Monday, April 19, 2010

2010--Bunking the Early-Year Trend?

Is there such a thing as too many good films in the early part of the year? Granted, I have not gone out of my way to see such money-grubbing films like Clash of the Titans or Alice in Wonderland, but I have seen several under-the-radar movies that have all been fantastic. Even the flawed films, like Shutter Island and Greenberg were well-made and interesting, which made them great theater experiences. It feels so peculiar that I'm enjoying myself so often at the movies in the first four months of the year. Isn't this the time for the studios to dump all of their crap?

The answer is yes and no. In terms of the studio films, the early-year, crappy-movie-dumping routine has continued. How else would you explain films like The Spy Next Door or Repo Men getting nationwide releases? It's a shrewd but calculated move that these studio heads make, and for the most part these decisions work. Shutter Island would have probably gotten swallowed in its initial October release, but in February it makes over $125 million (and so far, the fourth highest grossing film of the year). When every movie at the multiplex is a mountain of elephant crap, the elephant crap is bound to sweep up some money.

Scorsese's Oscar chances may have vanished with 'Shutter Island's February release, but it does not make it any less viewable...

So how did I manage to bat a thousand on my movie ventures so far? Determination and research. The biggest misnomer about the early-year slump is that there are no good films to be seen. This is blatantly untrue. Good movies are coming out all year round, but you just have to know how to look for them. People in metropolitan areas have the advantage, obviously, because they have the benefit of the first round of film festivals. Most of the time, at these festivals you're able to see great films before people are even getting the chance to say that they are great (in my case, I was able to see Winter's Bone and Leaves of Grass at Orlando's Florida Film Festival).

But even without the festivals, good films (or perhaps the more appropriate term is "unique films") are sprinkled in and around movie theaters all year. It just takes a lot of effort to go and see them. Greenberg is only playing for a single weekend at your local independent theater? Sometimes it's worth it to shell out the cash for gas to get a chance to see it. The Ghost Writer is taking a while to expand to your area? Be patient, all good films make their way to you. If they don't, perhaps they weren't worth seeing to begin with.

I guess what I'm trying to say is to drop the cynicism that comes with movie-going around this time of the year. There are always unique experiences to be found. You just have to know how to look.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Leaves of Grass (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Tim Blake Nelson


A phrase you might hear a lot of when you listen to people talking about Edward Norton's latest film, Leaves of Grass, is "tone issues". This is a film that does not seem to care if events or character actions come out of nowhere. It doesn't put much stock into what the audience may expect to happen in a certain scene, because it goes right ahead and does whatever the hell it wants to do anyway. But there is a method to the madness here, and director Tim Blake Nelson constructs a rather brilliant, offbeat tale of family, philosophy, and good ol' weed.

Billy Kincaid (Edward Norton) is a classical philosophy professor at Brown University. He's got students who love him (some a little too much), a regular space in a magazine where he's able to write extensive columns, and numerous offers from other schools to teach there. He is a prestigious thinker, but he comes from very humble beginnings in Little Dixie, Oklahoma. His father died when he was very young and his mother (Susan Surandon) was such a druggie that she denied Billy any shot at a normal childhood. So, he abandoned Little Dixie at first chance and started a life of his own.

That is, until he gets a phone call telling him that his twin brother Brady (also Edward Norton) has been murdered. Billy flies back to Oklahoma for the first time in over a decade and meets Brady's friend Bolger (Nelson himself). They both go inside a convenient store, Billy is immediately mistaken for his brother, and knocked unconscious. When he awakes, he finds Brady nursing him to health. Obviously flustered, Brady explains that he's getting married and having a baby with his girlfriend Colleen (Melanie Lynskey), and proclaiming his own death was the only way to get Billy to come down to see the event.

In frustration, Billy explains that he's leaving immediately, but Brady convinces him to stay for the weekend. He introduces Billy to his friend Janet (Keri Russell) who seems to be the only person in Little Dixie who shares Billy's intellectual level. After a day, Brady reveals his real scheme. As a major pot dealer and grower, Brady has to travel to Tulsa for a while, and he needs Billy to pretend to be him while he's gone--for alibi reasons. What follows is a series of humorous, often violent encounters with a pious drug kingpin (Richard Dreyfuss), a neurotic Jewish orthodontist (Josh Pais), and more crossbows than I ever thought existed in this country.

It is around these moments in Leaves of Grass that the audience will probably tune out and shout that the movie makes no sense. I'm not exactly sure that I would blame them, since the tone shifts are sudden and violent (literally and figuratively) and leave even the most open-minded viewers scratching their heads. I'll admit that I found my mind swimming upon first viewing, but upon further pondering, I feel that there is something rather brilliant here. The harsh turns that the movie takes seem almost intentional, and I start to think that this was the best way for Nelson to address the themes he was presenting in the film.

