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Indie Snapshot: Cosmopolis, Compliance and More

by Ethan Alter August 17, 2012 1:09 pm
Indie Snapshot: <i>Cosmopolis</i>, <i>Compliance</i> and More

Cheer up, Rob. You may have lost KStew, but at least you've got a new person in your life: David Cronenberg. Also, our takes on Compliance, The Awakening and Side by Side

Cosmopolis
For those of you who found David Cronenberg's last movie, the period psychiatric drama A Dangerous Method, not... well, Cronenbergian enough, you'll be happy to hear that his new movie Cosmopolis is closer to what's generally thought of as his house style. That means a dry, mordant sense of humor, frames that are so sharply composed they could double as knives and a studied artificiality, to the point where you're never quite sure if the film is taking place in the real world or in somebody's mind. Based on the 2003 novel by Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis stars Twilight hunk Robert Pattinson as Eric Packer, an absurdly young Master of the Universe Wall Street type with a bank account larger than the square footage of most Manhattan apartments. On this particular day, Eric has decided that his hair is in need of a trim so, over the advice of his chief security officer (Kevin Durand), he climbs into the backseat of his space-age luxury limo and sets off on a cross-town journey to his favorite barber. In the course of his expedition, he hosts rap sessions with his various co-workers (among them Jay Baruchel and Samantha Morton), engages in vigorous intercourse with two older women (Juliette Binoche and Patricia McKenzie), has a few chance encounters with his chilly blonde bride Ellise (Sarah Gadon), bends over and grimaces during a prostate exam and, in general, contemplates the beauty of the capitalistic system even as riots are seen breaking out on the streets just outside his tinted windows.

In general, my taste in Cronenberg tends to run towards those movies that more fully balance his self-aware formalism with high entertainment value -- films like Videodrome, The Fly, eXistenZ and A History of Violence. Placed alongside those pictures, Cosmopolis can be frustratingly obtuse and, after a certain point, dry and repetitive. But it's also not without its pleasures, particularly in its livelier first half, which often plays like an absurdist comedy in the tradition of Ionesco. The unlikely pairing of Pattinson and Cronenberg ends up benefitting them both. Appearing in a movie like this gives the young actor street cred for the impending post-Twilight phase of his career, while Cronenberg likely wouldn't have been able to secure the funds for this kind of highly stylized experiment without having a big name to sell investors on. The partnership works out onscreen as well; while it's still hard to gauge Pattinson's range as an actor, he handles the screenplay's deadpan humor nicely and Cronenberg shoots him in a manner that accentuates his angular face and sly smile, often making him look like more of a monster than his vampire persona. It helps that the director surrounds his star with so many talented supporting players as well, as they're allowed to do the heavy lifting in many of the scenes while Pattinson is simply required to react to them with Eric's trademark smirk. If Cosmopolis isn't necessarily one of Cronenberg's finest achievements, it is an often fascinating formal exercise by one of modern cinema's most consistently intriguing filmmakers.

Compliance
In 2004, an ordinary McDonald's in Kentucky became the setting for an impromptu study in human psychology when an assistant manager confined one of her employees -- a young woman -- to a small backroom after receiving a phone call from a man identifying himself as a police officer who claimed to have proof that she had stolen a customer's purse. Insisting that neither he nor any of his fellow cops was able to make it to the restaurant right away, the caller requested that the manager start the interrogation for them. With him calmly talking her through it over the phone, she started to search the employee's person before asking that she strip off her uniform for a more thorough investigation. This ordeal lasted over the next four or five hours, with various people coming into the room and taking the phone from the assistant manager when she had other duties to attend to. Never once did they not comply with the instructions the cop gave them, even when they moved into some morally questionable territory. And never once did they question whether or not the person at the other end of the line was even really a cop to behind with.

This case made headlines when it hit the news media (especially when it was revealed that it was one of 70 similar incidents, all committed by the same caller... who obviously wasn't a police officer) and now it serves as the basis for one of the year's most provocative -- and divisive -- films. Since premiering at Sundance in January, Craig Zobel's Compliance has kicked up a ruckus amongst audiences, with loud praise and condemnations being tossed around in equal measure. A movie like this is obviously going to inspire polarizing and intensely personal reactions and there's no "right" way to respond to it. Speaking purely for me, though, that's one of the things I appreciate the most about Compliance and why it's among my favorite movies of the year so far. Zobel doesn't weigh his dramatization of this incident down with overt editorializing; he simply allows the events to unfold in a simple, straightforward fashion.

