Archive for November, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Monday, November 28th, 2011


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Eerie and unsettling, Sean Durkin’s feature film debut “Martha Marcy May Marlene” addresses the psychological aftermath of one young woman’s experience with a violent and sexually and emotionally abusive Charles Manson-like cult/commune. A carefully studied landscape of disorientation and mental transience, the movie sidesteps the sub-genre’s tendency to construct a central relationship between “brainwashed” hostage and professional “deprogrammer,” choosing instead to explore the protagonist’s fragile, tenuous grip on mundane, day-to-day activities and her shaky reintegration into the lives of her baffled, blindly naïve family.

Elizabeth Olsen inhabits the various personae suggested by the film’s alliterative, titular monikers with hypnotic appeal, confidently resisting the temptation to base Martha’s personality on a foundation of unwitting victimhood and sacrificial tokenism. Instead, Olsen and director Durkin lace the character with an almost abrasive flintiness, and the result is a complex portrait in several ways reminiscent of Jane Campion and Kate Winslet’s Ruth Barron in “Holy Smoke.” As Martha alienates her frustrated sister and incredulous brother-in-law with irrational behavior, including crawling into their bed while they are having sex, Durkin refuses to judge her. Instead, the director moves in close to Martha’s mounting paranoia that the cultists are only an eyelash away from showing up to reclaim her.

Cutting smoothly between Martha’s time in the twisted congregation of Catskills-dwelling nonconformists and her difficult transition back to the “normalcy” offered by her sister’s comfortable lakeside vacation rental, Durkin provides only some of the tantalizing details that motivated Martha to leave her unorthodox life after roughly two years “off the grid.” Through the flashbacks we meet Patrick (John Hawkes), the quietly intense clan patriarch whose silver tongue rationalizes drug-assisted rapes of the steady procession of young women who find their way to his working farm. Patrick’s manipulation of followers, men and women alike, is glimpsed in several chilling scenes, and Durkin’s tight rationing fosters curiosity about the kinds of things Patrick does that the audience is not privileged to witness.

As if the sexual assaults were not enough, Patrick also orchestrates and/or presides over break-ins and home invasions, including one horrifying incident that presumably contributes to Martha’s decision to detach from the group. Beautifully photographed by Jody Lee Lipes, who also shot “Martha Marcy May Marlene” co-producer Antonio Campos’ terrific “Afterschool,” the movie’s frames alternate between the open and the claustrophobic, compositionally voicing Martha’s estrangement and alienation. Additionally, natural outdoor settings, including a recurrent water motif, glisten with sumptuous tactility. The contrast between Patrick’s rustic environs and the sleek minimalism of the house inhabited by Martha’s sister also contributes to the division between Martha’s past and present.

For many viewers and several critics, Durkin withholds too much information. While the deliberately oblique course of the drama imposes Martha’s confusion on the audience, the filmmaker’s unrelenting obfuscation and uncertainty is worn like a badge of honor up to and including the enigmatic final scene. Staying true to Martha’s inability to take comfort in any one identity, Durkin elides key dimensions of traditional closure, a bold tactic that will delight some moviegoers and infuriate others. The ending, like a handful of preceding scenes, drags “Martha Marcy May Marlene” right to the edge of horror, but perhaps the most haunting thing about the film is that its talented filmmaker is not afraid to identify with Martha’s attraction to life in a cult.

Tower Heist

Monday, November 7th, 2011


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Locked in a battle for attention with the recent off-screen Oscar telecast tempests that bedeviled uncouth director/loose-lipped homophobe Brett Ratner and star Eddie Murphy, “Tower Heist” is vain and empty-headed. A gruesome casserole of lukewarm B.S., “Tower Heist” is predicated on the notion that a cast headed by multimillionaires playing service sector victims of a Madoff-like pyramid scheme can somehow make all of the poor schmucks in the audience forget their economic woes by fantasizing about sticking it to a penthouse-dwelling fat cat. The only problem: “Tower Heist” is not particularly funny and it is certainly not well-written.

Ben Stiller’s Josh Kovacs is the dedicated majordomo of the Tower, a ritzy New York high rise populated by a parade of odious and well-heeled snobs used to being pampered and fawned over by an army of lowly doormen, maids, cooks, drivers, secretaries and other wage-slaves. Wall Street top dog Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), the swindling one-percenter whose arrest signals bad news for the building staffers who trusted him with their pensions, shares an uneasy master-servant relationship with Kovacs, but the humiliated underling vows revenge. Enlisting childhood acquaintance Slide (Eddie Murphy) in a nonsensical scheme to steal Shaw’s emergency cash fund, Kovacs spends the balance of his time corralling his bumbling team of thieves.

Murphy, whose “streetwise” Slide was touted as a back-to-basics return to form for the veteran comic, or at least a break from fat suits and saccharine “family” films, cannot quite conjure the early 80s spirit of Reggie Hammond or Billy Ray Valentine, and the movie’s PG-13 rating restricts the level of profanity allowed. It is also mildly disappointing to watch Murphy – who hatched the original idea for “Tower Heist” as an all-black caper before seeing it turn into an “Ocean’s Eleven” wannabe – relegated to second banana status.

Ratner’s hollow aping of Reagan-era action comedies steers the film’s aesthetic (or lack thereof), and the central caper, in which the underprepared and uncoordinated protagonists engineer the removal of Shaw’s priceless Ferrari (purportedly once owned by Steve McQueen) during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, chews up the clock in favor of the timely satire promised by the movie’s trailer. “Tower Heist” should have capitalized on capital, but the rooftop swimming pool’s hundred-dollar bill design is as close as the movie gets to any kind of economic commentary. The definition of the class gulf between billionaire Shaw and hustler Slide needed to be razor sharp, not noodle wet.

Ratner constructs the narrative with no sense of momentum, pacing, or even plot, and while the heavily rewritten script (with un-credited contributions from Noah Baumbach for Stiller’s character) does the filmmaker no favors, the failure of “Tower Heist” belongs mostly to its brash director. The plotters, including Matthew Broderick’s schlubby, bankrupt investor, regularly lose track of their outrage at Shaw’s fiduciary malfeasance, and Shaw himself never comes into sharp focus as a true antagonist. Subplots involving Casey Affleck’s defection from the schemers and Tea Leoni’s shapeless romance with Kovacs exist as dull obstacles incapable of generating even the tiniest shred of suspense over the movie’s predictable outcome.