Film-adelphia (Part 2)

Not to stray from the topic of film too drastically, but some of the best parts of my recent visits to Philadelphia have been within the incredible theatre scene there, with much thanks to my friend and Philly stage actor Amanda Grove.  While in town for the Philly Film Fest this year, I was able to see Grove in a new play making it's Philly premiere, Mistakes Were Made by Craig Wright (a frequent writer for Lost and United States of Tara).  It has been oft noted that some of the best film of the last decade has been happening on television, and Craig Wright has been a significant part of that, writing for the show that, as far as I can tell, set the standard for the television reformation of the late 90's and early 00's, Six Feet Under.  Wright's new play, Mistakes Were Made, is a sort of in-joke for the theatre world, portraying a desperate, 3rd-rate producer who is trying to make a last ditch effort at making it big on Broadway, his office plastered with particularly hilarious faux-playbills, including "Tom Selleck in The Elephant Man" and "Ice-T in The Piano Lesson." Grove was terrific in the primary supporting role, though, in terms of Wright's writing, I much preferred his script produced at Philly's Luna Theatre in 2009, also featuring Grove in a role that allowed her to express her true gift for intense and refined character work, Orange Flower Water.

Damon Bonetti and Amanda Grove
in Craig Wright's Orange Flower Water
In even more film related Philly theatre news, Grove was also featured in a premiere production this summer for the Madhouse Theatre Company, Playing Leni, where she portrayed one of the most simultaneously revered and despised film makers in cinema history, Leni Riefenstahl, director of the most famous of Nazi propaganda films, The Triumph of the Will, and subject of the 1993 documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. Given the excellent reviews, and the tie-in with one of the most fascinating and confounding figures in the history of film, I am sending out a plea for a remount that takes place when I can be in town!  Or, dare I hope, a possible film production?

Amanda Grove and Robert DaPonte in Playing Leni, 2011
Leni Riefenstahl in her own directorial debut,
Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light), 1932
Aside from getting the opportunity to experience her skilled work in the Philly theatre, one of my favorite aspects of spending time with Amanda is her mutual love and respect for the horror genre, and given that the Philly Film Fest overlapped the Halloween weekend, we not only created our own in-house horror marathon, featuring Wes Craven's despicable debut delight, The Last House on the Left (1972), Eli Roth's nearly successful torture absurdity, Hostel (2005), and Ti West's completely brilliant exercise in the early 80's satanism genre, The House of the Devil (2009--covered here in my "Instant 3-Buried Treasures" recommendations segment), but I was able to top off the marathon with a late-night Philly Fest screening of British director Ben Wheatly's new genre-bending brutality, Kill List.

Michael Smiley in Kill List
Aside from a naturalistic acting style that makes the intimate and dense intonations of the dialects in Kill List a bit tough to decipher, the film is a completely engaging character piece that consistently surprises in its narrative structure and character arc.  The less you know going in, the better, as Wheatly is relying on the surprise effect of the shift in genre.  Although this sounds like a scheme that could succumb to gimmickry, Kill List succeeds by virtue of its impeccable and surprising performances, expansively considered and riskily executed.  Also, Wheatly's writing here shows a tremendous patience, as well as a propensity for creating gaping holes of mystery that recall the best aspects of David Lynch.  To compare/contrast the film to Lynch's Lost Highway, which uses negative space, slow journeys and fades into black spaces as a visual reminder of the spots of indeterminacy inherent in all narrative interpretation and construction, Kill List employs quick, black-out flash edits that play in a similar way, while creating a perfect stylistic fit with the film's unflinching and abrupt violence.  As we reach the end of the film's literal "kill list," the editing becomes even more frantic, employing jump cuts to great effect, allowing the swirling questions of the audience and character to converge in a frightfully effective manner.

Neil Maskell in Kill List
Kill List is maybe not entirely successful based on the criteria of it's genre predecessors, but it emerges as essential viewing for the way in which it confounds those genre expectations, in part by rooting it's characters in relation to some of the bloodiest and most corrupt conflicts of recent history, with mentions of the professional killers in the film (there may be more than you think) being involved in both Iraq and Northern Ireland.  On one level, Kill List seems to be operating as a sort of payback directed at the murderers involved in the last decade of atrocities committed under the guise of military action.  It may take another viewing of Wheatly's new film to decide whether he is successful in seizing all he is grasping for here, but stumbling upon it in mostly blind fashion was a blissful treat on Halloween night.  

Ben Wheatly's Kill List
Speaking of films surprising in their ambition, Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter (though not a part of the Philly Film Fest) is one of the most critically acclaimed films of the moment, though certainly a movie that divides audiences, which most likely has to do with it's tenuous relationship to the horror genre (not unlike Kill List).  Take Shelter, though certainly unsettling due to it's excellent and sparse utilization of horror film technique, is not a horror film.  And, although Take Shelter's lead actor Michael Shannon is just waiting to knock a perfectly penned creepy caretaker role out of the park (ala Tom Noonan in The House of the Devil), his recent work in this film is most definitely the peak of a rather remarkable and short career, which dates back to his 1999 role as Dundun in the excellent Allison Maclean-directed adaptation of Denis Johnson's darkly humorous junkie parables, Jesus' Son.  

