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Blue Valentine (2010)

“I feel like men are more romantic than women. When we get married we marry, like, one girl, ’cause we’re resistant the whole way until we meet one girl and we think I’d be an idiot if I didn’t marry this girl she’s so great. But it seems like girls get to a place where they just kinda pick the best option… ‘Oh he’s got a good job.’ I mean they spend their whole life looking for Prince Charming and then they marry the guy who’s got a good job and is gonna stick around.”

In the quote above, Dean (Ryan Gosling) inadvertently foretells his own future.  At this point, he has yet to meet Cindy (Michelle Williams), the girl who will be his one and only.  Blue Valentine, directed by Derek Cianfrance, jumps back and forth in time from the beginning of Dean and Cindy’s relationship to the days when their marriage is falling apart.  This conceit, although similar to 500 Days of Summer (2009), is executed magnificently and with great sensitivity.  The physical transformations the two actors underwent between the early section and the late section make the juxtaposition of the two eras simply heartbreaking.  We fall in love with the young Dean and Cindy as they tap dance on the street and play the ukelele, but are repeatedly confronted by the older, more worn-out versions of them.  We are never shown exactly what went wrong in their relationship, but we can guess.

The most remarkable thing about Blue Valentine is its performances.  Ms. Williams and Mr. Gosling are simply wonderful, and the years of work they did on their characters truly show.  One thing that’s so unique about the film is its relationship to the authorship question.  Normally, the director and/or screenwriter is considered the “author” of a film, but these characters were created by Gosling and Williams in concert with the director.  Many of the scenes were improvised, and some were even shot in such a way as to push the boundaries of reality and performance.  For example, one of the early scenes in their relationship involves them walking down the street and chatting, then stopping to show each other their “hidden talents.”  Cianfrance had told them each separately to think of a hidden talent they had and then, once they reached a certain spot in the scene, to demonstrate them.  Therefore, when Ms. Williams breaks into a tap dance routing, and Mr. Gosling begins singing and playing the ukelele, both their reactions are genuine.  All of this information is in the behind-the-scenes documentary, so I’m not privy to an inside view here, but I am very intrigued by the effect scenes like this have on ideas of authorship and performance.  Can the film be called “Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine” if the characters and the action were also largely created by the actors?  Granted, improv is a practice that crops up all over the place in comedy, particularly in the Apatow oeuvre, so it’s not a new idea.  It is, however, a very different experience in drama, especially when it involves character creation to this extent.  I don’t really have an answer for any of these questions, but it’s something I found very thought-provoking about the film.

Going back to the performances themselves, Ms. Williams and Mr. Gosling are incredibly gifted and sensitive actors.  I have grown more and more appreciative of Michelle Williams since seeing her in Meek’s Cutoff and then My Week with Marilyn, as well as hearing this amazing interview with her on NPR.  She is a very thoughtful and considerate actress who really gets inside the skin of her characters.  Her performance as Cindy is quite interesting in that we never truly understand her.  There are moments when we learn shocking details about her that seem to open her up, but she remains a bit of an enigma to the end.  This is particularly effective because Mr. Gosling’s Dean is so open and giving, ready to to sacrifice everything for her, and yet he doesn’t truly understand her either.  This disconnect becomes quite clear in the scene (in the “late” section) where they talk about his future; he seems so blissfully unaware of what she wants from him and what she’s saying.  His inherent sweetness and gentleness was able to keep her with him for a while, but at a certain point Cindy needs more.

This endless analysis of their relationship is part of what stays with you after watching Blue Valentine.  The haunting ending images remind you of their early happy times together while their song plays over the credits.  We are left with nostalgia and regret, almost as if we were in the relationship with Cindy and Dean.  Blue Valentine has its flaws: Dean is rather too reminiscent of Mr. Gosling’s character in The Notebook (2004) and some of the side characters are cartoonish.  Its lovely moments and delicate performances, however, make the film worthwhile.  Cindy and Dean will stay with you for days.

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Straw Dogs (2011): A Treatise on American Masculinity

This post is more an analysis than a review, so SPOILERS ahead for those of you who haven’t seen the film.

Tonight, I finally saw Rod Lurie’s Straw Dogs.  A remake of the 1971 Sam Peckinpah film, which I have not seen, this new version is a thought-provoking exploration of American masculinity and differing attitudes towards violence and women.

The primary conflict in the film is predicated on a dialectic established between two ideals of masculinity: the cultured, educated man of intellect and money, and the muscular, more primal man of violence and manual labor.  These two extremes are embodied by David (James Marsden) as the more erudite man of the mind and Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) as the testosterone-fueled man of the body.  Lurie plays these two off each other both visually and verbally; David is often shot from under Charlie’s arm, or Charlie is shot looming over the already-shorter David.  While this is primarily meant to create a sense of menace, it also works to diminish David’s masculinity and sense of power.  In the land of the construction workers and hunters, the scholar is not in his element.

