Film: Landscape Art

The central figure in La Camioneta is sturdy, reliable, accommodating, and goes through a character arc that spans three countries and involves a physical transformation that forces viewers to reexamine their preconceptions. It also happens to be a Pennsylvania school bus.

The mid-90s vehicle spends the first part of its life wheeling students to and fro, but just when the state school board’s getting to send the aging ride to pasture as it’s replaced by a newer, shinier model, Central America comes calling. La Camioneta: The Journey of One American School Bus, one of three new releases I’m reviewing this week where the films’ surroundings play a vital role, begins at a Texas auction, the quarterly event where the title gas guzzler is sold to the highest bidder, in this case a Guatemalan who sells off the vehicles to enterprising locals south of the border keen on turning them into transit buses.

But is it heaven or purgatory that awaits the Spotsylvania County Public Schools transport model? Driver Domingo Lastor, saddled with taking the bus from Texas to Guatemala is not looking forward to the perilous trek. “Anything can happen in Mexico,” he says. Director-editor-cinematographer Mark Kendall, who makes an impressive feature debut, goes along with the ride, and the resulting travelogue is awash in painterly images that place viewers behind Domingo’s shoulder. Kendall sustains that spare simplicity through his tightly constructed yet deliberately paced film.

Once it reaches Guatemala, however, La Camioneta none too subtly switches gears, although it’s not apparent at first. Kendall hangs out with bus importer Gerónimo Riquiac Chitiq, who sells the camioneta-to-be to meek, soft-spoken Ermelindo, the entrepreneur who dreams of making a living navigating the Guatemala City-Quetzal City route. Assuming metallic face lift duties is body shop artist Mario Enrique Valle, and Kendall patiently and methodically chronicles the vehicle’s transformation from kiddie express to colorful autobús.

I actually wish Kendall had limited the scope of his documentary to this process, but the filmmaker, who studied anthropology, can’t resist the temptation to explore the political unrest that besets the region. Bus drivers are all too often victims of gang-related violence, and in the movie’s most disturbing moment, Kendall captures a bullet-riddled, blood-spattered body being carried out from another bus. We peek into a public hearing in which city officials promise residents that deceased drivers’ orphaned children will be looked after. It’s arresting subject matter, but it causes the film to make a detour that takes viewers away from the titular figure.

Kendall has still managed to deliver a vivid, modestly scaled piece of cinema vérité that’s at its most eloquent when nobody is talking. He forces the scenery to do the heavy lifting, and that’s all right by me.

La Camioneta captures an insular, God-fearing community with storytelling clarity and attention to detail. In this regard, it places the documentary in much closer proximity to Prisoners, this week’s major studio release, than first impressions might suggest. The film marks the first English-language effort released in the States from Oscar-nominated French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies), and for his Hollywood maiden voyage he has chosen to make a characteristically somber child abduction potboiler.

You might aptly refer to Prisoners as a thriller, but at heart the film is a brooding morality play that confronts viewers with the consequences of its leading man’s dubious choices. That would be contractor Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman, sporting a most severe Van Dyke), who lives in suburban Pennsylvania with his picture-perfect wife (Maria Bello), teenage son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and adorable elementary school-age daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich). Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) reveals his intention to delve into the role religious faith plays in these people’s lives from the get-go, beginning the story with a father-son bonding-moment hunt in which the teen’s big kill is preceded by a recitation of Our Father.

It’s Thanksgiving, you see, and the Dovers’ close friends, Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis) Birch, invite the close-knit clan over for dinner. Villeneuve runs into trouble attempting to establish a lighthearted rapport between the families. I didn’t buy their friendship for a second; he’s navigating uncharted waters and it shows. Out playing with her older sibling and Eliza (Zoe Soul), the Birches’ daughter, Anna comes upon a trailer parked on the street. After dinner, she asks Dad whether she can go back home with Eliza. He agrees … if she makes sure Ralph takes her. Time passes, and the parents look for their daughters. They have vanished, and so has the trailer.

