Broken Flowers (2005)

In my Silver City review, I mentioned my recent writing retreat, in which I went internet-free in a cabin for a week to get some fiction writing done, and the collection of “Blockbuster’s Twilight Years”-era DVDs that had been purchased during that organization’s decline and which found there way to the cabin. One of these films was Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 Bill Murray vehicle Broken Flowers. I have a complete and utter Jarmusch blind spot, never having seen any of his films. In fact, I only know him from his appearance on Fishing with John for, as you well know by now dear reader, I am a weirdo. After the abysmal experience of watching In Secret and once again trying and failing to get through Titus, I really wanted to clear my Jessica Lange palate, so I figured I’d give it a shot.

Don Johnston (Bill Murray) is a serial womanizer, now retired after having done quite well in the field of “computers,” and living rather disaffectedly. When his latest ladyfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) leaves him, citing that she feels like his mistress even though he isn’t married, he receives a second blow: an untraceable letter from a woman claiming that Don fathered a now nineteen-year-old son with her and she kept it from him. The letter’s author warns that the boy is now on a road trip, and she has her suspicions that he’s looking for his father, and doesn’t want Don to be taken completely unaware. At the urging of his neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), Don travels to see the five women who might have sent the letter.

First up is Laura (Sharon Stone), who married a now-dead stock car racer. Now a professional closet organizer, she does have a teenaged child—a daughter inexplicably named Lolita, who even more inexplicably expresses a sexual interest in 55-year-old Don. Next up is Dora (Frances Conroy), formerly a flower child but now leading a boring existence as the wife and business partner of real estate agent Ron (Christopher McDonald). Then it’s on to Dr. Carmen Markowski (Jessica Lange), who Don remembers as being very passionate about becoming a lawyer, but who is now some kind of animal whisperer, and from there Don locates Penny (Tilda Swinton), living in a bleak, crumbling clapboard farmhouse somewhere that definitely has a meth problem. Finally, Don visits the grave of Michelle, the fifth and final potential author of the letter. Returning home, he notices a young man (Mark Webber) whom he seems to remember having run into before, and buys him a sandwich and a coffee. Assuming that the boy is the long-lost son whose arrival was foretold, Don starts talking about being the kid’s father, freaking him out and causing him to run off. Alone in the street, Don watches as a car drives by slowly as a teenaged boy (Homer Murray, Bill’s real life son) makes eye contact with Don from the passenger seat, and then is gone.

While definitely a product of a certain time and of a certain generation of masculinity, which detracted from the end product for me, this was a good watch overall. The idea of Don Johnston as a Don Juan-esque lothario is a bit of a stretch (no offense to Murray, but let’s get real) and the fact that the film hinges on not just his one-time sexual voracity in his peak, but also his virility and that he’s never changed his behavior, is the weakest element. Murray’s also doing none of the heavy lifting here, as the editing is doing nearly all of the work while Murray sits back and lets his motionless silence be captured by Jarmusch’s directorial eye. There’s a great performance in here from the male lead, but it’s all in the Kuleshov of it all, while Murray does that thing that he always does (hey—if it’s not broke).

Looking at Jarmusch’s larger filmography, it seems his earlier films that predate Broken Flowers were largely anthological works, while his more recent ones seem to be more standard in their narrative structure, and this film is a kind of bridge between those two forms, conceptually, as it follows Don through a series of vignettes that consist of reunions with the women he once loved, each one shorter than the last, beginning with an overnight with Laura, a dinner with Dora and her husband, a constantly-interrupted period between appointments with Carmen, a four or five sentence exchange with Penny, and finally no time at all with Michelle. This adherence to structure is something that I love in any work of art; I think that the attention to detail is something that soothes my hyperactive brain. There’s also a lot of fun with the minor details of each interaction: Laura’s daughter’s detachment from the death of her father (“It was on the TV”), the utter sterility and banality of Dora’s bland dinner (a big slab of meat, unseasoned white rice, and crinkle cut carrots, possibly boiled), and the dilapidation of Penny’s home. There’s also something fascinating about the high number of basketball hoops everywhere he goes, which Don always instantly assumes means that there’s a teenage boy about and that he’s come to the right place, and yet their omnipresence renders them completely irrelevant as a clue.

