16 January 2009

Rewinding 2008: Part II

Reviews of Paranoid Park, Encounters at the End of the World, Pineapple Express, W., and Wendy and Lucy


As I work on whittling my best-of list for 2008, I'm pausing to consider releases from the year that I haven't reviewed on Screen Savour.

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Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park is a mysterious and oneiric wade through the tall grass of adolescence, expertly filmed and capable of producing the feeling that you are at once tethered to the ground and ethereally lifted. The chief lesson overall might be that more young adult novels should be adapted for the screen by talented directors willing to take risks, be mature, and not condescend to teenagers. The great irony is that Paranoid Park will probably go unseen by many of those same teenagers who demand adults take them more seriously. Oh well: the pleasure can be had by all of us instead. This is the artier side of Van Sant, who had a banner year with this indie release and a mainstream success in Milk; he adapted the screenplay from the novel of the same name, the story of a teenager who is accidentally involved in a death. The director liberally plays with chronology, film medium, and film speed, and he has packed the frames with a cast of (almost all) non-actors – and actual young adults, at that. Their presence gives the film a sense of energy, although to be fair, in terms of pure entertainment, there is a very clear difference between non-actor acting well and a non-actor acting badly, and everyone in Paranoid Park doesn't fit into the former category. But this film isn't about good or bad acting; it's about the way the medium forms a symbiotic relationship with the subject, and few directors working today can translate that as well as Van Sant.

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Encounters at the End of the World, a documentary from quixotic filmmaker Werner Herzog, is a movie equivalent of a jellyfish: loose, free-flowing, and unpredictable, but unlike a jellyfish, it lacks a certain capacity to sting you out of your reverie. The subject is Antarctica, or more specifically, as one of his subjects says, "people who have an urge to jump off the margins of the map," with all lines leading to the South Pole. Or is that the subject? Herzog jumps from person to person, or person to animal to geography, etc., his soft narration constantly reminding us of our impending doom. Where a film like this might not work for other directors, it seems to work under the watchful and nihilistic eye of Herzog, who is among the only filmmakers securely employed who is open about his continual fascination by and simultaneous disappointment with the rest of his species. The documentary could use a little more of a spinal column, though, which would transform the unconnected wondrous moments of elucidation – like the sad and disturbing image of a deranged penguin running away from water and to its own doom on the inner continent – into something even more poignant, something more whole.

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The best films of Judd Apatow – that prolific source of today's best man-as-emotional-boy comedy – are those he has directed (The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up), but as a producer and co-writer, his record is checkered. He was involved in writing or producing five theatrical releases in 2008, the best of which is Pineapple Express, a film that fuses the genres of '70s stoner-buddy-film with '70s action flick. Apatow is not the director here; that title belongs to indie guru David Gordon Green, who deserves credit for helming what is at times a slick and stylized film occasionally capable of producing great laughter. Those laughs tend to be front-loaded, before the action kicks into gear, and the second half of the film isn't as pleasing as the first. Apatow produced and had a hand in the story, and the screenplay was written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, with Rogen starring as a process server who becomes ensnared in a gang war along his dealer, Saul (James Franco, who had a very good year and steals this film). Like the ├╝ber-potent varietal of pot dealt in the film, one hit off this comedy is probably sufficient.

Note: The green band, or MPAA "approved for all audiences," trailer for Pineapple Express contains a line of dialogue about hunting down two men and killing them, images of gunfire, and hand-to-hand combat. But the words "pot" or "marijuana" are conspicuously absent, as are any direct references to the drug outside a title card that reads "4:20 p.m." and presumably could do so for any reason; even the M.I.A. song "Paper Planes" has the word "seed" in place of "weed." Because you're only left to assume this movie might have something to do with marijuana, I'll leave it to you to assume what problems must exist in a society that considers images of murder to be approved for all audiences but seriously believes there's harm in uttering the word "weed."

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Is Oliver Stone's W. a tragedy or a comedy? It is both, unevenly and messily, and as such it does neither very well. In attempting to explore the psyche of George W. Bush, the 43rd president, Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser plant us the present, as the nation runs up to the Iraq War, and give us a look back to the man's younger and wilder years, when he was outdone by his own drinking and sense of aimlessness. There is a great deal of novelty when the film begins, a sense that each scene might bring something new to the table, but the novelty soon wears thin and then completely disappears when you begin to release scene after scene is passing without much of an imprint. Mostly W. provides a wide open space for Josh Brolin to wander in his eerily close interpretation of Bush's verbal ticks and swagger. (He is, without a doubt, the film's greatest asset, but his space is largely squandered by innumerable close-ups and constant cinematographic claustrophobia.) While Stone and Weiser are certainly at fault for the film's emotional inconsistency, the most egregious offender is Paul Cantelon, the composer of the score, which either skips along mockingly or amps up the orchestra in an attempt to draw sympathy. Ironically, considering the film's polarizing subject, what W. needed most was to pick a side: be either a straightforward dramatic assessment of a man, or be an outrageous and scandalous satire. The hard lesson learned is that you can't be both and expect to escape unharmed.

