Friday, August 21, 2015

TV favorites of past year

As is the case with many dedicated home viewers, my time for watching films is being eroded by high-quality television series, and I’m beginning to take satisfaction in deciding which “must-see” series I really don’t need to see any more of, which clears my calendar for shows I’m truly involved with.  Among the series I abandoned sooner or later were Boardwalk Empire, True Detective, Broadchurch, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, The Americans, Fargo.  What a relief to not have to keep up!

On the other hand, there are many series I feel compelled to follow all the way, no more inclined to skip an episode than I would be to skip a chapter in a novel.  I’ll start with two I loved, which I only caught up with after their runs were over.  (For Metacritic rating, I give high and low marks for seasons, with a link to the first.  Also, my usual link to Netflix availability, and Amazon Prime when relevant.)

Borgen (NFX) is the antidote to House of Cards, offering authentic insight into the motivations and machinations of politicians and media people, plausibly-flawed characters whom it is possible to care about.  The title translates as “The Castle,” the Christiansborg Palace that houses all three branches of Danish government.  The three seasons (with fingers crossed for another, less so for a senseless American remake) follow the progress of Birgitte Nyborg, the center-left party leader who becomes the first woman PM of Denmark (the fiction preceded the reality by one year).  The mechanics of coalition-building among eight parties are continuously fascinating, and enlightening about issues in a way that American political series rarely are.  The acting is fine, funny, and true across the board, but anchored by the central performance – lovely, many-leveled, and mature -- of Sidse Babett Knudson.  Essentially this series is “The West Wing goes to Copenhagen,” and it comes back to us smarter, sexier, and more honest.  I cannot recommend any tv series more urgently than this.

For a more specialized taste, I’m equally enthusiastic about In Treatment (MC-70/85, NFX, AMZ, HBO).  When this show was running, I didn’t find the concept or its Israeli source appealing, and the format – one half-hour for each character each week – cumbersome, even with DVR or DVD.  Once HBO Go made every episode available to watch on any schedule, it was time to sample the series.  I thought maybe I’d try watching one patient through a season, just to see how I liked it.  Well, that’s definitely not the way to approach this series – it needs to be watched from start to finish, even as the roster of patients changes from season to season.  Though it would have been nice to see more of Gabriel Byrne as the troubled therapist Paul, who ties it all together, there is a sense of completion over the three seasons.  And a great line-up of characters, with just the actors to play them, starting with Paul’s therapists in turn, Dianne Wiest and (especially!) Amy Ryan.  Among the patients, Mia Wasikowska stands out, with many others from Irrfan Khan and Debra Winger to Alison Pill and Embeth Davidtz giving compelling performances.  Just two people (occasionally three or four) in a single setting, conversing intently for a half hour, and then coming back to do the same thing over again.  It makes, if you can believe me, for fascinating viewing.

The key to a successful tv series is establishing contact, but moreover a contract, with the viewer.  The best shows sustain that contract to the very end, repay the investment of time.  Next up are two that recently ended their long runs on a very fulfilling note.  I’ve made the case for Justified (MC-80/91, NFX, AMZ) several times already on this blog, but I’m going to flog it one more time as a show that managed to thread the needle of authentic surprise and fan service to the very end of its sixth and final season.  It wound up where we wanted it to, but with wit and invention all along the way.  The combination couldn’t be beat, of showrunner Graham Yost channeling Elmore Leonard in both his crime and Western modes; producer/star Timothy Olyphant handsomely embodying his character Raylan Givens, a modern-day U.S. Marshal in Harlan County, Kentucky; Walton Goggins playing his doppelganger and nemesis (they dug coal together before winding up on opposite sides of the law, but with alarmingly similar approaches); and Joelle Carter as the woman between them, with schemes of her own.  There’s a host of equally engaging characters that recur and rotate.  Admittedly, Justified’s contract with viewer involves a lot of blood splatter, but somehow it all seems justified by the characters and their language, the humor and intelligence of their portrayal, and the twists of the story.  Start at the beginning, as the show slowly finds it method in the first season, perfects it in the second, and sustains it through the sixth.

I found Mad Men (MC-77/92, NFX) to have many ups and downs from episode to episode, but also to have sustained itself and maintained interest to the satisfying end of its split seventh season.  Again the characters, both in the writing and the acting, became familiar and important while still surprising to the viewer.  It had all the pleasures of a soap opera, at a high level of finish, with a believable sense of period in both style and action.  Unlike my three previous recommendations, I’m pretty sure you’ve already formed your own opinion of this show, but if not and you’re reading this, then you should give it a try.

Back to the lesser known and still in progress, I’m a dedicated follower of Rectify (MC-82/92, NFX, SUND), which just completed a third season that compels me to mount my soapbox.  It’s certainly my favorite among series currently running, of which few viewers are aware.  C’mon, people, get with it!  Part of the problem is how hard the show is to describe.  There’s a rape and murder deep in the backstory, and a crime waiting to be solved, but that’s not what the series is about – it’s about family and faith, community and connection, freedom and bondage, guilt and redemption, the light and the dark, beauty and sorrow.  A melancholy melodrama, slow and mournful in its telling, though marked by wit and poetry, it’s the story of a man, played by Aden Young, who has spent more than half his life on death row, for the murder of his teenage girlfriend, before being cleared by DNA evidence.  Like Rip Van Winkle, he confronts a world he barely recognizes, in small-town Georgia.  There are fine performances by men as well, but three actresses stand out, Abigail Spencer as his dedicated sister, J. Smith-Cameron as his puzzled but sympathetic mother, and Adelaide Clemons as the stepsister-in-law with whom he forms a deep bond.  It’s a moody minimalist masterpiece, and deserves your time and attention.  I’ve bought in, made a long-term investment in Rectify, and been well-rewarded, eager for more.

