Monday, April 30, 2012

Bravo pour le maitre

Georges Lopez and his youngest charges
The initial impulse of cinema verite as it was first defined in the sixties was to capture the world as it is, without artifice, virtually without a point of view.  Frederick Wiseman is the filmmaker most often cited as coming closest to that ideal, but while Wiseman doesn't narrate his films or state a thesis or deliver a canned conclusion, but he frequently lets his subjects go on at such length as to expose themselves as foolish, vain, misinformed or incompetent.  Wiseman seems to feel as though the purpose of documentary is to let the subject hang himself with his own words and acts.

Etre et avoir (2002) is not having any.  [The title was translated as, literally, "To Be and To Have" but that means nothing in English, whereas the words are the basic building-block irregular verbs of French.]  Interestingly, the film evidently began as a pedagogical exercise to document successful teaching techniques for the use of fellow professionals.  But filmmaker Nicholas Philibert found that his first subject, Georges Lopez, teaching in a one-room school in rural agricultural France was not only a maitre (the common French idiom for teacher) but a master.

What are his brilliant techniques?  What is the terminology for his instructional approach?  I have no idea.   We don't see any specific methods employed, other than the tried and true.  There is nothing for what teachers call a Professional Learning Community to chew over here.  The secret ingredient that makes Georges Lopez a great teacher?


This man loves his students like we're supposed to and often not permitted to.  He pays deep attention to each one, knows their foibles and strengths, praises them and chastises them, a true in loco parentis.  He is more than a master, he is a father, the father of our imaginations, almost endlessly patient, kind and firm.  He settles disputes, makes students keep promises, checks their work, reviews their assessments, and lets them play, imagine, draw and dream.

Lopez and the film that contains him is so serene, poised, balanced and beautiful that it should be prescribed for any emotional upset or disturbance.  A few minutes with M. Lopez, and no one could be distressed-- all is tranquility and peace.

The neutrality of the camera is a thing to behold.  There is a beautiful stillness to the empty classroom, but even with the kids in action, the camera holds back, never intruding, letting them be themselves.  There is a priceless bit of slapstick with two 6-year-olds trying to operate a large photocopy machine, as they go on and on trying to get the book set correctly on the glass, struggling to push the right button, keep the cover down, to little avail as they keep producing bungled copies, soldiering on nonetheless.

Philibert builds in no false drama.  The children will move up to the next grade, the next school in the usual way.  There are no confrontations with angry parents, no meetings with Lopez's superiors (spiritually, there are none), no extraordinary crisis.  (One child is counseled as his father goes through a terrible illness, but still part of the ordinary fabric of life, a context into which Lopez attempts to put these events for his distraught student.)

Following its own quiet ways, the film's climax comes at the end of the film, the end of the school year.  He and the children say their goodbyes, some for the summer holidays, some forever.  He is all reassurance and warmth.  And as the last one clears the threshold, Lopez suppresses the tiniest choking tear.  It's more moving than all the agony of the throbbing orchestral tones of Titanic.

Etre et avoir is a reminder of just how powerfully less can be more, in life and on film.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

As time goes by

Facial hair can indicate clinical depression
Forget five years -- 124 minutes!  There's a reason that romantic comedies, which The Five-Year Engagement (2012) is not, uniformly last 90 to 100 minutes.  The ground has been covered, no matter what it is, and once the audience has sussed out your new twist or gimmick, it's your obligation to get off the stage as quickly and entertainingly possible.

But, as previously asserted, TFYE is not a romantic comedy.  At times it is only a comedy the way Uncle Vanya is a comedy, which is one reason I regret it was directed by the crass Nicholas Stoller, whose last credit, Get Him To The Greek , was dedicated to the proposition that there is nothing funnier than Jonah Hill's butt crack.  Moreover, Mr. Stoller and Mr. Segal seemed to be so busy acting and directing that they did not notice the fairly easy cut they could have made which would have lopped off 20-25 minutes to this film and substantially improved it.

