Kyle Miner
Can't Stop the Movies

Manglehorn (2015)

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Manglehorn is an ex-high school baseball coach in a small town where he now works as a locksmith. Still hung up on an old relationship, he spends his time restlessly ambling around town, caught somewhere between ambivalent sadness and impotent anger. David Gordon Green's latest features a good performance from Al Pacino, who's working from an uneven and clueless screenplay by Paul Logan.

Keys keys everywhere a keyI can't figure out David Gordon Green. His jump from super-indies like George Washington and All the Real Girls into Pineapple Express and a stint directing episodes of Eastbound and Down showed an ability to imbue aggressively improper comedy with a level of character darkness that lent depth without too much seriousness—it was a shift not telegraphed by his earlier films, but not altogether surprising either. Then the one-two punch of 2013's Prince Avalanche and 2014's Joe suggested a return to form: small, personal films characterized by tight formal control over a story engineered to play as naturalistic and meandering. This was promising, as Joe turned out to be one of the best films of the year.

All this contextualizing is an attempt on my part to qualify what has, since I watched it a few days ago, become a pretty intense distaste for Green's newest film, the Al Pacino-starring Manglehorn. Things start off well enough: Manglehorn runs a locksmith shop in a generic small town, where he's friendly and familiar with everyone he encounters—everyone from the bank tellers to old students greet him as he's out and about, referring to him simply as Manglehorn or “Coach,” exchanging generic baseball cliches. He has the ambling, soft incorrigibility of a lonely grandpa. An early scene sees him taking a call to help get a woman's child out of her locked car, and he casually, almost parentally lectures her on how she should do a better job of keeping it clean (“you gotta take care of these things,” patting the hood).


Slow West (2015)

John Maclean's Slow West

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This shore will be a trek won't itSlow West desperately wants to be a quirky, self-aware western that both embraces and subverts familiar aspects of the genre, and there were moments when I really wanted it to be that too. There's so much potential here. When I saw that Michael Fassbender and Ben Mendelsohn were going to be in a western together, I ignored the shitty trailer and imagined the kind of movie this team-up might make.

Ben Mendelsohn has the perfect face for an old-fashioned outlaw—he projects a superficial ambivalence hiding intense inner focus and menace (see his recent roles in Starred Up and Lost River, or his batshit crazy turn in Animal Kingdom, and reflect on how none of those movies did anything to deserve being mentioned in the same paragraph as Slow West). I could see him playing a really awesome Doc Holliday. Fassbender has the face and gravity to play a great Man-With-No-Name-style drifter (which is basically the role he has here), and I couldn't wait to see the two work off of each other.


The Duke of Burgundy (2015)

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A long and lonesome hallwayIf Peter Strickland's status as one of the most interesting contemporary filmmakers to emerge in the last 10 years was still in question after his first two films, Katalin Varga and Berberian Sound Studio, then A) I can't possibly see why, and B) The Duke of Burgundy puts that question to rest. Having all just gotten the unpleasant taste of 50 Shades of Grey-mania out of our mouths—no horrifying pun intended—Strickland has responded with a bondage and punishment-themed pseudo-chamber piece the art house set didn't know it wanted. If Grey tried to pass off subjugation and abuse under the guise of kink, Burgundy attempts to use models of power and control as a portal through which to interrogate the psychological effects and demands of relationships. And Strickland wisely takes the inherent inequality of gender roles out of the equation by working with an all-female cast.

Aside from a very small handful of supporting roles, The Duke of Burgundy follows Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her partner Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna) through deepening phases of their relationship, which we quickly learn (after a deliberately misleading introductory sequence) is defined by various role-playing scenarios arranged around power play and punishment. The film steers relatively clear of depicting any extreme acts—a few potentially shocking ones are left to occur off-screen—opting instead to look at the increasing gap between one character's needs and the other's limits. (That these escalations are used as ground in which to embed a persistently winding psychological tension without passing judgement or marginalizing is one of the strengths of the film). Repetition is always a key tool for Strickland, who likes to layer new and shifting meanings on recurrent visual and audio tropes, and here it's a technique used to explore the effects of the couple's various games on the overall dynamic of their relationship.


Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2015)

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Convinced the 1996 classic Fargo is a true story, Kumiko travels to the U.S. in search of the suitcase full of money buried at the end of the film. Rinko Kikuchi brings significant depth to the character of Kumiko, who may or may not be cultivating her own delusion in an attempt to avoid a socially imposed sense of failure and disappointment. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is available to watch now on Amazon and other streaming services.

Kumiko combinedKumiko, the Treasure Hunter has so much potential in its basic concept that it's surprising the resulting film is so flat. Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a young Japanese woman who becomes convinced that Fargo is a true story, and that the suitcase full of money Steve Buscemi's character buries in that movie is still waiting to be uncovered somewhere in North Dakota. This is all (loosely) inspired by an incident in 2001 in which a young woman named Takako Konishi was found dead in a field in Minnesota. A police officer who spoke to her before she died made an off-handed remark connecting a crude map she'd been carrying to the movie Fargo, and soon the media began reporting that she had taken the film to be fact, and was in the U.S. looking for the stolen Fargo money. An urban legend was formed. We haven't gotten to the movie yet—this actually happened.

With this knowledge, the first shot of Kumiko takes on a state of meta squared: the opening text of Fargo crosses the screen—“This is a true story”—now obscured by VHS tracking lines and static, in a wink back to the predominant form of mass-consumed visual media of the day. The joke of Fargo is of course that it's not in fact a true story, and the opening text is famously untrue—it's there not so much to mislead as to situate the story within a genre and its established conventions (the American “true crime” film). But here the film as a cultural artifact gains its importance only because it's (erroneously assumed to be) true. That Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter takes its basic concept from an urban legend generated by a distortion and misrepresentation of real events takes the appropriation to a different level, and would seem to comment on our willingness to believe and accept media messages.


Lost River (2015)

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Bones lives with his little brother and their mother Billy in the half-flooded town of Lost River, a scene of urban blight and decay ruled over by the sadistic Bully. When Billy must go to work in a mysterious underworld cabaret, Bones and his neighbor Rat cross paths with Bully while attempting to break a curse that has a hold on the town. Ryan Gosling's debut film, Lost River is part fairy tale, part impressionistic nightmare about our ties to the past.

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Lost River opens with a quick, chaotic montage of chalk-scribbled triple-Xs and flashes of neon signs, and its title credits are in a font that seems pulled from the front of a dime-store novel. As the credits roll, we're treated to signs of Americana—small-town houses spread far enough out to still have lawns, a young man working on restoring an old beater in the front yard—intercut with images of empty and decaying buildings, the interiors bled of color and often framed to suggest they're situated at the bottom of lengthy caverns. There's a slow, craning shot that starts on some holes broken into the roof of a theater and then slides down with the light until it's looking head-on at the ruined stage.

This shot is loaded with significance not only for how it signals the film's preoccupation with a past it can't ever quite evoke, but also for how it (perhaps unintentionally) embodies first-time director Ryan Gosling's strengths. Lost River is saturated with a feeling of dark fantasy and fairy tale, much of which comes from the raw strength of the images as signifiers dislocated from the story. Film is a visual medium, and here Gosling is pushing against our need to establish a context for imagery outside its immediate capability to evoke.