Summer Movie Report, Vol. 2
By Fernando F. Croce

Inception. "When film is not a document, it is dream," says Bergman of Tarkovsky. "He moves with such naturalness into the realm of dreams. He doesn’t explain. What should he explain anyhow?" Christopher Nolan doesn’t merely overexplain his characters’ reveries, he spends so much time outlining their rules and regulations that he neglects to fill them with sensuality, menace, playfulness, and liquidity. In this conceptually alluring but laborious, visionless follow-up to The Dark Knight, Leonardo DiCaprio (still in Shutter’s Island mode) leads a team of subconscious-dwellers who specialize in mental corporate skullduggery. Their latest operation, set inside the cranium of a slumbering young plutocrat (Cillian Murphy), involves vast digital labyrinths, traumatic snapshots bubbling up from the hero’s psychological basement, and oodles of plate-spinning parallel editing. Despite the oneiric Chinese boxes, it’s a curiously sterile film -- surely the spectacle of overlapping minds folding themselves into Escher pretzels looks more interesting than a scuffle in the lobby of a stockbrokers’ convention. (Do all dreary capitalists dream this unimaginatively, or just the ones who go on to become directors?) The only vertigo comes from seeing this many good actors (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Tom Berenger, Michael Caine) free-falling through Nolan’s solemn vacuities; the fleeting notes of human emotion (Marion Cotillard’s gleam of tremulous mischief, Murphy’s lachrymose Rosebud epiphany) feel like candles dying in an aircraft hangar.

Wild Grass. Watching Inception spell out its every mystery, I kept wishing and hoping for a movie that made less sense. My prayers were joyously answered by Alain Resnais’ exquisitely confounding psycho-farce, where a trip to the mall, a stolen purse floating in the air and an overhead view of a milky bathtub give its first ten minutes a more stirring feeling of dreams at play than the entirety of Nolan’s film. The incident brings together an older, married bourgeois (André Dussolier) and a middle-aged, red-haired dentist (Sabine Azéma), and so begins the free-associative wackiness. Character, tone and form are breathtakingly mercurial, forever morphing, stretching, reincarnating. The suitor’s ardor becomes the stalker’s rage and back, the heroine is suddenly an aviatrix serenaded by ‘30s-style flyboys, death itself has a sense of humor and continuity. "I was going to say something silly..." "Say it anyway." Here’s the verdure of irrationality cracking the wall, Renoir’s idea of everyone being ridiculous and sublime by turns or at the same time, cinema as the neon temple of possibility. You find yourself asking things like: What did Resnais think of Punch-Drunk Love? Did Mathieu Amalric and that other cop just trip over the 180 degree rule? Is that the cat from Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime? Have Resnais’ camera movements always looked like De Palma’s? May he give us ten more "old man’s movies" like this.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Also versus coherence, versus maturation, versus real emotion... Edgar Wright, a bright bloke and no stranger to genre jamborees and pop culture-soaked youth, disheartens with this sado-cute muddle. Scott Pilgrim (shrimp-of-his-generation Michael Cera) is a romantically arrested Toronto slacker whose manga-videogame-blog-sitcom-fueled psyche views life and relationships in terms of level bosses and rescued princesses. "You know Pac-Man?" "I know of him." His beloved is a capricious Yank (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) with psychedelic hair and considerable baggage -- namely, a league of villainous super-exes that includes Chris Evans’ raspy action-movie star, Brandon Routh’s levitating vegan-mimbo, and Jason Schwartzman’s malevolently smarmy music honcho. The nerd’s spilling-over conscious is visualized con brio: Colors pulsate, sounds become animated letters ("KROW!" "THONK!"), little balloons pop onscreen with snarky tidbits (a girlfriend is introduced and readily tagged "T for Teen"). As one character puts it, this is "a little heightened." Unfortunately, Wright’s pinwheel inventiveness only serves to emphasize the insularity and stunted petulance in his relentless agglutination of hipsterisms. Even for somebody who grew up with Nintendo synthesizer lullabies playing in his head, sitting through it felt like getting clobbered with a rubber clown mallet for two hours.

The Kids Are All Right. Sappho and the laugh track. The kids (Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson) are the offspring of a Los Angeles lesbian couple (Julianne Moore, Annette Bening), about to enter adulthood and curious about their sperm-bank origins. Enter donor-dad, a jovial, shambling New Ager (Mark Ruffalo) who hits it off with the two youngsters, pisses off the strict Bening, and threatens to make the dippy Moore switch teams. "Sometimes desire can be, uh, counterintuitive." So can faux-subversive movies that pretend to challenge traditional notions of gender and matrimony while in reality unquestioningly upholding the same bourgeois values. Despite one well-played, well-directed sequence (Bening at the dinner table, awakening to her mate’s infidelity), Lisa Cholodenko’s overrated, mezzo-toned sitcom doesn’t offer much beyond the rather depressing realization that, in today’s screens, progressive sexual politics boil down to making a gay family’s dysfunction as hackneyed as a straight family’s. Still, its portrayal of Moore vacillating between sexual planes would make for an intriguing double-bill with Egoyan’s substantially funnier Chloe.

