Sunday, May 24, 2009


We’ve seen the future and it is not so bright. In the sixty years since George Orwell prophesized about the death of civilization and the rise of Big Brother, bleak visions of our loveless, Godless tomorrow—be it an iron-fisted prison state, a cold and sterile bureaucracy, or, per slightly gentler projections, a floating space mall run by neurotic robots—have grown forever bleaker. What’s scary and unique and persuasive about Canary, a pocket-sized dose of future-imperfect paranoia, is how closely its Brave New World resembles our own. That’s partly because this particular gloom and doom forecast, transmitted from the wild outer reaches of our mad hungry film culture, doesn’t shroud its new world horror in space age art deco or apocalyptic affectation. Mostly, though, it’s because the film’s outlandish sci-fi premise really isn’t that outlandish. It’s disturbingly plausible, really—a cracked-mirror allegory for our current, running era of distrust and disillusionment.

In a not so distant, not so alternate America, organ failure has become a mass epidemic. Pharmaceutical companies, those boogiemen corporate institutions of our soul-sick 21st century, have rushed to the cure-is-worse-than-the-disease rescue. For the right price, they’ll lease you brand new organs, healthy, working ones, hot out the torso and ready to use. But be forewarned! Miss a payment or pump your body full of the wrong shit, and the doctors come a’knockin, looking to reclaim that heart or kidney or liver, to put it back in rotation, to sew it into the next desperate soul willing to shell out sky-high transplant fees.

Gives a terrifying new meaning to the term “house call,” doesn’t it? If that queasy pulp scenario sounds suspiciously familiar, it’s because it is: Canary shares a basic, genre-movie conceit with last year’s baroquely awful Repo! The Genetic Opera. Blessedly, the similarities dead end there. Alejandro Adams, scrappy visionary at the helm of this hell-bent vessel, wields his digital camera less like a twitchy sci-fi fabulist and more like a Dogma 95 disciple. He breathes his soothsaying outrage in ominous whispers and embeds modern malaise in the modern mundane. His gaze is clinical, calculating even, and he paints his world-weary worldview in the muted colors, the menace and the mystery, of an Assayas art thriller.

Canary commences with professional obligation, with duties performed dutifully, the working men and women on the margins of this casually insane dsytopia. First, the backroom business, the icky and sticky inner-workings of Canary Industries. Cold jelly on bare flesh—in shaky, intrusive close-up, a silent surgeon (more on her soon) preps an unconscious and unwilling patient for “organ redistribution.” A jump cut later and we’re with the marketing team, yammering young suits selling the brand, putting a happy face on this insidious industry. Five minutes in, and the discrepancy between what the medical community says and what it actually does has already been laid baldly bare. Table is set for the bitterly ironic, impossibly pessimistic, “message” thriller of the year.

Yet it’s hard to get a bead on Canary, to see exactly where its creeping dread is creeping next. That’s because Adams never charts a map of his nightmare landscape. He teases out information, dropping hints and clues like Easter eggs, outright refusing to get bogged down by the obligation of explanation. He counts on us to keep up, and our minds feverishly scramble to do so. The dialogue—likely improvised, but maybe not—unfolds in layers of authentically banal conversation, folks talking over and around each other, their innocuous chatter never bearing the weight of exposition. But who are these blabbering nobodys? Not characters, really. They’re more like beasts behind the glass. There’s a team of investigative reporters, but their efforts prove, cynically and rather predictably, for naught. We spend more time with the chipper admin staff at Canary, a bunch of always-blathering flibbertigibbets who seem, in their relentless cheer and frivolity, willfully ignorant of what their company actually does. Adams gets a lot of mileage out of this creepy-coy dichotomy, i.e. the horrors bubbling just beneath the surface of his convincingly ordinary milieu.

