Monday, March 31, 2014

Burials and block parties

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2006)

Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a remarkable directorial debut for the 60-year-old icon, as assured as, and quite a bit more distinctive than, Clint Eastwood’s best late films. Jones plays an aging South Texas farmhand, whose best friend, illegal Mexican Estrada is shot dead by an arrogant Border Patrol officer. Unhappy with how the local sheriff handles the case, Jones takes matters into his own hands – he digs up the body, kidnaps the officer, and sets off on a trek across the border, to return his dead friend to his hometown.

The film’s strengths are varied and considerable. It has the overall arc of a great eccentric Western, true to the evocative power of the landscape and the stoic, taciturn hero, but bursting with oddities – character quirks, strange incidents and parallels, the sheer inexplicable. The film is laconic and sun-baked, but with frequent outbursts of violence and malevolence. It’s a wonderfully evocative portrait of a small town, eloquent about the compromises and excesses that rise out of its all-suffusing boredom, turning people into either myths or beasts. The performances, down to the smallest role, are magnificently well judged.

Little Fish

The movie has been somewhat overlooked - it won a couple of prizes at Cannes, including for Jones as Best Actor, but never gained much awards-season momentum here, and it barely seems suited to the normal vocabulary of critical approval - I’m finding it very difficult to select the right words to describe it. Most compelling is the way that Jones keeps the lid very tight on his own character, and yet in the end the power of his will and vision – although beyond our understanding – seems to transform the film’s physical and psychological elements alike: it’s one of those endings that simultaneously makes little sense, and yet as much as anyone should possibly need. I suppose there’s something inherently indulgent and overdone about these Western concoctions – constantly valorizing an essentially limited patch of the world, of dubious governing ethos – but even more than the sexual subversion of Brokeback Mountain, Jones’ film shows there’s still much life in the pot yet. 

Little Fish, directed by Rowan Woods, sees Cate Blanchett back in her native Australia as a former junkie trying to stay clean. The movie revolves around her anxious mother and equally fragile brother; a former football star who befriended her years ago and who she must now watch slowly killing himself on drugs; and a suave gay drug lord. There’s a stock element to these characterizations, but the acting is of very high quality, even if the use of Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Sam Neill gives it a slight stunt casting quality. The film is most compelling in capturing the real economic and emotional motives that drive the characters, and is most run-of-the-mill in executing some standard drug movie double-crossing intrigue. The ending is somewhat misty and unresolved, which may simply reflect the reality that the upside for such characters is limited, but nevertheless seals the film’s decidedly secondary importance. Seeing it the day after Melquiades Estrada, one can’t help reflecting how many filmmakers think safely inside the box, albeit with much facility.

Dear Wendy

Lars von Trier is one director who is safely outside the box, but may merely be constructing his own, disconnected box, within which he slowly stagnates. His follow-up to Dogville, Manderlay, didn’t even open here – I saw it at last year’s festival and found it highly provocative as a melting pot for American sins and scandals, but it was very plainly nothing new. He wrote the script for Dear Wendy and gave it to Thomas Vinterberg (Festen) to direct, and that one did open here (briefly). It’s another parable of the mid-West (set in a small town – actually constructed in Copenhagen – that feels barely more real than Dogville’s chalk outlines), about a group of underachieving youths who develop an obsession with guns; they are pacifists, but develop a complex ritualized gun mystique from which they draw strength and confidence. This is a pretty good way of satirizing America’s Second Amendment delusions, and the film’s peculiarity, along with an undercurrent of fragility and near-sweetness, make it very diverting for a while. It’s always clear though that it only has one place to go, and that’s how it happens, ending up like a kindergarten version of The Wild Bunch. I would generally recommend the movie nevertheless, but it’s no more than the sum of its parts.

Wayne Kramer, director of the quirky The Cooler, seeks to transform himself into a punchy, technically proficient, yet still somewhat quirky action-master in Running Scared, with Paul Walker as a violent hood (but dedicated family man) spending a hectic night dodging Russian mobs, crooked cops and so forth. The movie is initially off-putting, but settles into a reasonably effective groove before losing it again toward the end. The use of unadorned blue-collar settings is effective, and it does have one rather stunning sequence involving a couple of child molesters; this is really the only point where the movie comes close to what the title design suggests is its sense of itself as a grim modern fairy tale.

Dave Chappelle

Night Watch, a huge hit in its native Russia, is a very similar viewing experience to Running Scared, although in this case the set-up is supernatural – yet another of those complicated crapolas about an eternal battle of light and dark, exploding into our own world via the wonder of digital technology. I nodded off for a while early on and never really picked up the thread after that, but I doubt this made much of a difference. The movie is no doubt well executed, but it’s the lamest kind of Hollywood wanna-be, with only the thinnest sense of local seasoning.

Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is an exceptionally enjoyable documentary about a 2004 concert organized by comedian Chappelle on a Brooklyn intersection. I’ve never seen Chappelle’s show on Comedy Central (and certainly didn’t know that he’s #43 on Comedy Central’s “100 Greatest Standups Of All Time”) but based on what we see here he’s a sweet good-hearted guy (for all his “edgy” material), and that goodwill permeates the whole movie. Surely the whole affair can’t have been as impromptu as it seems, but the illusion works, and the performers all seem liberated and happy. Highlights include Kanye West, Mos Def and Erykah Badu – and your reaction to that list probably weighs heavily on whether you think there’s a chance in hell you’ll ever go to see this movie, but really, even if you think that stuff is just noise, you should think about trying it out. Michel Gondry, so imaginative and distinctive in directing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is a much more self-effacing director here, and delivers a great, subtly orchestrated package. 

This week’s winner, Tommy Lee Jones, with a good showing by Chappelle and Gondry. Let’s play again next week!

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