Friday, March 19, 2010

Maggie 2010: The Monumental Catch-Up, Part Two

#30. Read My Lips

This film by writer/director Jacques Audiard was meant to pass the time while waiting for The Prophet to be released in Waterloo: it only managed to exacerbate my desire to see the latter. Where a lesser writer might throw in character "hooks" like hearing loss (Carla, played by Emmanuelle Devos) and ex-convict status (Paul, played by Vincent Cassel) and call it a day, Audiard chooses to evince complex portraits about the human condition. And damn, is he good at it: Carla's hit a glass ceiling at work, where her ability to read lips brings her no added pleasure, so when the opportunity to hire a secretary arises her reasons for hiring an ex-convict who can't type aren't entirely clear. Is it altruism? Paul doesn't imagine so -- especially when one good deed is compounded by another -- and he responds accordingly. This is the first in a series of small, mean, helpless acts in which these two give and take from one another with different endpoints in mind. The struggle towards something better in a world where nothing is necessarily given, and much can be taken away, is a compelling one. A human one. And he answers it as such.

#31. Chungking Express

This Criterion Collection piece by writer/director Kar Wai Wong plays with isolation in crowded urban landscapes: Two love stories unwind, one after another, amid a nexus of shops and apartment homes. In the first, a lonely cop struggling with the expiration date of his last relationship has a chance encounter with a beautiful heroin smuggler whose luggage has gone astray. It's the smaller of the two tales, wending sweetly from sad to kind; and though the larger, about another lonely cop and the fast food worker who falls in love with the act of improving his life, leaves us on an equally upbeat note, it's the sadness of the journey there that truly lingers after. For the characters in each story, these moments of catharsis are hard-won despite the deep longing in individual hearts. For audiences, the journey is gentler, paved with hyper-human character quirks (think Murakami for the big screen) and wistful voice-overs, but no less poignant. There is humanness afoot here: lonely, lost, and full of hope.

#32. Splinter

As a horror film, Splinter is perfectly functional. In fact, I'll go one further: It makes complete, functional use of every winning Western horror film technique. Polly is an all-natural girl dragging her nature-phobic biologist boyfriend on a camping trip. On the way they're taken hostage by an escaped convict and his girlfriend. Are all our potential victims in tow? Check! Time to expose them to the monster! This one's a deadly parasite that metastizes inside its animal hosts and seeks to spread its spiky spores wherever it goes. The location? A gas station -- the perfect venue for all manner of threats with the added benefit of see-through glass walls, so the outside can be observed for even greater thrills and chills. All good fun, until the fun becomes a little too obvious: When a piece of a larger, infected host is trapped inside the store you know in a heartbeat that it's the little bugger the merry gang is going to test until they figure out where it's weak. And that ex-convict? Well, you just know they're going to break up the action with a sob story at some point (lamer, if you ask me, than just getting him to redeem himself with an heroic act). So, yes, it's a decent low-budget film with some fun CGI and an all-right script. But there are weaknesses to following the formula too perfectly, and predictability, which Splinter has in spades, is just about the worst.

#33. Ballast

Here's another film that aches and often breaks under the weight of its own humanity: Lance Hammer's debut feature film about three lives in the Delta shattered by the suicide of a connecting thread -- one's father (JimMyron Ross as James), one's ex (Tarra Riggs as Marlee), one's brother (Michael J. Smith Sr. as Lawrence) -- covers poverty, depression, drugs, gangs, violence, estrangement, and educational short-falls, among other subjects all too often bandied about to shrill and didactic ends. No such ends exist here, in this quiet piece with no soundtrack other than the real world: indeed, for all the sadness in the plot line, and all the pain that follows these characters from beginning to end, it's the images and small, natural sounds in this piece that linger. Fallow fields. The crunch of gravel, frost underfoot. A flock of crows rising overhead. Blood stains on a wall. A boy watching the sky. This film is slow. This film is heartbreaking. And if you can handle those two, this film is worth it.

#34. Ghost Town

Where do you go after finishing Extras but to other films starring Ricky Gervais? No, really, I'd like to know, because Ricky's comedies are decent but nothing special. In this romantic comedy, for instance, Ricky plays a misanthropic dentist whose brief brush with death leaves him with a waiting room of ghosts, ecstatic that he can see them and hoping he'll help them find lasting peace. Poor ghosts: Ricky -- sorry, "Bertram" -- isn't interested, except when one ghost (Frank, played by Greg Kinnear) offers to get rid of the rest in exchange for help of his own. Reluctantly, Bertram agrees to help Frank, the adulterous spouse, keep his grieving widow from marrying someone even worse for her than he was; less than reluctantly, Bertram falls in love with the widow, Tea Leoni, and hopes Frank will help set him up. You see where this is all going, or maybe you don't: there's a cute little twist in the middle of this film that ensures its existence to a comfortable hour and forty-two minutes viewing time. Palatable, inoffensive fare, Ghost Town is a safe bet for a night in with a diverse crowd, and a secure rom-com to boot -- just don't expect to laugh.

