The action/adventure/war movie Lone Survivor, written and directed by Peter Berg (who seems desperate to make Taylor Kitsch, who he has directed before in Friday Night Lights and Battleship—at least we can’t blame him for John Carter of Mars, into a star for some reason), is a film of ironies.
It’s a celebration, even an exaltation, of the abilities of the elite fighting team Navy Seals; yet the mission dramatized here is a failure, and not just a failure, but a spectacular one at that.
It’s a movie that emphasizes the day to day details and procedural-like realism of war as it is being waged today; yet the deaths are filmed heroic, mythical, epic even, shot in stylized and loving slow motion.
It’s a movie that at first glance seems to be a Howard Hawksian study of men participating in a life or death situation as a way of life, but with character studies that are too minimalist for that. Yet it’s this minimalism that also gives the story some of its power.
It’s a movie filled with top named actors, yet it’s the sound effects and stunt men who are the real stars.
It’s a movie that takes place during one of the most political divisive of U.S. wars, yet the story has almost no political context at all and seems to take place in an every war atmosphere.
Lone Survivor is a movie that establishes its goals early on (from the previews actually) and goes after them with the ruthless intensity of a rabid dog that won’t let go. The technical aspects, from the sound to the editing to the cinematography to the sets and costumes, are first rate. The acting is strong (the aforereferenced Kitsch, Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, who are all rather good, especially that Foster dude).
It’s a movie that cannot really be faulted.
At the same time, it’s a movie that takes a true story of tragic proportions and reduces it to little more than an extremely well made hyperrealist popcorn piece of entertainment.
Which may or may not be your cup of tea.
There is something about folk music that reaches down deep into our souls and really reveals, even revels in, the pain and suffering of what it means to be human, as well as exalts in the joy that one sometimes finds in life as well. It’s a music that reminds us that we, as human beings, never essentially change—that what we were in the beginning, we are now and always shall be. And it’s a type of music that can fill in for us when we can’t express clearly our own feelings.
Two movies in 2014 used folk music as a way of deepening their exploration of their heroes, the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, with a central character who can only communicate his real feelings when he’s singing, and now The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgium’s entry in the foreign language film category for the Academy Awards.
The Broken Circle… revolves around Didier, an atheist who plays and sings lead in a blue grass/folk band (whose big number is, ironically, the spiritually inclined Will The Circle Be Unbroken), and his love for Elise, a young woman who believes in an afterlife and who becomes his partner in life and his partner in music.
And they do make beautiful music together, both on and off stage. There is something tremendously exciting when they are both singing their songs of profound emotional resonance in front of a crowd. And there is something equally exciting about their simple love for one another. And out of this union of both music and love they create a child, Maybelle, a bright and lovely little girl.
But then something happens that endangers their circle and threatens to break it down forever. At age seven Maybelle develops cancer. And then…
The performances by Johan Heldenbergh as Didier (who also co-wrote the play the movie is based on, along with Mieke Dobbels) and Veerle Baetens as Elise, are deeply empathetic portraits of parents who have something happen to them that no parents should have to experience. Nell Cattrysse as their little girl gives a touching performance.
The screenplay by Carl Joos, Charlotte Vandermeersch and the director Felix Van Groeningen, does whatever it can to eschew sentimentality. And Van Groeningen’s swirling direction of the camera never lets us sit still for long. Their movie paints a rich portrait of two people living a bohemian life of music. And when the screenplay itself no longer feels it can adequately share the emotions of the moment, the characters break into song, allowing the movie to express what mere language can’t always share.
And it has music that is so strong in emotion that it points up the one flaw of the movie. Didier and Elise have arguments of anguish and guilt, accusing the other of complicity in what happens to Maybelle until Didier has a breakdown on stage. It’s not that the arguments don’t ring true. They are ridiculous and over the top. But we’ve all heard arguments like these before, where people are fighting over something that they are not really fighting about.
But these scenes also fall flat. They are never quite as believable as the rest of the movie. They are a bit predictable and even clichéd. They can never quite come up to the emotional heights of the music. And they are somewhat of a letdown.
And yet, in spite of that, The Broken Circle… is emotionally devastating, a heartbreak of a movie that leaves you speechless when it’s over.
I have seen more than a few bad films by celebrated filmmakers in my life. But The Canyons may take the clichéd and proverbial cake. It has to be one of the worst movies every made by a respected writer/director, in this case Paul Schrader. I mean, this is a film that isn’t even as good as Torn Curtain, Shadows and Fog or The Bonfire of the Vanities (well, actually, I may have gone a bridge too far there; Bonfire… is pretty bad). I’m not sure what is worse about it: that it’s just so horribly bad in it’s own right, or that it was made by the filmmaker of such movies as Blue Collar, The Comfort of Strangers, Light Sleeper, Affliction, Auto Focus and the underrated The Walker (as well as the author of such classics as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull).
