More new under-the-radar fare this week at Ogden’s Art House Cinema 502, including minimalist realism and wartime in Asia.
Matthew Porterfield’s Putty Hill (pictured) certainly brings its own distinctive vibe to American indie drama, following a bunch of characters in the titular Baltimore working-class neighborhood after the death of one young man from a drug overdose. There are echoes of David Gordon Green’s George Washington in the scenes of youthful aimlessness, with teens hanging out at skate parks or frolicking at nearby swimming holes; Porterfield also introduces a pseudo-documentary element by having an off-camera voice periodically question the characters about their lives. But aside from a couple of isolated moments of domestic drama, this is a movie defined by a lot of nothing happening, and too few fully fleshed-out characters and relationships. Images of people engaging in purposeless, time-filling activity start to make Putty Hill itself feel like . . . purposeless, time-filling activity.
There’s certainly more aggressive energy in Koji Wakamatsu’s Caterpillar—but that doesn’t necessarily make it a great movie. Set in 1940s Japan, it tells of a woman named Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima), whose husband, Kyuzo (Shima Ohnishi), returns to their rural village from war horribly mutilated: armless, legless, deaf and barely capable of speech. But Kyuzo’s considered a “War God” for his service to the Empire, and Shigeko’s life becomes entirely about demonstrating her devotion and fidelity honoring his sacrifice. Wakamatsu avoids too much comparison to Johnny Got His Gun by sticking largely with Shigeko’s point of view, and he plays with some potentially rich material by giving Kyuzo a history of beating the wife he’s now utterly dependent upon. But Caterpillar gets too obvious in its critique of lionizing war heroes, and misses an opportunity to really dig into the psychological warfare between Shigeko and Kyuzo. After the closing litany of statistics about Japanese war dead and war crimes, it’s unfortunately clear that Wakamatsu was more interested in delivering a message than telling a story.