Saturday, March 9, 2013

Longer-Than-a-Capsule Reviews: Bunuel, Cross, Ralph!

Death in the Garden (d. Luis Bunuel) - If you dive into the middle of a filmmaker's work, starting with their most famous films and thrashing your way outward, when you first bang up against one of the real obscurities it can be quite a surprising experience.  So it went with Death in the Garden, which Bunuel made in 1956 on, from what I understand, something of a work-for-hire basis.  Not that I'm anything at all like a Bunuel expert, but when you cut your teeth on The Exterminating Angel and L'Age d'Or and That Obscure Object of Desire and Viridiana and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and even the somewhat more straightforward, relatively speaking, Belle de Jour, a genre thriller, which is what Death in the Garden essentially is, can leave you scrambling.  Where's Bunuel in all this?

Well, he's there, don't worry.  I called the film a thriller before, but it's more of an adventure film, of the type that you might associate with John Huston.  A group of desperate, and morally disparate, characters in a South American town find themselves, for various reasons, needing to flee the police-state government that is violently cracking down on the violently restless miners that provide the town with its economy.  There's Chark (Georges Marchal), a mean, cold-blooded rogue; Djin (Simone Signoret), a cold-blooded and mean prostitute with whom Chark shares certain affinities; Father Lizzardi (Michel Piccoli), a morally rigorous priest; Castin (Charles Varnel), a naive but well-ff old man who believes he will marry Djin and whisk her off to Paris, along with his deaf and mute daughter, Maria (Michele Giardon).  Bringing these people together and providing them with reasons to get out of Dodge takes up about half the film, and their immediately disastrous attempt to navigate their escape through the South American jungle takes up the second.  Everything that I find genuinely interesting and compelling about Death in the Garden comes from that second half, and it's rather plain that, apart from a certain interest in a certain brand of social commentary, sort of, that first half exists pretty much only as an excuse for the characters', and Bunuel's, descent into the Green Hell.

Death in the Garden is not a very strange film, but it is occasionally strange, Bunuel sprinkling his core sensibility over the long jungle sequence in a way that's entirely justified.  The characters, all of whom are in way over their heads, moan for food, and find a massive snake, and the snake is killed, and then the snake's corpse is taken by a mad swarm of red ants -- Father Lizzardi watches in horror as the headless snake is made to writhe as if reanimated by this army of ant puppeteers.  This transitions to a more directly surreal moment involving a postcard, though this isn't pure surrealism as their is a point-of-view justification, and therefore explanation, for what we see and hear.  A crashed passenger plane is discovered, and while this is certainly something that can happen, this massive, smashed machine spread over a kind of terrain very few, if any, people had previously seen, is the kind of image on which J. G. Ballard practically built his career.  

So Death in the Garden (a "minor" Bunuel film, an assertion it would be hard to argue with, but I nevertheless question the necessity of making such a pronouncement, as many have) is, as far as I'm concerned, entirely absorbing as a near-hopeless tale of survival, one of the better examples of this sort of thing, in fact, though it would be nice if it could have taken up more of the running time.  But whatever, can't be helped.  The old-fashioned nature of the tale, and the old-fashioned twist on morality, is both comfortable and invigorating in its melodrama.  Plus in Father Lizzardi you have another religious figure to throw onto Bunuel's pile of them, though in this case Bunuel -- perhaps merely because he didn't originate the project himself -- doesn't set him up for his particular brand of deeply educated religious satire.  It could be argued that Lizzardi is ineffectual, but if so, then so is almost everyone else, and in any case he's not exactly having his face rubbed in his own uselessness.  This isn't Father Mulcahy in Altman's M*A*S*H, in other words.  His is just one of several straight or broken moral compasses being dumped into the jungle.
It's a Disaster (d. Todd Berger) - Don McKellar's final-day-of-life-on-Earth film Last Night can't be said to have proven as influential a film as, say, Blade Runner, but so far, and just recently, it appears to have directly inspired two films by writer-directors who found McKellar's ability to find not only comedy amid the drama, but romance, even as the seconds tick down to Armageddon, rather exciting.  For what it's worth, I did too -- I think Last Night is terrific.  It's quite possible, though, that it's not a movie that's a fit model for direct inspiration.  The two films I'm thinking of here are Lorene Scafaria's Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, a movie I didn't dislike, and Todd Berger's It's a Disaster, a film I also didn't dislike (it occurs to me now that you might also reasonably include Abel Ferrara's 4:44 Last Day on Earth, a film I thoroughly and actively disliked, but for tonal reasons, if nothing else, should probably be excluded, so fuck it).  But despite the absence of any genuine dislike for either movie, Last Night is such a specific film with such a specific approach that to want to replicate it should, or anyway will, also mean that, whether you like it or not, you've revealed yourself as a filmmaker who wants everyone to know that you've seen and enjoyed Last Night.  Seeking a Friend for the End of the World steals McKellar's ending, for example.