(The cut I mean is to go from Jason Segal's character learning that his fiancee has kissed her boss straight to Segal returning to San Francisco.  That would have omitted the disgusting attempted adultery-with-condiments scene and the disgusting frostbitten toe.  The Apatow crowd seems to be stuck in the pubescent phase of confusing bodily fluids and food plus a fascination with bodily mutilation.)

On the other hand, Segal and Stoller have to be applauded for trying to make something different and better, even if they didn't succeed.  The idea is that relationships are hard and don't match ideals, that we fail and fall short and we still love each other.  Not new, but needs to be repeated for each generation.

Because TFYE is really, at heart, an example of what art historian Stanley Cavell termed the "comedy of remarriage" of which Noel Coward's Private Lives is the modern progenitor. (Cavell finds its roots in Shakespearean comedy.)  In TFYE, the break-up and reunion happen in the context of an engagement, rather than requiring divorce and remarriage, but that is merely a function of changing social customs and movie censorship.  The principal is the same.  Unblemished happiness cannot survive, will not survive.  The characters must be tempered, must be chastened, punished perhaps (maybe that's why the frostbite) so that they may learn.  It might even be considered a comedy of lessons.

What makes TFYE disconcerting is that whereas Coward masks his character's pain in badinage with only the briefest of lapses revealing the truth, the characters in Segal & Stoller's script talk the way real couples having real trouble really talk.  Which is fine, except for the sort of style problems raised when such material is in juxtaposition with the Apatow brand of not just fall-on-your-prat humor, but fall-on-your-prat-in-poo-three-times-over humor.

That said, I laughed not infrequently and there is one Hall of Fame scene between Emily Blunt and Alison Brie.  They are arguing about the long engagement and marriage in front of a young child, and have therefore adopted (rather poor) imitations of Elmo and Cookie Monster, respectively to conduct the argument, which concludes, "'C' is for condom!"

One other odd element -- the cinematography of Javier Aguirresarobe, who not only has never shot a comedy before, but is responsible for some very dark horror films and thrillers (The Road, The Others, some of the Twilight films).  TFYE looked very dark, with many rollicking comedy scenes in half-shadow and the comic violence invoked real terror and pain.  Now the fact is, I saw the film in my neighborhood theater, which is a little old and shabby, and it just may have been that the projector bulb was dim and that the film is very bright and cuddly and cheerful.  But honestly, when a comedy film's characters get depressed, should you be just as depressed as well?  I sure was.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Who called Western Union?

I only became aware of Dance Girl Dance (1940) from the documentary about film preservation and the National Film Registry, These Amazing Shadows (2011). According to Wikipedia:
In 2007, Dance, Girl, Dance was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant", describing it as Arzner's "most intriguing film" and a "meditation on the disparity between art and commerce. The dancers, played by Maureen O'Hara and Lucille Ball strive to preserve their own feminist integrity, while fighting for their place in the spotlight and for the love of male lead Louis Hayward.
The inaccuracy of this plot synopsis merely demonstrates that the Library of Congress is just as bad at film criticism as most full-time professionals.  I will not recount the plot -- that would waste your time and mine.  I only have three observations to make.

First, the major motion picture studios commanded such a wealth of talent, that they could throw an incredible array of top-flight talent at B-level potboiler (and the production suggests that this was a B, although perhaps a B+, a notch above RKO's usual crime melodramas).  Besides upcoming stars Maureen O'Hara and Lucille Ball, seen in A productions at RKO, there was Louis Heyward and Ralph Bellamy, cinematographers Russell Metty (Touch of Evil) and Joe August (They Were Expendable), screenwriters Frank Davis and Tess Slessinger, who between them worked on Pride and Prejudice, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn and The Train (1964), not to mention Robert Wise as editor.  The main thing with a studio with fixed personnel costs was to keep the most people busy at the same time, so even RKO, the least stable of the studios which owned theaters, had such excess capacity as to engage this level of talent on a programmer.