As I watched, I began to wonder whether a more seasoned, eccentric filmmaker--like Spike Jonze or the Coen Brothers--would handle this wacky material and make it more fluid. Then I thought again. Addressing the themes of high and low culture, the morality of humanity, and the effect of the drug culture in lower economic areas, Nelson is tapping into a ridiculous universe. So maybe the ridiculous nature in which this film presents itself is actually the perfect tone after all. It's this nice balance between screwball comedy and austere sincerity that makes the film very charming, even when the corpses begin to pile up.

Playing both twin brothers, Norton has probably his best performances since 2002's 25th Hour. He perfectly encapsulates the idiosyncrasies of the two incredibly diverse brothers, and even when he delves into camp with his Oklahoma accent for Brady, it never feels derogatory. Russell, Nelson, and Surandon all lend the film some very effective supporting performances that create a very authentic atmosphere of Hicksville, USA. Certainly not an actor's film, Leaves has the benefit of good performances to buoy the excellent themes.

There is only a very tenuous connection to Walt Whitman's famous book of poetry, but it only really uses that piece of literature to further push the motif high versus low culture. I know Leaves of Grass is going to rub people the wrong way. Maybe I'm just so cynical and contrarion that I find that charming. What's most important, though, is that when you leave the theater you are thinking. You're pondering over everything that Nelson could have possibly wanted to portray in this odd little little film, and that's more interesting then most of the studio dribble that we see in theaters.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Winter's Bone (***)

Directed by Debra Granik


In the world of the Ozark Mountains, there are some pretty sketchy characters to be found. Winter's Bone is a pretty gritty portrayal of the darkest corners of this world. Quickly growing as a festival hit, the film recently won the Dramatic Award at Sundance Film Festival, and Roadside Attractions won the bidding war for distribution. Since then, it's been playing at various festivals growing further and further on word of mouth. When I finally got around to seeing it for myself, I was already holding onto a world of expectation.

Set during a harsh winter, it tells the story of a Meth-raddled town near the Ozark mountains. Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a seventeen-year-old, hard-boiled young woman. With her mother sick and nearly catatonic, and her father a drug cooking and drug dealing runaway, she is forced to look after her two younger siblings. Ree has managed to stay off the junk that has plagued her entire town. Every neighbor and every family member is foiled by serious addiction and malaise, and she does her best to protect her brother and sister from those haunting characters.

Things take an unfortunate turn, though, when Ree is told that her father has disappeared and put their house up for bond. She has a few weeks to find him and turn him in or she, her siblings and her sick mother will be thrown out of their home. She visits the obvious suspects first, including close family and friends of her father. They all offer ominous warnings that she should end her search before she gets herself and her family into serious trouble. These intimidations don't affect Ree's determination.

What follows is a series of encounters that get deeper and deeper into the drug-addled world that she has struggled so hard to avoid her entire life. It isn't too long until she encounters real danger in the form of her father's drug partners, and it becomes obvious that her father has probably been killed. Her search then shifts to finding the body and keeping a roof over her brother and sister's head. The only help she gets comes in the form of her addict uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), who has trouble containing emotional stability with all of his vices.

What's striking about this new film from Debra Granik (director of 2004's Down To The Bone) is the unrelenting vision of hopelessness of this sketchy society. My ignorance on the conditions of Arkansas mountain towns is glaring, but there is an air of authenticity here. Ree cannot count on anyone being clean, which makes her journey that much more daunting. In our dejected economic times, it seems plausible that an entire town can nosedive into drug addiction, and Winter's Bone does an excellent job of commenting without being blatant.

Following Ree is key to the film's success. She is innocent, but she is not naive. She does not wander into the dark corners without knowledge of what could be awaiting her. She gives a pure view, but we are still lead by someone who knows where they're going. It is a classic case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object: Ree does not worry herself over the danger that she could face on her search, because she knows that being stranded without a home in this horrific town is worse than any punishment that can be inflicted on her for snooping.

It helps that the film is headed by a tremendous performance by Jennifer Lawrence (she's done a lot of television work which I'm not familiar with, but she will be in Jodie Foster's upcoming, much-anticipated film, The Beaver). Her role as Ree showcases ultimate resolution and wisdom well beyond her years. In a situation like that, children like Ree are forced to grow up much earlier then they are supposed to, and Lawrence does an excellent job of keeping Ree's precociousness while always maintaining her stone cold resolve.

I'm not sure how Winter's Bone could have possibly lived up to my expectation. With all its great moments and strong writing, there was still something that was missing for me. I found myself not totally ingrained in the narrative at moments, and that may be because of the story's redundant nature (she asks someone where her father is and the response is usually dismissive). All that said, it is a strong film with authentic performances and a unique voice. I'm glad that it has been successful on the festival circuit, I'm just not sure it's the near-masterpiece that most have saying it is.