Director Chris Smith's documentary about a frighteningly prescient doomsayer makes the end of the world seem uncomfortably close. Elsewhere, Pirate Radio and A Christmas Carol are better than advertised.
This weekend’s big movie, 2012, will appeal to one breed of disaster-porn aficionados, but Collapse is definitely a must-see for more thoughtful members of the same tribe. But be warned: You may walk out of the theater slightly freaked out.
Collapse (Vitagraph Films)
This documentary from director Chris Smith shares a psychic connection with his most famous nonfiction film, American Movie. In both cases, Smith is taking us into the worldview of passionate, dismissed outsiders – with American Movie, it was untalented independent horror filmmaker Mark Borchardt, and with Collapse, it’s doomsayer Michael Ruppert, who predicted the economic collapse that befell us last year. Ruppert was an LAPD officer and journalist who later began publishing his own newsletter to expose the societal factors he believed would bring down our civilization – most specifically, our unsustainable need for oil. If you want to skip at least a dozen different alarmist documentaries of the last five years, you can get a thumbnail sketch of our uncertain future by listening to this guy.
In its construction, Collapse draws inspiration from Errol Morris, particularly his Robert McNamara portrait The Fog of War, by devoting most of its short screen time to letting Ruppert talk about his theories on why our energy demands are unrealistic, why our economic model is faulty, and, in general, why we’re headed toward an inevitable global evolution that will result from the downfall of our current way of life. Smith provides little background on his subject – actually, Ruppert does it himself – and there’s not much attempt to contradict or challenge Ruppert’s theories. Consequently, like with The Fog of War, Collapse is intentionally, deceptively one-dimensional – it’s up to you to fill in the other half of the debate with your own impressions and opinions. But at the same time, Smith chooses just enough moments in the interview footage to make us wonder about the utter reliability of our speaker – he’s a tad defensive about being labeled a conspiracy theorist, and he seems a touch overly emotional about his proclamations of a world heading toward disaster.
Though perhaps a bit slight, the film benefits from its hastily-assembled spirit. The interview (which was done in March) looks like it was shot over only a day or two, and from there Smith quickly assembled stock footage to complement Ruppert’s commentary. In this way, Collapse resembles another recent down-and-dirty indie film that concerned itself with last year’s economic collapse – Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience. In both cases, the filmmakers moved quickly to capture the essence of a crucial moment in American (and potentially human) history, and so both films resonate with a sense that, yes, this is what it feels like right now to be living in the world and to be scared about what life will be like in, say, three months. Smith never tries to convince us that Ruppert is a prophet, and because of that we listen to this man with a mixture of wonder and skepticism. The guy is right a lot, but sometimes he just sounds unhinged. The not-knowing doesn’t necessarily hurt Collapse – if anything, it makes the experience all the more unsettling. Lord knows we need to find someone who has the answers – if not Ruppert, then who?
Pirate Radio (Focus Features)
Few recent films have arrived on these shores so burdened with the label of being damaged goods as Pirate Radio has. Trashed by critics and a commercial bomb in its homeland of the U.K. (where it opened back in April), the film finally comes to America with a new name (it was called The Boat That Rocked) and a running time that’s been trimmed by almost 20 minutes. So maybe my expectations were lowered sufficiently enough, but this cinematic change of pace from romantic-comedy writer-director Richard Curtis isn’t the disaster it’s been advertised to be. Still, you should know that to enjoy Pirate Radio you have to accept its bits-and-pieces format. And you probably will also have always secretly wanted to be a disc jockey as a kid.
Based very loosely on actual events, Pirate Radio is about the denizens of Radio Rock, a pirate radio station located on a boat in the North Sea that broadcasts rock ‘n’ roll to the United Kingdom in 1966 during a time when the government has outlawed the music on the airwaves. Curtis populates the floating station with colorful characters who all spin records at different times during the day and night, led by a quietly anarchic American DJ known as “The Count” (Philip Seymour Hoffman). This ensemble comedy is also, disappointingly, a coming-of-age story about teenaged Carl (Tom Sturridge), who joins this ragtag team of rock enthusiasts and in the process learns about sex, love and other predictable adolescent urges.
Pirate Radio’s conflict comes in the form of an uptight government minister (Kenneth Branagh) who wants to find a way to shut down Radio Rock, and if you’re going to see this film I’d highly advise that you simply ignore every single scene in which Branagh appears. He’s mildly fun as this bureaucratic stuffed-shirt, but this deeply nostalgic and goofy film overplays its central struggle between the hip and the straights. Better to just watch those DJs playing their tunes, cracking their jokes and generally having a good time. It’s not a lot to hang a movie on, granted, but Curtis does a decent job of capturing what music appreciation feels like. Clearly, Pirate Radio is in my wheelhouse, so I’m willing to forgive a certain amount of narrative slackness. But this cast, which also includes Bill Nighy and Rhys Ifans, is quite good and quite amusing. And during a season when serious films are being shoved down our throats, the occasional bit of comfort food is a nice alternative once in a while.
