Archive for June, 2015

Film: “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence”

June 28, 2015
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unidentified actors in “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence”

This film won the Golden Lion (Best Film) at last year’s Venice Film festival. It is the last film of a trilogy by Swedish director-writer Roy Andersson, but the only one I’ve seen. But reviews seem to regard it as stand-alone, with little from the first two films that are needed for its full appreciation. Be prepared for a weird yet ultimately rewarding experience, a film that is at times maddeningly opaque, and yet one that summons associations with countless precursors in its existential despair.¬†However, its pleasures are somewhat dimmed by pretentiousness.

Set in a contemporary Sweden of stifling drabness, it is composed of 39 vignettes, with only one (King Charles XII) lasting more than 3 or 4 minutes. The camera never moves. It stays fixed on a scene, usually indoors, where the actors stiffly move about and address each other in rather formal language. Nobody is happy about anything. When infants are shown, they seem cared for, but ignored. A young girl stands on a balcony, alone, blowing bubbles. Otherwise, the actors are often slovenly, unprettified adults whose strongest emotion is a rather listless annoyance with life in general.

The only recurring characters are Sam and Jonathan, a pair of weary, middle-aged salesmen who sell party “gag” items, which they carry in a suitcase. They approach potential customers with either a glum hostility (Sam) or a pleading sadness (Jonathan), and are uniformly rebuffed. Their only actual customer is a shop-owner who never paid them, and probably never will. As a result, their landlord is threatening to evict them for rent arrears.

After awhile, the schema is clear: all relationships are based on dominance/submission. Among them, Lotte, a crippled tavern owner, gets young men to kiss her for free drinks; an Amazonian flamenco teacher openly fondles a handsome student; a modern-day tavern is suddenly time-warped into the 18th century when King Charles XII and his staff, on horseback, invade it and commandeer free service on their way to the battle of Poltava. Most prominently, Jonathan is continuously insulted and verbally abused by Sam.

While Andersson can tantalize and amuse, in a mordant style, no unifying theme emerges until, late in the film, the action stops cold, and the subtitle “homo sapiens” appears. Two unforgettable scenes follow: the first, set in an animal research laboratory, will be remembered in nightmares. The second, less shocking but still disturbing, depicts the mass killing of African natives.

At that point, we return to Jonathan. He is awake in his room, trembling in horror. He tells Sam that something has happened for which forgiveness is necessary, but he can’t say from whom, or for what crime. No further explanation is made. The film ends at a bus stop, where several people discuss the importance of knowing what day of the week it is.

That ending is the clearest reference to Samuel Beckett, but his spirit, and gloom, seem to permeate the entire film. Some of the episodes are obvious (a heart attack trying to open a bottle of wine) or just throwaway (a young couple making out on the grass). Only one – the flamenco class – made me laugh outright. The cast has professional poise, which is about right for a moderately entertaining, if didactic, pageant. But if I’m not quite enthusiastic about the film, I appreciate its formal elegance and unflinching irony.

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Film: “Results”

June 9, 2015
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Kevin Corrigan and Cobie Smulders in “Results”

The romantic triangle form has served film comedy for a long time, and there are some notable ones, such as The Philadelphia Story or, a personal favorite, James Brooks’ Broadcast News. This film, written and directed by Andrew Bujalski, is one in what’s identified as the “mumblecore” genre. While it has pleasures to offer, it’s still (sorry) kind of a letdown.

The chief pleasure is Kevin Corrigan, who just may be the comic genius the NYTimes critic has already dubbed him. He plays Danny, a pudgy, shlubby transplanted New Yorker in Austin who shows up at a local gym to get “in shape”, which means, he explains, being able to “take a punch”. The gym owner is Trevor, a demonically ambitious transplant from Australia played by Guy Pearce. The female part of the triangle, Kat, is the top trainer at the gym, who is assigned Danny as a client. Danny seems to have more money than he knows what to do with, and most of it goes towards things – like pizza, wide-screen TV and weed – that have nothing to do with “getting in shape”. As played by Cobie Smulders, Kat is, at first, even more zealous about physical fitness and getting the best “results” for her clients than Trevor.

But then, she never had a client like Danny. Corrigan pretty much owns the first hour of the film, and each tantalizing revelation of the depth of Danny’s ineptitude makes for some delightful comedy, especially his interplay with Kat, who, quite to her amazement, becomes as attracted to him as he is to her.

I wish I could say the comic fizz kept bubbling but, after a sudden shift in story and tone, what had been a refreshing cocktail becomes a flat Foster’s. Specifically, Bujalski decides to take Danny out of the triangle altogether, devoting the rest of the film to Trevor and Kat. Part of the problem is Pearce, who is simply no megawatt charmer like Redford or Clooney, or his fellow Australian Paul Hogan. Phenomenally muscled, he seems far less strained and pained lifting weights than by having to kiss his co-star. Smulders, on the other hand, is someone to watch. Bringing to mind the young Catherine Keener, in her indie-queen days, she is fresh, game and sexy. Her character’s late conversion is not credible, but that’s probably beyond what any other actress could do.

But the real story here is Kevin Corrigan, and he’s the reason I recommend the film. Danny’s obliviousness is so total, it’s almost sinister. He’s not proud of his faults, but he’s blind to the one that gets him into the most trouble: misunderstanding other people. Corrigan’s line delivery and expression are beyond quirky, falling into downright weird. Think Jack Black crossed with Peter Sellers at his looniest. And Bujalski knows that part of the fun is how uncomfortably the other characters struggle so as not to offend this rich, but impossible misfit.

A final word: this is the most un-Texas Texas film I’ve ever seen. Nobody has a western accent, there’s no horses and the only person who says he has a gun (not shown) is from New York. The characters are positively dripping with SoCal insouciance, and leave puddles. Stupefying!


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