Sunday, September 15, 2013

Crystal Fairy; Touchy Feely; The Conspiracy

Sebastian Silva's Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus is the sort of film that grows on you while you watch it. For the first five minutes or so I thought it was just another slacker comedy about young know-nothings in search of drugs. I was wrong.

Gradually, the film's style won me over. It had a distinct feel, something like a Cassavetes movie, with a dash of Easy Rider. It takes its time, like someone you don't know who takes you into their confidence by speaking softly, warmly. Its Chilean locales felt unique. Michael Cera was also turning in a powerhouse performance as a boorish lout, the sort of fellow you meet at parties who has traveled a bit and talks about drugs the way foodies talk about cilantro. After one particular binge he picks up a pair of hookers who may be transvestites and offers to cook them rice. He's a blowhard, but he wants to connect with people.  

Jamie (Cera) is in Chile searching for a particular cactus that allegedly has hallucinogenic powers. All one needs to do is cook it into a soup and drink it. He enlists some of his Chilean friends to help in his search, and inadvertently invites the odd young woman of the film's title (Gaby Hoffman). She's an odd one, the sort of woman who tries to give the impression that she floats through life, but manages to hit a lot of bumps along the way. One of the first times we see Crystal, she's being attacked by a bunch of Chilean women in a park. She writes it off as a bad karmic episode.

Amused at first, Jamie begins to think Crystal will be more trouble than she's worth. "I don't need shit in my beer," Jamie says when Crystal tries to drop a magic rock in his drink. "I just want to drink the beer." Jamie may be in search of drug kicks, but he's rather conservative and doesn't have time for Crystal's nonsense. She means well, though, and Jamie's Chilean friends grow protective of her.

The film moves along like the best of Hal Ashby or John Cassavetes. There are many scenes where people just hang out or linger in a hotel room, engaging in what feels like idle conversation, but it never feels dull or self-conscience.  As Crystal tries to dominate the setting with her talk of healing and magic, Jamie is like an engine, roaring towards his ultimate goal of drinking his mystical cactus juice. He thinks he will find nirvana by getting stoned on the beach, under the stars. Crystal seems to have been dropped from the heavens to teach him that there is more to life than his ruthless aggression, and that the kind of epiphany he seeks through mind expansion can be found in other ways.  

But she has her issues, too; you get the sense that she's taken on her free-wheeling, earthy-crunchy lifestyle as a defense against a dark past. She faces the world bravely, not because she's brave, but because that's preferable to being frightened. I also suspect she knows her beliefs are on shaky ground; one of the film's best scenes is when she frantically tries to use her healing energies to revive a dead rabbit on the road. There's no talk, just the image of a woman trying, and failing, to put her beliefs to the test.  Later, after the group learns some embarrassing facts about her personal life, she leaves them just as easily as she had joined them.

In another era, this film would have been the kind of art house hit that would play for months, or even years. And for her role as Crystal, Gaby Hoffman would become a star. She's a whirlwind. With her Frida Kalho eyebrows, and her wild hair, she's like one of Robert Crumb's jungle women come to life, a perfect counterpoint to Cera's reedy character.  I wanted to know Crystal.  I also wanted to know the Chilean guys on the trip, and I wanted to know the old lady with the teddy bear they meet in town, and the old oceanographers they meet on the beach. When the movie ended I knew I was going to miss these people. I felt I knew them a little bit. I was even going to miss Jamie, which is a testament to Cera's talents.

In Crystal Fairy Cera moves away from the gawky teen roles we know him from. Here, he's a selfish,  American ass. He grows up, though, not by drinking cactus juice, but by learning to care about Crystal.

This month's 'found footage' horror movie is Christopher MacBride's The Conspiracy. Aaron Poole and James Gilbert play a pair of  filmmakers who are studying a local man known only as  'Terrance' (Alan C. Peterson). Terrance has not met a conspiracy  theory he didn't like. He's articulate, and a little bit menacing. Like everyone in this era of self-promotion, he even has a catch phrase of sorts: "Are you listening?"
As usually happens in this sort of movie, Terrance ends up missing, his apartment trashed. Poole's character, a typical slacker doofus with a backwards baseball cap, finds a new mission in life by reassembling a labyrinth of newspaper clippings salvaged from Terrance's room. He eventually discovers a pattern, in that Terrance's collection of clippings all link to an ancient group that is planning world domination.  When Poole gets more involved, we're treated to some Blair Witch Project style oog-booga. Some of it, I'll admit, is slightly creepy. Like Terrance, Poole's character disappears, too. And that's about it.

MacBride has taken two tired genres - the found footage thing, and the secret society  thing - and jammed them together. It's a noble endeavor, and his chronicling of the old society - a weird old group that annually gathers to talk business and sacrifice a bull - is the best part of the film.  It's scary to think we all might be under the control of a shadow organization that manipulates history without our knowing it - but The Conspiracy is far from the ultimate statement on the subject. 

Ellen Page looking pensive in Touchy Feely
"You're looking wan," says Abby (Rosemary Dewitt) to her brother Paul (Josh Pais) early in Lynn Shelton's Touchy Feely. The characters in this movie often say things like "You're looking wan." They are the types who spend inordinate time and lung power debating the merits of salad dressing. They aren't bad people, and some viewers might even find them amusing, but at times, watching this movie  is like sitting in a vegan restaurant while the dull couple at the next table is breaking up.

Abby is a massage therapist who has suddenly grown disgusted by human touch. Meanwhile, Paul is a wimpy dentist who discovers he can cure people's pain. Ok, they've swapped places, get it? Touchy Feely wants to be a smart little indy flick, but it's also the sort of movie where awkward guys can't get into a yoga position, and people overhear other people having sex, and uptight middle-aged folks try to loosen up by taking Ecstasy. For a movie that wears its quirkiness on its sleeve, it's surprisingly trite.

Ellen Page provides the one bright spot in the movie. She plays Jenny, Paul's melancholy daughter.  As a sad young woman struggling with unexpressed desires, she turns in some of her best work since Juno. Unfortunately, her talents are wasted in a movie that actually ends with these insipid characters at the dinner table, raising their wine glasses in a toast, a tableau that felt dated 20 years ago.

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