David Gordon Green, with his debut feature George Washington ensconced in the Criterion Collection, seemed poised to be the next great American filmmaker. His second feature, All the Real Girls, built on that promise, launching careers and further superlatives, and his third, Undertow, was produced by his hero and reigning American auteur Terrence Malick. His career as the next serious filmmaker seemed set until a string of studio pot-smokin comedies, Pineapple Express, Your Highness and The Sitter, befuddled those following his career. In Prince Avalanchehe has returned to his indie roots, eschewing the loud zaniness of the likes of Seth Rogan, James Franco and Jonah Hill for the more subdued antics of Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch.
Prince Avalanche, based on the Icelandic film Either Way by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson, is set in central Texas in the summer of 1988 after a forest fire requires the repainting of traffic lanes along interminable and winding country roads. Alvin, played by Paul Rudd, has taken the dull task with aplomb, filling the hours with German language tapes and reflections of solitude. His partner, and potential brother-in-law, Lance (Hirsch) is far less enthused at being away from the city and its “fresh” parties and increasingly becomes an irritant to his sister’s boyfriend.
The movie is shot by Green’s collaborator Tim Orr whose eye is constantly being drawn away by rabbit trails: shots of charred forest, blossoms and bugs. This habit gives such a focused and simple story a wider scope, a beckoning to the grander scale. Hinting at a renewal of life all along the margins despite destruction.
The tale, ostensibly, is a coming-of-middle-age story, wherein the two characters grapple with love.; Lance, in his flighty post-teen adulthood, is keen on the physical act. At the beginning he complains how horny he is in nature. He questions his own ability to go the entire summer without having his “little man squeezed” whereas the slightly older Alvin is stoic in his abstinence. He is happy to spend his free time reflecting on himself, planning the future and “doing right” by those he loves. He diligently sends home money in the letters he writes to his girlfriend, supporting her and the child she’s had by another man.
The fire at the beginning injects a sense of loss that is carried throughout the film. Love, we know from ancient sources, is fire; whether destructive or constructive, whether cleansing or clearing, love sets us aflame. That the loss in fire signals the loss in love is depicted in a scene in which Alvin reenacts a homecoming on a burnt out foundation.
The ground is covered in ash, drywall, warped plastic and glass. Alvin looks dismayed. He ascends the stairs and opens an imaginary door. He calls for the wife, the quotidian comments: Honey? Sweetie? where are you? smells good in here…He opens the oven, he fiddles with charred knick-knacks, he jogs up imaginary stairs. As he does this there is a tension that grows. What started out as a cute bit of pantomime becomes ominous. At the beginning there was no house, his play began and a house leapt to life, but the wife was gone: had she left? was the marriage over?
He finds her upstairs, in the bedroom on the phone. He apologizes for interrupting her, tells her not to hang up and trots back downstairs. There is a relief, he’s found her, she wasn’t gone, she cannot speak to him, but she’s there. He finds a surviving chair and sits, the pater familias at rest, his domain secure, while sitting there he says, “That was nice.” And the home life so recently created comes down again.
Complimenting this is a quiet ghost story. Whether any real ghosts appear is debatable, but a woman moves through the film, a figure of loss, both seen and unseen, embodying love. The unseen love interests of Lance and Alvin also operate as ghosts. They are spoken of, but not seen. Early on Alvin concludes a letter to his girlfriend with: “True love is just like a ghost, people talk about it but very few have actually seen it.” Alvin talks about love plenty, whether he has seen it is debatable.
Paul Rudd throws himself into the serious work of stifling his own laughter in his role as the taciturn Alvin. Emile Hirsch, best known for his role in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, is earnest and convincingly numbskulled. Their easy mirth as they interact goes a long way in driving the narrative forward, built upon the steady rhythms of the score from Explosions in the Sky, neighbors of David Gordon Green and fellow Texans.
The curious title, while haphazardly chosen by Green, draws together the Dionysian challenge of Apollonian order that Alvin and Lance embody. Alvin delights in the strict duty of lines and the manly outdoor activities, while Lance prefers wild parties and the presence of ladies. Like the threat of riot to rule and the cliff of hubris over humility, the prince of lines must be careful or else be buried under the hotmess of human conflict.
While the crisis is never resolved and catharsis comes through drunken revelry, the call of “doing right” has been sounded, and the movie ends with Alvin and Lance in high spirits and renewed vigor. Like the slow recovery from the fire, the lesson seems, that life recovers perhaps with scars, perhaps with regret, perhaps haunted with ghosts.
My one word review: Delightful.
My five word review: Delightful delightful delightful delightful delightful.
[The first draft of my five word review: Grand Hotel Budapest was delightful.]
My More Word Review: The characters were delightful. The actors were delightful. The staging was delightful. The art direction was delightful. The cusswords were delightful. The violence was delightful. The fornicating, adultery and the defrauding of old ladies of their wealth was delightful. Everything was delightful and nothing was uncool.
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Alex Garland, the screenwriter of Sunshine:
“Aside from being a love letter to its antecedents, I wrote Sunshine as a film about atheism. A crew is en route to a God-like entity: the Sun. The Sun is larger and more powerful than we can imagine. The Sun gave us life, and can take it away. It is nurturing, in that it provides the means of our survival, but also terrifying and hostile […] Ultimately, even the most rational crew member is overwhelmed by his sense of wonder and, as he falls into the star, he believes he is touching the face of God. But he isn’t. The Sun is God-like, but not God. Not a conscious being. Not a divine architect. And the crew member is only doing what man has always done: making an awestruck category error when confronted with our small place within the vast and neutral scheme of things. The director, Danny Boyle, who is not atheistic in the way that I am, felt differently. He believed that the crew actually were meeting God. I didn’t see this as a major problem, because the difference in our approach wasn’t in conflict with the way in which the story would be told.”
In 1986 the Jim Henson Company put out a little made for television movie named The Christmas Toy. The movie is summarized thusly:
When no people are around, the toys still play in the playroom. But since a toy will be frozen forever if a person catches it out of position, they have to be very careful. It’s Christmas Eve, and Rugby the Tiger remembers how he was the favorite Christmas toy last year and wants to be the favorite again this year, so as not to be replaced by another toy. However, he doesn’t stop to think that if Jamie unwrapped him again this year, she’d see him out of his normal place that she usually puts him and he’d be frozen forever. It’s up to Apple the Doll, whom Rugby supplanted as favorite toy, to tell him what’s in store. But Rugby won’t believe her, and tries to get into the Christmas package and lets Meteora, Queen of the Asteroids loose. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know she’s a toy, and thinks she’s landed among aliens. And it’s up to Apple, Mew (the Cat’s toy mouse), and the other toys to get Rugby out of the box and Meteora back in it before they’re found and frozen forever.
Seems a little bit familiar:
The Coen Brothers’ film No Country for Old Men, based on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, is a seamless exercise in the strangulation of hope. Unlike their previous films set in the dark world of murder (Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo) No Country has no glimmer of escape, no place of refuge, and no chance at mercy. Not only is this place no country for old men, it is no place for anyone at all.
The theme of the movie is the inexorable march of violence, like its fatalistic antagonist, wryly named Anton Chigurh, whose clockwork killing punctuates the movie. In this world, where God is only noted as an absence, people are chewed up and spit out, victim and victimizer alike, with such casual determinism that only horror is at home. No film since Chinatown delineates the Christian virtue of Hope from its secular counterpart pessimism.
My review of Dallas Buyers Club is up at the FilmFisher.
Short version: Biopics are Dumb, but bet McConaughey for the Oscar.