David’s Movie Journal 3/9/11
I’m into my third month of writing these journal entries now and I haven’t watched nearly as many movies as I had hoped I would. But over the past couple weeks, I got a chance to knock a few movies out of my Netflix queue, which is so full that I often get DVD’s in the mail without any recollection of when or why I added them. Hence the scattershot nature of the below.
Ilya Khrjanovsky’s 4 starts by introducing us to three disparate characters; a man tuning a piano, a man inspecting a warehouse-sized freezer full of meat and a woman who may or may not be a prostitute putting on her clothes and leaving a sleeping man behind. That third person will become the closest thing this film has to a protagonist, though that won’t be quite clear to us until about halfway through.
These three all decide independently to stop in at an empty bar, manned by a dozing bartender. It is here that they meet and the conversation they have, which makes up a lengthy first act, is the base upon which the rest of this weird, wobbly film is built. After introductions, in which all three appear to lie about what they do for a living, the topic turns to human cloning. I won’t try to explain the complicated details but the piano-tuner’s long and fascinating monologue, as well written as it is delivered, gives us the title 4 as well as the premise for the rest of the movie. This obnoxious man’s vulgar descriptions of human beings as products lays out the questions of the film. To what extent are we, as human beings, just meat and bone? Are we any less disposable than livestock? And aren’t our bodies more than a little disgusting, when you think about it?
Those in search of a plot will be frustrated here and may even be tempting to describe the film as “meandering.” That term doesn’t really apply here, though. Each scene, each of these vignettes that are loosely connected in a way that stretches the definition of “loosely,” is staged and shot with a focused intensity. Khrjanovsky’s cast, particularly Marina Vovchenko, are astoundingly dedicated in their execution of scenes that couldn’t have made much more logical sense to them while shooting it than they did to me while watching it.
Logic isn’t the impetus for making this film, though. Khrjanovsky aims only let his bizarre mind run roughshod back and forth over his central idea. In the last 25 minutes or so, when the movie crescendos (some might say devolves) into a barrage of grotesquerie, with ancient Russian women devouring chunks of meat off the bone and pouring wine over each other’s bare breasts, I came to the realization that I would probably wouldn’t exactly be recommending 4 to people. But if you are inclined towards exploring the fringes of cinema’s power, you might want to check it out.
If you watched Gregg Araki’s earlier films, such as The Doom Generation or Totally Fucked Up, and thought they boiled down to nothing more than sophomoric anger and immature anti-establishment posturing, then you were probably floored by the maturity and the devastating insight and nuance of 2005’s Mysterious Skin. If you were like me, though, and you detected a method to his madness, you likely felt vindicated.
Araki’s films have never been truly nihilistic so much as they’ve been about characters driven to nihilism by the unceasing cruelty and banality of the world. Really, Araki is a bit of a humanist. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that he followed up Skin with an entry in a genre that appeals to easy-going, nonjudgmental humanists the world over: the stoner comedy.
Smiley Face is the story of a twenty-something, sporadically employed actress – Jane, played by Anna Faris – who accidentally gets higher than she’s ever been in her life and then has to face a complicated and demanding day with a packed schedule. Along the way, she meets characters that aren’t out of place for Araki and would probably be the subject of the protagonist’s scorn and bile in one of his other films. There’s the slimy capitalist pretending to be down and groovy, the bullying parent, the uptight executive, the condescending cop and the exploitive factory owner. But the twist is that Jane, as a laidback stoner, assumes the best about everyone and is almost adorably dismayed when they turn out not to be “cool.” Most of this is relayed through Faris’ hilariously uninhibited performance but there’s one scene that does stand up and make a point, with a traditionally Araki-esque lack of subtlety.
Jane’s passionate and hilarious soliloquy late in the second act, in which she stands up for the proletariat and rages against the oppressive boss, all while literally holding a copy of The Communist Manifesto in her hand, is so effective that we are once again reminded that, despite the garishness and juvenilia that define his aesthetic, Gregg Araki is a very assured film artist.
Andre Techine’s great film Wild Reeds, from 1994, concerns a small group of very passionate people. They feel love and lust in equal measure. They have strong opinions on the war in Algiers. They hurt deeply when someone dies. They are also teenagers.
Changing Times is a movie about adults and about the way that emotions become less a factor in life decisions the older we get. In some cases, two people who love each other drift apart and two people who don’t stay together. The situation is less than ideal but sometimes things work out that way. And it’s probably for the best, right?
Antion, played by Gerard Depardieu, doesn’t seem to have acquired that part of maturity, though. When he relocates to Morocco for work, it is not a coincidence. He has planned for years, in fact, to reunite with the love of his young life, Cecile, played by Catherine Deneuve, who lives there with her husband, a younger man and a doctor.
Deneuve, in an laudable performance, plays Cecile as a woman who has taken on practicality as a philosophy, uninterested in following her heart in any situation. She certainly remembers Antoine and the love they shared in youth but she is not moved by his reappearance. In fact, she is annoyed at first. It’s to the great credit of Techine and his cast that we’re tempted to feel the same way. The film doesn’t tip its hand and lead us to favor one character over another, instead giving both points of view fair representation.
Reading some reviews after having watched it, I found that some people were bothered by the way the film ends. That’s valid. Techine doesn’t pretend that this is the right ending, just the one that happened. It is presented to us much like the news reports of the war in Iraq that crop up throughout the film: as facts, almost completely uncommented on.
Meet the Spartans
Yes, I watched this. Yes, it was terrible. You want more than that? Okay, it was slightly closer to being coherent than the other Seltzer/Friedberg movie I’ve seen, Date Movie, though no more funny.
Oh and Kevin Sorbo put in a good, game effort. Someone should cast him in a comedy.