Life During Wartime. "I know what happens when you rape a girl," the Beaver asks Mom. "But with a boy... Where does it go?" Ah, Todd Solondz. Has it already been over a decade since the derision of Happiness was palmed off as "bravery," "unflinching honesty," etc. etc. etc.? This quasi-sequel revisits that witches’ brew of self-loathing, cum shots, suicide and pedophilia, and adds race relations, 9/11, Zionism, and the auteur’s latest craze: wacky stunt-casting. The characters are the same, yet a patently different slew of performers hits the chalk marks of Solondz’s miserabilist Kabuki theater. The three New Jersey sisters (uprooted to rotten-caramel-hued Florida) are now Allison Janney, Shirley Henderson and Ally Sheedy (who gets the thankless task of mouthing the director’s whining about being called on his misanthropy by critics). Ciarán Hinds is a huge improvement over Dylan Baker as the suburban pederast, and gets the two best scenes, a thorny reunion with his college-aged son and some acrid verbal jostling with a weathered lynx (Charlotte Rampling). "Anything I can do for you?" "Delete everything off my computer." In Solondz’s static universe, any halfway decent bit of wit is a relief from the procession of scrunched close-ups asking for "forgiveness."

Cyrus. A Solondzian tremor of passive-aggressive discomfort also runs through this shaggy Freudian comedy, but, since it comes from tag-team mumblers Mark and Jay Duplass, it never amounts to anything more than a limp drizzle of well-that’s-awkward improv. John C. Reilly is a divorced chump (introduced ass-first, natch) who somehow hooks up with a damaged "sex angel" (Marisa Tomei). The catch? Her 21-year-old, live-at-home son (Jonah Hill), a bundle of Oedipal issues that suggests Buddha reincarnated as that creepy kid from The Omen. Genial performances are offset by the irritation of Judd Apatow-type humor played at the wrong speed and a thousand tiny camera zooms. The biggest laugh comes during the closing credits: "Produced by Ridley and Tony Scott."

The Killer Inside Me. That a British filmmaker is adapting American pulp noir doesn’t explain the frigid plainness on display here -- after all, London-born John Boorman masterfully caught the otherworldly modernism of Donald Westlake’s Los Angeles in Point Blank. But now you have Michael Winterbottom, shooting Jim Thompson’s Texas as if it were a cold day in the park. As the "boy scout with a badge" who reveals murderously unsavory appetites, whispery-fuzzy Casey Affleck is meant to embody the sociopath’s elemental vacuum but comes off more like a medicated meerkat. Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson are the pin-ups getting their faces pummeled into red sausage. A found-footage director who keeps chancing into his own style-free footage, Winterbottom is all thumbs in Thompson’s vortex of American psychos and butchered femmes -- smirky rockabilly tunes vainly try to make up for the missing heat, lines hang in dead air, the violence sickens without provoking. Ned Beatty, Elias Koteas and Bill Pullman sneak in juicy bits of good ol’ boy noir, but mostly this is one dry patch of desert.

Winter’s Bone. Carpeted with dung-colored leaves, pockmarked with meth labs and bubbling with squirrel stew, Missouri’s Ozark Mountains are here a place where folks clean their guns at the breakfast table and "Somebody died?" counts as a greeting. It might as well be Leatherface’s slicing grounds, and, indeed, there’s even a plum role for a chainsaw in this very Grimm fairy tale. The heroine is a tough 17-year-old (Jennifer Lawrence) whose tenacious search for her bail-skipping father scarcely endears her to the vicious local clans. Director Debra Granik has an immaculate feeling for environment, monosyllabic hostility and the deforming effects of poverty, and everybody (except for pale, cherubic Lawrence, who wouldn’t last an hour in an authentic Ozarkian junkyard) looks credibly gnarled and hungry. John Hawkes is great, and there’s a striking moment (a torch-passing bit, really) between Lawrence and a worn sprite you gradually recognize as Sheryl Lee. It’s a vivid, punishing, craggy-faced picture that, due to my allergy to ostentatious Ameriendie squalidness, I’m in no rush to revisit.

Get Low. Rounding off summer’s Southern Gothic troika with The Killer Inside Me and Winter’s Bone, Aaron Schneider’s lethargic 1930s-set fable reads like Faulkner’s discarded barstool napkins and plays like molasses roasting on a sidewalk. The real auteur (or culprit) of the piece is Robert Duvall, who, as a hermit who enigmatically throws himself a funeral party while he’s still alive, plays the role as a self-conscious summarization of five decades of flinty Duvall tortoises. The result is a very mild anecdote elongated into a venerated performer’s hushed Oscar-night valedictory. Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, Bill Cobbs and Gerald McRaney contribute small but welcome shifts in rhythm.

I Am Love. Another film built around a performer, but a much more exciting one, possibly because the performer is the lyrically extraterrestrial Tilda Swinton. A British actress playing a Russian wife amid Milanese aristocrats is just the starting point for Luca Guadagnino’s witty, humid comedy of cinematic manners, the rest unfurls as a luxuriant flow of thawing flesh and contrasting textures (alabaster skin against blue ensembles, wintry landscapes next to deep red wood). A letter for Tilda, a musical, a very olfactory film, something like Douglas Sirk laying in the sun or Peter Greenaway learning to savor prawns and wine. The highest praise is that it lives up to its extravagant title.

The Expendables. The "bad Shakespeare" of sagging Paul Bunyans, CIA-puppeteered dictators, waterboarding, pirates, and digitalized bloodfests. Very much of a piece with Sylvester Stallone’s autumnal auteur pieces (Rocky Balboa, Rambo), thick-necked and hollow-headed and weirdly affecting. In between pulverized torsos, there’s Sly’s church reunion with fellow Planet Hollywood animatronics Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mickey Rourke’s heartfelt dribble during a monologue about Bosnia, and the ludicrous prose ("Nah, you keep it. You appreciate a good blade") that lubricates the interplay of inspired comedians like Jason Statham, Jet Li and Dolph Lundgren. A leaky colostomy bag of testosterone, though you gotta admire the Roman calm with which Stallone surveys his pimp-mobile of waning action-movie bison, as if they hadn’t all been blown up in MacGruber.

Reviewed August 21, 2010.

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