Which is my second point.  The film is not groundbreaking, and fact it's message seems rather confused.  Does Lucille Ball's willingness to sell herself, not to the highest bidder but the fastest one, make her a strong independent woman or a two-dollar whore?  Is Maureen O'Hara's modesty about her talent naive humility or brutal honesty?  Is Louis Hayward a good guy with a drinking problem or he is a user?  None of this is made clear in the back-and-forth story which feels like it went through rewrites by people who hadn't read all of the previous draft.

And finally, the moments in the video I've embedded above are probably the only historically valuable moments in the film.  The situation is that Lucy Ball is a burlesque star (a Hollywood burlesque star in that she sings a G-rated dirty song and never takes any clothes off) who has hired her frenemy Maureen O'Hara as a stooge to dance some ballet steps and get booed by the audience until she is yanked off and Ball comes on.  (The plot of The Night They Raided Minksy's merges those two characters into one)  One night, things go differently, and Judy (O'Hara) stops and makes with this startling speech about The Male Gaze.  Yet, strong as it is (especially the power of a 19-year-old Maureen O'Hara), it comes virtually out of nowhere.  The film doesn't prepare much for this outburst, nor does it follow up its consequences.  Sincere, no doubt, on the part of Ms. Arzner and Miss Schlesinger (who was Mrs. Frank Davis), but pasted in, almost like a bookmark indicating another different film that they would have liked to make, if circumstances permitted.

There are two types of classic Hollywood film buffs, the "Great Old Days" fans, who revel in "good old-fashioned entertainment" like Casablanca and The Wizard of Oz and those of us who have binged on this stuff so thoroughly that, willy nilly, we have become students as interested in the missteps and almosts as the unquestioned triumphs.  Dance Girl Dance is only for the latter, and maybe only for the three minutes embedded above.

Although I had forgotten that Louis Hayward had a marvelous voice.  Have you ever seen The Return of Monte Cristo?

Friday, April 27, 2012

High kickin' it Old School

I'm not sure how I missed At Long Last Love (1975) when it first came out -- I was in college, I was a big fan of its director Peter Bogdanovich, who had pulled a hat trick with The Last Picture Show (1971), What's Up Doc (1972) and Paper Moon (1974), and had the time and inclination to see almost everything that came out, or at least that was showing in nearby South Hadley, Mass.  For all I know, it never arrived in Western Massachusetts, as it was savaged by the critics, (who it would have needed in order to succeed) got a reputation as a mega-flop (although it wasn't that expensive), was slightly recut, quickly played off and disappeared.  The devastation was so complete, that the film still has never received a homevideo release.  The clips floating around are evidently homevideo air checks, like the rather fuzzy potpourri I've embedded above.

I just caught up with it on Netflix, although it will be expiring soon from that site.  The good news for buffs is that it will finally get a legitimate home release and we can have a debate about its merits or lack thereof on an equal footing.  The rather interesting story of how the film was rediscovered and partially restored is told here, but in short, an employee of the Fox Archives who liked the movie, restored some cut material and circulated that version as the standard television cut.  No one, not even the director, is calling it a lost masterpiece, but it is not at all as bad as its reputation.

The bad

-  There is no story.  Really.  Two couples, switch partners Shakespeare-style, and the servants chase each other in the pantry.  End of synopsis.  Evidently screenwriter Bogdanovich is one of those people who became so enamored with the sheer spectacle of people singing and dancing on film, they failed to observe that is only interesting over the length of a feature if one is engaged in their characters, and if the songs reflect the inner narrative.  This is even true of the Fred-and-Ginger whose stories are often dismissed as piffle.  Piffle they may be, but a great deal of energy was put into keeping the lovers apart, so that when they could be together and especially dance together, the relief of tension was palpable.  The conventions of romantic comedy and/or farce may not be dramatically intense, but they will suffice to support the tension-and-release contours that drive the musical.  Just as 1 is infinitely greater than 0, so a "light story" is infinitely more substantial than no story at all.

