TIFF 2013 – He’s Got a Lot of Scars, But All the Others Are Dead: David Gordon Green’s JOE

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David Gordon Green is having one hell of a year. Once known for his indie dramas, the versatile actor was eventually snatched up by Hollywood when he developed a relationship with what can now be affectionately referred to as the THIS IS THE END crowd: Danny McBride, James Franco, Jonah Hill and the like. For the last five or so years, he’s been hard at work directing films like PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, YOUR HIGHNESS and an assortment of episodes for EASTBOUND & DOWN.

But over the past few months, Green has returned to his roots with a pair of exceptional – and exceptionally quiet – films set in his native Texas. The first, PRINCE AVALANCHE, was a delightfully low-key buddy-comedy starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch. Now, he follows that picture up with the perfect companion piece: JOE, starring Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan. Both films take place in the rural south, and offer complimentary perspectives on contemporary masculinity and heteronormativity, even as they come at them from opposing sides.

In PRINCE AVALANCHE, we never leave the woods where our heroes live and work. There is an overwhelming sense of isolation, often times even from one another. But this isolation is less an oppressive force than it is a liberating one: a man alone is not something to be feared, but something to be (occasionally) revered and enjoyed for its rare quality. JOE is the polar opposite of this philosophy. If AVALANCHE represents the side of the coin that is Man Alone, then certainly JOE represents Man Together: a pointed look at contemporary society and how men’s roles have shifted somewhat since the frontier days.

Because at its core, JOE is practically a modern Western, with Nicolas Cage taking the role of the beaten down sheriff. In his most impressive monologue in the film, Cage waxes nostalgic about the good ol’ days: “There’s no frontier anymore”, he laments, providing the thesis for the film. Back in the old days, a man and his pistol were all the protection a family needed. Nowadays, things are not so simple. Junkyard dogs are more common than honor and grit, and justice seems to turn a blind eye towards the big problems in favor of hunting down petty crimes. Cage’s Joe makes his stance on the subject abundantly clear: nobody is going to take personal justice out of his own hands and put it into the hands of others.

The titular character – played admirably by Cage – is a man of another time. He takes the law into his own hands, both punitively and as a figure of authority. But unlike a show like JUSTIFIED, where the rough-and-tumble, out-of-time sheriff who lives by the old code finds himself as a fish out of water in contemporary society, Joe is not alone in his thinking. Green takes great pains to show that the majority of this rural area in which Joe lives goes by his thinking. There are standoffs in bars, shootouts are an everyday occurrence and brothels are a frequent hangout spot. It is the frontier, for all intents and purposes – a small, isolated community which never outgrew its frontier days. And yet, these aren’t the old days; such a lifestyle is not sustainable. Joe has zero tolerance for police and any authority other than his own. According to him, all they do is get in the way of him doing what needs to be done. They get in the way of him being the man that he seems to think he should be – the one who protects the people close to him (including himself) by any means necessary. And this type of thinking is just not something that can be perpetually sustained in today’s society, no matter how frontier-esque it may appear.

And so we’re treated to a wide variety of Western semiotics and good-dog / bad-dog metaphors: “That dog’s a good dog”, Joe explains when young Gary (Sheridan) seems put off by the bulldog he keeps under his porch. (Hint: he’s not talking about the dog.) Later, after the dog has run away and Joe and Gary have found him by the side of the road, the kid notices that the dog is covered in scars – presumably from all the times Joe has used him to take down what he considers to be “bad dogs”. “He’s got a lot of scars,” says Gary. “Yeah, but all the others is dead,” responds Joe. (Hint two: he’s still not talking about the dog.)

At the core of the film is the relationship between Joe and Gary. Joe, who sees himself as a position of authority, comes to find himself in a paternal position, as well. Despite his girlfriend’s attempts to push him into domesticity, it takes this young boy to show Joe that being an authoritative figure, the one who takes care of people, means you have to have people to take care of. And fifteen-year-old Gary, who is the sole breadwinner of his family because of his drunken and abusive father, is a hard worker and a good dog. So Joe takes him under his wing, and will go to the ends of the earth, justice be damned, to protect him.

Green films the movie with an ambient, free-flowing kind of style, once again using the music of David Wingo (though this time collaborating with Jeff McIlwain, rather than post-rock outfit Explosions in the Sky) to superb effect. He fills it with tiny, human moments, particularly a powerful montage which includes shots of Gary’s father Wade drunkenly breakdancing in the street, as well as an absolutely devastating scene between Wade and a local, homeless drifter. Sheridan, meanwhile, continues a very strong year: following up the equally terrific MUD (not to mention his first feature in 2011, TREE OF LIFE), the young actor has established himself as one to keep on your radar.

Between JOE and PRINCE AVALANCHE, David Gordon Green has reestablished himself among the most compelling independent directors working today. A terrific, powerful film.

[A]

d.a. garabedian

Micro-Review: Judd Apatow’s THIS IS FORTY

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Judd Apatow has, over the last decade, nearly singlehandedly changed the way that comedies operate in Hollywood. Alongside his braintrust of comedic personalities and talent (similar to J.J. Abrams and the Bad Robot family), the filmmaker has continuously surprised and upset the notion of qualitative, adult-oriented, mainstream comedies. And over the course of his last couple of films (specifically on the wildly underrated, misunderstood and ambitious cancer drama about comedians, FUNNY PEOPLE), he has continued to push the limits of what is acceptable in the genre.

