The “Too Many Endings Viggo Mortensen Curse” afflicts actor-turned-director Matthew Ross’ (28 Hotel Rooms) second film, Captain Fantastic, a frustratingly flawed, overlong, overindulgent family comedy-drama centered on Mortensen’s character, Ben, an anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist survivalist raising his six children in the forests of Washington (the Pacific Northwest state, not the nation’s capitol). When tragedy strikes – as it inevitably does where Sundance-friendly dramas are concerned – and Ben’s wife, hospitalized for bipolar disorder in New Mexico near her parents’ home, dies unexpectedly, Ben packs up his brood of book-smart, ultra-fit, life-experience-deprived children, including Bodevan (George MacKay), his oldest, nearing college age and feeling the urge to make his way on his own in the world outside his family, and Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), the questioning, doubting middle son in near-constant conflict with his rigid, authoritarian father, and begins the lengthy, event-filled drive to her funeral. The road trip includes an assortment of awkward, discomfiting, partially or fully life-altering encounters, from the naïve Bodevan comically overreacting to a teenage girl, to a stop by a curious police officer (they escape detention by pretending to be a song-happy evangelical family), to the funeral itself and its immediate aftermath, with Ben finally forced to face difficult truths about himself, his child-rearing methods, and his political-oriented philosophy of life (i.e., idealism vs. reality). That’s all to the good, if slightly superficial, character development. Ross stumbles when he includes not one ending or epilogue, but three or four endings (depending on how you count). Each one, on their own, effectively delivers the emotional catharsis and conclusive resolution the audience needs, but collectively they feel redundant and ultimately, unnecessary (because simply put, they are). For all of its faults, however, Captain Fantastic reveals Ross’ impressive skill behind the camera, especially in eliciting astonishing, note-perfect performances from a young, talented cast.
Less the thriller that it seems at first (or will, given the difficulties involved in marketing), Joshua Marston’s (The Forgiveness of Blood, Maria, Full of Grace) latest film, Complete Unknown, semi-successfully mines one of the most fundamental questions of philosophy and psychology: Who are we? How doe we define ourselves? How do others define us? Can we shed identities like skin and constantly reinvent ourselves? One of the central characters in Complete Unknown, Alice (Rachel Weisz), certainly seems to think so. Marston opens Complete Unknown with a montage showing Alice (through the looking glass) changing cities, professions, and identities before settling on her most current identity as a biologist. Alice, however, isn’t a con-woman. Stealing or committing fraud isn’t part of her MO, though. She uses her latest identity of Alice to get close to an economist (Michael Chemus), but her real objective is the economist’s partner and friend, Tom (Michael Shannon), a senior economist celebrating his birthday. When Alice appears at Tom’s birthday party, he’s understandably surprised and shocked. He knew her as someone else entirely, as his college girlfriend, Jenny. Rather than padding out the question of Alice’s real identity into a feature-length film, Marston does the opposite, revealing Alice’s “real” identity and focusing instead on Tom’s initial reaction (the five stages of grief, more or less), the “why” behind Alice’s constant identity-switching, and ultimately, her relationship with the already married Tom. One seemingly tangential scene where Alice and Tom help an injured woman (Kathy Bates) foregrounds the pleasures in performance and reinventing yourself (Tom briefly plays along). When we get to the “why” behind Alice’s identity-shifting, however, Marston doesn’t offer an adequate answer. Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe Marston wants to suggest that an answer really isn’t possible or even desirable. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make the half-answer he does give us any more satisfactory, emotionally or dramatically.
Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny
The oft-overused phrase, “Too soon, too soon,” comes to mind where Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny, a retrospective of Richard Linklater’s career from his beginnings as a one-man filmmaking crew, to the collective he co-created and headed – the first, necessary step to making his seminal, zeitgeist-capturing second film, Slackers – to his first foray into Hollywood-funding filmmaking, Dazed and Confused (a critical success, but not a commercial one), through the first in a career-defining romantic trilogy, Before Sunrise (followed in nine-year increments by Before Sunset and Before Midnight), and through his much heralded, 12-years-in-the-making, Oscar-nominated Boyhood and his last, still-be-released film, Everybody Wants Some (aka, Dazed and Confused 2). Co-directors Louis Black (not to be confused with the veteran comedian and Daily Show guest commentator) and Karen Bernstein take a straightforward, informative approach to covering Linklater’s life and career. As the co-founder and editor of The Austin Chronicle, Austin’s alternative weekly, Black’s first-person familiarity with Linklater’s initial forays into independent filmmaking places him in a seemingly unique position to conduct a career retrospective. The usual mix of talking heads, archival/behind-the-scenes footage, selected scenes from Linklater’s oeuvre, and a long-form interview with Linklater himself, however, only hints at the depths, complexities, and contradictions of Linklater’s three-decade career an independent-minded filmmaker who’s managed to carve out a relatively unencumbered, unfettered space to make films outside the Hollywood system. Perhaps in a decade or two, a closer-to-definitive career retrospective will emerge from another documentary filmmaker. Until then, Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny will have to serve as an adequate, incomplete introduction to one of our most important contemporary filmmakers.