21 January 2009

Rewinding 2008: Part III

Reviews of Doubt, Religulous, Shotgun Stories, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

As I work on whittling my best-of list for 2008 (set to be published in the near future), I'm pausing to consider releases from the year that I haven't reviewed on Screen Savour.


John Patrick Shanley's cinematic adaptation of Doubt, his own Pulitzer-Prize-winning drama, is a surprisingly sterile motion picture, considering its potentially explosive subject matter. When it was finished, I was let down, not because it was particularly bad, but because it wasn't particularly good. The mystery of its plot – where an iron-jawed Catholic school principal (Meryl Streep) clashes with a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) over the possible abuse of a student in the mid-1960s – is enough to keep you watching. Three primary performances (Streep, Hoffman, and Amy Adams as a young nun) are all predictably good, and one (Viola Davis, in an all-too-brief role as the mother of the student in question) is exceptional and show-stealing. Good acting, a good script – what's so wrong then? Shanley's direction, I think, which fits the medium here like a pair of too-short and too-tight Sunday slacks. The symbolism is heavy-handed, and the cinematography is uninspired. The aura that radiates off the film suggests one should pay attention because this is important, but this is really an ordinary film masquerading as something grand – not a waste of time, to be sure, but not the most enjoyable way to spend one's time.


The feet-to-the-fire satire Religulous is comedian Bill Maher's ode to skepticism, and it follows his journey to ask questions he thinks don't have answers to those who think they do. People of all faiths who push religion at the expense of humanity's other virtues bother Maher, and with subversive director Larry Charles, he is out to show how the steadfastness and unwavering commitment of a one-sided agenda is often hypocritical, corrupted, vulgarized, and ultimately turned into a tool of fear, control, and violence. Its goofy title aside, this is not an anti-religion film, but an anti-fringe film that gleefully preaches to the choir (nothing wrong with that, by the way). It is brash, refreshingly boundless, often funny, but badly assembled, significantly hindered by aggressive and scattershot editing. It is not so much that the film is unfair to its subjects; it seems no less fair than a segment of The Daily Show, and besides, it feels remarkably condescending to "feel sorry" for people who appear willingly and are earnestly expressing their faith. Rather, it is that the lines of thought often seem to ricochet in numerous directions at once. Maher and Charles severely splice in stock footage for cheap and pedestrian laughs, which uncuts any pretense at making a larger philosophical statement. (While at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, the idea of man co-existing with dinosaurs immediately invokes a clip from The Flinstones.) I agree with Maher's inherent thesis, and had a reasonably good time watching him wander the globe in search of someone who will admit no one has all the answers; but slowing everything down and cutting the superfluous junk would have made Religulous the intellectual and comical pursuit it wants to be, instead of a film that comes off like a kid giggling in the back row.


Shotgun Stories, as its title suggests, eventually comes down to shotguns, but in a skillful and wise decision, it is more about the injured souls standing behind the stocks. The film is a quiet meditation on the pain of physical and emotional violence, but most of the violence has either already happened to the characters or they are desperately trying, and often failing, to keep it from happening again. Set in rural Arkansas, it is the story of two sets of half-brothers who share a father, a so-called horrible man who walked out on the cruelly named Son (a terrific Michael Shannon), Boy (Douglas Ligon), and Kid (Barlow Jacobs) and set up a new family. The father's death ruptures what little peace there ever was, and the new clans find themselves at murderous odds. Jeff Nichols, the film's writer and director, is attuned with the landscape and not only the ebb and flow of rural life, but of general humanity. The film never stops short of delivering the goods, and even when the characters do come to fisticuffs, we know Nichols is reminding us in a static and silent way that sometimes deepest scars are buried within.


Here is a paragraph of third-person omniscient narration, cut from the screenplay of Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Remember that as you read. You may be tempted to think it is from a hastily written romance novel, but it's not. It's from the man who produced some of the most brilliant screenwriting in American cinema during the 1970s and 1980s.