Sadly, things don’t quite reach those heights on his latest offering, THIS IS FORTY. A meditation on, well, aging, FORTY shows that Apatow has thankfully chosen to willfully ignore the complaints that peppered the reception of FUNNY PEOPLE: the film is still very long for its genre (at about 133 minutes), its plot meanders even more so than the schizophrenic / borderline-episodic PEOPLE and his lax-to-put-it-mildly pacing is more apparent than ever.

None of which should be construed as too much of a knock against the film, either. Apatow’s deliberate editing style and his method of simply allowing a scene to play out until it strikes some absurd (sometimes absurdly humanist and realistic) core is as welcome as ever, and it’s a delight to see that in spite of all the bellyaching, he refuses to waver on this edgy brand of emotional comedy. Because if there is one thing that Apatow understands about his films, it’s that if you populate a film with enough funny actors, give them realistically poignant material and simply leave the cameras on for them to riff in front of, you will eventually reach some hidden truth about the scene. There is no greater satisfaction from the world of comedy than seeing Leslie Mann (Apatow’s real-life wife), Paul Rudd (a Hollywood stand-in for his own place in the family unit) and Mann and Apatow’s real-life kids Maude and Iris simply existing on the screen for all to see. It’s not exactly the kind of thing that will work for everybody (as it almost evokes a kind of neo-realist brand of comedy), but for the filmmaker’s oft-kilter form of familial characterizations, it hits all the right marks.

But what really hurts the film is the (possibly intentional) lack of story. Though neo-realist comparisons might seem more apt than ever when talking about FORTY’s script, it’s glaring in a rather unwelcoming way here. In spite of Apatow’s unique ability to drill to the heart of every scene, beat and sequence, there is a distinct lack of momentum and forward propulsion to the story. Again, this might be an intentional commentary on the inherently meandering landscape of middle-aged living, but it comes across as less than satisfying on film. The movie is never boring, however, and it’s often extremely funny; it just also happens to be a film wherein not much happens and there don’t seem to be much in the way of stakes or, worse, resolutions to those stakes. This might be missing the point of the story entirely, but whereas PEOPLE seemed to have self-assured purpose in its explorative narrative, FORTY seems to be content with casual, indifferent meditation.

Apatow also wisely uses the music industry as an appropriately insightful vehicle towards comparing generations – luckily, beyond the obvious generational taste gap. Unfortunately, this idea is not explored to its full potential: apart from some generation-skipping music talk and pop-culture dichotomies, he never really gets into the meat of how traditional ideas about the economics of popular culture and art parallel middle-age. The most interesting part of the film is undoubtedly Rudd’s job as the head of an independent record label, and more focus on this particular plot would have done the movie a lot of favours in finding more cohesion.

Thankfully, Apatow populates his “semi-sequel” with a smorgasbord of delightfully hilarious actors, and even a few returning faces – even Megan Fox turns in a solid performance as Desi, though the fact that she’s half-naked for a quarter of her scenes didn’t exactly hurt either. A deep, sincere laugh is never far away at any moment during the film’s runtime, even in the middle of some of the dramatic fare towards the end.

But fair warning: if you haven’t finished the entire run of Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse’s LOST (and / or care about such things), there is a recurring, significant plot point based entirely around the end of the show, and the film spoils the final season completely. Though the plot uses the show as a cleverly-veiled meditation on the nature of mortality, I could certainly see its inclusion upsetting the spoiler-phobic.

Though it’s Apatow’s weakest film overall, THIS IS FORTY shows that the director has no interest in regressing from the more experimental filmmaking style he has adopting, and that’s certainly an encouraging fact. For some good laughs and plenty of emotional poignancy to boot, you could do worse.

7/10

Micro-Review: Jesse Peretz’s OUR IDIOT BROTHER

OUR IDIOT BROTHER is, unsurprisingly, less about Paul Rudd’s titular character and more about the people around him. Even less surprisingly is the fact that, as it turns out, Rudd’s Ned isn’t really an idiot after all – he may just be the wisest of all of the characters. Luckily, Jesse Peretz – known primarily for his comedic television work in the last few years – doesn’t hammer that fact too hard, even if the film walks a dangerously thin line in doing so. After all, everybody knows somebody who is at least a little bit like Ned: a man (or woman) whose eternal optimism and clarity of vision (despite a remarkably smoky, er, hazy facade) are as much a beacon of light as they are abrasively obtrusive for those around them.

It follows, therefore, that the film should follow not just Ned, but his entire family in almost equal measure; each character gets their own arc and almost as much screen time as Rudd, making this something of an ensemble piece. Wisely, the casting for OUR IDIOT BROTHER is impeccable – Elizabeth Banks, Adam Scott, Rashida Jones, Zooey Deschanel, Emily Moritmer and TJ Miller all round out the film, each giving their own hilarious and unique vantage point on Ned. And the more we see from the people around him, the more charming and loveable Ned becomes; though he may be the odd man out in the family, it’s not hard to wish that his natural charisma was the rule, rather than the exception.

The script never really reaches for anything too transcendent in its final act, to the film’s detriment, but that doesn’t stop OUR IDIOT BROTHER from being a very human, very funny movie. Paul Rudd’s performance is gleefully infectious, and every member of the cast helps make the film an enjoyable experience. Though not overly memorable, you could certainly do worse as far as comedies go, and Rudd is heartwarming enough to make it a worthwhile watch for just about anybody.

7/10

d.a. garabedian