REVIEW: Laurence Anyways

18 04 2013

Laurence AnywaysRiverRun International Film Festival

Writing reviews that hinge on an “I like it, but…” are always fun, so here goes my latest.  (And if you want a classic example of this type of review, see my take on Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”)

Though I haven’t seen any of Xavier Dolan’s previous two films, “I Killed My Mother” and “Heartbeats,” I immensely respect this young wunderkind’s talent.  He is a master of cinematic art at 24, and I cannot wait to see how he pushes the form in the future.  Heck, for all we know, he could be the future of film.

But now is not the future, nor is his third film “Laurence Anyways.”  It shows promises of greatness and hints at a bold, brash masterpiece coming down the pipes.  Dolan, however, falls into plenty of typical early-feature shortcomings with this film – namely, unevenness.

I can imagine it would be a bit intimidating trying to tell Dolan to control his ambitions – after all, he only directed, wrote, and edited this film.  (Oh, and he designed the costumes.)  But he toggles between two totally different styles in “Laurence Anyways,” a pared-down reality and a wildly imaginative impressionism.  The two stand in pretty stark contrast to each other, especially when one abruptly transitions to the other.  I am not saying they can’t coexist peacefully, but the way Dolan does it here just feels sloppy and choppy.

The story he tells, that of Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) seeking to become the woman he feels that he is meant to be inside, is certainly interesting and provocative.  Tackling transvestism and transgender issues has been something seldom tackled by filmmakers save perhaps Pedro Almodóvar, and he explores its complications with sensitivity and without a hint of exploitation or disrespect.  At the heart of “Laurence Anyways” is a human story, not an exclusively LGBTQ story, as Laurence struggles with his attractions and repulsions to Fred (Suzanne Clément).  This emphasis on the personal does harm the film a little, however, when it tries to wax political at the close.

I was definitely intimidated by the nearly three hour runtime of “Laurence Anyways” going in, and it wound up being less of an issue than I expected.  I was always caught up in the action of the film; heck, by the end, I felt like I had spent a lifetime with Laurence and Fred.  Their saga spans over a decade, and the film needed to be that long to capture all the micro-level complexities Dolan wanted to portray.

Yet a part of me thinks that for a story of such sprawling breadth, perhaps film was not the correct medium.  The past five years have been an incredible artistic Renaissance for cable television.  Shows like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” are moving beyond episodic plots and into exploring traditionally filmic narratives with aesthetic integrity.  Many still consider television to be a bastard art compared to film, but there really should be no shame in giving a story the room to breathe in a series or mini-series format.

So while there’s plenty to admire in “Laurence Anyways,” I saw plenty of room for improvement as well.  It’s one of those movies where I just cross my fingers and hope it’s a harbinger of better things to come further down the road, not indicative of an upper limit.  B- / 2stars

REVIEW: Promised Land

23 01 2013

Gus Van Sant has called “Promised Land” his attempt at Capra, which is a noble thing to aim for – and it has certainly been largely MIA in today’s cinema.  But his film is hardly “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” a truly inspiring extolling of the virtues of the common American.  Even when you factor in adjusting the tale for our grayer, more morally relativistic culture, it still falls well short.

“Promised Land” aims for pro-small town goodness but winds up being mostly anti-corporate.  Matt Damon and John Krasinski, both the stars and writers of the film, spend most of their efforts vilifying the businessmen.  The homely townspeople, on the other hand, merely speak in vaguely familiar talking points that make them really only function for the sake of the narrative.

And I think that’s a lost opportunity for the movie to really make a great case against natural gas fracking.  As Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb postulated in “Inception,” positive emotion trumps the negative every time.  Maybe if we cared more for the well-being this tiny agrarian Pennsylvania town, we would come out of the movie and call our Congressman.  But all that Damon and Krasinski convince us is that businessmen are vile leeches who will go to any lengths possible to suck all the natural gas out of the ground – with as much cost to the environment as necessary to provide little cost to them.

Eventually, I believe we will look back at “Promised Land” as an interesting relic in the ongoing saga of the United States’ quest for energy independence and climate control.  The film lands at a critical nexus in our culture, where it makes sense to revive the economy and decrease our dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels by fracking the natural gas underneath our own soil.  Yet the process is so unrefined at the moment that it can cause vast environmental damage.  You know, just never mind what it does to social capital because Damon and Krasinski are only seeing green – the color of money and the color of the environment.

But they make a mild and familiar argument within a generic framework to convey their message.  Perhaps their passion would have been best channeled into a documentary.  Although non-fiction films rarely reach large audiences, those movies can be as polemical as they want because that’s often what they are designed to be.  (For an example of how they could have frightened you with the horrifying truth, look to “Gasland.”)  What they settled on in “Promised Land” just feels like preaching to the converted; I don’t think it has the narrative or emotional strength to create any new believers.  C+2stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 13, 2009)

13 11 2009

The “F.I.L.M. of the Week” is Gus Van Sant’s “Paranoid Park,” a multi-layered movie that serves as both a crime drama and a portrait of a scared teenager.  The film serves as a testament to the prowess of Van Sant (Academy Award nominated director of “Milk” and “Good Will Hunting”), who not only helmed the movie, but wrote and edited it.  He excels at doing what I love to see filmmakers do: taking a simple premise and using the power of moviemaking to turn it into something extravagant.

Alex (Gabe Nevins) is a teenage skateboarder who makes a split-second decision that turns out to be a big mistake with life-changing ramifications.  The film follows the effect of the event on his life as he, apprehensive, attempts to hide the truth and escape the consequences.  The movie begins with an aura of mystery surrounding what is happening, but in just 80 minutes, Van Sant strips it all away and gets to the core of an insecure and distraught teenager.

The triumph of “Paranoid Park” is not the story, but the storytelling.  Van Sant brings a distinctively different style to this than he did to a movie like “Milk.”  He employs a non-linear story line to replicate the events running together in Alex’s mind.  Alex is a very passive figure in the movie, and we witness the tearing apart of his mind not in his dialogue, but mostly from drawn-out shots of him.  These shots provide such a clear insight into the character thanks to Van Sant allowing the cinematography to shine.  Throw in a soundtrack eclectic enough to rival a Tarantino movie, and you get one great movie to watch.