It's a Disaster does not steal McKellar's ending, but it's not otherwise bracingly original.  The concept here is that three couples, of the men-and-women-in-their-late-20s-or-early-30s variety, are meeting for brunch at the home of one of the couples (Erinn Hayes and Blaise Miller) who host these things pretty regularly.  This time around, though, we know that tensions will be higher than usual because Hayes and Miller are preparing to announce their split.  Adding to the pending awkwardness is the introduction to a new person to the group in the form of David Cross as the new boyfriend of Julia Stiles, who's an old friend of Hayes and the other two women in the cluster, played by America Ferrara and Rachel Boston.  Throw in Ferrara's comic book geek, conspiracy-minded fiance' (Jeff Grace) and Boston's druggy goofball of a boyfriend (Kevin M. Brennan), and you have a diverse-enough set of personalities bouncing off each other by the time the information comes through that nearby a vast number of dirty bombs have been detonated.  The news gets exponentially worse from there, and the characters then must humorously -- this is a comedy -- come to terms with their pending deaths.

If you can get past the creepingly dreadful thought that It's a Disaster came about because one day Todd Berger thought "You know, the end of the world is really like the end of a relationship," a good deal of fun can be had here.  And it's fun of an almost genuinely uncomfortable sort, because it's not a glib film, really, and Berger is not interested in sliding the rug back under his characters. Now, Miller and Hayes (who is so wonderfully funny on Childrens Hospital) were given the worst possible roles in the film like this, because they have to try to make us care about the state of their relationship as the world ends around them, but it's basically impossible to give any kind of shit, though it is extremely possible to find their narcissism under the circumstances appalling.  The idea, I think, was to show how important love or some shit is, even when hope itself is gone, but compare how Berger handles that idea to the relationship between Don McKellar and Sandra Oh in Last Night (or to the entirety of F. Javier Gutierrez's quite, quite different end-of-the-world thriller Before the Fall).  But leaving them aside, there's enjoyment to be found in, for instance, David Cross's straight man antics -- Cross is, I'd say, the most talented person on screen here, and he's always been a pretty effortless comic performer -- or Ferrara's defeated, yet logical, descent into hedonism.  It's the cast, really, that saves the day here.  Berger himself flails about.  At one point he does that thing where you rapidly cut between the conversations of several paired of sets of characters, separated from each other, the hope being to build up some kind of comedic momentum, but there are no jokes and no pay off; later, Berger straight-up rips off a bit from Almost Famous, coming dangerously close to doing so verbatim.  But Cross and the increasingly dependable Stiles, as well as Ferrara, Grace, and the others are committed to getting laughs, and dare I say it, pathos, from what Berger has provided them.  Even Berger himself comes through with his ending, which is set up by a ridiculous, but thankfully not ruinous, character turn.  The ending's good, though.  It's a funny idea, well-executed.  It's possible, even likely, that I feel more positively towards It's a Disaster because of the way it ushered me out, but I'm not in the habit of trying to talk myself into liking a film less than I think I do, so I'm not gonna.
Wreck-It Ralph (d. Rich Moore) - This animated movie is perhaps the first children's film to be made specifically for 34-year-olds.  If little kids go, that's fine too, but in the same way that it's fine if women also happen to like Predator.  The story is about the title character, a vintage 1980s video game villain (voiced by John C. Reilly), realizing that he's not happy being bad, and therefore disliked, even during the off-hours of his video game world, where all the video game characters live lives of inventive verisimilitude, of the Pixar variety, away from the action of their respective arcade games, and he wants to do something about it, something heroic, or good, or noteworthy in a positive way.  So right there, Wreck-It Ralph is pandering to those people who happily wallow in the vast muck of 1980s nostalgia in which we all, especially those of us who "get to" say we grew up then, currently find ourselves up to our neck in, as others before us have found themselves up to their necks in quicksand, or shit.  The point is, that nostalgia is not being enjoyed by your eight, nine, or ten-year-old children who are the usual market, and quite understandably so, for this sort of thing.  Not that kids that age don't still play video games, but I think their appreciation for the retro and the vintage is yet to develop, as is their understanding of the kind of video game terms which actually kind of work as plot in Wreck-It Ralph.  Now, one might ask, if the pandering is being laid on so thick here, why not make a film that skews more adult?  Why make Wreck-It Ralph a kids' movie in the first place?  Because, as it happens, those in my age group who have an emotional investment in old video games also happen to like animation, including animated kids' movie, so that in terms of the potential audience for Wreck-It Ralph goes, the more the merrier.  Which is fine, I like kids' movies, too.  But if those same adults who liked Wreck-It Ralph a great deal believe that they have not been pandered to with this film, let me make it clear to them:  You Have Been Pandered To.

And pretty badly, too.  For some reason, the non-Pixar branch of Disney that made Wreck-It Ralph set up the film to be Pixar-esque with the potential for imaginative -- and here I'm going to use a phrase that the pandered-to will know well -- world-buidling, relating to the off-hours video game world that the characters pass through and talk about and live in during the film's early going.  But then, when Ralph hatches his plan, all that crap goes straight up the chimney as the remaining, I'd say, 90% of Wreck-It Ralph takes place in the world of a single game, a candy-based game, for some inexplicable reason, so that the whole premise of video game villains being forced into their bad guy roles and wishing for something more, exists, to the extent that it even does here, just barely within the confines of a completely different fantasy film about a world of candy.  The whole thing is just absolute goddamn nonsense, without ever being especially funny, and certainly not ever being especially inventive, because the filmmakers have narrowed the imaginative options down to about as narrow a space as anybody could not under any circumstances want to work within.  Also featuring the vocal talents of Sarah Silverman and Alan Tudyk.

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