Michael Shannon in Jesus' Son 
Michael Shannon in Take Shelter
It was Shannon's previous work that had me entering Take Shelter with caution, not knowing what to expect from Nichols since I hadn't seen his sole previous film, 2007's Shotgun Stories, also starring Shannon.  Although I had no expectations director-wise, I was mostly worried that this film might be the death knell of typecasting for Shannon, who had definitely been to paranoid weirdo territory before, with great success (i.e., William Friedken's Bug, 2006; Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road, 2008; the Herzog/Lynch joint My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, 2009)  Fortunately, Take Shelter proves to be the most seasoned, and perhaps the most challenging, of all of those performances.  This is due in part to Shannon, but also to the precision of the script, which ties our perceptions to a character who is both grounded and honest, but dealing with a unique and gradual onset of delusion.

Take Shelter
The pacing of Take Shelter is very deliberate, threatening to crush the film under the weight of it's own patient storytelling.  Although I imagine many will give up on the film before it reaches the emotional and visual components that truly succeed in making the film a transcendent experience, I can't stress enough how important it is to allow the film it's detailed and risky game with cinematic time.  Take Shelter makes some brilliantly subtle moves in how it masks the passage of time, playing with the audience's perceptions in a way that mirrors Shannon's character, Curtis.  Nichols ties your perceptions so effectively to Curtis that you can't help but empathize when Curtis leaves his sleeping wife and his hearing impaired daughter in the car, steps out onto the road, and gazes in horror at the oncoming storm, the centerpiece of his increasingly frequent hallucinations.  Shannon's intonation is chilling, as he speaks words only we can hear:  "Is anybody else seeing this?"

Michael Shannon and Trova Stewart in Take Shelter
Take Shelter is far from a one-man show though, featuring a terrific supporting cast, particularly Jessica Chastain as Curtis's wife Samantha, Trova Stewart as his daughter Hanna, and Shea Whigham as his best friend Dewart.  Although I may have wanted more of Kathy Baker as Curtis's mother, and Katy Mixon as one of Samantha's social clique, every piece of the puzzle snaps into place perfectly here, with Nichols getting exactly what he needs out of each performer.  It is particularly refreshing to see Chastain being used so well, as we have so often seen similar roles to Samantha's slighted in lesser films.  For a film that is so rooted in the psychology of it's central character, it is amazing the degree to which we come to empathize with Samantha's confusion.  Chastain skillfully allows us access to the progressive unfolding of Samantha's perceptions of Curtis's condition, knowing how essential our access to her emotional journey will be in the film's final frames.  (I could use this as a way to criticize Malick's use of her in Tree of Life, as I have heard a couple of critics do, but although she is more of a "prop" of a female character in that film, I think Malick's goals in relation to character, not to mention his drastic propensity for minimizing/maximizing/dropping altogether entire performances, puts him on a whole other level of discussion).  

Jessica Chastain in Take Shelter
Jessica Chastain in Tree of Life
Just when you begin to read Take Shelter as a film that may be solely about a man struggling with a mental illness, of which he is frighteningly aware, Nichols slowly allows the context of current blue collar hardships to creep into the drama, and the storms in the distance, whether imagined or real, begin to carry a shifting metaphorical weight.  As I wrote in Part 1 of this post in regards to apocalyptic film making, from Roland Emmerich to Lars von Trier, there is an ongoing preoccupation with the end-of-days, whether it takes the form of a big, sad, blue planet deciding to turn around and crash into the earth, or the current fear of the potential irreversible nature of the economic collapse.  I am not an apocalyptic thinker, and I often read doomsayers as naive and egotistical, but I find the variety of ways in which this phenomenon has risen to the surface of screen culture worthy of ongoing analysis.  It seems to me that the storm in Take Shelter is as much about a world being increasingly saturated with post-apocalyptic, zombie-fied play-station visions and PG-13-ized CG raptures as mental illness, as it is about one man's battle with mental illness.  What makes Take Shelter a great film is how well it works on the sole level of being an important film about mental illness; but, as the ending of the film shifts our subjectivity, and the viscous, oily rain begins to fall as it did in the opening, this time being felt by different skin, the ways in which it resonates may surprise you.



nathaniel drake carlson said...

Shotgun Stories is really, really great. I can't recommend it highly enough. Certainly one of '07's best and, for me, it features Shannon's best perf so far, though I have yet to see this new one.

Jason Hedrick said...

With that recommendation, and really having been moved by "Take Shelter," I will have to seek it out soon.