The Lobster

The less grand, not-so-exotic, neither Budapest nor Marigold hotel

lobsterYorgos Lanthimos is what you’d call a “visionary director” if you knew that what you saw was pretty good but didn’t know exactly what to say about it.  He’s got a cynicism akin to Lars Von Trier.  He seems to care about shots as much as Terrence Malick.  He wraps these into the microscope-lens of an Alex Garland pic.  Then again, name-dropping and saying nothing else is basically the same as leaving it at “visionary director,” so let’s dissect.

In a dystopia that is never referred to as such (I might call it an alternate universe instead), newly single people are taken to the Hotel, where they have forty-five days to find a suitable partner or else be transformed into the animal of their choice and live out the remainder of their existence in anachronistic misery in the nearby forest.  Everyone speaks in an unsettling monotone.  Masturbation is prohibited, but the Maid (Ariane Labed!) makes sure everyone is sexually frustrated 24/7.  Single-by-choice folks who have escaped the Hotel are hunted down by Hotel residents with the promise of extra days as a human.  None of the transformation technology is explained, nor is the necessity of the Hotel (for instance, is the human population at rock bottom?).  Residents are subjected to embarrassingly campy propaganda (including a painfully inaccurate simulation of rape) meant to convince them that partnership is the key to happiness.  The whole thing has been compared to a Samuel Beckett piece – sure, it’s got the quiet cynicism, the allegory, the navel-gazing, the bizarre end-of-time scenario focused on a tiny sliver of the world – but there’s an underlying anger to The Lobster that neither Endgame nor Waiting for Godot possess.

David (Collin Farrell), the only named character, chooses a lobster as his animal, due to his love for the sea and the creatures’ generally long lives (apparently grocery-store seafood departments and the state of Maine no longer exist in Lanthimos’s fiction).  This choice is ridiculed by a know-it-all with a limp (Ben Whishaw), who along with an also-unnamed lisper (John C. Reilly) constitute David’s friend base.  The issue is that not just anyone can get together and have a good time; relationships are formed based on what the Hotel staff see as compatible features.  In other words, completely arbitrary traits, such as shared physical ailments (nearsightedness, a tendency to get nosebleeds, etc.), fondness for cookies, and so on.  It’s a fairly transparent criticism of online dating culture: the speed of it, the fakeness, the images people create of themselves vs. who they actually are, the methods by which we decide so much about a person without having met them.

The story is narrated by a near-sighted woman (Rachel Weiss), who doesn’t meet David until about halfway through.  At this point, David has forsaken the Hotel after a disastrous attempt to partner with a complete sociopath (Angeliki Papoulia).  As a story in this genre must explore the perspectives of both major factions, David joins the “loners” in the woods, who are led by a ruthlessly rigid woman played by Palm d’Or-winning superstar Léa Seydoux (doing what she does best here – playing a fascinating Alpha – rather than the love-interest and femme fatale stuff she finds herself doing in American movies).  Here, the rules of the Hotel are inverted: masturbate all you want, but relationships are banned.  Even flirting is punishable by permanent disfigurement.  The viewer quickly finds that David doesn’t fit in this world either, because he quickly falls in love with Weiss’s character, and both strive to keep this relationship secret from the leader.

What I was slower to realize is that The Lobster would have worked better as a stage drama, where justification is vital only as far as character behavior, and the worlds, rich as they might be, are still confined to the room you’re in, and what you can believe is determined only by the performances (think Beckett and Pinter).  In a film, you get a look at what’s there, and you start to ask questions like, what is the rest of the world doing?  Are there other Hotels?  Why do the loners stay in the woods around the Hotel when they could get out of danger by going pretty much anywhere else?  Where are all the gay and gender non-conforming people (the Hotel allows one to register as gay or hetero, but not bisexual because of some plot-convenient Noodle Incident, yet we never see any gay people or couples on screen, and the propaganda is all aimed at hetero couples)?  Why does the loner leader have such arbitrary rules?  If everyone hates these rules, why don’t they overthrow her?  There’s more, but you get the gist: story beats and character behaviors are introduced in order for the film to make a point about something, rather than because it’s what makes sense.

