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Nancy, Please (2012)
Great concept, middling execution
This is a superhero of a story trapped in the awkward, gangly body of a middling film.
We follow Paul, an entitled, dissipate ---but still somewhat likable--- young man taking the next step of what seems to be a charmed affluent life: great relationship, moving into a new home, good job teaching at Yale. We see him effortlessly floating through life, being passively charming, enabled by those around him (especially the women in his life). The best word to describe him is "loose", in that it characterizes his casual teaching approach, his droll engagement with others, his arm's-length distance from most things.
But this chill, hipsterish looseness begins a slow simmer and heats to an obsessive boil when he discovers that a meaningful object (his note-riddled copy of Dickens' "Little Dorrit") has been left behind in the apartment he shared with the titular Nancy, an apparent embodiment of the "difficult roommate" stereotype, of which we first learn via passing conversational exposition, a montage of selected Facebook photos, and a couple of voice mail messages.
Paul's increasingly-desperate insistence on recovering his book from Nancy is contrasted with an attempt to identify and neutralize the source of constant scurrying behind the walls of his new home's attic study, and upon his success at capturing the squirrel responsible for the latter, we witness a glimpse of the streak of cruelty he reserves for those who inconvenience him. Nancy, his main perceived antagonist, however, continues to elude him, and in his inability to get what he wants, he becomes convinced that she is willfully conspiring to ruin his life.
The film does an excellent job of presenting Paul's gradual undoing out of sheer frustration, risking the loss of everything he has in the process. But all this build-up is for naught, as his final confrontation with his nemesis is handled awkwardly and almost timidly, which minimizes the impact of suddenly thrusting us out of Paul's tiny little insular world of comfortable entitlement and into the harsh reality of other people's lives; others who are, at best, perceived to be mere pests, but at worst represent the very cause of all that is wrong with the world, others whose priorities may be quite different because their lives are quite different.
With a few stylistic enhancements and a tighter rein on the narrative, this story could have succeeded as dark psychodrama in the vein of Hitchcock or Polanski, effectively drawing in some of the inferred Dickensian contrast between the haves and the have-nots.
As it is, however, the film suffers from assuming the same standoffish stance to the material that the protagonist takes towards his enviable life, implying a certain ambivalence to the underlying social message that provides meaning to Paul's journey from annoyance to paranoia, and ultimately fails to convey what could have been a tense tightrope walk across the growing chasm separating the privileged from the rest of us.
Apartment 4E (2012)
A small but wonderful surprise
As the credits make clear, this was originally a play, and it shows: very talky, with lots of opportunity for over-the-top scenery-chewing (to which co-protagonist Nicole Beharie commits with great relish). The titular apartment is the setting for most of the proceedings, with occasional flash-backs that round out the narrative.
Beharie is amazing to watch in the role of whip-smart yet highly unstable Piper. Christopher J Domig does well in the role of the conflicted man who reaches out to her. The slow-moving narrative hinges on gradually-drawn-out revelations, all of which occur in a highly-charged environment commandeered by a very skeptical and very off-kilter young woman wielding a gun. When these revelations finally arrive, so much energy has been expended in their extraction, one anticipates a cathartic release of all the emotional tension that has been built up so far.
What does transpire is fiendishly frustrating ---in a very good way--- and must be experienced from start to finish in order to be fully savored.
This is a small jewel of a film that fits in nicely with previous works by Hal Hartley and Tom Noonan.
Devils Racecourse (2009)
OMG. This utter disaster left me breathless and amazed at the sheer magnitude of its incompetent awfulness. The acting is occasionally passable (star Anderson and co-star Gailes in particular do their level best considering the craptastic dialog which burdens them) and there are some moments of occasional near-cinematography. But wow... there is barely an attempt at stitching together a coherent narrative, even at the editing and basic continuity level (for example, scenes that track a particular character's movements, but which were clearly filmed on totally different days ---one cloudy and one sunny--- are simply slapped together as if nobody would notice).