Enter Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal, showing off some distracting tattoos), who tracks down the trailer and arrests creepy looking Alex Jones (Paul Dano, by far the movie’s MVP), who’s not saying much about the girls’ whereabouts, or even if he was the one who took them. He just doesn’t want people to touch him, and truly, with hideous-body-art Loki breathing down his neck and an irate Keller jumping on him outside the police station, can you blame him?

Villeneuve and Guzikowski drop key details like bread crumbs throughout the film, but they’re more interested in Keller’s escalating desperation and the emotional toll the investigation takes on Loki and the families involved. You’re a step ahead of the characters, but the filmmakers downplay the big reveals, going as far as tossing aside a whopper of a plot twist as an afterthought. It’s an admirable effort to turn genre material usually propelled by plot into character-driven fare, but Prisoners is ultimately not that revealing about the monsters that lurk inside even the most well-intentioned people. It’s just exhausting, and at 153 minutes, it becomes a very heavy burden to carry, for far too long. Zodiac this ain’t.

You would think that the story of how the lives of two middle-aged women are affected when they start banging each other’s teenage sons would be a welcome respite from Villeneuve’s ponderous procedural, but the Australia-set melodrama Adore is every bit as tortured – though not quite as moralizing. The English-language debut by renowned French director Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel) boasts fine pedigree in front of and behind the camera. It handles its frank subject matter in tasteful yet unblinking fashion. It refuses to pass judgment or impose rigid sexual politics on its characters, It doesn’t resort to facile tragedy to resolve its narrative. And yet the film never coalesces into a satisfying whole.

Part of the problem in Christopher Hampton’s screenplay – yes, that Christopher Hampton, the one who won an Oscar for Dangerous Liaisons – which he and Fontaine adapted from Doris Lessing’s novella Two Grandmothers, is that it opts to limit the characters’ personality to how they relate to each other. Lil (Naomi Watts) and Roz (Robin Wright, struggling with an Aussie accent) have been lifelong friends. Their home is the spectacular coastal community of Seal Rocks in New South Wales, where they vow to remain for the rest of their days, even after Lil’s husband dies while their sons are still boys and Harold (a nearly unrecognizable Ben Mendelsohn), Roz’s hubby, is offered a sweet lecturing gig at Sydney University. Roz owns an art gallery and Lil works at an unspecified firm, but we’re given precious little to work with besides their bond.

Nothing’s going to drive these cougar BFFs apart, but what happens after sex-starved Ian (Xavier Samuel), Lil’s son, gets frisky under the covers with a reluctant-but-OK-I’ll-play-along Roz and then Tom, Roz’s son, follows suit with Lil? The unorthodox dynamic that ensues is best left for you to discover, but suffice it to say that having this attractive cast play sexytime musical chairs ought to have been a lot more enjoyable than what Fontaine and Hampton serve up. Female sexuality is a topic so infrequently tackled in movies that you keep rooting for Adore to generate some heat, but it winds up being a much easier film to admire than to warm up to. What remains engaging throughout is cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne’s lush vistas – shot on 35mm – which make the most of the idyllic sunbaked setting.

Fontaine uses the expansive panoramas to convey the bitter irony of four people whose sexual conduct ought to be liberating but instead walls them off from connecting with anyone else. That floating dock where they like to sunbathe is not a leisure spot. It’s every bit as much of a prison cell as the faith-based convictions driving Villeneuve’s morally conflicted players in Prisoners. Next time, Ms. Fontaine and Monsieur Villeneuve, let’s have a little more crime, a lot less punishment.

Adore opens Friday at the Koubek Center, the temporary home of the Tower Theater (towertheatermiami.com), and the Bill Cosford Cinema (cosfordcinema.com). That same day, Prisoners begins taking viewers hostage in wide release and La Camioneta commences busing arthouse crowds exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (mbcinema.com). The latter should be your final destination.

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