Opposing ideals of masculinity in “Straw Dogs”

Over the course of the film, David is constantly reminded of his inability to intimidate, usually by his wife, Amy (Kate Bosworth).  At one point, the local patriarch (James Woods) is beating up a mentally challenged man, and Amy steps in to stop him.  As they’re leaving, she implies that David should have stepped in himself.  When he says it’s against his principles, she tells him that his principles are “convenient.”  The question of when violence is appropriate and necessary is David’s primary concern in the film.  When he finally does embrace the more brutal side of masculinity, he does so in such a way that he uses his intellect to wreak havoc.  With a nail gun, pots of boiling oil (thank you, siege warfare), and a bear trap, he is able to fight off and kill five men.  He unknowingly avenges Amy’s rape and defends his home.

David’s transformation is not portrayed in an entirely positive light, however.  As he looks around at the wreckage of his home and his traumatized wife, the expression on his face shows relief but also a kind of mania.  It is clear that this is something neither he nor Amy can come back from.  In the final shot of the film, he stands silhouetted against the burning barn that was previously being rebuilt, and the message is clear: when men embrace violence, only destruction can come of it.

Other observations:

– I found Amy to be an irritating, inconsistent character from a feminist perspective.  At times, she attempts to make feminist points, such as when she defends her right to go running bra-less (though seriously, who does that?!?) without getting leered at.  Point taken – women are not “asking for it” when men objectify them.  She also steps in to defend Jeremy from Coach, which is a strong move on her part, but afterward tells David he should have done it.  Why should the man be the one to defend the helpless when she is just as capable of doing it herself?  Just as Amy is torn between two worlds, the film seems torn between portraying her as an independent feminist and making her act as though she needs a man to help her.

Seriously! Who goes running like this?!

– The plot with Jeremy (the simple fellow) and the Coach’s daughter felt half-baked.  It’s the catalyst for all the violence towards the end, but it somehow isn’t fully realized or explained.  The scene where she lures him into the locker room, however, is interesting in that it portrays a different kind of rape from the one Amy experiences.  Jeremy says no over and over again, making Janice’s advances on him just as disturbing as the men raping Amy, perhaps more so because we do not understand her motivations.

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Shame (2011)

One of the most talked-about films at the NYFF this year was Steve McQueen’s Shame.  Portraying the daily life of a sex addict, its subject matter is attention-grabbing enough, but the film’s beautiful construction and Michael Fassbender’s incredible performance make it one of the most remarkable films of the year.

Shame begins with an overhead shot of Brandon (Mr. Fassbender) lying naked on his bed, staring off into space with a blank expression.  Entwined with ice blue sheets, his body is the center of our gaze, and McQueen holds on this shot for a while.  With no music to distract us, we quietly study Brandon’s body, the body that is so central to the film and over which he has no control.  Long, still shots like these are key to the film.  They force us to unflinchingly face the ugliness in Brandon and the painful nature of his addiction, while placing us firmly in the position of voyeurs.

A number of film-goers I spoke to complained that the film made the same point too many times; there were too many scenes of Brandon having raunchy, degrading sex, too much nudity, etc.  This repetition is actually McQueen’s way of removing the titillation from such images.  The early sex scenes affect us in the usual way, but the more of them we see, the less erotic they become.  By the end, when Brandon is engaging in a sexual encounter most men would revel in, it is simply painful to watch.  Every encounter he has seems to break him down more and more, bringing him only pain instead of pleasure.

Mr. Fassbender is truly a wonder to behold in this film.  His performance is simply mind-blowing.  The myriad of emotions that cross his face within seconds conveys the intense confusion in Brandon and his utter inability to treat himself and others well.  In some scenes, Brandon is the calm at the center of a storm of people, watching the women around him with still blue eyes.  In others, he seems about to jump out of his skin, leg bouncing, head bent down, muscles tensed until they look about to burst.  Mr. Fassbender portrays the many sides of Brandon perfectly, with the kind of commitment that comes from a truly trusting actor-director relationship.

The other main storyline in the film, aside from Brandon’s attempts to control his addiction, is his relationship with his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan).  An artsy young woman with depressive tendencies, Sissy comes barreling into Brandon’s life and takes over his apartment.  She disturbs his routine and makes him feel emotions he doesn’t want to admit to, particularly in the slowest rendition of “New York, New York” ever performed.  As irritating as her character can be, Ms. Mulligan holds her own against Mr. Fassbender, and their scenes together are revealing on both sides.  Her presence allows us to see yet another side of Brandon and gives us a glimpse into where he comes from.

Shame is a beautiful piece of filmmaking, with compositions that quietly convey a sense of alienation in long, static shots.  The beauty of its construction makes its subject matter all the more visceral, forcing us to experience the desensitization that Brandon feels as we see image after image of the naked human body.  Between Mr. McQueen’s masterful direction and Mr. Fassbender’s amazing performance, this is one of the most important films of the year, and I hope this pair continues to work together for years to come.

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