Of course, there's nothing simple about what happens in the movie's fictional restaurant, where the suspect Becky (Dreama Walker, in a performance that couldn't be more different than her role on ABC's Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23) is subjected to various forms of emotional (and eventually physical) intimidation by manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) and the other people who take over the role of interrogator when Sandra is off attending to her day-to-day duties. Despite the limited setting, Compliance is often unbearably tense, offering little respite from the grim progression towards Becky's final act of humiliation. Watching these people fully comply with whatever the unseen caller tells them to do can be a frustrating experience -- probably too frustrating for some viewers, who may blame Zobel for writing such "dumb" characters or steel their minds against what's happening onscreen by insisting that no person could ever behave this way in real life. But that kind of intense denial just speaks to how thoroughly unnerving this scenario is to begin with. We would like to believe that, in those same circumstances, we'd all be able to see through the prank. As has been illustrated time and time again though, through controlled experiments like the Milgram cases and real-world incidents like the Kitty Genovese murder (although controversy still enshrouds that case as to what actually happened) illustrates how unpredictable human behavior can be, particularly in the face of a supposed authority figure. After a season filled with blockbusters that are designed to entertain in the moment and vanish from your thoughts afterwards, here's a movie that's guaranteed to linger in your mind, whether you want it to or not.

The Awakening
The second made-in-Britain period ghost story to arrive on these shores this year (after the Daniel Radcliffe-led The Woman in Black way back in February), The Awakening stars Rebecca Hall as paranormal debunker Florence Cathcart whose skills are put to the test by her latest assignment: investigating a haunting at a stately boys' boarding school in the countryside. The year is 1921 and England is still living in the shadow of the recently-concluded First World War, which explains why the public is so susceptible to reports of supernatural activity. Cathcart herself lost someone in the war, the man she loved and believed she was going to spend the rest of her life with. If anything, though, his death has only solidified her resolve to prove that ghosts aren't real; to her, allowing oneself to be convinced that life exists after death is a sign of weakness -- an inability to accept the world as it is, even when that's the only logical way to live.

But even this professional skeptic is knocked for a loop by some of the strange phenomena she witnesses at the boarding school, an enormous manor with dark hallways, dusty rooms and perpetually mist-covered grounds. With all the pupils having been sent home for the holidays -- many of whom probably won't return without an all-clear sign from Cathcart that the school definitely isn't haunted -- the only people still left in the building besides Florence are handsome teacher Robert Malory (Dominic West), kindly housekeeper Maud (Imelda Staunton), a creepy groundskeeper (Joseph Mawle) and one little boy, Tom (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) left orphaned by the war. Considering how isolated they are, it's no wonder that Florence starts to feel unnerved by her spooky surroundings, as well as the bizarre noises and sights occurring within the walls of the old manor.

For its first act, The Awakening is a decently executed campfire tale, in the vein of The Others and The Haunting and, to a lesser extent, the real-time horror movie Silent House Elizabeth Olsen. Those films are all more consistently unnerving than this one, although Nick Murphy does stage a few effective "Boo!" moments. The problems set in during the second half, when the story tries to venture into more psychological territory, connecting Florence's own personal past to the school. It's a twist that strains credulity and muddies the narrative, to the point where the big climactic reveal intended to explain the entire movie ends up being both confusing and ridiculous (Silent House had the same problem as well). To her credit, Hall does her damnedest to make it work, once again showing that she's too good an actress to be stuck in such mediocre material. (Her Prestige director Christopher Nolan needs to give her another role, stat.) If The Awakening really were a campfire tale, it would bore and confuse listeners to the point where they'd all turn in early.

Side by Side
If you had to guess which major movie star would take time out from his busy schedule to spearhead a documentary about how the ongoing digital revolution is upending traditional means of film production and distribution in Hollywood, your first choice probably wouldn't be Keanu Reeves. But there the erstwhile "Ted" Theodore Logan is, interviewing cinematographers, editors and directors like Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, James Cameron and David Fincher for this informative, well-produced documentary, directed by Christopher Kenneally and produced by Reeves. Starting with a brief introduction to the history and art of shooting on film, Side by Side quickly moves along to the meat of its material, specifically the advent of new digital technologies, from cameras to editing equipment to projectors and what it all means for the future of filmmaking. As befits his Zen personality, Reeves isn't exactly the most dogged of interrogators; he mostly lobs straightforward questions at his various subjects that easily allow them to summarize their position, which means that digital fans like Cameron and George Lucas are allowed to pompously sound off about the many benefits of these new tools and toys, while noted skeptics like Nolan stick up for good ol' 35 millimeter film. The most interesting commentary comes from folks who are more nuanced in their approach to the argument, guys like Scorsese and Steven Soderbergh, who both of whom are able to clearly outline the benefits of digital cameras without completely relegating film to the dustbin of history.

While you don't have to be able to toss around the latest cinematic jargon to watch Side by Side, the movie does sometimes seems unsure of how to satisfy both of its potential audiences, the industry professionals and the laypeople. The former camp will probably wish that the movie went into more of the nitty-gritty details about the different technologies it covers (the distinctions between the various digital cameras available on the market are handled in a particularly superficial fashion), while the latter group may find some of the material too dry or technical to hold their interest. (The best example of a movie-themed documentary that is able to satisfy both sets of viewers is the terrific 1992 doc Visions of Light, an invaluable introduction to the art of cinematography.) Overall, though, Side by Side is a smoothly assembled, eminently watchable feature that efficiently summarizes the recent past, and possible future, of film... uh, make that digital video. (Side by Side opens in limited release today and will be available on various VOD platforms starting August 22.)

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