Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Visitor

The Visitor, Tom McCarthy. [B] december 30 2008.

Usually after I watch a movie I like to read about it a bit. While doing that after seeing The Visitor, I happened upon a review of it written by Scott Foundas that I found to be off-base and I started writing a comment on the article before realizing that a) I was writing a blog post and b) there's not much point in commenting on months old articles. I'm just writing this because otherwise my original first sentence wouldn't make much sense in the context of a standard blog post:

I think you're projecting a bit here. This isn't a movie about how liberal white America's a bunch of dunces because of their obliviousness to other world cultures, it's about an uptight guy dealing with the death of his concert pianist wife and his obliviousness to other world cultures, which, granted as a college professor dealing in globalization is maybe a little bit much, but the premise of the film wouldn't really be served by him knowing about this stuff, and I think seeing that he doesn't further drives home the point of how aimlessly he's made his way through life thus far, presumably even when his wife was around. The scope widens when dealing with the issue of immigration law, but that doesn't mean that it casts its net so wide as to implicate every single person in this country for having a hand in it. You know how Tarek, Mouna and Zainab don't blame Walter for this happening to them? The movie doesn't blame you, either, it's just saying it's kind of a drag that this kind of thing is happening, is all. The Visitor's pretty understated overall, even with its occasional lapses into distastefulness (Richard Kind's completely unnecessary and kind of hateful character, that tacky fade to white on the American flag in the airport) and I think some critics have been mistaking its understatedness for lazy all-inclusiveness. I'm a guy that suffers from liberal white guilt from time to time, but it's pretty bonkers that folks are allowing themselves to get so neurotic they start feeling liberal white guilt over their liberal white guilt.

At the heart of this movie is a simple, humanistically told story anchored down by four really strong performances. The fact is that, given the premise of this movie - uptight white guy comes home to an apartment he never uses only to find an Arab man and an African woman misled into renting the place and who unlock a once-repressed joie de vivre in him through the magic of the djembe before one of them is unjustly placed in an immigration detention center - I was expecting it to be more or less unbearable. Things proceed the way you'd expect them to given the premise but what's surprising about the film is that it retains a sense of believability because of the deftness with which this material is handled. Tarek, while definitely a loveable kind of guy, isn't just a magical pixie that comes out of nowhere to unlock the rhythm in this white guy's heart with his pure-hearted otherness, he's a dude who's probably being self-consciously nice to a man who let him stay in his apartment despite the aforementioned misunderstanding, an act which in turn probably wouldn't have ever happened were it not already established that Walter is at the lowest point in his life he's had in years. Sure there are manipulations, it's a film and thus a heightened reality, but the story flows in a believable way and there are no fake dramatic moments where a character unconvincingly decides not to listen to another or does something stupid solely, and obviously, for the sake of advancing the plot in a certain direction. It's smarter than most, even if it's still kinda naive at times, and really an impressive juggling act that manages to only drop the ball a couple times.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater. [A] december 25, 2008.

It is with great trepidation that I approached this; I fuckin hated Waking Life and here I am about to watch a movie that looks just like it from the same director. It's a testament to this movie that now I'm kind of tempted to give Waking Life a third chance. (My recent rediscovery of the magical Dazed and Confused is also a factor - that one's quickly shot up the ranks for me and, if I'm being honest with myself, it might be my favorite movie at this point, or at least the one I'd most readily watch at any given time.)

ANYWAY, a drug movie in the vein of Naked Lunch, a sci-fi movie in the vein of Alphaville, A Scanner Darkly is set in a hallucinatory, barely-disguised modern future virtually crippled by a highly addictive ("You're either on it or you've never tried it") and destructive drug called Substance D. So now there's surveillance cameras everywhere and "Scanners" sitting at monitors - like a real-time version of the ESPERS in Blade Runner - keeping track of everything at all times; license plates are bar codes, houses are surveilled in addition to public places, and standing in a McDonald's parking lot screaming about The Man doesn't just get you put in the clink, it gets you shoved into an unmarked van by an entire gang of goons in riot gear armed with assault rifles.

Keanu Reeves is working undercover for the sherrif's department as "Fred," although his badge is nowhere to be seen. His assignment is monitoring Bob Arctor's house, a bit of a drug den in Anaheim, CA. He also is Bob Arctor, a Substance D addict living with two drugged out misanthropes, a fact the sherrif's dept. isn't aware of because all drug agents, and their superiors, wear identity concealing "scramble suits" as a security precaution. These scramble suits are one of the first things you see in the film and they more or less set the tone - they divide their user into multiple fragments so that the wearer looks like a constantly shifting patchwork of various people, "the ultimate Everyman," and it's just one of several reasons why this movie couldn't have been done any other way. The rotoscoping effectively places us within the headspace of Arctor, transforming the world around him into something recognizably real, but unreal. The colors are too vivid, the surfaces constantly in motion, people's faces swirl as they speak, environments are transformed in an instant, sometimes echoing the past, sometimes becoming something else altogether, the lines between reality and dream or perception and reality or even perception and dream are completely and utterly gone.

The rotoscoping is at the heart of this; when we watch Robert Downey Jr. transform into a bug in a chair, we know that he was filmed sitting in that chair, that he was drawn over and eventually transformed into a bug, but we see his face and his performance is retained, if we could wash away the drawing somehow, the reality of what was captured on camera can still be seen, but the perception of the animation has transformed it into something else, which is itself a transformation of the reality within the film itself. Do you mistrust your eyes or Arctor's? The line blurs, and the beauty of the film is that it constantly forces you to deal with this - the animation isn't a gimmick, the crux of a high-concept thrill ride, it's an element of the reality of the film's world. There are no action set pieces, just people pissing around, having aimless conversations, shooting off guns into the air, discussing the number of gears on a bicycle, calling a tow truck when their car breaks down on the side of the road. What kind of world is this?

Private Fears in Public Places, Alain Resnais. [D] december 25, 2008.
Blah blah it's not fair to hold him against the standards of his earlier achievements etc. etc. Nahhh, it's completely fair. It's not fair to hold the ambition of his earlier achievements against the ambition of this film, maybe, but it's fair to assume that, since he's turned out some masterpieces, he can turn out some good movies. The fact is that this isn't a poor movie by Resnais' standards, but by anyone's. Facile in its characterizations, embarrassingly scripted, this movie is uninteresting in almost every capacity in which it can be uninteresting, the very definition of MOR. I hate saying that, but it's true, I haven't had a more torturous experience sitting through a movie in a while and the respect I give to Resnais is that I forced myself to not turn it off. I guess I could say more about it, but I've wasted enough time on it. It looked nice.

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