large_u1b4fzVmGMg7SChNB5r7rAw8oZAResults is one of the most creative, honest romantic comedies made recently. It follows the story of personal trainer Kat (Cobie Smulders), a driven and determined trainer who also has anger issues that are not quite under her control or even completely acknowledged by her yet. Kat works for Trevor (Guy Pearce) the founder of Power 4 Life, a gym that fashions itself a lifestyle, complete with a philosophy for life, with Trevor at the forefront. Though he fancies himself a guru, Trevor also seems unaware of his character flaws. He believes so deeply in his own Soul 4 Life philosophy, he takes himself seriously to a fault.

Into this mix, arrives Danny (Kevin Corrigan, in a wonderfully tic-filled performance with excellent comedic timing), a New Yorker that has recently moved to Austin, Texas, after inheriting a large sum of money. Danny is an odd character but brutally honest and self-aware –a stark contrast to Trevor. Danny shows up at the gym, and he is unable to articulate clearly what he wants. His life seems to be out of control, and when asked by Trevor what his goals are, he just says, “I just want to be able to take a punch.”

Kat starts to train Danny, which soon becomes painfully awkward. Danny is extremely uncomfortable in his own skin but at least ties to connect with people. He quickly develops an attraction for Kat. Danny’s half-empty mansion and his own life philosophy creates a disconnect between him and Kat, who tries to encourage him during personal training sessions but makes no inroads with him. Coaxing her with a drink and some weed after a session, he steals a kiss. The next day, he finally goes after her, and she goes into a full-on anger fit, to which Danny responds, “This is not making me any less attracted to you.”

Results

Results is the latest feature-length film by Andrew Bujalski. After the trippy existentialist journey into vintage artificial intelligence (Film Review: Computer Chess reveals the mystical in the cyber),  Results brings him back to exploring romance in all its awkward glory through intriguingly flawed characters. While he was known to be at the forefront of the mumblecore movement (An Essential Guide to Mumblecore), which now seems like a passé categorization, the writer/director has grown into an insightful storyteller with characters that resonate because of their failings. Previous films such as Funny Ha Ha (2002), featuring a young woman who stumbles to find meaningful connections in post-collegiate limbo, explored emotional struggles that were verbalized in less than articulate terms. Bujalski soon became more refined. Mutual Appreciation (2005), where an ambivalence about long-term commitment drove the action, still stands as one of his strongest works. It’s a perfect example of this subtle character-driven narrative.

In Results, the action is also driven by each of the characters’ own failings, which provides a sort of meta-narrative of the unspoken motivations that drive the action: confusion and love. While mumblecore was known for its natural acting, it is now clear that Bujalski is exposing something deeper than natural acting, he is showing the complex interplay between action seen, spoken and felt, through a patient eye that finds the humanity in people, even they’re gym rats.

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This character-driven approach stands out in Results, and gives the movie an interesting shape, rather than the formulaic boy-meets-girl device so familiar in Hollywood films. Smulders and Pearce give magnificently modest life to Kat and Trevor. They spar, argue, get mad at each other but otherwise seem incapable of truly expressing what they feel for one another. It is suggested early in the film that they had a fling, although by the time we catch up with them, they seemed to have figured out that their liaison was unprofessional. However, their interactions are marred by that comfortable/uncomfortable dialectic that starts to really make sense the more we learn about the couple.

For a romantic comedy, Results is also very funny in a smart way. Bujalski has created a deep narrative about relationships that is character-driven. Bujalski’s approach is delicate and kind; the funny moments come from the collision of all three characters, as they stumble through articulating their emotions. For instance, when Danny meets Trevor, he notices a poster in his office and reads it out loud, “Fear, excuses, surrender.” Trevor seems perplexed. It turns out the poster was actually blocked by something else that Trevor removes revealing the full poster that reads: “No fear, no excuses, no surrender.” The contrast between the two characters is stark, and it foretells many obtusely comedic moments scattered throughout this subtle, yet powerful, film.

Ana Morgenstern

Results runs 105 minutes and is rated R (for weed use, sex, profanity). It opens in our Miami are on June 12 at the Bill Cosford Cinema on the Coral Gable campus of the University of Miami. Results has already opened in some cities and is scheduled to open in select cities at later dates. For current playdates, visit this page. All images are courtesy of Magnolia Pictures, who also provided a screener link for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

white-god-posterCoupled with several striking film stills taken from the best moments of the movie (just look at the poster), the concept sounds interesting:  In some alternate dimension of contemporary Hungary, owners of mixed-breed dogs are heavily taxed, making these dogs highly undesirable as pets. The kennels are full and the streets are overrun by these “mutts,” as they are derisively referred to by those who hate them. But what happens when these undesirable animals band together in a revolt against those who have abandoned them? With its atonal script and simplistic rationalization that defies genuine logic, White God devolves into melodrama and schlock, betraying any earnest intention for allegory.