Oh, but there's so much more: Much of the second act features a female character running through the woods wearing only a bra as a top, eluding some unknown bad guy... scene after scene after scene, we cut back to this girl, in her bra, running through the woods, eluding Unknown Dude; meanwhile, other characters who are ostensibly concerned about her whereabouts (and whom we ostensibly would care about if they weren't so obnoxious or boring) amble around or loiter about, having rambling conversations about... oh, y'know... stuff. Oh, and two of the characters are lesbians, because... well, just because. None of what we learn about any of these people has any real significance to the plot.
A hot blonde with large breasts (which have been mostly exposed during every scene she's been in) gets dispatched violently once she's finally stripped completely for a totally gratuitous, sleazy and pointless sex scene.
A promising fight scene involving Ms. Gailes and Mr. Tahoe quickly becomes a mess of choppy cuts, strongly hinting at desperate attempts to mask the absence of any legitimate fight choreography.
The big reveal ---if you can call it that--- is delivered via cryptic dialog from a character who is YELLING HOARSELY at the character he just shot repeatedly. We learn virtually nothing about the dreadful conspiracy that justifies all of this silliness, except that the government did something treacherous to someone for some reason, and 9/11 was the excuse.
What happened? Why did it happen? What was the point? Why did a by-the-numbers "kids get picked off one by one while camping in the woods" slasher B-movie get hijacked by an obtuse conspiracy thriller? Nope. Nobody knows, and really... nobody cares. It's mind-blowing that this thing even exists.
Year of the Dog (2007)
I get it. People suck. They are self-centered and shallow (Peggy's brother Pier and his wife), naive and superficial (Peggy's friend Layla), duplicitous and sleazy (Layla's boyfriend/fiancée), indulgent and callous (Peggy's neighbor Al), emotionally and/or physically unavailable (Peggy's potential love interest Newt) or just plain occluded (Peggy's boss Robin). So it makes sense that some good-hearted, love-starved people will turn to animals and their overall plight, as animals are indeed regular victims of a world that seems ---at any level deeper than merely cutaneous--- to barely function for ANY of its inhabitants, particularly its most complex denizens (who are directly responsible for its malfunctioning). I get it, because the movie sets this dysfunctional tone brilliantly: nice, sweet, kind-hearted Peggy's escalating transgressions and mental deterioration make perfect sense in that context. You root for her even as she commits criminal acts because you know it's gotta about more than just the sweet puppies and bunnies and kitties. You get it, and you can't wait for this set-up to address the far more complex fissures of which the plight of sweet puppies and bunnies and kitties are merely a symptom.
Sadly, after having grabbed you by the heart and dragged you, transfixed, for 2 acts, this dishonest, manipulative pile of garbage suddenly turns on you, and rather than biting you on the hand like Valentine the dog does to Peggy, it just spits in your eye and then proceeds to dissolve slowly into a sticky puddle of simple syrup.
Maybe writer/director Mike White chickened out once he realized exactly what he'd started, and chose to cruelly strip Peggy of a legitimate epiphany, having already dipped her in the lukewarm bath of an utterly fake ---and, frankly, preposterous--- breakdown involving excessive pet adoption. Maybe, but that may be giving him way too much credit.
I recognized the very moment the movie started lying to me, and I can't recall the last time I've experienced such bald-faced gutless abdication of emotional integrity in all my life. Mike White took a character I cared about, and whittled her down to generic, pitiful Crazy Dog Lady/Pseudo-Activist, pathetically stuffing cute little doggies and kitties and bunnies and moo-cows into the sad brittle shell of her emotional void and into the larger existential vacuum that human selfishness and negligence and superficiality creates. She, and the audience, all deserved much better.
PETA really could have used all the money wasted on this pithy nonsense to do some actual good. It would have been a far, FAR better use of that cash, and --BONUS-- then my time and emotional investment would not have been entirely wasted.