#35. Good Dick

This has to be one of the more bizarrely mismatched film-to-film-cases I've seen in a long while. Appealing to the smart indie hipster branding of all too many post-Juno films, the case's tag line reads "What do you REALLY want?" and underscores an image of the dour female lead, Woman (Marianne Palker) hauling hapless male lead, Man (Jason Ritter) for a kiss. Yet the film itself wrestles more with an absence of contact than anything else in this curious, underplayed piece about a lonely video clerk who stalks and moves in with a severe recluse and regular porn renter. There's much in the premise alone to creep people out -- for instance, I give you the stalking! -- but when you get past it there's something just fantastic about this couple's interactions: the ways they don't touch, the ways they negotiate contact, the ways they maintain isolation even when in contact. As an exercise in theatricality alone this piece is well-worth the watch; and all that striking interplay also more than makes up for a tired ending where Things Are Explained when they really, really don't need to be. A modest piece, but for the avid film and stage goer, a worthwhile exploration into the physicality of both media.

#36. Medium, Season Two

These next few entries are about the decline of a series from a strong beginning to an insufferable string of horribly written episodes. Season two is really the last truly worthwhile season: here we still get a sense of play and exploration as the show, about a medium who works with the police to solve crimes while struggling to maintain a busy family life, grapples with different territory from episode to episode. High points include an episode where a recently deceased murderer takes up residence in her head, giving her husband to worry about the safety of their family ("Method To His Madness"), a special 3D episode commingling portraiture with memory ("Still Life"), and an episode involving time dilation, wherein Alison discovers a psychiatric patient from the 1950s who insists that she's Alison ("Time Out of Mind"). The series at this point still makes an effort to explore the realm of possibility for the series' premise without conveniently breaking its own rules: The same is not true for those seasons that follow.

#37. Medium, Season Three

Season three is not really that bad, but the signs of decay in this series' writing start to seep in despite best intentions. The Dubois family becomes deeply involved in Alison's visions and waking nightmares throughout the season, with episodes including one where Alison fears she's dreaming her own daughter's death ("Second Opinion"), another where her husband Joe is actually trapped in a hostage situation ("Joe Day Afternoon"), and one where her daughter, Ariel, has visions that also coincide with the same murder investigation ("Mother's Little Helper"). Again, the ideas are present, and there's a clear intent to explore the depths and meanings of this show's premise in a few of the episodes. But oh, how the dialogue starts to creak to fit the show's plots -- how Alison especially has to avoid saying things that are only sensible in the middle of certain conversations in order to keep the show's tension piqued for the run of many an episode. Suspension of disbelief plummets quickly by episode 20, "Head Games," when even one of the victims at the episode's onset does something utterly senseless in order to be conveniently present for the grab-and-kill. It grates at a writer's teeth, I tell you -- and if I were any less compulsive about my TV shows, I'd have broken away from this series right about here.

#38. Medium, Season Four

... However, I am compulsive, so I stuck around long enough for the series to take on the kind of season one writes when they're really not confident they have enough material to sustain the initial premise: they blow all their original foundations to hell and see how things land. So! District Attorney Devalos is out of a job, meaning Alison is out of a job. In response, she turns to the private investigation scene, while her husband gets a considerable story arc of his own when he strikes upon a business venture and pursues it with the occasional help of his children's own, burgeoning psychic abilities. The pain in viewing this show really starts to mount as a whole series of ground rules start to unravel: Originally, Alison saw what the dead or emotionally distraught saw, or else saw the dead who told her themselvess. That I suppose just got too boring for series writers, who decided to introduce a lot of backward, roundabout clues in this season ("Do You Hear What I Hear?" being the most egregious) -- the purpose of which is clearly just to make every case complex enough to fill an hour. Now that's boring. Meanwhile, early in the series we learn the dead are supposed to be privy to everything, but this rule is also tossed right out for the purpose of episodes like Burn Baby Burn. Oh, and the horrible absences in dialogue, where a character shuts up instead of giving the sensible, time-saving response? They're still here. I tell you, compulsive viewing habits suck.

#39. Medium, Season Five

... Then again, maybe I'm just an optimist. If so, there are bright moments in this season that make the rough ride of the last two almost worth it. Husband Joe's plot-line has become its own "thing" in the series by now, and it finds some useful intersections with the overarching themes of this series -- especially in relation to balancing family life and making honest use of the gifts that run through his children's genes. (Always restless for side plots, the writers turn their mediocrity to Alison's coworker, Detective Scanlon, who gets his own considerable plot-line throughout this season -- a gentle love/loss/love story that doesn't have much substance to it, but fleshes out the hour all the same.) But it's the return of Alison to her own demons -- not least of which being Lucas Walker, a character milked for two episodes ("The Devil Inside"), but milked well -- that really makes this season more interesting. In episodes like "A Necessary Evil" especially we see the depth and flexibility of the show's initial premise. Then we simply have to wonder: why on earth did they ever stray?

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