It’s also a film that includes lots of interesting women, most of whom die, and all of whom exist in order to have diametrically opposed effects on the male protagonist.  It becomes frustrating, in part because characters with dramatic potential are wasted, and also because you feel like you’re supposed to cheer for it.  In the end, as David prepares to blind himself with a steak knife in order to be “equal” to his now-blind lover, do he and (by extension) the filmmakers realize that the duo are still abiding by the Hotel’s rules, this far away from the place itself?

It’s the job of a picture like this to generate discussions, not questions based on lack of clarity of intention.  As it stands, The Lobster is an awesome piece of art, but not a particularly good movie, in spite of the dedicated and deliciously weird performances by Farrell, Labed, and Seydoux. Let me know if there’s ever a stage version, yeah?

220px-the_lobsterThe Lobster (2015); written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos; starring Colin Farrell, Rachel Weiss, Ariane Labed, and Léa Seydoux.

 

Miss Julie

You should’ve been an actor

Miss JulieLiv Ullmann’s adaptation of August Strindberg’s perpetually-performed 1880s naturalist play (arguably the first successful stageplay of its type, and also one that, against the popular “rule,” decided that theatre characters could be real people with more to them than a single “motivation”) pulls open the wounds of its characters and allows the audience access to all of their layers.  Ullmann, winner of a Golden Globe, nominee for a handful of Academy Awards, and longtime collaborator of Ingmar Bergman, continues her collection of brilliant adaptations, adding dialogue and sets to Strindberg’s minimalist narrative without diluting its original intention (of course, what we take that intention to be carries a slightly different context 120-something years later) – in fact, if anything, this film enhances its power.

Though Strindberg thoroughly examines the psychology of his characters, Miss Julie still revolves around a Big Idea: the title character (played here by prolific-as-ever Jessica Chastain) represents a doomed class of pompous aristocrats who invent hardships for themselves, whilst Jean (called “John” in the film and played by Colin Farrell, once again using his natural voice, which tends to bring out his best characters), manservant to the Count (“Baron” here), represents the working class, who are better-suited to adaptability as far as the roles they can play in life.  It all works because the whole messy conflict is born of very basic, very natural desires.  Miss Julie is impulsive.  And think about this: in 1888, it was okay to write an impulsive character, i.e. a person who does things just because she feels like it.  So there’s a wildcard right away, but she also has issues concerning her upbringing and her parents, whose toxic (to put it lightly) relationship caused her to hate all men, whom she still can’t seem to get away from, and during the short timeline of the story, she shifts erratically between chastising and flirting with John, who has technically promised to marry Kristin (“Kathleen” here, played by Samantha Morton).  Kathleen, who “represents” nothing, is free to be a fully-realized human being who takes no lip from anyone of any gender.

The film version could be referred to as a character study, especially given its performances and additional dialogue (written by Ullmann herself).  The imagery is beautiful and truly poignant, and although going for something that feels heightened and very old, achieves something that feels like we haven’t seen it before, even those of us familiar with Strindberg’s work.  It comes together this way because neither Julie nor John is solely responsible for their midnight tryst, nor is either of them “good” or “evil” or one-hundred-percent “correct” despite the story’s battle-of-wits structure.  These are complicated people working to get out of a momentous predicament in a rigid world.  And boy, did Ullman find the actors who could pull this off: Jessica Chastain’s version of Miss Julie spends two hours fluctuating between soft, stagy monologues about the beauty of the moon and lilacs; and prolonged fits of hysterics, during which she sheds genuine tears, minces her vocal cords, and goes red-faced before our eyes (and this all actually happens; it’s not a movie-magic trick).  Colin Farrell, in a steamrolling performance as a character who is not extremely likeable in the play, manages to make John a soft, sympathetic workman trying to reconcile one kind of love with another kind of love with self-respect.  Morton’s Kathleen, the only other character in the film, is depicted as a person who knows her station in life, but who has complex ideas about what it means to consider the ruling class “betters,” knows what should be expected of folks in Julie’s and John’s places, and reacts exactly how you’d expect someone to react to the behavior she witnesses.

Ullmann directs the film as a stage version might be directed (aside from the cuts, of course), and the minimal sets, particularly the infamous kitchen, are so realistic that the echo of the characters’ voices is heard with every line (no studio manicuring here).  The added scene of Miss Julie as a child, sending a batch of young lilacs floating down a stream, bookends the story with a similar original scene that involves Julie’s same gesture as an adult – it’s a gorgeous piece of imagery, and leaves no question as to whether the eponymous character goes through with her implied suicide in Strindberg’s original.  Consider the final images of each character: John, dressed in his servant uniform again, ascends the stairs to wait on the Baron.  Julie lies in a red pool, her lilacs clotting against a rock in the middle of the stream, unable to go forward.