I’m also counting on more of Wolf Hall (MC-86, NFX, PBS), so author Hilary Mantel and the BBC better get to work.  The story of Henry VIII and his troublesome marital arrangements has been told many times, but this version is unique in viewing the proceedings through the watchful eyes of Thomas Cromwell, usually taken to be one of the villains of the piece, but here embodied with great sympathy by Mark Rylance, marvelously observant and subtle in reaction.  Damian Lewis convinces as the great but flawed king, and Claire Foy’s imperious Anne Boleyn is an eye-opening contrast to her wonderfully meek “Little Dorrit.”  Complicated and slow-paced, this version eschews swordplay and bodice-ripping, for more complicated games of political and erotic power.  Digital cameras that allow shooting by candlelight in actual locations convey the presence, and the radical difference, of the past, in ways that rival Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner. 

The presence of many of the same actors highlights both the parallels and the divergences between Wolf Hall and Game of Thrones (MC-80/94, NFX, HBO), one the real deal and the other a guilty pleasure.  This too is a series you’ve probably already made up your mind about.  Not generally a fan of the sword & sorcery genre – in book, game, or cinema -- I was won over by the committed presentation of this series, which does maintain its contract with the viewer, in its range of characters, spectacle, surprise, and wit.  I like to watch, but I don’t take it seriously, all appreciation granted with ironic “quotes” around it.  I do expect to follow the story into further seasons, but it will never rank with my very favorites.

Having lost some of its luster as the ne plus ultra of quality TV, HBO packages their best shows together, with GoT in tandem with Veep (MC-72/90, NFX, HBO) and Silicon Valley (MC-84/86, NFX, HBO), each of which came into its own in the recent season.  Both shows are topical, true, and funny, with excellent ensemble acting.  Julia Louis-Dreyfus is now Prez, not Veep, in the fourth season, and the show stepped up in rank as well.  And tech start-up Pied Piper, led by the deliciously nerdy Thomas Middleditch (I had to look up the actor’s name, he’s so fully at one with his character), has had its ups and downs, breakthroughs and flops, over two seasons, and in the process illuminated many aspects of its eponymous culture.

But for me, the HBO highlight of this year was Olive Kitteredge (MC-89, NFX, HBO).  The title character is played by Frances McDormand, and I hardly need to say more – she is superb.  But with its source in Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-award novel, and direction by Lisa Chodolenko, a lot of women can take credit for this beautiful rendition of a woman’s story, a flinty character in a well-portrayed Maine community, who emerges as sympathetic and funny, without ever losing her rough edge.  Richard Jenkins is also affecting as her sweet and accommodating pharmacist husband; Zoe Katz as his dim but endearing assistant; and even Bill Murray as a fellow grump with whom Olive makes a late-life connection.  Lots of subsidiary town characters appear, as in Strout’s series of stories, over the four hour-long episodes.  I liked this series so much, I was led to read the book, which proved very good and not at all spoiled by seeing the tv show first, but rather enhanced.  I liked that book so much, I went on to read Strout’s Abide with Me, for her delicate understanding of ordinary people and everyday life. 

[You’ll find a lot more shows reviewed, and some strongly recommended, if you click through.]   

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Further documendations

Now I have more than half a year of documentaries to write up, so let’s get crackin’ --

I never was a fan of Roger Ebert, always considered it a coincidence when we had the same opinion of a movie, but the film adaptation of Ebert’s memoir Life Itself (MC-87, NFX) certainly enhances my esteem.  In a nice bit of payback, Steve James’ documentary returns the favor Ebert did him by championing Hoop Dreams.  This film champions Ebert in turn, but in an authentic way, rather than as a celebrity puff piece.  One talking-head comment stands out in defining the tone of the whole, “Roger was a nice guy … but he wasn’t that nice.”  Rather he was one of those driven souls who knew as a kid what he wanted to do with his life, and did it relentlessly, literally to his deathbed.  So we find out about the neighborhood paper he wrote and distributed in grade school, editorship of the Daily Illini, temporary job on the Chicago Sun-Times, until a chance assignment as film critic overturned his plan to get a PhD in English; later, his highly competitive love/hate relationship with Gene Siskel on succeeding iterations of their dueling movie critic show on TV; then his mentorship of generations of critics and filmmakers, his late marriage to a black woman, and finally a candid view of his confrontation with disease and death.  It feels very much like a man in full, and one to earn my respect and admiration.  In the end, Roger and I share the bedrock principle that film is a “machine that generates empathy.”

Go figure!  Hollywood loves to honor itself, so it’s amazing that Life Itself was not even Oscar-nominated, but less amazing that Best Documentary went to Citizenfour (MC-88, NFX).  I came late to this film, so it struck me as old news, rather than a stunning revelation.  As a portrait of Edward Snowden, I found the film impressive and mind-changing, but as an exposé of NSA surveillance, I felt Laura Poitras sacrificed substance for atmospherics, trying for a real-life chiller thriller, instead of a convincing argument.  I would definitely like to see Snowden put in Errol Morris’s Interrotron, so I could look into his eyes and see his soul (as Bush purportedly did to Putin -- yeah, Georgie, and were your eyeballs scorched?).  This film certainly made me more sympathetic to Snowden, more approving of his motives.  Maybe it was good to be spared dodgy Presidential apologists, but I could have done with more viewpoints expressed and more expert commentary, fewer portentously prolonged mood shots. And less focus on celebrity journalists whose investigatory motives I don’t take on faith, like Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill (of Dirty Wars).  Worth seeing, this documentary did not engage me nearly as much as many others.

For example, Last Days in Vietnam (MC-86, NFX), which far exceeded my expectations, and was a more worthy nominee.  From Rory Kennedy, I expected perhaps a celebrity-directed, talking-heads retrospective.  What I got was a riveting you-are-there action-thriller with heart.  You don’t just look at the famous photos, such as the one of people climbing up a ladder dangling from a helicopter above the US Embassy in Saigon.  You learn who those people were, where they were coming from, where they were headed, including helicopter pilots and the ones left on the ground.  It’s astounding how cameras seemed to be everywhere, recording this hinge of history, to build a propulsive visual narrative, as well as the later perspective of survivors, without any apologists or pontificators.  This film is persuasively real and deeply felt – essential viewing for anyone who lived through that era, and edifying for anyone younger.  This is what it’s like to lose a war.