-  Diulio DelPrete has no business in this movie.  He's not terrible, but he doesn't sing, dance, perform comedy or possess either sex appeal or charisma sufficient for him to belong in a quartet with Cybill Shepherd, Burt Reynolds and Madeline Kahn.  It's no disgrace to him.  I don't belong in that company, either, but so far, Hollywood has shown immensely good sense by not co-starring me in major films.

-  Madeline Kahn is permitted to sing under pitch, which she had a tendency to do if not curbed.  Burt Reynolds frequently tries to mask his lack of ability by slurring and sliding around, but he's not as bad as he thought, and should have been encouraged to sing his songs straight.

- The choreography is uninspiring and ill-considered, a problem compounded by the lack of dancers.  Stage veteran Eileen Brennan is at least relaxed in comparison to the rest of the cast, but Bogdanovich's model, Lubitsch (more about that later) dispensed with choreography, and Mr. B should have considered it.

- The first scene and song of the movie are terrible, Kahn sings it "drunk" and it takes quite a while for the film to recover.  I am sure this really hurt during its initial theatrical release.  Everyone experienced knows how critical it is for the first number to not only land just right, but to define the show.  Think of "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof, "Rock Island" from The Music Man, "Racing With The Clock" from Pajama GameA Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum almost closed in infamy until it changed its opening number.

The good:

-  Cybill Shepherd sings very well, on key and with a well-controlled vibrato to give her notes a good finish.  Often the only way she can sing high notes is loudly, but that doesn't mean they are piercing or off-key, they're just not subtle.  Her dancing is a little studied, it's true, but,as discussed above, no one in this film is dancing with carefree abandon.

- Bogdanovich's controversial decision to do live recording on the set gives the musical performances an authenticy and a sense of reality that breathes a great deal of energy into the film.  Instead of the overly-processed sound of a voice pressed up against a microphone, we feel the entire space that the performer is in, and (unlike present theater, where everything is now miked) it makes a difference which way a performer is facing, or if they leave or enter a room.  Some of the traveling shots with music are applause-worthy.

-  Similarly, the long uninterrupted takes hand control of the musical performance back to the performer.  Yes, this would be a better idea if the two romantic leads had had more experience at these things, but it doesn't negate the principal that this is the right way to stage and shoot musical numbers.

-  The Porter numbers are great, there's a number of little-known, but top-drawer songs and the music direction overall is just fine.  Not infrequently, a song ends, then resumes a few minutes later reaching into that enormous lower drawer full of extra verses that Porter always seemed to write.  This is a film for fans of song lyrics, even when the lyrics don't suit the characters or the situation all that well.

-  The production design is clean, satirical (clearly it is poking fun at the "Big White Set" seen in later musicals of the 1930's), lavish without being overpowering in that "70s period movie" way.

Why did it take such a beating?

-  It's not perfect, and parts of it are not good at all.  (Although most of it is entertaining.)

-  Many critics seem to feel Bogdanovich had been overpraised (often by those very critics) and it was time to lower the boom.  Musicals are always a sitting duck for these things. (e.g. New York, New York).

-  The low standards of film history in 1975.  Most critics thought  At Long Last Love was meant to be a gloss on or an homage to the Astaire-Rogers series.  After all, those were musicals made in the 30s, right?  Few of them had the knowledge or the thought to realize that Bogdanovich's models were the MacDonald - Chevalier or even MacDonald - Buchanan musicals of the very early sound period.  First of all, that should have been obvious because by the time Astaire entered the movies, musicals were shot to playback, not with live recording on the set.  That idea by itself sets the model back to the 1929-1931 period, when musicals were either the godawful 100% talking 100% singing 100% dancing "let's-get-everybody-in-the-studio-in-this-thing" revues, a sprinkling of transcriptions of Broadway shows like Rio Rita and The Cocoanuts, or the witty Lubitsch musicals.  Again, Reynolds and Shepherd confuse the issue, as they resemble none of the actors in Bogdanovich's models, although butler John Hillerman and personal maid Eileen Brennan do.

The point is, ALLL got panned for not being a Fred & Ginger movie, when it had no intention of being one.  It's like criticizing me for my embroidery work.  (Which I would call pointless if I was inclined toward puns.)