I hate questioning a movie’s logic. I’ve always thought it unfair to judge a film against “real life,” especially a fantasy film like White God. But too often this movie features twists in the plot and tonal inconsistencies that challenge the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, which is so crucial to a viewer’s investment in cinema. In order to specify how this movie stumbles, I might reveal some spoilers, but it’s fair in order to understand why this film fails to deliver and may disappoint some with high expectations.

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White God‘s problems mostly stem from the clumsily written script by director Kornél Mundruczó and co-writers Viktória Petrányi and Kata Wéber. There are stretches in metaphors, from the film’s title to an early scene in a meat factory that shows the gruesome disembowelment of a cow’s carcass. There are also glaring plot holes that will lead many viewers to question simple details. The first of which has to be why a divorced mother would leave her daughter and the child’s mixed-breed dog with her ex-husband and fail to pay the dog’s taxes while she takes off on a three-month research trip. It’s conveniently overlooked plot points like this that appear too often throughout the film that will take the critical mind out of what should have been a better written film.

Thirteen-year-old Lili (Zsófia Psotta) loves her sweet, big dog Hagen (played by Luke and Bodie), but her father Dániel (Sándor Zsótér) can’t stand him. A neighbor, conveniently standing on the stairs of their apartment building as Dániel brings Lili and the dog home, confronts the father about the dog. After the neighbor makes up a lie that the dog bit her, an inspector pays them a visit. Fed up with the inconvenience of Hagen, Dániel takes Lili and her pet for a drive, leaving Hagen far from their home. Hagen, alone, then becomes the focus of the film, and for a nice while one of the film’s most impressive aspects shines: the animals. Hagen befriends an adorable Jack Russell Terrier 7(Marlene) that takes the lead in protecting Hagen from a large pack of dogs and shows him how to survive on the streets. During a section of the film that relies upon the gestures of the animals and the film’s editing above words, Mundruczó establishes a heart-warming dynamic that’s thrilling to watch unfold. The dogs have wonderful character, and when the cameras roam with them, from either way above, revealing their impressive numbers, or down below in the streets of Budapest, viscerally connecting the viewer with their claws and huffing and puffing, the film stands at its strongest. But these moments are too fleeting and hardly add up to a movie. More often than not, it feels like the director is straining to hold together his concept, putting Hagen through the ringer when encountering cartoonish versions of human beings, even putting the pooch in the clutches of a dog fighter who trains him to kill, a skill that Hagen will inevitably twist against humanity.

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Even though the film is at its best in wide shots featuring the dogs running in a pack of well over a hundred canines, I could not help getting over the feeling that I have already seen it done more impressively. When White God premiered in Miami last month at the Miami International Film Festival, there was also a Miami-made documentary called The Holders, whose title refers to people who are all too eager to give up their pets to shelters because they have become inconvenient. At the end of the film, we meet animal lovers in Costa Rica who have gathered and healed up hundreds of strays, herding them in the countryside, as if they were sheep. There was something poetic about the extended, unstaged scenes of the massive pack of dogs rushing through streams and winding their way through trees, but it also resonated in ways that White God falls short. It’s something to see if you get a chance. The film has no distributor, but director Carla Forte says she is submitting the movie to festivals now, so if you want to stay posted about upcoming screenings, “like” the film’s Facebook page (Facebook/TheHolders).

Unlike The Holders‘ finale, White God falls most ruinously apart at the end. Any build up toward an allegorical statement is subverted by the film’s third act when the dogs go on the rampage that a flash-forward at the start of the movie has built up to. What should have been the film’s boldest, most evocative moment,4 deteriorates to simple horror movie schlock featuring cheap effects out of a low-budget ’80s horror movie and a very convenient path of revenge by Hagen. It’s hard to sympathize with the killing machine hell-bent on carving such a convenient path to avenge all who have wronged or tried to wrong him.

White God will insult the intelligence of any adult drawn to the film’s allegory. Every peripheral character who deserves their comeuppance gets their due in gory confrontations with the killer dogs, but so what? Since when is simple, gut-pummeling revenge an answer to any problem? Though Lili finds a way to halt the rampage in a manner that will translate to another heavy-handed metaphor, no one is left alive to learn anything. The dogs certainly are not rising above the mastering of the humans by killing them. The film’s logic is fine for children, but too bad it has to be so violent. Moreover, righteous revenge as blunt solution does nothing to solve the supposed problem of the downtrodden. These dogs simply become ISIS on four legs. Any endearment is lost and the heavy-handed finale falls disappointingly flat in its contrivance. Though, again, it ends in a striking image, it takes more than superficial stunts to make White God work.