The Messenger (Oscilloscope Laboratories)
Although it won’t show up on my Top 10 list since it’s, technically, not a feature film, one of my favorites movies of 2009 is Taking Chance. Premiering at Sundance before making its commercial debut on HBO, the film tells the story of a military man (played superbly by Kevin Bacon) who is assigned to escort the casket of a slain soldier from Iraq to its burial. Simply and methodically told with very little emotion, Taking Chance is one of the best movies about the war because it doesn’t concern itself with political commentary – death is death, and director Ross Katz focuses on that inescapable fact with dignity and restraint.
Another film that played at that same Sundance, The Messenger, isn’t quite as stunning, but it too goes a long way toward “honoring the troops.” Director Oren Moverman’s drama introduces us to two U.S. soldiers, Will (Ben Foster) and Tony (Woody Harrelson), whose job it is to inform spouses that their loved ones have been killed in combat. Will is just back from Iraq, and you can tell that he left a part of himself (or had it ripped from him) over there. Tony is his superior officer, a guy who saw minimal fighting in Desert Storm and feels envious of Will’s experience. From that setup, Moverman watches as these two men get to know each other while delivering heartbreaking news to unsuspecting people. And then without warning, Will finds himself getting emotionally involved with one of the widows, played wonderfully by Samantha Morton.
It’s when Will starts to become enmeshed in the widow’s world that The Messenger risks going off the rails, veering from a well-observed tale into a treacly melodrama. Thankfully, that never happens – the acting by all three leads is too authentic and Moverman’s direction is too smart to allow for phony uplift. It’s too bad, then, that the story does eventually get bogged down in thematic redundancies – Moverman does such a great job of quietly dramatizing the life of a soldier home from war that it’s a shame that he overstates the case as The Messenger reaches its conclusion. But for his directorial debut, Moverman is a very confident filmmaker, one who can sustain unbroken scenes of over 10 minutes without making it seem self-indulgent or gimmicky. For anybody who wasn’t entirely wowed by The Hurt Locker, this subtler film might be worth discovering.
Disney’s A Christmas Carol (Walt Disney Pictures)
The greatest tension in this adaptation of AChristmas Carol isn’t between Scrooge and those pesky ghosts but within writer-director Robert Zemeckis. On one side, he’s delivered an impressively dark and faithful rendering of the Charles Dickens story – complete with a subtle dig at organized religion – that isn’t a kid’s entertainment like his Polar Express was. But on the other side, he’s trying to justify his years of investment in motion-capture animation by introducing action sequences that will give people their money’s worth if they’re seeing this thing in IMAX and/or 3D. Inevitably, this tension will lead to a schizophrenic movie – a bleak tale cluttered with crap to keep tots paying attention. But because the story’s core emotions are preserved, I found myself being impressed by how daring Zemeckis was willing to be with a Jim Carrey holiday vehicle that surely would make a ton more money if he hadn’t had the nerve to adhere to the original text, particularly in the dialogue.
I’m still unconvinced motion-capture is the future of anything, but Zemeckis compensates with good casting. Gary Oldman makes for a great Bob Cratchit, and Colin Firth packs the right punch as Scrooge’s nephew Fred. And while this isn’t one of his great performances, Carrey is a very good Ebenezer, toning down his shtick to reveal the character’s basic awfulness. Like Zemeckis, Carrey understands that for A Christmas Carol to work, you have to hate Scrooge at first so that you can later see him change his ways. That happens here – as does a pretty timely message about the value of family and generosity over the temptations of greed and fear in the face of economic despair. It’s a holiday reminder that’s always welcome, no matter what bells and whistles are attached to it.
Treeless Mountain (Oscilloscope DVD)
Writer-director So Yong Kim makes quiet, naturalistic films. Her first, In Between Days, had plenty of great little moments, and if I ultimately didn’t swoon over it as much as my colleagues did, well, let’s see what she does next time. Treeless Mountain is her second film, and rather than it being a confident step forward, it’s more of the same. Two young sisters living in Seoul – seven-year-old Jin (Hee Yeon Kim) and her younger sibling Bin (Song Hee Kim) – are sent to stay with their indifferent aunt while their mother tries to track down their no-good father. Because she works in the realm of plotless, episodic incidents that slowly build to understated emotional crescendos, Kim doesn’t concern herself too much with narrative surprise – Treeless Mountain’s enjoyment isn’t meant to come from gripping fiction but from the delicate nuance of its protagonists’ faces as they slowly come to understand that they’ve more than likely been abandoned by their mom. Director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s stellar 2004 film Nobody Knows dealt with similar subject matter, but he managed to turn a slim story into something profound, scary and moving. There are those who find those same qualities in Treeless Mountain, but to me they are always just out of reach. The two young actresses are charming and without affectation, but I can’t say they left me feeling one way or the other. As a result, Treeless Mountain is a small film that stays small. Kim is clearly talented, but between her two films she’s covered the displaced-young-person terrain more than adequately. Next time out, I’d love to see her focus more toward storytelling than on mood-setting.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.