Neither a mass market pleaser nor caviare to the general, At Long Last Love rewards the curiosity of anyone with interest in and knowledge of movie and stage musicals.  And, really, it its present age of 37 years, it really can't hurt anyone.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

House of Wax

DiCaprio & Hammer with slabs of veal glued to their faces.
There is one moment in which Leonard DiCaprio is completely convincing as the titular character in J. Edgar (2011).  It comes toward the end when a stricken Clyde Tolson discovers Hoover stretched out on the floor, white, tubby and lifeless.  I've seen some dead bodies in my time, and in my opinion, Leonardo completely nailed it.

I'm not sure why anyone is still producing these movies from the Madame Tussaud school of filmmaking.  We no longer believe their mythmaking--books of popular biography provide more and better information for those who are interested in historical characters.  For the general public, one needs to cook up a new angle, a fresh scandal or a new interpretation.  My Week With Marilyn tells an untold story, gives us a new window into Marilyn (and into Sir Larry as well) which, together with Michelle Williams' performance, justifies yet another Monroe go-round.

There is nothing remarkable or new in J Edgar, and that includes DiCaprio's predictable performance.  Hampered by the worst make-up since Billy Crystal in Mister Saturday Night, DiCaprio demonstrates no deep understanding about how older people move and think.  He still looks like a boy, albeit a puffy boy, wearing grown-up clothes and acting "old" like the other kids in the school play do, but without having actually done the hard work of thinking through how the moving parts of the body age.  It is utterly mysterious to me how DiCaprio became a Master Actor, playing leads for Scorsese, including the even more inapt Howard Hughes.  Kevin Spacey is a master actor.  William H Macy, Gary Oldman, Ryan Gosling, Stanley Tucci, Paul Giamatti (who would have been a great Hoover if he'd had a good script) are Master Actors.  They make startling choices.  They have supple, expressive voices and eyes.  DiCaprio is well-intentioned, but never surprising, never fresh and rarely authentic.

But even if he were good, he would still be in stuck in a film that no one had taken the trouble to decide what it was about.  It spends most of its time rehearsing the well-known public outlines of Hoover's life, the Palmer Raids, the gangster era, the Lindbergh baby, the Commie hunts, the conflict with the Kennedys.  This is bad TV movie stuff (and executed in exactly that fashion) and utterly unnecessary.  The interesting, juicy stuff between Hoover and alleged lover Clyde Tolson is based virtually entirely on speculation.  Mixing this together indiscriminately with documented fact renders the entire film unreliable and therefore unengaging.  Better to have fabricated everything and focused solely on Hoover's domestic arrangements, with perhaps a nod to the hypocrisy of his public crusades, than to have jumbled docudrama and "drama" drama.  Nonetheless, the question of Hoover's possible homosexuality is neither settled nor explored, so why bring it up at all?  Where a film like Secret Honor is willing to make up the entire inner monologue of Richard Nixon's tortured soul; likewise Oliver Stone's films, especially Nixon and W dare to invent their psychodrama, much as Shakespeare would project his own dramatic ideas onto the House of Lancaster, whether or not those ideas fit the facts.  J Edgar is afraid to veer from the public record, and is stuck with a central character who is too repressed and tight-lipped to enlighten us, or, more sadly, himself.

Meryl Streep attempts to let her dental appliance do the acting.
The larger point is that you can't tell a story unless you've decided on a story to tell, which is also the problem with The Iron Lady (2011).  At least it has a bit of a performance, although it is not clear what it is that Meryl Streep is supposed to be doing when she is not doddering around as the dementia-ridden remnant of the feared Margaret Thatcher.  Much of the obligatory "rise to power" sequence is handled by another actress, as we are not expected to accept Meryl Streep as a young woman in her 20s anymore.  So Streep only handles a portion of the flashbacks, but as in J Edgar, it's hard to see what they're getting at.  Thatcher's only motivation to enter public service seems to be to emulate her adored father, small businessman and chamber-of-commerce leader.  Thatcher brings a nearly fully-formed political philosophy to bear, but we never see whwere it came from, how it started or how it evolved.