Before Don goes on his adventure, Winston primes him to be on the lookout for pink items and objects to match the pink paper on which the letter was typed, and to try and obtain writing samples to compare to the written address on the envelope, which is the only handwriting on the letter. Although he isn’t successful in the latter endeavor, he (and by extension the viewer) is drawn to pink items everywhere in his adventure: Penny’s boots and motorcycle, Dora’s business card (to match her husband’s blue one), Carmen’s pants, etc. It’s a nice touch that, like the basketball hoops that appear so frequently, all of these clues are meaningless as well. The film sets itself up as a mystery: who sent the letter? And in the end, that mystery isn’t important, and remains unsolved. Each woman with whom he reunites is utterly noncommittal in their responses to Don’s roundabout questions, and in the end, it’s not as if he could have expected something different: if any one of them had taken the time to send Don a letter without divulging their identity, then they wouldn’t really allow themselves to be taken by surprise as he intends and suddenly confess when confronted in person. The possibility is even floated that Sherry wrote the letter as an attempt to shake Don out of his comfort zone, and that’s a possibility, but that resolution doesn’t really matter in the end.

As a showcase for the women who round out this cast, including Chloë Sevigny as Carmen’s assistant and Pell James as Sun Green, a compassionate florist who tends to the wounds that Don received from Penny’s friends, this is a pretty nice vehicle. It’s a film with a lot of breathing room but no real fat to be trimmed, playing out in shots that are long enough to convey meaning and last not one moment more. The blipvert/fever dreams that Don has in his quiet moments were initially distracting, especially as they simply once more reminded viewers that Don is still a perfectly virile man capable of sexual thought, which errs a little too close to the “New Yorker story in which an aging professional lusts after his student/protege” genre for my personal tastes, but not enough to derail the whole shebang.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Antibirth (2016)

twohalfstar

I don’t want to say that I’m the only fan of last year’s online-bullying slasher #horror (not only would it be a little presumptuous, I also know James enjoyed it when I made him watch it for the podcast), but I do assume I’m among a very precious few hopeless weirdos who got excited when the stars of that film, Natasha Lyonne & Chloë Sevigny, were reuniting a year later in another horror cheapie. Antibirth looked to be a repeat of the neo-psychedelia explored in their previous collaboration, a total freak-out of genre filmmaking done weird & done right. Sadly, I can’t say I was nearly as hot on Antibirth as I was in #horror. Where the Tara Subkoff film felt effortlessly strange & unnerving from beginning to end, Antibirth had to strain its resources to get itself there. The entire film feels like a pained effort to reach the unhinged intensity of its final moment, when that last minute development should have ideally been a launching point. If Antibirth were a plot for a television show it would’ve been a home run. As a standalone feature film, however, it feels like all wind-up & no pitch.

Lyonne stars as a metalhead stoner with a grimy crew of dirtbag friends, including a fellow shithead played by Sevigny. Between getting blackout drunk & chain-smoking bong rips to late night television, Lyonne’s unsuspecting, unremembering protagonist is drugged at a party & abducted for nefarious purposes. Thankfully, no onscreen sexual assault is included to spoil the mood, but Lyonne’s heavy metal wastoid does emerge from the haze of her bender to find herself pregnant. Although Antibirth does rely on pregnancy-specific modes of body horror – like the terrors of sore feet, puking, ultrasounds, and sore nipples – her struggle is conveyed as entirely supernatural. There’s a Cronenbergian element to her transformation from mind-numbed party girl to expectant mother that gets gradually, grotesquely bizarre before culminating in what’s possibly the most disgusting birth scene gore I’ve ever witnessed. The problem is that her horrific birthing trauma feels like the beginning to a story rather than an ending, which is especially disheartening considering that a lot of its lead up centered on the far less compelling antics of scumbags & dazed-out alien conspiracy theorists. If the ending of Antibirth were merely the ending of a more condensed first act, we might have something interesting here, something as bizarre as the movie seems to think it already is.

One thing Antibirth isn’t lacking is a sense of style. The film plays like a low octane reimagining of Rob Zombie taking on Death to Smoochie. Its overbearing grime, Cramps-style music cues, and knockoff Tonetta music videos (something I honestly never expected to see in a film) mixes with its Chuck E Cheese-inspired Teletubby/Sasquatch hybrids to make for a really interesting underground horror tone. There are also easily recognizable seeds of good stories in the film’s talk of extraterrestrial intuition (or “interdimensional street smarts”) and its basic idea of turning the myth that “every pregnancy is different” into its own disturbing tale of body horror. In an ideal world Natasha Lyonne & Chloë Sevigny would annually team up for a horror film just as weird & off-putting as Antibirth, maybe even a couple more with the same director (this is the debut effort of Danny Perez, who’s previously done visual collaborations with Animal Collective), but their previous outing together was far more successful. Here, I only see a few germs of good ideas without the proper follow through, emphasis heavily put on “germs”.