If you think that’s boring, I don’t want to know you.

Miss Julie (2014); written and directed by Liv Ullmann; starring Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, and Samantha Morton.

Seven Psychopaths

It’s very emotional

It never occurred to me that Martin McDonagh, a renowned Irish playwright and director of In Bruges, might end up making the quintessential Guy Movie, or that the latter might be a movie about dognapping.  Seven Psychopaths, the newest from the Oscar-winning director of Six Shooter, had me saying “Jesus Christ” aloud quite a few times in the theatre.

Funnily enough, the film immediately reminded me of Charlie Kaufman’s masterwork, Adaptation., which was also about a struggling screenwriter attempting to find a good movie in a slough of terrible ideas.  In both films, the protagonist is named after the screenwriter. Kaufman’s assignment was to adapt a movie from a book; unable to accomplish this, he wrote a screenplay about himself trying to adapt a screenplay from a book.  I wonder, then, if McDonagh was wrestling with a concept and finally settled on writing about himself wrestling with a concept.  The tone of the film, ill-tempered and seemingly aggravated with its characters, may suggest this.

Marty (Colin Farrell), sits on his porch, enjoys the breeze, drinks heavily, and scribbles ideas for his screenplay, “Seven Psychopaths,” on a yellow pad.  His best friend and roommate, Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) wants to help Marty with his screenplay by any means necessary, and to an obsessive degree: he not only offers to co-write the story, but he even puts an ad in the paper calling for criminals with crazy life stories to come to Marty’s house and share their experiences.  Ultimately, he resorts to an unbelievable, too-good-to-spoil solution, which involves a madman called the Jack O’Diamonds Killer – a serial killer who specializes in killing members of organized crime syndicates, shown in action in the film’s opening, which features brilliant banter between Boardwalk Empire‘s Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg.  Billy is unpredictable, sexist, and gratingly annoying, and takes his surname from Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle.  You might think this is a coincidence until you see Billy in front of a mirror rehearsing a conversation.

Here’s the trouble – Billy has no success in his acting career, so he makes ends meet by teaming with his other roommate, the aging Hans (Christopher Walken), in a scam that involves stealing dogs and later returning them to their owners in order to collect the reward money.  Hans’ wife, hospitalized with cancer, does not approve, but Hans, a steadfast pacifist, believes he’s doing the right this as long as he gives the money to her.  The duo, of course, steal the one dog they should not steal: a Shih Tzu belonging to the most psycho of the film’s psychopaths.  This is Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), a gang leader with incredible love for his dog and absolute disdain for humanity.  Costello ruthlessly hunts down anyone remotely involved with the dognapping in scenes that would normally fit into harrowing, violent drama like No Country For Old Men, but due to McDonagh’s decision to make the film exceeding self-conscious, result in raucous laughs – I was a tad ashamed of laughing at some of the film’s humor, but dammit if I could keep from cackling at Woody Harrelson popping wheelies in a wheelchair while interrogating a hospital patient.

Marty’s problem is that he begins with a concept instead of characters.  He names the film “Seven Psychopaths” before he even comes up with one psychopath.  His first character idea?  A Buddhist psychopath who does not believe in violence.  Thinking aloud on this, Marty says, with a hint of resignation, “I don’t know what the fuck he’s gonna do in the movie.”  This is one of the ongoing themes: the movie we’re watching, parts of which may or may not be happening in Marty’s jumbled thoughts, continuously seeks to find a place for its characters, and the colorful weirdos orbiting Marty (namely Billy and Hans, who make it all too clear that they know they’re in a movie), offer rolling feedback.  Billy recognizes Costello as the “chief villain,” constantly tries to set up a “final shootout” between himself and Costello’s gang, and balks when Marty suggests that the film should ultimately be about love and not shootouts.  Hans, portrayed by the eclectic Walken as buckled-down and cavalier, takes the opposite approach: he tells Marty that his women characters are all either hookers or unintelligent, and are killed within five minutes of being introduced.  This comment comes a few scenes after Olga Kurylenko’s character, Angela, is introduced and immediately killed, and after Marty’s girlfriend, Kaya (Abbie Cornish) breaks up with him and is killed (albeit in what amounts to a dream sequence, but it’s the last time she’s seen).  This provides another funny, self-conscious loop, but doesn’t change the fact that in McDonagh’s film, the actual film released in real-life theatres, the women are minimally seen and either naked or dead.