Art Tatum is my favorite jazz musician.  He might be my favorite musician period.  No one will ever make a story of his life.  At least I hope they don't.  Because Art Tatum arrived as an artist complete and completely sui generis.  His influences are minimal and generic, and the people he influenced few (because few have the technical skill).  His style shifted slightly with the advent of bebop -- he added some extended chords to his toolbox, but there is no mistaking Tatum for anyone else, from his first recording in 1932 or so and his last in 1956.  Great art.  Great, great art, but no story.

The worst thing about spending a lot of time with a person experiencing advanced stages of dementia is that it is very repetitive.  I doff my hat to writer Abi Morgan's fidelity to this painful subject, but major points off for sheer boredom.  If there was anything to say about the dementia, if it was related to Thatcher's career, if there was some metaphoric connection, perhaps maintaining a Conservative outlook requires a bit of amnesia, I don't know, something.  But let's face it, dementia happens to lots and lots of people and there is not anything dramatic about it.  If Michael Phelps gets arthritis, you've got a story.  If Truman Capote, who loved nothing better than to loll on a sofa, gets it -- not much story.  So Streep does her best bent old lady wobble, but so what?  (The Academy Award given to Streep should have gone to the costume designer, the wigmaker and whoever swiped those front teeth from the corpse of Alistair Sim.)  Did somebody think that famous people don't experience the ordinary infirmities of old age?

And why, for heaven's sake, is so much running time given to it?  Were we supposed to have trouble figuring out that husband Dennis isn't really there, it's just in her mind?  (Jim Broadbent was clearly hired in order to repeat what he won an Oscar for in Iris.)  Got that in the first speech, thank you, we saw The Sixth Sense.  So if there is no twist to come, why does that go on and on.  And if she's senile, how can she be accurately remembering her entire political career?  Wouldn't she remember it wrong?  Wouldn't Michael Foot be wearing a chicken suit and Parliament turning into a disco?  As in J Edgar, why the dry factoid rehearsal of her life story without any comment or perspective?

I mean really, why?  I hope nobody expected to get rich on these films.  They're sure not going to get any drama or insight.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Fresh meat

First feature films, especially independent films,  have such distinct qualities in comparison with other films that they might almost comprise their own genre.  

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) feels accomplished beyond its writer-director's resume because of his adherence to a couple of simple principles.  First, Dance With The Fella What Brung Ya.  For genre directors, that means you must obey the rules of your stated genre.  You can include other elements, you can stretch the borders, but sooner or later you must satisfy audience expectation.  For a more nuanced drama like M4, that means ruthlessly adhering to the spine of the film, not being distracted by other interesting related ideas.  It requires confidence that you will make another film, that you do not have to cram every possible idea and every directorial skill into this, your one testimonial to the world.  Because if you do make only one film, like Charles Laughton with Night of the Hunter or Leonard Kastle with The Honeymoon Killers, your discipline and fidelity to the central idea of your film will ensure that you are remembered as a great filmmaker, even with only one directorial credit in your obituary.  

Thus M4 sticks to its one powerful idea using one powerful structural device.  A young woman, stunningly played by Elizabeth Olsen, has escaped from a cult and found refuge with her somewhat distant sister.  In the cult, as in most cults, the leaders have erased any awareness of time.  There are no clocks or calendars around, no time-based goals, no sense of an end of something approaching, no promise of something new to start.  So director Sean Durkin has engineered a film which seamlessly blends past and present in the mind of Martha, so that the implied threat of the cult never really fades away, no matter how long Martha spends in her new haven.  Rarely has a film subsisted so completely on a diet of suspense without offering any sort of clear timeline; the result borders on a horror film, so terrifying is what Martha has escaped.