In many ways, including Oscar-nomination, Virunga (MC-95, NFX) is the same.  This war is for Congo’s Virunga National Park, one of the last habitats of the mountain gorilla, of whom perhaps 800 survive.  Orlando von Einsiedel’s documentary is a powerful work of advocacy, told with the narrative drive of the war film that it is.  With the help of astonishing footage, shot surreptitiously or on the fly, without any narration beyond a few printed captions, and no talking heads other than those caught in heat of the action, the film paints a clear picture of the depredations of a British oil company that wants to undermine the park, literally, and supports rebel forces to overturn the standing order.  The park has a force of armed rangers, hoping to combat poaching, but overwhelmed by finding themselves on the front lines of a civil war.  The gorillas, and other wildlife, are camera-friendly bystanders to the human conflict, but their reactions to the violence are telling, as are those of each of their human relatives.  One of the most poignant characters is a native caretaker for some orphaned gorillas; also fascinating are the Belgian commandant of the park rangers, and the young female French journalist, whom the equally intrepid cameraman follows into the warzone.  Not easy to watch, but well worth seeing.

The Overnighters (MC-89, NFX) deserves its accolades, but not without a certain reservation on my part.  Though telegraphed in the opening scene, this story contains such a dramatic reversal that it almost becomes a voyeuristic invasion of privacy.  We can’t stop looking, however, and maybe it was the same for the filmmaker Jesse Moss, working by himself in verité style.  What we start with is a story of economic dislocation, with the Great Recession driving hoards of jobless men to Williston ND, where a fracking oil boom promises immediate work.  The work proves elusive, however, and a place to stay nearly impossible to find.  So a kindly pastor opens his church, and its parking lot, to overnight stays by homeless men.  He meets opposition from his parishioners and town officials, not to mention the stresses he puts on his family.  Genuinely striving to be “his brother’s keeper,” his motives turn out to be mixed.  The film delivers on the sucker punch feinted at in the beginning – its intimacy shocking and disturbing.  Looking into issues of compassion and community, the story turns into a personal agony.  It works, but feels a bit queasy in intent, like a bait and switch.  Yet still admirable, if that makes any sense.  

Another affecting portrayal of hard times and frail hopes, Rich Hill (MC-75, NFX), winner of top prize at Sundance last year, follows three teenage boys growing up over a year and a half, in the ironically-named town of Rich Hill, MO.  This could have been miserablist poverty porn, but co-directors and cousins Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo leaven the tragedy with homegrown affection for small-town mid-America.  The three boys, however, are in dire straits, exemplars of so many pathologies of poverty, as well as distinctive personalities in separate stories, which never meet, but do add up.  In a tradition going back to Jacob Riis, this is “how the other half lives.”

By chance I happened to watch in succession two contrasting documentaries about American writers born in 1933.  Regarding Susan Sontag (MC-79, NFX, HBO) brings a lot of visual pizzazz, to the point of intrusiveness, to the story of the most photographed woman of letters ever, even before she partnered with Annie Leibovitz.  I wouldn’t call it debunking, but it’s certainly not uncritical.  Philip Roth: Unmasked (MC-65, NFX, PBS) is straight talking-heads, and rather misnamed.  The Philip Roth Version would be more accurate, but it is certainly interesting enough to hear that version from the man himself and his friends.  However different, I would recommend either film to anyone with a real interest in its subject.

I’d go a good deal further with Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning (NFX, PBS).  I’d recommend to anyone with eye and heart.  There’s a lot more to Lange than her iconic Depression-era photograph Migrant Mother, and this film covers her whole life with great intimacy, lovingly directed and narrated by her granddaughter, Dyanna Taylor.  Of particular note are interviews with Lange as she was putting together a career retrospective of her photographs shortly before her death in 1965.  This appeared on the PBS series “American Masters” and can be watched in it entirety here.

Two other films about photographers were Oscar-nominated.  I’ve already raved about Finding Vivian Mayer here, and I’m just slightly more reserved about Salt of the Earth (MC-83, NFX), which celebrates the work of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado.  Directed by his son Juliano, with the collaboration of Wim Wenders, it follows his career from the time he transitioned from being an economist at the World Bank to recording, in lustrous black & white images of haunted beauty, the effects of underdevelopment and forced migration on desperate populations, from gold mining in Brazil to genocide in Africa.  Working closely with his wife, he’s put together a number of massive books, as he’s gone from a hippie type, with long blond locks and beard, to more the look of a Buddhist monk, sculpted head shaved except for bushy white eyebrows.  Having had his fill of human misery in various war zones, he eventually turned to nature photography, and the massive project of re-foresting his family’s plantation in Brazil.  He seems a very admirable character, but Wenders lays on the admiration a bit thick.  Otherwise this is must-see imagery.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Checking my list

Half a year behind, as usual, I’m ready to make my summation of the films of 2014.  First I fill in some films that took a while to reach home video, and then give my overall ranking in comparison to the critical consensus, as I calculate it from various polls.  My aim is to provide a finer filter for those who have some trust in my taste -- to take the fifty most acclaimed films of the year, and to offer clues to which you might actually want to see.