As was the case with In Bruges, the seemingly minor tidbits piece together to form a brilliant conclusion.  While Marty claims that he wants his film to have “no payoffs, just a bunch of guys sitting in the desert and talking,” Billy insists that the movie will end his way.  As such, we must remember Billy’s rules for movies, which include never showing sympathy for the villain, and never killing animals (Wes Anderson might disagree).  If he acknowledges this as a movie, then he knows he must follow his own rules, and Billy’s moments of hesitation are where Rockwell’s performance shines (a supreme achievement in a film that contains way too much of him).

The film also contains a short appearance by Tom Waits as one of the serial killers who answers Marty and Billy’s ad.  He’s a red herring for the Jack O’Diamonds Killer, but provides one of the movie’s many alternate-movies, which play like Marty’s rough drafts (or, more likely, McDonagh’s rough drafts for the real movie).  Luckily, these sequences all hold a special significance revealed later (yes, even Marty’s idea about a Quaker psychopath).

Seven Psychopaths is showy about its violence, and despite its humor, is one of the bloodier movies of the year (imagine Lawless as a comedy).  I wonder if McDonagh was going through a funk when he scripted/made this film, considering the amount of unpunished racial slurs and woman-bashing happening onscreen.  Whether McDonagh is taking a dig at the notion of being truly literary in Hollywood or was as frustrated as Marty when making this, there blooms an undeniable sense of exhaustion (and a big hint at McDonagh’s view on the less-than-fulfilling life of a screenwriter) once the action is over: sitting in his room, Marty receives a phone call from Waits’ character, to whom he broke a promise, and who calmly tells Marty he’ll kill him on Tuesday.  “That’s fine,” Marty says, distracted, his eyes glazed over.  “I’m not doing anything on Tuesday.”

Seven Psychopaths (2012); written and directed by Martin McDonagh; starring Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, and Christopher Walken.

Total Recall

We can remember it for you

recallThe first third of Len Wiseman’s remake of Total Recall (Total Remake?) is very good sci-fi with beautiful Blade Runner-esque set designs and imaginative inter-universe ideas, including a weapon that shoots a rope, binding the target and subsequently allowing manual control of the victim through simple hand movements.  Once the film devolves into a chase scene that seems to last an hour and a half, however, the formulaic action and stock characters become a bit tiresome.  The most inspired sections of the film feature references to the original Philip K. Dick story and the original movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (who isn’t quite the actor Colin Farrell is, but whose fish-out-of-water Douglas Quaid character seemed to fit more organically in the setting), including near-exact replicas of scenes and ideas from the original movie, the infamous three-breasted woman (Kaitlyn Leeb), and a robot who gets its arms ripped off whilst standing on the wrong side of an elevator (See you at the party, Richter!).

Colin Farrell stars as Quaid, pulling his nearly perfect American accent, which is kind of a shame in that the dystopian future of the story suggests that the only habitable parts of the world are now Britain and Austrailia – why couldn’t Quaid be an Irish guy?  And why does everyone else have to pull a phony American accent when they’re supposed to be fighting for rule of Britain and when, like Blade Runner, the Chinese have taken over most worthwhile industries?  Not a terrible foul, but a bit confusing and unnecessary.  Costarring with Farrell are Kate Beckinsale as Lori, Quaid’s wife who turns out to be a government agent sent to kill him, as played by Sharon Stone in the first film.  Lori’s role is expanded here, and instead of being blown away by Schwarzenegger before a laconic bon-mot (“Consider that a divorce!”), she engages in a cat-and-mouse chase with Quaid that doesn’t end until the final thirty seconds of the film.  Jessica Biel appears as Melina, a resistance member with whom Quaid must team up, played by Rachel Ticotin in the original.  Bryan Cranston, as likeable as he is, plays an effective (if hopelessly one-dimensional) villain here, taking Ronnie Cox’s role as the ruthless Cohaagen.  Here, instead of an evil CEO who removes the air from Mars, he’s the president of Britain (called UFB in the film) who seeks to invade Australia (“the Colony”) and crush any attempt at rebellion.