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In Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy, Michelle Williams stars as a melancholic and poor young woman named Wendy who, with her utterly adorable dog Lucy, is on her way to Alaska from Indiana when her car breaks down in a rural Oregon town. Stellar lead performance and cute dog aside, this is not a happy matinee; Reichardt co-wrote the screenplay with Jon Raymond (adapted from his short story, "Train Choir"), which follows as Wendy's life, already in a state of disarray, is finally and almost completely unwound. She is picked up for shoplifting and sent off to the county jail to pay a fine, she loses Lucy and spends the rest of the film trying to stomach the cash-dropping necessary to fix her car and, more importantly, trying to find the most loyal companion she seems to have had in a long time. The film has the unmistakable feel of a short story, from its sparse and unembellished plot to the strict adherence to a traditional narrative arc. The result isn't an entire negative for the screenplay, but its ending became predictable to me. Occasionally I worried the film was a little too manipulative of my emotions (whether you find such a thing grounds for guilt is up to you – I was slightly unnerved), but by the end I couldn't deny how impressed I was with Reichardt's film. It is careful and methodical, but never slow, and although it is frequently sad and upsetting in the continual roadblocks Wendy experiences, the character's life is not without moments of redemption. It is a fascinating character study, definitely good but also not great, and each frame pulses with Reichardt's craftsmanship.

8 comments:

Dead Pan 17 January, 2009  

Just a few notes on each film you have talked about.

-I adore Paranoid Park, and agree with basically everything you said, except the lead actors performance, while he would never be good in any other film, I think he works perfectly in Paranoid Park.

-I also agree about Encounters and probably would have added it to my end of year list if I had scene it in time.

-I think Pineapple Express was decent, but Forgetting Sarah Marshall easily tops it. Have you seen it yet? I think the screenplay really shines as the best thing Apatow has touched that isn't Freaks and Geeks. I do like Knocked Up better as a film but the screenplay for FSM film doesn't waste a thing. Now Pineapple Expresse's screenplay is messier than who knows what, but the film is ultimately a fun but mildly recommendable film.

-Ah, W. I was so disappointed.

-I am waiting for Wendy and Lucy to hit DVD as it isn't dropping by around here anytime.

Tony Dayoub 17 January, 2009  

T.S.,

You managed to review four movies I didn't see this year. I thought Pineapple Express was horrible. Dead Pan is right about FSM.

Paranoid Park is on my DVR so I'll definitely check that. Herzog always fascinated in his docs. I skipped Wendy and Lucy at the NYFF because it seemed like it would depress me at the wrong time of my stay there, but it's coming to Atlanta soon. And W., really regret missing that one.

T.S. 17 January, 2009  

Thanks for the thoughts, fellas. I didn't find 2008 to be a very year for comedy; there were some decent entries, but compared to 2007, I felt like I didn't laugh nearly as much as I would have liked. Pineapple Express, for all its flaws in its second half, did make me laugh in the first half, often quite loudly. (Thus the review, which aside from saying it was the best of Apatow's '08 works, was meant to convey a sense of averageness.) I was much more tempered on FSM than either of you, but after I finish considering and watching the '08 releases I haven't seen, maybe I'll revisit it. Thanks again for your thoughts -- you know I appreciate it.

Sam Juliano,  17 January, 2009  

Hi T.S.! I was most interested in getting your take on these five and others that you soon will be considering.

"But this film isn't about good or bad acting; it's about the way the medium forms a symbiotic relationship with the subject, and few directors working today can translate that as well as Van Sant."

I couldn't agree with you more on PARANOID PARK, which nearly made my own ten-best list. Your wonderful statement here conveys the film's essence, and a primary reason why it's a more challenging work of art than the impressive but more convention MILK. I think van sant's framing allows for suffused emotions to ring true, and the close-ups are haunting and provocative.
I also am on the same page with you on ENCOUNTERS, a film where the individual stories trump the usual sermonizing by this vintage nihilist who bluntly stated in his engaging German accent (I love PEEEEEBLES for "people's") that eventually every human being will be "extinct" and earth will become human-free. I think I prefer this film to GRIZZLY MAN, but at imes it meanders. The penguin episode you relate of course is priceless, even if its a further example of his oppressive fatalism.
I think you called it right with PINEAPPLE EXPRESS too, although I liked it a bit less. the second half wore out its welcome--there's only so far a mindless and artistically bankrupt film like this can satisfy, but I'll admit my kids loved it. I did laugh though, more than i did with TROPIC THUNDER. Terrific capsule essay here!
Oliver Stone's film (again, stellar review) had me laughing at times, but it's a mess, even if a self-parody. Perhaps the topic was revolting, but often Stone could capture some of the satire. This one grew tedious for me.

I must say, T.S., I liked WENDY AND LUCY more than you did (you did admit however that Williams was outstanding) even though, oddly i couldn't stand her previous film, OLD JOY, which beat a dead horse and whose slender screenplay couldn't be disguished by setting and "feel." With the minimalist WENDY, the (again) "minimalist" narrative has more by way of observation and psychology, and this time the story grabbed you. But I can well understand Reichert's tenuous hold, and your reaction is not the least bit surprising.

Fantastic round-up, and I must say pretty much dead-on as far as I'm concerned. Greatly look forward to your next batch.

T.S. 17 January, 2009  

Sam - Thanks for stopping by and commenting, sir. Your input is always appreciated. I have 25 (!) films left to see before I venture on a best-of list, so on an average of 5 films per "rewind," I'll at least have a few more installments before posting my list, which might land sometime in February. I'm trying to catch up with those in theaters now and those on DVD, and I'll certainly be looking forward to your feedback there. (I can say this much: right now our #1 film is the same, and I don't expect that to change for me.)

Sam Juliano,  17 January, 2009  

"I can say this much: right now our #1 film is the same, and I don't expect that to change for me."

That fantastic news T.S. has made my day!

Farzan 18 January, 2009  

Good post, I thought Pineapple Express wasnt that good. I thought it was a disappointment compared to Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I thought W was interesting and I fairly enjoyed it.

T.S. 19 January, 2009  

Thanks for your thoughts, Farzan. And I do mean what I said above... due to the resounding chorus of people suggesting I might have sold Forgetting Sarah Marshall short, I'll definitely have to reconsider it. We'll see.

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