When it comes to Andersons, I typically prefer Paul Thomas to Wes, and this past year was no different.  In fact, I liked the loosey-goosey Inherent Vice (MC-81, NFX, #7) as much as any of P.T.’s films.  Usually I’m not that fond of movies for which the best advice is to not even bother making sense of them, but in this case I was happy to go along for the trip.  To summarize the film, or even to list its characters, would be a fool’s errand -- it’s all too much, doesn’t add up -- but the movie is a fun ride that will leave you dizzy and disoriented, yet eager to get back on for another spin.  A late example of L.A. noir, set a little after the wave of the Sixties had crested, crashed, and receded, this first-ever adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel comes out as paranoid and convoluted as you would expect.  And who better to center it on than the stoner PI played by Joaquin Phoenix, weird but strangely winning, as we have come to expect?  I can’t pack any more of this big baggy monster into a tight case of 200 words, but if I haven’t convinced you to see it yet, get a fuller picture from Andrew O’Herir of Salon (who has, incidentally, moved into my triumvirate of favorite critics, with Anthony Lane, longtime New Yorker writer, and Stephanie Zacharek, of the Voice and elsewhere.  Other opinions I always value, without necessarily agreeing, are A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis of the NY Times, Ty Burr of the Globe, and Dana Stevens of Slate.  Not that there aren’t others worth reading, but with these I always know where I stand.)

To round out my perspective on the Top 50, I finally took a look at two international heavyweights, and one weightless debut.  Leviathan and Winter Sleep, both long and lugubrious, are the must-see latest from two modern masters of world cinema, the latter having nudged out the former for top prize at Cannes.  Andrei Zvyagintsev and Nuri Bilge Ceylan look at Russia and Turkey, their respective homelands, each with a bleakly beautiful eye and a stately pace, punctuated by searing confrontations between fully-realized characters. 

Leviathan (MC-92, NFX, #30), set in a decaying fishing village above the Arctic Circle, references the Hobbesian definition of the state, a passage from the Book of Job, and an actual whale skeleton on the beach, in ways that that are heavy but not heavy-handed.  The title defines Putin’s Russia, but also the state of nature, nasty and brutish for sure.  A corrupt official has his eye on a seafront piece of property for development, long in the family of a stubborn mechanic with a beautiful younger wife, and a troubled teenage son from a previous marriage.  The mechanic decides to fight city hall with everything he’s got, and unleashes a Job-like string of woes.  I send you to Andrew O’Herir again, at least his first paragraph, to fill in more of the context.  It’s all very powerful, and powerfully depressing, in the grand Russian tradition.

Things ain’t too happy down in Turkey neither, as portrayed in Winter Sleep (MC-88, NFX, #32), though the Central Anatolian landscape of Capadoccia is equally striking, and equally a character in the story.  A wealthy retired actor has inherited a tourist hotel high above the town, hewn out of the soft sandstone characteristic of the area.  He too has a beautiful younger wife, and a difficult divorced sister with whom he has a fraught relationship.  In truth, each of his relationships is fraught, because really, he’s kind of an asshole, despite his own view of himself as benign and enlightened.  His forced humor, feigned modesty, and dubious charity are only a cover for privilege and egotism.  Without a raised voice, this film records some of the most eviscerating conversations I have ever heard.  With Ceylon channeling Chekhov, this too has a very Russian literary flavor.  Needless to say, the acting in both these films is superb, though none of the players were familiar to me. 

Nor in Strange Little Cat (MC-80, NFX, #31), a strange little number that started out as a student assignment to make a film derived from a Kafka story.  Ramon Zűrcher’s final product bears little resemblance to “The Metamorphosis,” but tells a family tale that is uncanny in its own way.  Spending one day with an extended family inside the tight confines of a Berlin apartment, we gradually come to understand who is who, how they are related, and how they relate to each other, with weirdness taken for granted on all sides.  The cat may be the least strange occupant of the place.  Short but dense and offbeat, the film turns out to be oddly disarming, when you’re ready for something completely different.

Couldn’t bring myself to watch Stray Dogs (MC-84, NFX, #20) or Norte, The End of History (MC-81, NFX #29), shying from the prospect of dismal duration.  I have little more patience for so-called Slow Cinema than for Slow Food.

Among “Best Picture” nominees, I found American Sniper (MC-72, NFX) more palatable than I expected.  As a battle film over which battlelines were drawn, I expected a jingoist screed.  Clint Eastwood turns out to be more subtle as a director than as a right-wing ideologue and operative, especially given the eye-opening performance of Bradley Cooper as the deadliest sniper of them all.  I would compare this film favorably to The Hurt Locker, for its you-are-there feel for Americans in combat in Iraq (while both are far surpassed by Generation Kill, David Simon’s HBO series).  Taken simply as a taut, economical, action-adventure war movie with overtones of the Wild West, American Sniper has a lot to say for itself.  Gladly oblivious of the story of Chris Kyle in Iraq and afterward, I could take it without a lot of baggage.  Within its genre, Eastwood delivers a fine specimen, until he fudges the aftermath, when the sniper goes home.  Sienna Miller could have been given more to do, as the wife who needs to bring her husband home from the war, psychologically as well as physically.  The film glosses over the adjustment, much as the soldier himself does, and then brings up his shocking death without really confronting it, a decisive failure of imagination and nerve.  If they weren’t going to deal with it, they should have ended the film where Kyle ended his memoir, adding only an endnote, instead of a half-formed scene that raises more questions than it resolves.

On a different note, I have a sleeper to recommend -- it’s a good touchstone, to determine whether you should take my cinematic recommendations and reservations to heart.  If you prefer Gone Girl to The Blue Room (MC-72, NFX), then you probably should look elsewhere for film finds.  Mathieu Amalric’s film is half as long and twice as good, in a fine Gallic tradition of psychological thrillers mixing sex and murder – no femme is more fatale than a French one, ever since the New Wave one-upped the American film noir.  Amalric and Stéphanie Cléau -- his partner in sex, crime, and filmmaking -- adapt a Simenon novel into a bantamweight puncher worth of its pulp-ish models, from Hitchcock to Clouzot, Truffaut, and Chabrol.  The film is swift, elliptical, and confounding.  I won’t spoil any of its unfolding.

At this point, I’m ready to offer my own summation of the best films of 2014, ranking them in comparison to the critical consensus, as I compute it.  I list them under four headings, in roughly declining order of my preference.

