Wednesday, December 07, 2011

2011 catch-up, part two

Cold Weather (Cris Lankenau, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Raul Castillo, dir. Aaron Katz)
This isn't one of the most acclaimed movies of the year, but I had high hopes for it since I really liked Katz's last feature, Quiet City. Cold Weather isn't as good as Quiet City, but it has a lot of the same ease at depicting relationships among aimless 20-somethings, and the same visual beauty that Katz brought to his depiction of New York City (here applied to Portland). Unlike Quiet City, it also has a fairly involved plot, albeit one that doesn't really get going until almost 40 minutes into the movie. Before then, Katz establishes a trio of engaging characters, including college dropout and wannabe detective Doug (Lankenau). When Doug's ex-girlfriend goes missing, Cold Weather turns into a mystery of sorts, but Katz never loses sight of his character dynamics, and those are always more important (and more entertaining) than figuring out what's going on with Doug's ex. The problem is that Katz actually creates a fairly engrossing mystery, so the abrupt ending, while perfect for a movie about slackers whose lives just kind of trudge on, feels like a bit of a cheat. Cold Weather doesn't have Quiet City's emotional impact, but it keeps me eager to see what Katz does next.

Margin Call (Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, dir. J.C. Chandor)
Taking on a still-current event like the financial crisis in a narrative film is a tricky proposition, and Chandor does a better job than Oliver Stone did in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps or Curtis Hanson did in Too Big to Fail. Stone's film was too Hollywood flashy, too concerned with being a thriller, while Hanson's often drowned in dry true-life details. Chandor splits the difference, telling a fictionalized story about one unnamed financial firm's role in precipitating the 2008 market crash. There's suspense in the story, set over a single 24-hour period, but it's not overblown, and Chandor works to create characters we can understand and care about, rather than just mouthpieces for a political viewpoint. There's still too much heavy-handed dramatic irony and on-the-nose prophetic dialogue for it to be completely immersive (at one point two characters discuss serious financial matters in an elevator as a maid, literally the average person, stands silently between them), but it's easily the best movie so far about the culture and outlook that led to the stock-market meltdown.

Meek's Cutoff (Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Paul Dano, dir. Kelly Reichardt)
I was one of the few people who was unimpressed with Reichardt's Old Joy, and I never ended up seeing her 2008 follow-up, Wendy and Lucy. I found this movie to be more substantial than Old Joy, although still often frustratingly aloof, with Reichardt doing everything possible to distance the audience from her characters and their circumstances. Instead of identifying with the plight of the 19th-century settlers lost in the Oregon desert, I felt like I was observing them through a telescope (sometimes literally, as Reichardt likes to shoot seemingly important moments from very far away). Although the story could be suspenseful and moving, it's instead clinical and dry (much like the desert), which makes it sometimes impressively austere but just as often simply dull, and it ends by just puttering to a stop. There's real emotion in some of the performances, which is a step forward, although Greenwood perhaps goes too far in his hammy performance as the group's guide, who talks like Foghorn Leghorn and looks like a member of ZZ Top.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee, dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Honestly, I was a little intimidated at watching this movie, which has been talked up so heavily as an obtuse but moving experience that I was worried I'd just find it baffling. And I did find a lot of it baffling, though some of it is baffling in a beautiful and haunting way, while some of it is far more frustrating. I liked the combination of grounded everyday details (the workings of Boonmee's farm, the management of his illness) with mystical elements (the ghost of Boonmee's wife, his transformed long-lost son) in a magical-realist way that's very reminiscent of the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. When the movie strays from the relaxed, naturalist dynamics of Boonmee and his family members and becomes more of an abstract fable, as when the characters venture into the cave where Boonmee takes his final rest, it's a little harder to grasp. I'm not sure I understood the relevance of the seemingly unrelated segment about the princess having sex with the talking catfish, but it's certainly unlike anything else I've seen in any movie this year, and that's worth something.

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