Thursday, November 05, 2009

35 Shots [of Rum] & The Canyon

When I saw these two movies lined up as my Monday and Tuesday - 35 Shots of Rum was the Chlotrudis movie of the week, The Canyon a likely single-week run that would only fit in Tuesday because of my desire to watch the last game(s) of the World Series - I was figuring that I would like The Canyon more, on the basis that while horror/thriller/suspense films could maybe use a little more character work, it wouldn't kill Claire Denis to have her characters do something exciting.

I still believe this in general, even if I wound up liking 35 Shots of Rum a whole lot more than The Canyon. 35 Shots is an interesting movie to watch, and a poster boy for the idea of "viewing films actively", but I did fidget a lot while watching it (the couple yakking behind me didn't help - just because it's in French and I'm reading subtitles doesn't mean I want to hear you!). It's just that in this case, I wandered into a pretty good Movie Where Nothing Happens (TM) and a fairly dull adventure film.

35 Rhums (35 Shots [of Rum])

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 November 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

I had an odd experience reading the description in the theater's program for 35 Shots (that's the subtitle that appeared on the print; the poster adds "of Rum", probably a better translation of French title "35 rhums") after viewing the movie. I wouldn't so much say it was inaccurate, even though it didn't really match what I saw. Claire Denis expects the audience to fill in many blanks.

So, let us start with the bare facts. Lionel (Alex Descas) drives a train in the Paris Metro; his friend and co-worker, René (Julieth Mars Toussaint) is retiring. Lionel lives in an apartment with his daughter Joséphine (Mati Diop). Also living in the same building are Noé (Grégoire Colin) - Lionel and Joséphine look in on his cat during his frequent overseas trips - and Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué), a taxicab driver who is friends with all of them. Jo has recently caught the eye of Ruben (Jean-Christophe Folly), a fellow student at her University.

All, other than Noé, are black, although that does not appear to be significant. Or is it? Here, we must start to piece together interpretations, based on what we see of the characters, as Denis is very seldom going to have the characters simply come out and state how they feel about each other, or fully articulate their history. They say enough to indicate that there is plenty of history in some instances, and most audience members will extrapolate a roughly similar chain of events. You have to pay attention, is all.

Which can, admittedly, be tricky. Denis and co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau do not overburden the film with a great deal of plot or dialogue. This is the sort of film that spends a great deal of time on following its characters as they go about everyday tasks: Lionel quietly drives his train, or he and Joséphine prepare dinner. Noé talks in vague terms about a new job. The two scenes that serve as the film's turning point are extremely low key - a scene in a bar is full of people pointedly not talking to each other, while the next finishes with a reaction to something that has happened off-screen. As someone who tends to like more active movies, I fully sympathize with anybody who loses patience here.

Fortunately, star Alex Descas is excellent at not saying anything. There is something occasionally rather cold about his Lionel; especially in his dealings with Gabrielle, he can seem quietly cruel. But there's also a warmth in his scenes with Mati Diop that rings very true - not demonstrative all the time, and they can get angry at each other, but something about his rugged, worn face lightens.

Diop is a good complement for him in that regard; though she mirrors some of Lionel's somewhat defensive attitude, Joséphine seems a bit more comfortable with the world around her, and also slips into the position of being daddy's girl without being immature or selfish. It's easy to imagine a background in which Lionel is an immigrant who will never be as at-home in Paris as his daughter. Dogué and Colin, as well as Toussaint and Folly, play characters that we know mainly through their relationships to Lionel and Joséphine, but make them much more complete than plot devices.

Denis and company bring them together in interesting ways. With the dialogue relatively low, the environments play an important part. Compare the tidy apartment Lionel and Joséphine share to that of Noé, for example. Examine the plentiful shots of railroad tracks; on the one hand, they indicate constraints, but the complexity of the network suggests the opposite. Note how Agnès Godard's camera lingers over a location late in the film, how different it is from where we've spent most of our time.

What does all this mean? That's up to the audience, to a certain extent - this is the sort of film where how much you take from it is tied to what you bring and how much effort you make. I've got my ideas, and they appear to be different from those of the person who wrote the program. But that's okay; it makes the film an enjoyable one to talk about.

Also at HBS

The Canyon

* * (out of four)
Seen 3 November 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run, digital projection)

I skipped The Canyon at a festival this summer; it was only playing once and I figured its cast and story gave it a better chance of hitting American theaters and video than the sort-of-French, sort-of-sci-fi film also only playing once across the street. So, three and a half months later, the choice is vindicated - it did play Boston a couple weeks ahead of its video release... and the other movie was better.

The frame on The Canyon isn't bad; A pair of good-looking young people from Chicago have just eloped in Vegas, and have come to Arizona for their honeymoon. Nick (Eion Bailey) is eager to spend the weekend taking a mule down the Grand Canyon, but that's not something that can be done on the spur of the moment; you need a permit months in advance. They meet Henry (Will Patton), a guide who claims to know the right hands to grease, and while Lori (Yvonne Strahovski) is skeptical, she goes along with it. Of course, things don't go wrong until they're halfway down.

The best part of The Canyon is in the title; though I doubt that the park service allowed director Richard Harrah to shoot the bulk of the action there (and the credits point to a Utah shoot), the outdoor photography is frequently beautiful; it's a shame that Harrah and cinematographer Nelson Cragg didn't make a little more use of it. There are some nice backgrounds, but Harrah doesn't give us that great a sense of the geography. When the characters are lost, there's no indication of how far off course they are, and when one has to double back, it doesn't set of specific alarm bells (that's three hours each way, they had to pass X peril, there were a lot of paths that look alike).

That's the big problem with Steve Allrich's script: Nothing is very specific. Nick and Lori are nice enough, but they are awfully generic characters. Henry has a very familiar set of quirks. The conversations the three have seldom contain any memorable lines, and the fight for survival doesn't reflect or parallel what is between Nick and Lori on a personal level much at all. In some ways, I'd be more willing to forgive it when the script or characters have an attack of the stupids (such as deciding to test cell phone reception when hanging off the side of a cliff, rather than after having safely reached the top) if it at least seemed to be something individual, but The Canyon is far too vanilla for that.

The cast does what they can with what little they've got to work with, but they can't spin it into gold. Yvonne Strahovski generally hits the right notes whether asked to be skeptical or capable in an action scene, and doesn't quite seem like she's flipped a switch because the script requires her to be Superwoman now. Eion Bailey isn't quite on the same level; he doesn't quite give Nick enough charm to make his occasional recklessness seem appealing. Will Patton doesn't have to break a sweat to hit the target with Henry; we get the point quick enough and he doesn't bother us because Patton is an old pro, but this is pretty much a paycheck role for him. The whole cast, really.

All that might have been forgiven if there were a moment where the movie really kicks into a higher gear and became an exciting thriller, but it never manages that. It's filled with familiar lost-in-the-wilderness situations, and doesn't vary them a whole lot. With the tension between characters not exactly being played up, the movie needs some more visceral thrills, but instead, it tends to just give the audience more wolves, although in somewhat greater numbers and a little closer each time. Harrah and company handle the technical aspects well - good make-up, action staging, and animal training - but never gets us to the edge of our seats.

You can do great things with this sort of set-up - in theory, The Canyon isn't far off from The Descent or Wilderness in concept, just in details and execution. It just never grabs the audience like those movies do, and doesn't offer us great characterization to fill that void.

Also at HBS

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