EXHORTATIONS (I urge you to see these):

Boyhood   (#1)
Selma  (#10)
Mr. Turner  (#16)
Two Days, One Night  (#12)
We Are the Best!  (#25)

RECOMMENDATIONS (I advise you to see these):

Ida  (#6)
Whiplash  (#8)
Nightcrawler  (#17)
Inherent Vice  (#7)
Under the Skin  (#3)
Ilo Ilo (Singapore)
Gloria (starring Pauline Garcia)
Leviathan  (#30)
Winter Sleep  (#32)
Like Father, Like Son  (#50)
It Felt Like Love  (#49)
Beyond the Lights
The Trip to Italy
The Blue Room

APPRECIATIONS (you might find something to like in here):

A Most Violent Year  (#37)
Birdman  (#4)
The Immigrant  (#14)
Tracks
Wild  (#48)
Still Alice
American Sniper
Strange Little Cat (#31)
Only Lovers Left Alive  (#11)
Foxcatcher  (#28)
Force Majeure  (#15)
Love is Strange  (#35)
Listen Up Philip  (#19)
Theory of Everything
The Imitation Game
Locke  (#42)

EQUIVOCATIONS (you’re on your own with these):

The Grand Budapest Hotel  (#2)
Gone Girl  (#13)
Stranger by the Lake  (#19)
Snowpiercer  (#18)
Goodbye to Language  (#9)


I hope you find something new and notable in this list, which you might not have heard of otherwise.  Search in the box at the top left of this page for my comments on individual films, which include direct links to Metacritic for more info and opinion.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Women on their own

The only unfortunate thing about Something, Anything (MC-72, NFX) is its title, which I find difficult to remember and quite opposite to the film’s effect, which is precise and specific.  Paul Harrill, in his debut as writer and director, reminded me of Fassbinder (particularly Ali: Fear Eats the Soul) in the simple clarity and logic of each shot and scene, telling what is necessary and leaving out what is not.  And he was especially fortunate in his lead actress, Ashley Shelton, who’s quietly magnetic as the centerpiece of the film, a newlywed trying to find meaning and purpose in her life, after a miscarriage.  I simply feel on the same wavelength as this film, with a shared iconography.  I love that in her transition from Peggy to Margaret, she gives up a successful job in Knoxville real estate to become an assistant librarian, that her quest takes her to the Trappist monastery in Kentucky where Thomas Merton lived, that her greatest epiphany comes when she goes up in the Smokies to watch fireflies at twilight.  I totally identify with this character’s drive toward simplicity and focus, and the film’s avoidance of so many obvious traps.  Perhaps it won’t connect so directly with you, but I promise you an hour and a half in the company of a lovely young woman of transparent honesty and quiet depth of feeling.

You really can’t beat the variety of landscapes along the Pacific Crest Trail in Wild (MC-76,NFX), from sun-baked desert to snow-covered mountain to deep Northwest rainforest.  And Reese Witherspoon makes good solitary company along the trail, but the director Jean-Marc Vallée is too literal with the explanatory flashbacks, overburdened by the source material of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir.  Laura Dern is good as the deceased mother, and Cheryl’s divorce is plausible enough, but the heroin addiction is a little much.  More mystery would have suited the character and the film.  Nonetheless, this is a trek worth taking.

If Wild is wildly over-determined, then Tracks (MC-78, NFX) may be a bit under-determined, not showing the tracks of the protagonist’s mental processes, but concentrating on the immediate reality of her long solitary camel trek across the Australian desert to the sea.  Robyn Davidson’s originating book was probably a drier affair than Strayed’s, and John Curran’s film follows suit.  But Mia Wasikowska is amply up to the task of supplying subtle subtext to the adventure.  We never quite grasp why she is compelled to this quest, and yet her compulsion adds up, makes sense, without showing all the calculation.

A different sort of lonely trek befalls Oscar-deserving Julianne Moore in Still Alice (MC-72, NFX), struggling (not suffering!) with early-onset dementia.  Effective as a real-life horror story, this film by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland remains rather sanitized as a portrayal of Alzheimer’s, failing to rise definitively above disease-of-the-week melodrama.  One of the coupled directors was deteriorating from ALS as the film was being made, so we can’t fault them for any lack of sympathy or sincerity, but it’s still a stacked deck they’re dealing from.  The trump card is Julianne Moore’s performance, which betrays not a false note as her mind leaves her body behind, the 50-year-old linguistics professor who begins to lose one word, and then all of them but one -- “love.”  Alec Baldwin as husband and Kirsten Stewart as prodigal daughter offer the best support they can, but sugarcoating can’t change where this story is headed.

If you think Mulholland Drive was a great film (and many do), then you might like David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars (MC-67, NFX).  I don’t, and I didn’t -- despite the presence of Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska, who give the proceedings some interest.  The former, an obnoxious Hollywood star who has seen better days, hires the latter as her “chore whore,” and gets more than she bargained for.  And we get more than we care for, of odious celebrities and noxious show business.  Sunny SoCal is dark and decadent, we get it, but the satire is queasy and almost humorless.

Amy Adams stands alone as the only reason to see Big Eyes (MC-62, NFX).  She plays Margaret Keane, the real-life painter of those big-eyed kids so ubiquitous in the Fifties, which her husband Walter presented as his own.  Tim Burton offers a nice pictorial evocation of the period, but allows Christoph Waltz to deliver a cartoonish performance as Walter.  That matched poorly with Adams’ more soulful take on her character, and tilted the story off its axis, made it more a rigged game than the pre-feminist fable it wanted to be.  Burton is amusing in airing his gripes about the differences between critical and popular appeal in art, but watch this only if you find Amy always adorable.

Even though the song says, “No One is Alone,” several women are lost by themselves in Rob Marshall’s adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods (MC-69, NFX), including Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, and Emily Blunt.  This live-action mash-up of fairy tales -- including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and others – is from Disney, but not too Disneyfied.  Sondheim’s sharp wit dominates, and the filmed musical provided one relative newbie to his work with a nice taste of his music and lyrics.  More tuned-in viewers might find more fault.


