Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Just watched...

...a haphazard double bill of "The Lobster" and "The Nice Guys."

When I flew back from Maui, my plane had a nice in-flight selection of films to choose from and since one is basically held hostage while traveling by air, I thought I'd catch up on some films I'd been meaning to see. The first one that caught my eye was a film that made a splash at last year's 2015 Cannes Film Festival: "The Lobster."

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and written by Lanthimos with Efthymis Filippou, the story concerns itself with a near-future society obsessed with the state of being a couple. If one is single--or worse, if one finds oneself single because your partner has either left you or perhaps died, one is given 45 days to find another suitable mate or be turned into an animal. The premise sounds quite Kafka-esque and the film certainly is a highly surreal allegory. Most reviews and film journalists refer to "The Lobster" as a hilarious black-comedy, but I want to disabuse them of this notion. While there were some black-comedy moments and a kind of off-kilter bemusement arising from the bizarre premise itself, on the whole the film reads like an absolute nightmare. The amount of malice and cruelty exhibited in this film was cumulative and weighed on me heavily by the end of the story. The completely flat, naïve affect of the cast--headed beautifully by Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz--makes the characters seem like children caught up in some kind of horrible one is able to help themselves from either becoming a victim or abusing victims. And the clear, dispassionate cinematography helps this feeling along while the overwrought, staccato string quartet soundtrack hacks and saws away at our nerves and emotions.

Also of note is the effective dream logic at work--never once is it explained how people are turned into animals and I liked that. This is a fairy tale and magical things are taken for granted in such tales.

While the story description says it takes place in a "near future," I felt it took place in an alternate reality, right next to our own, in a colorless approximation of Soviet-era or Eastern bloc grimness. There was nothing in it that suggested a time any different from ours. Being an allegory, it naturally has a lot to say about our own culture which places so much emphasis on being in a relationship, but I feel there is a much bigger issue at play: it begs the question of how people can travel to such extreme poles in their psyches and how they can grant power to arbitrary, superficial structures instead of their own souls. If one looks at our current frightening election cycle here in the United States, we can witness how such a thing happens, and it happens through fear.

Recommend? I am truly torn about this one. It is a skillfully made film. All elements work well and it is a relevant, powerful statement. But the depths it explores might hurt.

And now, as Monty Python used to say, for something completely different. Since I had some more time to kill on the flight, I hopped over to a film that was released this past spring, 2016, "The Nice Guys."

Set in 1970s Los Angeles, a vigilante-for-hire (Russell Crowe) and a struggling private investigator (Ryan Gosling) team up to solve a mystery and a handful of murders that happen along the way. This comedy was savaged by some critics but I found it amusing. A predictable story and some hackneyed characters are saved by some zippy dialogue (some of which was improvised by Gosling and Crowe)  and Gosling's excellent comedic timing: the film plays like a cross between an Abbot and Costello classic and something like "Chinatown" or "L.A. Confidential" (which were films deliberately evoking classic noir thrillers like "The Big Sleep"). In fact, Gosling gets to do a marvelous scene that is nearly a frame-for-frame and wheeze-for-wheeze copy of something Lou Costello did in the 40s.

Recommend? Sure, it's a fun and funny romp. And Gosling really is great.

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