The other principle that Durkin has observed, at least from the point of view of a person who can only view the finished film and not the process of creating it, is forging a strong alliance with a talented and dedicated director of photography.  For someone who has not been involved in filmmaking, it is impossible to understand how key the selection of a DP is, and how important it is for director and DP to develop an intuitive collaboration.  On the most practical level, the DP is the single greatest determinant as to whether you will finish your film, finish on schedule and have coherent footage you can cut together.  But past those rudimentary considerations, the DP determines whether the movie will look like the movie you have in your head or, if you're lucky, better than that movie.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is the most striking looking independent film this year.  It may be that great noir texture is only possible on 35mm, with bold asymmetrical framing and strong key lighting that would make Edward Hopper weep in recognition.  Durkin and DP Jody Lee Lipes stage a number of scenes in a single take with a locked-off camera, an approach seen mostly in Jarmusch films or from the first year of talkies.  The result is not stasis, but a feeling of inherent tension fixed within the boundaries of the frame.  Instead of fearing some surprise from outside the camera's view, the threat seems to hover inside it, from the unexpected action of a character.

The frame above is a nice example of Lipes's effects.  It looks underexposed, but only in the sense that Gordon Willis movies are underexposed.  Faces move in and out of the light, mostly in shadow and intentions and feelings must be sussed out by the audience from subtextual hints.

It's not a masterwork, but it is assured, consistent and reliable with a dead perfect ending,  and it announces Durkin, Lipes and Olsen as artists to seek out in future.  And M4 also benefits from the reliably creepy John Hawkes, who is also seen in Higher Ground (2011), the directing debut of actress Vera Farmiga, based on a real-life memoir.  Like Martha Marcy, it centers around a woman trying to shed a belief system.  It also takes place in an underexamined rural America, not in the heartland, but in upstate New York. 

Is it possible Farmiga remembered these rural New York locations from Down to the Bone, not to mention that film's DP Michael McDonough, who also shot Winter's Bone?  This time out McDonough is asked to work with a sunnier palette, mostly insuring that all the actors' performances are seen clearly.  This is an actors' film, especially in comparison with Martha Marcy and vacillates in style and tempo, which we can presume is intended to mirror the spiritual vacillation of the central character played by Farmiga.  I will leave aside the spiritual struggle that drives the narrative; the film itself is set in a concrete world of making ends meet, of trying to keep marriages and best friends alive.  That materiality keeps the film from spiraling into a pointless debate about faith, which ultimately defies visualization and dramatization.

Fireflies in the Garden (2008) relies on that staple of independent film, the family psychodrama, complete with controlling father, enabling mother and siblings differing on how to handle them.  There are some minor variations, but nothing to explain how writer-director attracted Willem Dafoe, Ryan Reynolds, Hayden Panatierre, Carrie-Anne Moss, Emily Watson and above all, the non-indie Julia Roberts to this fairly routine run-through of the land between Cheever and Salinger.  Once again, Kingston, New York is on display, leading one to wonder if there hasn't been some kind of big tax dodge going on in Ulster County over the past few years.  I don't feel as if I can make definitive observations about this film, as the internet reports that 30 minutes and a music score have been cut from the film between 2008 and 2011, the year of the US release on DVD, which is how I saw the film.  The worst thing I can say about it is that it has a fatal sense of restraint and good taste.  Usually, I like those things, but dammit, I could have used some full-on weirdness and grossness to shake this film out of its well-made torpor.  

What finally sinks it is that it is a film about writers, and much of it is based on an argument about writing.  College professor Dafoe looks down on son Ryan Reynolds who writes popular romance novels.  The son's disgrace as a boy revolves around the attempted appropriation of the title poem by Robert Frost.  There is a barely-articulated argument about what is considered good writing.  And when has that ever been a good subject for a film.  At least if they were painters, we'd see their paintings.  Writers are pretty much non-starters as film characters.

And Roberts appears so briefly and for such over-dramatic reasons that it smacks of stunt casting so that her name and face could be put on the video package.  

All first films are calling cards, but some demonstrate real promise as filmmakers, and some demonstrate a future as hucksters and hype artists.  But that's better than no talent at all.