Hillary Swank is a woman ranching alone on the Nebraska Territory prairie in The Homesman (MC-68, NFX), and does a credible job in portraying someone on the verge of becoming an old maid, rejected by one hoped-for suitor as “plain as a tin pail.”  She’s still better off than the three married women driven mad by the hardships of frontier life, whom she contracts to deliver to an asylum back across the river.  She seeks the assistance of an old reprobate played by Tommy Lee Jones, who also directed.  Within the traditional framework of a Western journey, in reverse, the film provides a bleak, but welcome, feminine perspective on the settling of the American frontier.  It takes some turns I couldn’t or wouldn’t follow, but the trip does go places and see things. 

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Black power

Now it can be told -- Selma (MC-89, #13, NFX) would have been my pick for “Best Picture.”  As much as I love Boyhood, which is at least as good a film in itself, Selma wins my vote (as did Lincoln) for believably portraying an historical moment of extreme contemporary relevance.  David Oyelowo deserves tremendous credit for seeing himself in the role of MLK, and shepherding this script into production, but Ava DuVernay deserves even more for taking on the task of revising the script and directing the film, after several directors had passed due to shaky financing.  The money finally came from the UK (with Oprah and Brad Pitt pitching in), which may explain why four central roles -- Martin and Coretta, LBJ and George Wallace – were played by Brits.  (Maybe the Academy did not want to honor two films in row that had furriners looking into American race relations.)

It took an African-American woman to keep it real.  Thank goodness this story didn’t wind up in the hands of a Lee Daniels or Tate Taylor.  Rather than one great man as hero, we get a group portrait of a movement, including women as well as the young and the old, at a moment of high drama, leading to three successive attempts by civil rights marchers to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma during March 1965.  The film maintains an impressive aura of authenticity.  Oyelowo is a perfect King, and Carmen Ejogo is spot-on as Coretta.  Tom Wilkinson convinces as LBJ, despite little physical similarity, and brings a humanity that refutes those who think the film diminishes his contribution to voting rights.  The supporting actors match up so well with their real-life counterparts that it becomes relatively easy to keep track of the diverse cast of characters.  (Though it helps if you know beforehand the differences between SCLC and SNCC, and other movement arcana.)

The collective heroism of the movement develops from individual acts of courage and conscience, through scenes of strategic deliberation and profound balancing of means and ends, to grand set pieces of confrontation staged on the actual sites.  With the Supreme Court recently gutting key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, this film could not come at a better time, to show why such legislation is necessary, even for those who think the only good thing about Obama is that his election proves that “racism is over.”  Voter suppression remains a widespread strategy, and sanctioned police violence against unarmed black citizens goes on and on.  Selma is stirring, timely, and completely believable, even though the filmmakers didn’t have permission to use Dr. King’s actual speeches.  (Excellent extras on the DVD as well.)

Ava DuVernay did not exactly come out of nowhere, as I discovered when I caught up with The Middle of Nowhere (2012, MC-75, NFX).  David Oyelowo has a key supporting role, which is how he connected with her.  But this film belongs to the radiant and effortlessly expressive Emayatzy Corinealdi, who plays a nurse waiting, Penelope-like, for her husband to return from jail.  While he serves his sentence -- with luck, only four years -- she lives a bare existence in Compton, with only her severe mother, plus a single sister with nephew, as company, until her regular bus driver (Oyelowo) draws her out.  This film makes a lot out of a little; a joyful noise out of still, quiet moments; deep meaning out of simple life lived.

It’s worth pointing out that Ms. DuVernay’s two films showcase an emerging cinematographer, Bradford Young, with another good-looking new film to his credit, A Most Violent Year (MC-79, NFX), in which writer-director J. C. Chandor shifts gears from Margin Call and All is Lost, to confirm himself as a filmmaker always worth watching.  Young’s camerawork gives this tale of New York’s underbelly in 1981 a real Godfather glow (and Oyelowo turns up again, as a DA).  Oscar Isaac -- as an immigrant son who has risen in the oil delivery business from driver to salesman to owner (through the expedient of marrying the shady boss’s daughter, Jessica Chastain) – tries to keep within the letter of the law, but lawless forces draw him up to and over the line.  Albert Brooks is excellent as Isaac’s lawyer – go ahead and call him consigliere.  The naturalistic atmosphere of this film is remarkable, in a NYC tradition that runs from On the Waterfront through Serpico.  With Kazan and Lumet, Chandor is in good company indeed.

To circle back to the theme of this round-up, Night Catches Us (2010, MC-65, NFX) depicts a group of Black Panthers in Philadelphia some years after their heyday.  Anthony Mackie returns from prison, and into the orbit of Kerry Washington, the widow of his compatriot shot by the police.  She’s gone to law school and is raising her daughter alone.  (“Bunk” and “Marlo” from The Wire also turn up in the generally excellent cast.)  Though using documentary footage from the 60s, Tanya Hamilton’s promising debut film, set in 1976, takes a thoughtfully domestic look back at the Panthers.


And to give the theme a different perspective, try Girlhood (MC-85, NFX).  Céline Sciamma’s film is about a gang of Parisian girls from African backgrounds, who are powerful indeed.  We first see them playing American football, tackling in full pads, suggesting the sort of gender confusion that the director also explores in Tomboy.  We soon focus on one heartbreakingly-beautiful 15-year-old, played by Karidja Touré.  She is adopted into a trio of tough girls, straightens her dreadlocks and adopts their dress code of denim and leather, as well as their delinquent ways.  The film explores the adolescent quest for identity and the nature of sisterhood, as well as the economic, sexual, and racial constraints of those on the margins.  With this film reminiscent of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, I urge you to mark Ms. Sciamma as a director to follow.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

After the awards

In the weeks after the Oscars are handed out, new DVD releases are backed up like planes on the runway at O’Hare, so in this post I’ll be keeping up with the most celebrated films of last year, as the Blu-Ray disks arrive in my mailbox.  In addition to the Metacritic rating for each film, I’ve listed an overall critical ranking, calculated by averaging together a variety of annual critics’ polls.

