Monday, December 23, 2013

Madadayo, Used DVD's! - #1: Lynn Shelton's MY EFFORTLESS BRILLIANCE

And now on to what my previous 'Something's Coming' post is all about: a new review series!  For the present, this will be capped at fifty titles, and what it's about is this - in the next couple of months, I'm expunging many of my DVD's.  I'm keeping around those that I may be worth something, or I have a sentimental attachment or can't be replaced (Goodfellas, you stay right where you are).

But for many of the DVDs in my collection, they were used titles that I picked up from the now rotting corpse that is Blockbuster.  And many of those titles I have yet to see, through lack of effort, time (that's the biggie), or just picking up a title that on the spur of the moment looked interesting and then suddenly get it home and realize 'what did I almost step in?'  Other times, a title looks mildly entertaining, and costs just little enough to be worth it.

I've discovered that I own about fifty titles that have not graced my eyes and ears, and I've decided that instead of simply just copying them and getting rid of them (either throwing them out, or, as I'm doing with many of my other DVDs and films I've seen that I actually am copying before they move on to their new owners), I'll do what they were meant to do: be spun around like a record at 88 miles per hour, and consumed into my solar plexus.  And for each title, every day (that is the goal, let's see if I can keep it up), I'll spout out a review of such a film.  If I miss a day maybe I'll make up for it with a double shot of TWO films the next day.  Or just play catch up at some point.

Consider it my long goodbye to a place like Blockbuster (I didn't pick up ALL the titles from the venue I should admit, but most of them are from the establishment that died a slow and painful death, partially deservedly).  And as for the films themselves... some are by great and/or established directors (a little taste of what's to come: Kathryn Bigelow, Tom Twyker, Abel Ferrara, the Duplass') and others are... sub-par Nic Cage films and Christian Slater vehicles.  But I'll give ever title my undivided attention (unless I gotta rush to the bathroom, which happens), and put forth a review of varying length.  Oh, and by the way, the 'Madadayo' up top is translated as "NOT YET!" and was the name of Akira Kurosawa's final film (apt title).

So, let's see how this goes, shall we? 

Lynn Shelton's second feature film (I mistakenly thought it was her first, it has the appearances of it, but before this she made another little character piece called We Go Way Back in 2006) is 'about' a writer Eric Lambert Jones (always gotta have three names, played by musician Sean Nelson) lost with what to do with himself after his latest book comes out and deciding to go out to see an estranged friend Dylan (Basil Harris) who lives out in a cabin in the woods of Washington.  It's a bit awkward at first - Eric says in a simple, 'hey it's nothing', voice that he drove four hours to get there, got Dylan's address by going to his office, and got lost on the way there.  Oh, and can he stay there for a day or two?  Sure, why not?

This awkward tension between males and their sense of themselves and others, how they as many of us could say the truth about something but tap-dance around it, find other words to fill in, is where Shelton's eye and ear for comedy come in.  It would get into full bloom in her film Humpday made a year later about a couple of 'bros' who decide, oh, let's shoot a gay porno.  My Effortless Brilliance doesn't really have that kind of a hook, where you tell someone the premise and eyes widen up and you rush out to get a copy.  But it's a good trial run, and displays some attention at the simple (but sometimes difficult) act of showing character talking naturally on screen.

The film has all of the actors credited as writers.  This is something of a staple of the "Mumblecore" movies - see works by Joe Swanberg or the Duplass brothers for more details - where everything is improvised to the point where a sense of generosity comes in (and not giving a damn, or perhaps really submitting to, the requirements of the WGA).

After all, if all the actors, even those in one scene like when a female interviewer (a very good Jeanette Maus) is gushing over Eric's books and flirting before revealing she has a boyfriend in casual conversation, are making it up as they go along, is that not 'writing'?  I don't know quite what the process was for Shelton, if she went the Apatow route (have some semblance of a script and make up stuff on set) or Scorsese (improv only in rehearsal and then on set the script is God), or another method (one I suspect) which is that she had an outline, knew this or that where to go, and everything else in this movie was loose to the breeze.

It certainly feels that way, which is both a plus and a negative here.  She sets up a simple conflict, but it's one that the actors set up pretty well: Dylan tells Eric straight out he's an asshole (it's one of those moments that's painfully funny, mostly for Eric's blank-but-taken-aback expression) and they seemingly don't talk again until Eric's impromptu appearance at the cabin, where Dylan has another friend there helping him chop wood (Calvin Reader).  The idea I would think is that the two guys confront their problems with themselves and each other.  There is *some* of this, briefly, as the three of these dudes get drunk in the cabin, wax awkwardly about Bukowski and there's a small argument about how Dylan and Eric have taken their respective careers as a journalist and writer respectively.

This scene feels like it's about to lead to something explosive... and then a detour comes up as Jim, leading the way (I think it was Jim, the one without a beard), leads the way in a drunken frenzy - there's a cougar apparently out in the woods, and in a Wake in Fear type of decision they decide to go out and kill it... in the middle of the night.  This isn't at first a bad turn of story, but it goes nowhere, except, I think, to show Eric and Dylan becoming better friends again.  There wasn't enough *there* there, however, in how quickly things seem to have made up.  Or if things have been patched at all.

The acting is fine, especially by Sean Nelson and Basil Harris, who really could have had their own film together Godot-style and it would have been captivating.  They have a good friendly chemistry (even, or because, they are sometimes awkward in not quite knowing what to say or aproaching the truth in how their characters feel).  The natural-part of the mumblecore aesthetic here isn't an issue.  But it's almost too short - there could be more here, the second half just feels rushed in a way - and at the same time what's here isn't enough to sustain the premise.  Among the crop of these hand-held chronicles of men at crossroads, it's not as aimless as something like Old Joy (where one, if memory serves, just watches two guys in a sauna for half an hour).

Art Garfunkel's little brother
 Shelton and company do get at the conflict here, and in the process mine some awkward laughs, even out of something as simple as Eric's sorta-frightened reaction to reading a book about spiders in the cabin.  Little observances in this film, like in the set-up as Eric is trying to 'write' but BS-es more often than not, are splendid and feel true.  But it's too aimless when it should get going bigger emotionally speaking.  Perhaps Shelton learned from this, or wanted to go for more, when Humpday came around, which has that epic last third with the two men in the motel room.  For what it is, though, My Effortless Brilliance is a partially slight, pleasant diversion with some guys in the woods unsure what to do with themselves or their lives.


It also has a fun Dracula reference.  No spoilers on that, goodness knows. 

PS: Two friends named Eric and Dylan.... hrm... where have I heard that before...

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