Over the next weeks, Cristina became more and more sure of herself as a photographer. Both Juan Antonio and Maria Elena contributed ideas and support when she had doubts. Thanks to their encouragement, photography was becoming a productive interest in her life. By now, she and Juan Antonio and Maria Elena had become lovers. Everything seemed perfectly balanced, perfectly in tune. Maria Elena was calm and relaxed. Juan Antonio was going through a very creative period with his painting. It was only Cristina, as the last days of summer expired, who began to experience an old, familiar stirring ... a growing restlessness that she dreaded, but recognized only too well. Suddenly, thoughts started taking precedence over feelings. Thoughts and questions about life and love. And, as much as she tried to resist these ideas, she could not get them from her mind.
The film, Allen's 41st, is a collection of frequently engaging scenes strung together with turgid, telling-sans-showing narration that sounds more like Post-It notes from the director to himself than anything close to meaningful or illuminating storytelling. There are moments where this film really seems like it's going somewhere, somewhere Allen hasn't been often during the last twenty years. The characters seem destined to reach some greater expanse where something profound about art and emotion can be exposed, but then the droll narrator comes back, speaking in unmistakable Allenese while the director cues a montage to play alongside the ugly prose as a transition to the next scene, cued up for greatness but playing always into mediocrity. The characters are never allowed to develop real emotions or thoughts, only exist inside Allen's masturbatory arboretum of attractive, erudite, upper-class artists with nothing better to do but screw, drink, and pontificate. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is pragmatic and engaged to be married, while Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) is spontaneous and happy to hop. Vicky knows people who will house them in Barcelona for the summer, and there they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a bohemian painter and romancer. Both girls become entangled in his charm and experience a minor earthquake РVicky as she slouches toward her marriage and Cristina as Juan Antonio's bi-polar ex-wife Maria Elena (Pen̩lope Cruz) reemerges. Hall and Johansson lose all integrity early in the film, but Bardem and Cruz are a sheer delight, particularly the latter, who, like her volatile character, is an exciting acting force to reckon with. Throngs of Allen fans, like myself, are waiting for him to make one more masterpiece before he can no longer make films. Vicky Cristina Barcelona, despite many unwarranted accolades thrust upon it (except the deserved praise for Cruz), is really nothing more a Post-It note telling us to keep waiting.


Joseph "Jon" Lanthier 22 January, 2009  

Coincidentally I just finished watching "Doubt". I mostly agree with your assessment, although I think adaptations of stage dramas are difficult to approach critically; one typically finds his or herself commenting on what seems particularly "filmic" when in other cases simply looking at the story and dialog would suffice. I think Shanley deserves kudos for translating the play to the screen -- there were only a few moments where I felt the influence of theatrical tradition was overwhelming, mostly in the verbal cadence of the final confrontation between Streep and Hoffman. But mostly the camera work did seem somewhat "sterile".

The story is an intrepid one. I never saw the play so I comment on the differences in effect. I felt at times the film was acting hazardously revisionary: for the sake of artful ambiguity "Doubt" dares to suggest that the mere possibility of molestation coupled with mentorship may be preferable to being socially ostracized, and that the suspicions and methods used to implicate potentially innocent priests resembled a conniving witchhunt. In actuality molestation (as we now know) was widespread in the Catholic Church and culprits were seldom put under the scrutiny Hoffman's priest is subjected to here. My father attended Catholic school in the 60's, in New York, and experienced this first hand (although he himself was never abused).

And yet -- perhaps because of my familial background -- the film does work for me. Streep's icy principal is like a slightly more stringent version of my Brookynlese aunts (and I do mean only slightly). And though the symbolism was indeed heavy-handed (lightbulbs popping? c'mon!) and the film is too concerned with keeping the details of the central plot question a "mystery," it does hint at a curious complexity in the relationship between the priest and the boy. Even if there was no abuse, there was something being exchanged between them. Amy Adams does a fine job, too. Her role is the standard innocent lamb that is quickly typecasting her, but this time 'round it's a bit more demanding, and has to reveal a harsher, more vulnerable side. I'll probably discuss the film more with Sam in our little Oscar blogging project since it's bound to be up for something...

T.S. 22 January, 2009  

Jon - Thanks for the thoughts. I'm looking forward to more analysis from you on it. The artistically independent side of me does think Shanley deserves kudos for helming his own project – there's something admirable about it – even if the final result isn't entirely successful. I often wondered as I was watching how it would look in the hands of another director, someone who possesses a bit more subtlety and power. Overall the film does work; it runs like perfect clock, which is exactly the best simile for it since it played so matter-of-factly on me as if I were checking the time. I would have a hard time not recommending it to people, but still for me it's a movie that makes it across the finish line in the middle of the pack.

Oh, and thanks too for tipping me off to the Oscar project over at Bright Lights After Dark. For as well as I know many of the people who run in my circles here, I'm still always looking for new content, and I haven't had a chance to read too much there yet. It's definitely going into the reader. I've been on the fence about the Oscars for months now, whether I would discuss them at length here or not. Maybe before the ceremony in February.

Tony Dayoub 22 January, 2009  

I agree that Doubt's direction is pretty heavy-handed (dutch-angles...really?), but for me, it was really a performace driven film.

That's why I couldn't put it on my top 10 for the year. But I still think it's worth a look.

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