The closest we get to a focal-point protagonist is that mute mercenary of a doctor, played, with mannered remoteness, by newcomer Carla Pauli. Adams’ Repo Girl passes through the film like a mournful apparition. Not only is she seemingly invisible to everyone around her—including her Canary co-workers and the Proles whose organs she calmly harvests—the director also frames her like one of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s malevolent spirits: floating into view, lingering in the background, tilting in and out of focus. She never says a word, but she’s always watching, and there’s a hint of regret in her disaffected stare. Through her responsibility and her guilt, she bares a lone burden—that of her employers and, more implicitly, of this entire freak future. She’s the film’s conscience and its merciless Agent of Death. She’s also, more than likely, a surrogate for the filmmaker himself. (She may have empathy for her marks, glimpsed in telling flashes of everyday verité, but they’re still ripe for exploitation, lambs to be led to the slaughter.)

Exhausting are these visions of the oppressive, corporate-controlled, life-is-cheap waking hell that (supposedly) awaits us. Could the future really turn out so awful? Yes, Adams coldly intones. And quicker than you think. Perched precariously between observational realism and portentous poetics, Canary posits a hauntingly distinctive, what if? reality. The poor souls living within this evil empire, this culture of death and fear, scarcely seem to know how bad they’ve got it. That’s probably because their world didn’t change overnight, but when they weren’t looking, day by day growing worse, the Canary Company insinuating itself into all their lives. They accept the nightmare because they can scarcely remember when or if things were ever any different. No wonder Adams’ warped future looks a lot like our damaged present. The dsytopia isn’t coming, cries this grim but fiercely original polemic. It’s here. And we’re living it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Failure, thy name is DOWD

Time to face the music: I’m probably not going to finish this Spring Breakdown series I’ve been plugging away at. Not completely, anyway. I come to this realization with only a small shred of disappointment. Truth is, I never really expected to finish it. Once or twice a year I start a writing project like this, a futile attempt to spill ink on pretty much everything I’ve seen over the course of an entire season. Previous attempts to complete such a review series (like this one) were compromised by a busy schedule or waning interest or simply a desire to write something else. This time around, my imminent failure stems from a combination of these factors. Really, I’m just seeing too many movies to keep up with. The list of spring releases to write about has nearly doubled since I wrote my first capsule, three weeks ago. (Just saw Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control and boy do I have a bone or two or thirteen to pick with that one.)

The other problem: not sure these reviews I’ve been writing really qualify as “capsules.” I went into this assignment with the express intention of penning small, pithy, on-the-fly slices of criticism, no more than 250 words each, comparable in spirit and execution to the festival “drive-bys” that Mike D’Angelo drops during Cannes and Toronto. To even call what I was planning to do hard “criticism” would be inaccurate—basically, this was to be my earnest attempt to keep a kind of running movie journal, sharing my thoughts on everything I saw over the last three months, just keeping those creative juices flowing. Alas, as brevity remains the great bugaboo of my creative process, the simple act of reflecting grew and distorted via my impulsive need to structure. Fraid I still may not be confident enough in my analytical edge to just let my ideas speak for themselves. I’m still relying, in other words, on fancy, high-falutin linguistics to salvage my less-than-sophisticated readings. Or maybe I just love the art of prose too much, and can’t yet bring myself to post a bunch of digressive notes, without organizing them into a flowing, satisfying piece of stand-alone writing.

Regardless, at this pace, devoting the kind of time and energy I’ve thus far expended on this project, it’ll be halfway through the summer before I get through the remaining fifteen or twenty “capsules.” And that’s if I put on hold other, longer, potentially more rewarding critical endeavors. (I’ve seen a few things these last few weeks that demand more than just the skinny rundown, you dig?) I can’t make that sacrifice for the simple sake of “following through,” especially when this particular project was born of such modest intentions and unremarkable aims. The great Spring Breakdown experiment is coming to a quiet end. Twas a mistake to ever believe I could condense a quarter year’s worth of criticism into a couple weeks worth of hit-and-run writing. (My festival summaries and specific review cycles have been more successful, what with less ground to cover and less time to do it in—see this one and that one and the other one.)