-Brandon Ledet

Love & Friendship (2016)

threehalfstar

2016 very well might be The Year of the Anachronistic Jane Austen Adaptation (if it’s not already being billed as The Year of the Confined Space Thriller or The Year That Superhero Spectacles Shat the Bed). Besides the Comedy Central reality show spoof Another Period, which recontextualizes Austen-era social machinations in a petty Keeping Up with the Kardashians mindframe, we’ve also been treated to the just-as-silly-as-its-title-suggests Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. That latter, zombified Austen bastardization didn’t make much of a splash when it was released this last spring, but I got a kick out of the way the horror comedy accentuated the verbal sparring of its source material by making it literal sparring in some ludicrous knockout fights between high society women. The most recent entry in The Year of Austen Anachronisms is Wilt Stillman’s Love & Friendship, adapted from the lessor known, minor Austen title Lady Susan. While the far less subtle Pride and Prejudice and Zombies felt the need to punch up Austen’s verbal aggressions by turning them into physical altercations, Love & Friendship recognizes just how biting & playfully transgressive they already are on the page. Stillman’s film finds its own anachronism by playing the material straight, but fitting it into the format of a modern, 90min comedy, with all of the playful energy that genre implies. In a way it’s similar to Sofia Coppola’s (criminally underrated) Marie Antoinette picture, just without the Converse sneakers & unavoidably depressive third act.

It’s probably best to consider Love & Friendship as a period comedy instead of a period drama if you want to quickly get on its very particular wavelength. The film’s rapidfire, breathy dialogue & playbill-style character introductions (accompanied by phrases like “a divinely attractive man” & “a bit of a rattle”) are a relentless assault throughout the film. As a subversion of its genre the film presents the same polite-on-the-surface setting & intricately beautiful costumes, but with a new, cheeky attitude. Speaking of the usual hallmarks of the costume drama, the familiar-to-the-genre Kate Beckinsale stars as the Lady Susan of the source materials’ namesake, a character at the edge of high society fringe who’s just as self-important as she is calculated & prepared to destroy. A recent “widow without fortune”, Lady Susan is a scenery-chewing Austen archetype who wields love & friendship as deadly weapons in her designs for wealth & discomfort. The movie’s tightly paced, pleasantly efficient plot mostly centers on her machinations to find well-off husbands for both herself and her young daughter. As their financial situation is direly dependent on the kindness of acquaintances at the beginning of the film, the stakes aren’t exactly low, but it’s not easy to sympathize with our “agreeable flirt” antihero as she tries to entrap a husband of the right social stature & age range (he can’t be “too old to be governable” or “two young to die”) & sleeps with other people’s husbands for fun in the meantime. Like all traditional comedies, Love & Friendship ends with everyone finding a suitable mate, but the fun in this film is in watching Beckinsale’s lead shrewdly manipulate each piece of the puzzle so that they fall into place without her barely lifting a finger. Most of the targets of her designs don’t even know they’re being played as pawns and even the ones who do, including her poor daughter, are helpless to do anything but watch her designs play out in stunned silence. They’re all ridiculously outmatched.

All of Lady Susan’s designs wouldn’t mean a thing without her supporting players, however. Chloë Sevigny (who after this & #horror is hopefully staging an indie scene comeback) stars as a friend & conspirator who’s mostly kept around so that Lady Susan has an audience to appreciate her manipulative brilliance. Then there’s the case of the wealthy, potential beaus for Lady Susan & her daughter. The younger, more desirable candidate is a handsome gent with whom she ignites “the most peculiar friendship” and whose family is scandalized that he would associate with a flirtatious widow prone to  such “sauciness & familiarity”. The movie’s real secret weapon, however, is the delightful Sir James. A “very silly” man with “a charm of a kind”, Sir James distinctly recalls the posi stupidity of characters like Murray from Flight of the Conchords. He calls peas “tiny green balls” & “novelty vegetables”, finds difficulty remembering how many Commandments there are in the Bible, and dances like a delighted fool. There are varying degrees to which Love & Friendship’s male characters don’t measure up while going toe to toe with Lady Susan, but no one is as delightfully or entertainingly incompetent as Sir James, who has a way of stealing scenes he’s not even in as characters discuss the various charms & annoyances of his spectacular idiocy.

As amusing as the supporting players can be, however, falling for Love & Friendship depends largely on finding amusement in the cold calculations of Lady Susan, a delicately aggressive performance Beckinsale nails with ease. Although she’s a cunning manipulator who believes that “facts are horrid things” & leaves a few opposing women weeping in her wake, Lady Susan is a formidable social warmonger, a great encapsulation of the social combativeness that distinguishes a lot of Austen’s quietly powerful characters. Love & Friendship may include a lovable dolt performance from a character that belongs in a modern mockumentary-style sitcom & other 90min comedy conventions like a continuous stream of alternate take jokes included with its end credits, but it intimately understand the appeal of Jane Austen’s powerful (& humorous) archetypes in a way that’s not always captured in the more self-serious adaptations of her work. Much like the character of one Sir James Martin, the film is an all-around delight that never outwears its initial charm.

-Brandon Ledet