite. While driving home on these same dusty country roads, Veronica hits something while answering her cell phone. The camera never leaves the interior of the car as Veronica’s face turns from shock to panic. Martel gives a short glimpse of a body from afar, but the audience is never given clear evidence of what Veronica has struck. Is it an animal, or the boy previously trapped in the canal?

The uncertainty haunts Veronica’s upper class existence for the entire rest of the film. But in The Headless Woman, this plot device does not function as it would in Hollywood filmmaking. There will be no revenge, no psycho-killer seeking retribution. The film concerns itself with Veronica’s collage of emotions after she panics and drives away from the scene. Martel sends Veronica back to her world of privilege and wealth a tainted woman, and the development of both her layered reaction and those of the men around her make the film a masterful exploration of character and context. Accountability disappears as corners are cut, evidence is destroyed, and the entire fair gets brushed under the rug without protest.

Martel makes Veronica the center of every scene, stalking her with the camera enacting a visual parallel for her psychological state. Natural sounds fade in and out, scenes overlap onto each other, and life continues on without further incident. No police investigation, just interior conflict. Is Veronica truly shaken by the possibility of killing a child, or is she merely scared of getting caught? Maria Onetta’s eyes explore Veronica’s entire character arc, but never answer this disturbing question, making this mostly silent performance one of the year’s best. The Headless Woman ends in one stunning scene of guilt morphing into indifference, collecting the social artifacts of Martel’s oeuvre in a casual social setting, unmasking the skeletons of everyday life with a final moment of numbing silence.

The Holy Girl (Martel, 2004)

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If La Cienaga abstracts Lucrecia Martel’s obsession with sound and space by exploring menacing, dynamic open areas, her second film The Holy Girl compartmentalizes and purifies these same aesthetics within a confined, suffocating locale – a bare-bones Argentinean hotel. Martel shows there’s no escaping the inevitable bursts of energy when bodies in motion collide, when a gaze turns into so much more than a connection, but a deception of intent. Religion and natural selection battle through every room, between young and old, as characters either settle for stasis or attempt to fill voids created by past failures.

Amalia (Maria Alche), the young teen at the heart of Martel’s guise, takes her fascination with an older doctor as a god-given evocation, albeit one initiated by an earlier moment of perversion. Her confusion, excitement, and disappointment create an unsettling conflict between weakness and morality, one that ties in brilliantly with Martel’s continuous use of the close-up. These shots display faces barely obscured, favoring ears, lips, hair, clear incarnations of sensory build-up, never allowing an easy recognition of place.

Martel’s style is both distancing and fascinating, connecting characters through meticulous framing while separating their ability to communicate with jarring uses of off-screen sound. It seems all of Martel’s films, especially The Holy Girl, demand multiple viewings to break down the director’s layered environments and ambiguous characters. But on first glance, it feels like a tragedy unfolding in the sparest of decisive moments, ones most directors ignore far too often.

Hunger (McQueen, 2008)

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Silence is torture, and torture is silence. So goes Steve McQueen’s riveting debut Hunger, a brutally restrained biopic about IRA prisoner Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), who in 1981 conducted a hunger strike while attempting to gain political status from the Thatcher-led UK government. McQueen makes Sands’ story the centerpiece of a larger mosaic within the prison, where guards, prisoners, and riot cops all construct a collective fabric woven by isolation, fear, and loyalty. While most of the film takes place inside cells, meeting rooms, and infirmaries – moments simmering with a predetermined sense of tragedy and loneliness – the supposed “free” spaces outside, like public roads and parking lots, remain vacant, even menacing throughout, as if war could break out at any time in even the calmest suburban neighborhoods.

Hunger whittles the standard biopic conventions down to an elemental level, where character information, bursts of violence, and crucial politics rush by in a flash, lasting just long enough for a vapor of subtext to potently linger. McQueen brilliantly builds his narrative out of silence within horrific spaces, relying on the textures of the place to speak for its characters. Feces cover the walls in Jackson Pollack-like patterns, urine flows from under doorways, and blood stains overlap on the concrete floors, stubborn displays of disobedience from the inside out.

Everything builds off of Michael Fassbender’s haunting physical performance, both before his body transforms into a riddled mesh of bones and sores, and certainly after. There’s really only one major dialogue scene in the film, and it’s a 16 minute stunner between Sands and Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham) shot in one static long take. Here, McQueen sums up his film’s thesis – ideological suffering and physical pain are completely different entities, yet connected by the failures of compassion and communication.

Hunger takes this momentum and churns one final silent coup, a slow, mostly still disintegration of body but not mind, showing Sands at rest remembering the simple beauty of his origins, unwavering in his dedication to the cause. Is it real, romanticized, or just memories merging together to justify his sacrifice? This mental battle is both a scary, devastating, and thought-provoking finale to a film dedicated to the horrors of interior conflict.