F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 29, 2015)

29 01 2015

FreewayI would count myself a big fan of actress Reese Witherspoon (see my personal anecdotes on my middle school crush in Random Factoids #49 and #88), yet I somehow managed to only learn of the existence of “Freeway” in 2015.  This film stars a younger Witherspoon as Vanessa Lutz, the daughter of a prostitute who has to do and say some unmentionables in the name of self-preservation and survival in a gritty urban environment.  She goes to prison, not to visit a client like Elle Woods but actually as an inmate.

This 1996 oddity might not fit Witherspoon’s squeaky-clean sweet Southern belle image, but it certainly gives her something out of the ordinary.  This modern retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood fairytale is a peculiar burst of energy from writer/director Matthew Bright, who has since done relatively little of note.  But his debut feature is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because it never holds back in its peculiar assessment of American culture as seen from the vantage point of its underbelly.

Witherspoon quickly asserts her pluckiness in “Freeway,” chaining up her social worker in order to seek refuge from her long-last grandmother.  On the way, however, she gets drawn into the clutches of the conniving serial killer Bob Wolverton.  Keifer Sutherland plays his wolf not as big and bad, but rather as eerily unsettling and deceptively meek.  (That was basically the mold of the ’90s murderer, so it makes sense.)

Somewhere on the path to grandmother’s house, “Freeway” changes up the script.  The film’s Little Red takes a step into the big leagues by gaining a welcome sense of agency, taking the film on an unexpected detour into courtrooms, prisons, and a trial by media.  The changes ought to prompt some stimulating discussion about what is and is not still relevant from the old tale.  By transplanting Little Red Riding Hood into modern society, rather than simply tweaking her story in a mythic milieu like “Into the Woods,” “Freeway” invites a freer dialogue.

Interestingly, when I went back to read reviews from the time of release, most critics reacted to the film as a satire.  “Freeway” still maintains a sense of exaggeration, sure, but it has lost a bit of shock after years of reality TV highlighting such unique specimens as Honey Boo-Boo, the Jersey Shore, and the Duck Dynasty family.  Nearly two decades after its Sundance premiere, though, its gentle mockery of the strange corners of America still entertains and excites.  Much of the film’s bite today comes from Witherspoon, who once again seems willing to explore these rough edges of her persona in “Wild” and beyond.





REVIEW: Melancholia

13 03 2012

It’s a shame “Melancholia” lasts more than eight minutes.

The movie’s prologue is absolutely stunning.  Writer/director Lars von Trier evokes a strong emotional response with his use of stunning imagery and an evocative score from Tristan und Isolde.  The gorgeous shots, drifting slowly across the screen, are like a walk through an art gallery of film.

But the opening of “Melancholia” is so good that it’s almost too good.  It purveys basically the entirety of the movie, even giving away the movie’s big ending.  So in essence, once you’ve seen the beginning, you’ve seen it all.

So when von Trier starts using words to communicate a message, the movie ceases to be very effective.  The first half’s naturalism just hits flat note after flat note.  The wedding of Kirsten Dunst’s wildly depressed Justine is an utter disaster, and her moodiness is painful to watch.  It’s supposed to be beguiling us into figuring out her every whim, but instead it just makes Justine unsympathetic and a pain to watch.  Excuse me for totally ceasing to care about an hour through the movie.

Then the movie’s second half descends into the bizarre as a planet, Melancholia, begins a collision course into the earth.  While Jack Bauer – I mean, Kiefer Sutherland, and his wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) begin to panic, Justine is calm as a cucumber, uniquely suited to face the crisis because of her condition.  “Melancholia” seems to be trying to enact those how would you spend the last hours of your life fantasies, but they are hardly illuminating save for the manic depressants in the crowd.

So perhaps the best way to view “Melancholia” is as a short film.  The movie’s opening is where von Trier’s artistry shines the brightest.  If you want to wait around for another two hours for genital mutilation or a remark sympathizing with Nazis, you will just waste your time.  The movie is not all that far-fetched; add in some robots and the plot would work as a Michael Bay movie.  B-