REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, APRIL 2012
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
The latest from up-and-coming Norwegian auteur Trier (Reprise) zeroes in on one pivotal day for Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), a 30-something drug addict finishing up rehab and taking an outpatient day to apply for a job. We follow Anders on the interview, but also as he visits his best friend, tries to meet up with his sister, and takes stock of his options after cleaning up. Anchored by Trier’s rich, literary sensibility and a steely, pitiless performance by Danielsen Lie, Oslo eviscerates the pat inspirational tales Hollywood loves to spin about its own 12-stepping pals. ( This ain’t 28 Days.) As compared with Reprise, which was characterized by up to thirty pieces of stylistic flair (jump cuts, black and white / color mixing, direct address, the whole hipster-Godardian playbook), Oslo is relatively naturalistic. But closer investigation reveals that Trier is engaged in a somewhat subtler project. We never once depart from Anders' point of view, and there are numerous ways in which the film hints that his is not an entirely reliable one. The at times near-Dardennesian fixation on Danielsen Lie provides a vicarious claustrophobia, even as Anders has been sprung from his circumstances and permitted the freedom to move. The monster, the craving, is within, and so we are dealing with a man who, like a Foucaultian snail, carries his own prison on his back. (And this is to say nothing of the various crises and instabilities that drove Anders to drug use in the first place.) He used to avoid life in parties; now his friends have moved on. So he is left to figure out if, despite our encouraging bromides for the recovering junkie, there is no place left once you exit a world that keeps moving in your absence.
[NOTE: This is an excerpt from a longer review, published in Cinema Scope 53.] We may as well get it out of the way. The “unspeakable act,” in the title of Sallitt’s latest and by far best film, is incest. The film makes no secret of this; it isn’t held back like a thrumming energy, as in Alex Ross Perry’s contemporaneous The Color Wheel (2011). In fact, there is no “act” at all, only confused, agonized longing. Jackie (preternaturally gifted newcomer Tallie Medel) is 17 and has been sexually fixated on her older brother Matt (Sky Hirschkron) almost as long as she has possessed a coherent sexual identity. Sallitt stages Jackie’s crisis around Matt’s return home following his first year at college. He brings his girlfriend home, and this sends Jackie into a tailspin. She is forced to confront her feelings for (and with) Matt, and at the midpoint of the film, begins intensive therapy to overcome her inappropriate attraction. As with all of Sallitt’s work, there is a still, limpid treatment of mise en scène that appears negligible at first glance. His even lighting and white / beige Northern suburban interior motifs look dull and matte until, through their very light absorbency, they begin to smother, as if only human thinking could pry one out of the dollhouses that engulf us.
And as he did with the college professor in his previous film, All the Ships At Sea, Sallitt takes a member of a profession that “the movies” have cast in a disreputable light for no particular reason – the therapist – and made her something of a heroine. Played by Caroline Luft as the consummate professional listener / guider, Jackie’s therapist Linda is a talker, like everyone in this highly literate film. But she is a highly conscious talker, someone devoted to building new connections, forging new tools with Jackie through language. Given the importance of words in Sallitt’s art (and Rohmer’s), it’s not entirely surprising that therapists and academics would get a fairer shake in his films than in most others. But more than this, The Unspeakable Act is a film that helps recode what constitutes cinematic action. When talking about their incest problem, Matt jokes to Jackie, “for an unspeakable act, you sure do talk about it a lot.” But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? In cinema, as well as real life, we exorcise our taboos by turning them into speech acts, and then follow them up with additional speech acts (apologies, confessional, therapy, art). But in Jackie, Sallitt has created a particularly stark, and beautiful, sign of our times: someone who hangs onto her pathologies with both hands because she believes that they alone are what make her special.
The Best Feature winner at this year’s Slamdance, Welcome to Pine Hill is an imperfect film that requires patience and empathy on the part of its viewer. This patience is duly rewarded. It’s the story of an insurance adjuster / part-time bouncer (Shannon Harper, a gentle but commanding screen presence). He learns that he is very ill, news that prompts a series of small but dramatic decisions. The film becomes a kind of elegaic picareque, and Harper's character, paradoxically, anchors Pine Hill as a sort of "focused drifter." Miller’s direction is rough, not least in the prologue. That opening segment, which is directy adapted from Miller's experimental documentary short Prince / William, shows the seams of being stitched in from previous material. (While Shannon is out for a walk, he finds a random white dude walking his lost dog. When he explains that this is his dog, the guy refuses to relinquish the animal, assuming that Shannon must not have taken good care of him in the first place.) This opening, which was the germ of the entire project since it introduced Miller to Harper, certainly sets up the primary themes of Pine Hill, in terms of Shannon's past (he is a reformed drug dealer), and how wherever he goes, despite his kind, placid demeanor, his physical presence as a young, somewhat hulking African-American man essentially marks him as a "type" of being, the kind embodies by his abandoned past. If there is a substantial flaw in this otherwise very open, exploratory film, it's that the inclusion of this highly concentrated encounter, which probably made sense in the context of a short film, tends to spell out Pine Hill's overall themes far to explicitly, and far too early. Once Shannon hits the road and becomes a less determined individual, Welcome to Pine Hill becomes a much less deterministic movie. Also, that bland-ass title must be changed. [NOTE: It seems the good folks at Oscilloscope disagreed; they've picked the film up for a 2013 release, and good for them.]
The latest effort from Thailand’s Pen-Ek Ratanaruang is the sort of shoddy affair that gives foreign art cinema a bad name. Confusing and emotionally detached not so much by design as by incompetence, Headshot is a would-be genre scramble that finds hitman Tul (Nopporn Chaiyanam) shot in the head and, upon awakening, afflicted with grainy, upside-down vision. (A metaphor for a misspent life?) Extended flashbacks show us his life as a cop, his dark temptations, and his fatal lack of charisma. Perhaps Headshot is trying to combine extremity with contemplation, two Asian-identified filmic modes. Alas, Pen-Ek came up only with graceless claptrap.