The story, as usual, follows Quaid as he works a dead-end job, this time in a factory producing war machines that look like a mix between Imperial Stormtroopers and the LOKI Mechs from Bioware’s Mass Effect series.  He and his wife are stressed out from their jobs, and Quaid decides to escape by visiting REKALL, a company offering a virtual reality experience in which incredible fantasies can be implanted into the customer’s mind as false memories.  Quaid meets Mac (John Cho), an operator at REKALL, who gives Quaid the chance to experience his fantasy as a secret agent.  As he hooks Quaid to the machine, however, something goes wrong.  “You’re a goddamn spy,” Mac says as he looks over Quaid’s files.  Just then, the operators are gunned down by Cohaagen’s police force, and Quaid, out of sheer instinct, kills them all using impossible martial arts and pinpoint skill with close-range firearms.  The film does a great job, as the Schwarzenegger film did, of maintaining the confusion about whether this is reality or in Quaid’s mind.  He’s accused of being a secret agent just seconds after he asks to be placed in a fantasy setting in which he is one.  Everything Mac offers Quaid in the fantasy eventually comes true in the film, including the fact that at different points in the story, he’s working for both Cohaagen and rebel leader Matthias (Bill Nighy in a cameo).  The final shot of the film mirrors the ending of the original, which resolves the story but leaves its reality open to a closer reading.  It’s a great payoff, but I’m not sure the hour-plus of nonstop action is worth the ending unless you’re a fan of the original, however.

The movie suffers from a case of Island Syndrome, with good actors speaking badly-written dialogue.  The conversations alternate between laconic and exposition-packed, and Farrell’s showdown with Cranston reminded me more of 2011’s frustrating thriller Unknown than the 1990 Total Recall.  What that film had that this one doesn’t was a strong woman; the Manfluence Principle is in effect here, as both major female characters are obsessed with Quaid: one (Melina) with romancing him, and the other (Lori) with murdering him.  Characters also speak background information in place of any sort of inventive revelation; for instance, Quaid and his coworker Harry (Bokeem Woodbine) speak aloud plenty they’ve already known about each other for years and would go without saying, such as how long they’ve both worked in the factory and that it’s kind of a shitty job.  Harry appears later in one of the film’s best scenes, a reimagining of a scene from the original combining the characters of Mel Johnson, Jr. and Roy Brocksmith, during which Harry claims to know that this is all part of Quaid’s fantasy and not really happening.  Quaid must figure out within a very short time whether this is a lie, and in either case make a decision with irreversible results (in the original, Schwarzenegger sees a bead of sweat roll off Brocksmith’s face and realizes he’s nervous, therefore he’s lying; I won’t spoil what Farrell’s Quaid does).  The tension nears that of the original and far surpasses the tension in any of the remake’s scenes, save one in which Quaid slices his own hand open to remove a tracking device.

Finally, Wiseman’s film seems to take the opposite stance on the Occupy movement that Nolan’s new Batman film did, albeit much more subtly than the bloated superhero epic.  The government is conspiring against its people by airing propaganda about a group of freedom fighters who simply want equality (calling them”terrorists” as we’ve heard so many conservatives do).  Nighy’s briefly-seen Matthias character takes on a sort of Emmanuel Goldstein role here, taking the heat for the UFB’s transgressions and reflecting the American public’s (don’t blame me; I didn’t choose the accents) unslakable need for scapegoats and blame-magnets, regardless of truth or guilt.

I’m not sure why this remake needed to exist (do any?) but the action is constant and intense (unless you’re like me and extended CG-action scenes induce a boredom so potent that you wish you were at work).  What works most of all, though, is the sci-fi setting and landscape.  More stories (hopefully better written) could take place here.  To be honest, the character I was most interested in was John Cho’s frosty-haired REKALL operator, who, depending upon your take on the film’s reality, could have been responsible for all of the story’s events.  As derivative as these ideas were even in Philip K. Dick’s time, they make for good sci-fi.  If screenwriters with the skill, will, and drive to make better stories in this universe exist, then as Arnold said in the original, “Give these people air!”

Total Recall (2012); written Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback; inspired by Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale” and the 1990 film; directed by Len Wiseman; starring Colin Farrell, Jessica Biel, and Kate Beckinsale.

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