I’ll start with my biggest beef with the Academy.  Really? -- “Best Picture” of the year was Birdman (MC-88, #5, NFX)?  In a year that was graced by Boyhood?  There are definitely aspects to be enjoyed in the execution of Birdman, but I found myself utterly unmoved.  Okay, maybe it would be different if I had seen Michael Keaton as Batman, but as a protagonist caught between a past of comic book superhero movies and a present of Broadway theatrics (two genres of strikingly little interest to me, except All About Eve, which might count as both), he wins my admiration for his energy, but the character offers little insight or empathy.  I would say much the same about the admirable cast – Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, and the rest – with the exception of Amy Ryan, whom I always find affecting, as the only person who seems to have a life outside the walls of the theater.  The co-headliner with Keaton is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whose gliding camera style is instantly recognizable but still miraculous, as well as sinuous, continuous, and ubiquitous.  Leaving least till last, I mention “‘Best Director’” Alejandro González Iñárritu, who I don’t really believe has anything to say to me.  I can only assume that Academy voters filled in feelings for experiences I’ve never had. 

Whiplash (MC-88, #9, NFX) built up a year’s worth of acclaim, from multiple Sundance awards to three Academy Awards on top of its Best Picture nomination, and it’s certainly worth seeing, but apart from the powerful performances of Miles Teller and Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons, hardly rates a rave.  To me, under-thirty writer-director Damien Chazelle relies too much on well-worn tropes to tell the story of an aspiring young drummer and his oh-so-demanding music school instructor, thereby earning the sobriquet, “Full Metal Julliard.”  Besides the drill sergeant veins popping out of Simmons’ temples, and the horrific abuse that spews with spittle from his mouth, the film plays out like dozens of sports movies, in overcoming every manner of adversity just in time for one final rousing all-or-nothing competition.  Despite the over-hyping of the story, there is enough personal experience in Chazelle’s film to give it an aura of authenticity, along with its kinetic pleasures.

More engaged with The Theory of Everything (MC-72, NFX) than expected, I credit that largely to Felicity Jones, who emerges into stardom with this film, even more than Eddie Redmayne with his Best Actor Oscar.  I’ve always been skeptical about theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, and found Errol Morris’ documentary about him, A Brief History of Time, much more interesting and unsettling than Hawking’s bestseller of the same name, and indeed more interesting than this Hollywoodization of his life.  The source for this new film was Jane Hawking’s memoir, and maybe Felicity Jones had more material to work with, but she is definitely the more engaging character in the film, as she commits to Hawking at Cambridge, despite his disease and his severely limited prognosis, and cares for him diligently for decades, during which they have three children.  Director James Marsh showed his chops with the documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim, but his eclectic try-anything style does not translate so well to features.  Since I am defiantly less interested in cosmology than in family relations, I found this “theory of marriage” more satisfying than those who were looking for some exposition of Hawking’s own pie-in-the-sky theories.

In vein of Oscar-bait biopics of differently-abled British geniuses, I found The Imitation Game (MC-73, NFX) somewhat less engaging, despite Benedict Cumberbatch’s impressive impersonation of Alan Turing, the brilliant, autistic, homosexual mathematician, famous for breaking Germany’s Enigma code during WWII, meanwhile developing an early digital computer as well as the idea of artificial intelligence, of which the Turing Test remains the arbiter.  Given a lot to pack into a relatively short running time, this film sacrifices depth for broad coverage.  The screenplay seems a bit callow, and the direction a bit stodgy, but the acting is good across the board, from Keira Knightley as the one woman on the code-breaking crew at Bletchley Park, to the boy who plays Turing during flashbacks to his school days.  With all the flashbacks and flashforwards, plus the montage summations of the war’s progress, the film finally comes across as overstuffed, if undernourished by genuine human complexity.

Bennett Miller seems to be one of those well-regarded directors, indeed Oscar-nominated, who simply isn’t on my wavelength, with a rhythm and focus different from mine.  I could see plenty of good things in Foxcatcher (MC-81, #27, NFX), but as in Capote and Moneyball, something kept me from full engagement.  It just seems that he doesn’t tell me what I want to know, show me what I want to see.  There was indeed some fascination in watching the odd but compelling performances of Steve Carell as the bizarre duPont heir with the eagle nose; Channing Tatum as an extremely convincing Olympic wrestler, dim and inarticulate; and Mark Ruffalo as his older brother, also an Olympic gold medalist, but an engaging coach and family man.  I was not aware of the true story behind this film, so wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but even afterwards I had very little sense of why.  Along the way, there are sharp observations and some implicit social and political critique, but I didn’t come away with any particular understanding of the characters.

Still to come are two Best Picture nominees not yet on DVD, about which I expect to have opposite reactions, Selma and American Sniper.  Of the two nominees I’ve previously reviewed, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is precisely to my taste and my favorite by a wide margin, while Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is somewhat the opposite.  I’ll soon be running down my own list of the year’s best, after I see a few more of the critical consensus Top 50 films.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

New & noted

While I’m catching up with the Oscar “Best Picture” nominees of 2014, as they come out on Blu-ray, before making my own soon-to-come ranking of the best films of the year, I’ve been watching other recent releases little noticed by the Academy, but more so by critics.  (Along with Metacritic rating, I give a numerical ranking that represents a calculated critical consensus.)