Hans Morgenstern

White God runs 119 minutes, is in Hungarian with English subtitles and is not rated (there’s some serious violence against and by doggies). It opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque in Miami-Dade County and the Cinema Paradiso – Hollywood in Broward County in our South Florida area. If you live elsewhere and are looking for screening details in your town, visit this page. Magnolia Pictures provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. It first premiered in Miami at the Miami International Film Festival.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

To the Wonder posterI went into To the Wonder with hopeful expectations. I felt moved by Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and its take on life and death and mourning with grace. It made for an abstract viewing experience, but it also dealt with such sublime encounters in a respectful and beguiling manner while not forgetting the humanity in its main characters. I had hoped To the Wonder would offer a similar statement about love.  Instead, it has some archaic message about marriage under God. But, even worse, the journey never feels compelling. I felt the film rush by with one redundant, brief scene after another on a path to a sloppy, hollow end that reeked of contrivance. The precarious edge Tree of Life teetered on, To the Wonder plunges over.

Before the film derails, however, the first few minutes feel promising. Grainy, saturated home video of a train trip in France featuring the two lovers Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) is juxtaposed with wide Paris cityscapes. Speaking in French she says, in voice-over, “A spark. I fall into flame.” Brief sentences. Pregnant with impressionistic poetry. Intimacy captured in a moment when he holds her hair. She doesn’t flinch. However, problems began to arise not long into the film. There’s a distance between the camera lens and the actors. Emmanuel Lubezki has shot amazing work for many well-known directors. He has long proven himself a capable cinematographer, and he comes through in To the Wonder. There are beautiful moments of light and shadow throughout the film, beyond scenes shot during the magic hour, a light that has obsessed Malick from the start of his career as a filmmaker. However, the issue lies in the content of the shots and how Malick has contextualized them via the cutting room. Many shots of Neil focus on his back. If Marina faces the camera, it’s only to twirl away from it, her arms outstretched to the sky in one scene after another. If that’s a representation of a woman in love, I know a few women who will take offense to that, if not laugh it off.

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It’s scenes like these— which are repeated, no less— instead of the powerful complexity of scenes in Tree of Life, like when the father tries to teach his son how to fight and hugs him after yelling at him “hit me!” capturing the bitter pull and tug of love and hate between son and father that seems amiss throughout To the Wonder. It feels as though Malick did a rush job in the editing room, without enough consideration to the performances. It does a disservice to the acting and character motivation.

Neil ends up moving Marina and her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) from France to his hometown in Oklahoma, which, as revealed by his first voice-over  he seems more romantically in love with than the foreigner he plants there. “Honest. Rich,” he says. However,  as his job seems to involve him testing the soil on farms, he soon learns the land he seems to revere is actually poisonous. Any sympathy for the man is diffused by his cold, distant looks to Marina’s attempts at seduction. Her daughter shares her own frustration with trying to fit in at school. “Mom, we have to leave. There’s something missing,” she says in French (she might as well also be talking about the movie). After her tourist visa expires she tells him, “We have to face the facts.” When he refuses to marry her, she is obligated to return to France. He then falls for a childhood friend, Jane, (Rachel McAdams). “She hadn’t changed. Kind,” Neil says in voiceover. Still, even in Paris, Marina pines for this man, and you wonder why. But in Oklahoma, now Jane twirls in the fields, arms outstretched to the sky.

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A parallel to this story is that of a Spanish priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who Marina bonds with as a fellow exile. Meanwhile, his voiceover is full of doubt, as he carriers out charity work. “How long will You hide?” Statements like that are coupled with declarations like, “There is love between a husband and wife.” A wedding does eventually occur, but inside a courthouse. Men in handcuffs sign as witnesses. These abstract, loosely connected scenes are building toward something rather archaic in message while contrived in form. Worst of all, it feels too definitive and preachy for Malick.

Although the images continue to enchant, the actors feel like props, which takes out the human experience of love. The scenes feel like misshapen puzzle pieces forced to fit together, and the dramatic arc lacks the substance in performance and character development to carry you along. When the tidy ending arrives after creating such a complicating setup among people, it betrays the spirit within a person. Malick’s reach is so wide, the film really feels like he has concocted something out of nothing. If love were only about God, then fine, but anyone who has been in love knows that the sublime lies within them as well as outside.

Hans Morgenstern

To the Wonder is in English, French and Spanish with English subtitles, runs 112 minutes and is rated R. It opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, May 3. The film also opens in South Florida at O Cinema, beginning May 9 and the Cosford Cinema, in the University of Miami Coral Gables campus, where it will begin its run May 10. It arrives in Fort Lauderdale at the Cinema Paradiso on May 24. Magnolia Pictures provided an on-line preview screener for the purposes of this review. The film is also playing nationwide and on demand; visit the movie’s website for screening dates (this is a hotlink).

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)