I’ll probably do a few more season-specific write-ups, here and there, for the sake of closure. Not closure on this ill-conceived venture so much as closure on a few of this spring’s impossible-to-ignore triumphs and follies. Two Lovers, Observe and Report, Hunger—loathe em’ or love em’, these are pictures that demand a little critical attention. And I would be remiss to sit out the debate. (I also intend on penning a couple better-late-than-never full lengths, in praise of Tokyo Sonata, in scorn of Watchmen, and so forth.) Though I’ll likely see boat-loads of new flicks this summer, I’m pretty sure I won’t feel particularly compelled to directly address, say, Terminator: Salvation. I’ll watch blockbusters and write about art movies. Sounds like a good summer.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Spring Breakdown: GOODBYE SOLO

GOODBYE SOLO (Ramin Bahrani, U.S.A.)

It’s there in those titles. Man Push Cart. Chop Shop. This is the daily grind. A state of regular activity, a way to make ends meet, to win that bread. A place to scrounge for odd jobs. A life eked out in piecemeal, day by day, paycheck to paycheck. Small defeats. Smaller triumphs. No discernible “lessons.” Just details. In the cinema of Ramin Bahrani, newest apple of the critical community’s eye, observational naturalism begins with the titles—they evoke what they suggest, deliver on what they imply, starkly render what they unsentimentally advertise. So when talking about Bahrani’s latest and most visible (RE: viably mainstream) slice of un-chronicled Americana, perhaps it’s best to start with the moniker: Goodbye Solo. Doesn’t exactly have that same ring of just-dropping-in-to-document-your-comings-and-goings objectivity, does it? That title, with its emphatic interjection, hints at a more, shall we say, guided narrative—you just know that, by the crawl of the end credits, someone’s going to have learned some valuable lesson or experienced some profound change or completed some Syd Field-approved voyage of self-discovery. “Don’t expect pure nauralism this time around,” the title all but screams. “But if you like male weepies…”

As drama, Goodbye Solo offers pretty much exactly what it would appear to. It is disappointingly satisfying—after the loose plotting of his terrific Chop Shop, the last thing I would have hoped or asked for from Bahrani was smoothly efficient storytelling mechanics. His new one commences, almost immediately, from a position of only-in-the-movies contrivance. Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), the film’s relentlessly cheerful, Senegalese hero, carts around grumpy, sullen ol’ William (Red West) in his cab. William’s looking for a one-way ride up the side of a mountain. Solo picks up on the desperate, fatalistic gravity of this request. But why so instantly concerned, so invested in the fate of this total stranger? Is Solo just that good of a guy, the patron saint of the taxi cab community? Bahrani never really rationalizes the driver’s selfless commitment to his despondent fare. Odd, given that the film devotes most its running time to his efforts—with a persistence that borders on the annoying, Solo interrogates himself into William’s life, creating tiny stress cracks in the old dude’s wall of lonely standoffishness. Those who haven’t caught up with Man Push Cart or Chop Shop might mistake the unhurried, moment for moment plotting on display here for bona fide, new American neo-realism. Those who have might mistake Goodbye Solo for the new Thomas McCarthy picture.

Thankfully, even with material this borderline-maudlin, Bahrani’s considerable filmmaking gifts (his organic grasp of internal scene rhythm, his interest in precise regional signifiers, his eye for gorgeously unglamorous compositions) remain intact. The film’s best moments—fleeting flashes of industrial decay and buzzing night life, glimpsed through the smeared windshield of Solo’s cab—play to these strengths, not moving in sync with the narrative so much as drifting away from it on divergent tracks. Mostly, though, Bahrani hasn’t the time for such sightseeing detours. He’s got places to go, and though Goodbye Solo thankfully blows by its most obvious destination, it pulls right into its second most obvious one.

With Chop Shop and Man Push Cart, Bahrani’s empathy was inherent in his interest: by simply depicting the fringe struggles of “invisible” Americans—rendering their specifics specifically, eschewing editorial judgment and cheap sentimentality, just watching them live and work—he lent these browbeaten, working class protagonists the full scope of his compassion. If there was a “voice” to these short-story sketches, it belonged to the struggling figures within them. If there’s a voice to Goodbye Solo, it belongs to neither the cabbie nor his fare, but to the writer-director orchestrating their journey, predicating their separate fates on the demands of “satisfying” movie drama. Do all the great young watchers of American cinema eventually become string-pulling dramatists? Ask me again when So Yong Kim finishes her follow-up to Treeless Mountain.