I suppose in Schrader’s defense one could say that at least he didn’t write it. That dubious honor went to the no longer infante terrible Bret Easton Ellis. I don’t know what Los Angeles did to Ellis to piss him off so, but he is one angry dude and he is bent on taking no prisoners. So not surprisingly, The Canyons is a movie about the immorality of the city of angels. But it’s also a film in which everybody seems to live in homes far above their pay grade; where everyone behaves as if they were characters in Dangerous Liaisons (though the film as a whole never quite reaches the level of Melrose Place or Beverly Hills whatever); where the worst thing that can happen to a straight man is to get a blow job from another man; and where everyone blames the city for their deeds, rather than take responsibility for their own actions. You know the routine. To paraphrase Oscar Levant, it’s the real tinsel behind the fake tinsel.
The basic plot is a neo noir revolving around a bored couple who become involved with the production of a slasher film and casting a boytoy in one of the parts. The story itself is perfectly fine. It’s not quite there yet, but it gets the job done and one could see that something could have been made of it that would be more than entertaining enough. It’s main drawback is that it’s clunky at times; the story sets up a couple of situations that suggest some sort of payoff, but none appear: one character is coerced into having sex with a man to keep a part in the film and then the same character seems to be set up for a murder. But neither twist really has a follow through. In fact, because there wasn’t a follow through, after the movie was over, I was no longer sure why the murder took place.
The real villains here, though, are not the characters, but the actors. The leads are played by James Deen and Linsday Lohan as lovers who like to play mind games with each other whenever Deen’s character is not filming his girlfriend having sex with another man of his choosing. To be charitable, neither performer is very good. In fact, they are excretal. It is perhaps the worst acted movie of the year (yeah, you heard me, Pacific Rim; you want to make something of it?).
But Deen is particularly at sea as an actor. There are times when it feels as if he’s delivering his lines as through there is no one else in the room, he has so little connection to his fellow thespians. At the same time, I do have to say (and when I say this, I am being very sincere and not being remotely snarky), as bad as Deen is, there is a suggestion that he might make a fairly good comedian; there was just something about his line readings that suggested he might have some sort of comic timing that could serve him well.
I’m not sure what led Schrader to make some of the choices he did here, especially when it came to the actors. Was this the only way he could raise money for the film, to cast people more for their notoriety than their ability? Or was he trying to say something about the way movies are usually made in Hollywood? Or was he suggesting that directors who are also auteurs don’t need good actors (or a good script) because they are, well, auteurs? At any rate, hopefully this is only a blip on Schrader’s oeuvre and he’ll be back on course with his next outing. After all, even Shakespeare had his Titus Andronicus, but he managed to recover all right.
Prince Avalanche is a shaggy dog story with a couple of shaggy dogs in the leads. It’s one of those odd couple tales, you know the sort, where two disparate beings fight and fight until they learn life lessons from each other and fall in love ala Beatrice and Benedict from Willy Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
This time around, the story is about two men who paint those yellow lines down the middle of roads. One, uptight Alvin, played by Paul Rudd wearing an ironic mustache unironically, is all business and has a misanthropic streak to him (one imagines that this stick in the mud was probably what Henry David Thoreau was really like). His partner in paint is the more slackerly Lance, played by Emile Hirsch with a body as droopy as his character. Lance gets lonely if he’s alone more than five seconds and just can’t seem to take the job seriously.
One doesn’t always know how to react to them. Next to their contrasting personalities, their biggest issue is the women in their lives, and there are times when you feel there’s a misogynistic streak to the screenplay as this pair of Frick and Fracks bewail the treacherous, stab in the back ways they are treated by the opposite se. At the same time, both Alvin and Lance become so annoying at times, you fully understand why the fairer sex is treating them the way they are and you think they more than deserve everything they get; you’d almost love to take that knife and twist it around yourselves a few times.
In full disclosure, I’m not that big a fan of David Gordon Green, who wrote and directed this film. I found both George Washington and Snow Angels to be mind-numbingly slow with the only positive aspect from either of them being the discovery of actor Paul Schneider. At the same time, though there’s nothing that special about this movie, as it goes along, it does gain a certain winsomeness to it. To keep with the shaggy dog metaphor, there are many occasions when you’d like to reach out and pet it.
In addition, Green constantly cuts from the characters and languorously lingers on the nature that surrounds them: trees, caterpillars, rivers. Half the time, these shots bring a special neo-spiritual feel to the movie. But to be perfectly honest, it must also be said that the other half of the time, it feels as if these scenes are more filler, as though Green is trying to make more of something than is there. I’m not convinced it all really adds up to a whole.
There is one scene that achieves a moment of transcendence that shows what the movie could have been. At one point, Alvin, while communing with nature, comes across an old woman searching through the ashes of her home that was burned down by a devastating fire. Something definitely magical happens here, especially when you find out that the woman is not who she appears to be. But this through line also feels a bit underused with no real payoff. The movie finales on a rather puzzling note that clouds rather than clarifies and as a result, we get an ingratiating film, but in the end, one that’s more of a shaggy dog story without a punch line.