The family that makes films together, stays together, or so we can hope.  In his debut as director in Nightcrawler (MC-76, #28, NFX), Dan Gilroy teamed with his brothers, producer Tony (director of MichaelClayton and The Bourne Legacy) and editor John, to make a film that would do their father proud, Hollywood old pro Frank D. Gilroy.  One can almost hear their high-concept pitch to investors -- this is Taxi Driver meets Network.  But the Gilroy boys bring the whole thing off with style and wit, given the immeasurable contribution of Jake Gyllenhaal in a career-best performance, as he plays the creepy title role, a sociopath who finds his career path, prowling the streets of LA at night, looking for blood and gore to film for sale to local newscasts, where “if it bleeds, it leads.”  He becomes a figure of menace and even horror, all while spouting nothing but self-help seminar affirmations picked up on the internet, a true American go-getter, with no concept of any reality other than his own drive to succeed.  As the wreckage builds around him, he becomes an avaricious avatar of capitalist media.  Neat trick to embody this satiric critique in a film ablaze with shootouts, car wrecks, and plenty of blood.  Also, a neat trick for Dan to elicit a believable performance from his wife, Rene Russo.  My expectations were low for this film, even lower after watching the accompanying previews on the DVD, but they were far exceeded, to make for an unlikely recommendation.

Writers, apparently, are the most unlikable of people, so I suppose director Alex Ross Perry is brave to center his Listen Up Philip (MC-76, #19, NFX) around two of the least likable authors around.  And since Philip Roth made such hay out of alter egos and masks and shifting identities, he’s fair game for such treatment in turn.   Jason Schwartzman is Philip Lewis Friedman, a second novelist of surpassing obnoxiousness, who is taken under the wing of a successful older novelist named Ike Zimmerman, played with acid glee by Jonathan Pryce.  Zimmerman is the obvious Roth stand-in, the name reminiscent of Roth’s Zuckerman, with plot elements taken from his first Zuckerman novel, The Ghost Writer.  Schwartzman might be taken as a younger version of the same character, but perhaps alludes to Bruce Jay Friedman.  All this inside lit-biz receives its most hilarious visualization in the parody jacket designs of all the books by the two authors.  As an avid reader of Roth, and a longtime bookseller, it was fun for me to match fake to actual book covers, but hard for me to accept that Roth young or old was quite so unredeemable a character.  Elizabeth Moss is foremost among the women whom Philip treats abominably, and her story offers a bit of respite from the literary bile.  I watched this under conditions where I missed some of the dialogue, so I’ll hold off on a thumbs down, but have little taste for a second viewing to hear what I missed.  Still, as someone who lives with a full shelf of Roth hardcovers, I was amused by the turnabout, whether it was fair play or not.

The Sundance TV series Babylon sent me looking for more of Brit Marling, the indie-it-girl of the moment, or so I read, which in turn led me to The Better Angels (MC-53, NFX), a film about Abe Lincoln’s childhood produced by Terrence Malick, and directed in just his style by A.J. Edwards, his editor on several films.  Since many hate the master, many disparage his acolyte, but I found this film highly watchable.  In stately black & white filled with Malickian images, angles, and voiceovers, the film tells of Abe’s sainted mother Nancy Hanks (Brit Marling) and even more saintly stepmother Sarah (Diane Kruger), and in the meantime conveys a genuine impression of life on the American frontier in the early 19th century, as Malick has done for the early 17th and 20th centuries, in The New World and Days of Heaven.  If you want a clear story told in a straightforward way, this is not for you.  If you want to meditate on certain historical themes while enjoying rapturous visuals and terse enigmatic narration, then this might be just the thing.

We’re all rooting for you, Jon, as you move on from The Daily Show, and we’ll follow what you do, the stories you feel you have to tell, just as we did with Rosewater (MC-66, NFX).  Jon Stewart’s debut as writer-director of a feature film was honorable in every way, but not especially good, more earnest than insightful, less funny or pointed that his Daily schtick.  He’s helped by the presence of the always-watchable Gael Garcia Bernal, oddly cast as an Iranian journalist who was thrown in jail for covering the so-called Green Revolution after the 2009 election.  But frankly, this is a film I watched more out of loyalty than reward.

Locke (MC-81, #42, NFX) is an interesting exercise in minimalism, if not a fully engaging and satisfying film.  It’s one guy driving in a car and talking on the phone with various people for eighty minutes.  The guy, a construction foreman, leaves work, makes a decision, and takes a turn that has cascading effects on his job, his family, and his very sense of self.  Writer-director Stephen Knight and actor Tom Hardy make it work, maintaining involvement within the cramped space, and suspense in isolation, but the trip from here to there doesn’t get very far.

I took one for the team with Top Five (MC-81, NFX).  I watched it all the way through, so you don’t have to, unless you’re a Chris Rock fan, or perhaps the title conceit means something to you.  The touchstone for most of the characters is their personal list of top five rappers, and knowing so few myself, I was at a loss as to whatever characterization was implied.  Chris Rock and Rosario Dawson have some substance and appeal as the dueling rom-com adversaries, celebrity and reporter; and Chris Rock the director actually has some feel for the not-so-mean streets of New York; but Chris Rock the writer exploits only the most hackneyed of plot devices.  As a stand-up comedian with a lot of friends in the business, he populates the film with a host of them.  There are plenty of amusing moments, but very little heart or head.

There might be too much heart and head in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (MC-79, #11, NFX), too cerebral and too sentimental at the same time.  Whether he has refreshed the vampire genre is a matter of taste; whether you want to sink your teeth into this tale of Adam and Eve, undead lovers who have been together for centuries, is up to you.  Though they’re friends of Christopher Marlowe (for whom Shakespeare was merely a front), and formerly consorted with Byron and his circle, they now find themselves driving the dark deserted streets of post-industrial Detroit and living in an abandoned Victorian mansion.  They are of course the ultimate hipsters, colonizing urban terrain that the “zombies” have left behind.  They’ve got their blood addiction under control, contriving to get what they need without killing people for it, quaffing their elixir and sucking on Type-O popsicles.  Tilda Swinton is the mesmerizing Eve, Tom Hiddleston is the Romantic depressive Adam, solitary composer of electronic dirges.  Mia Wasikowska shows up as Ava, Eve’s sister “by blood,” and John Hurt is Kit Marlowe.  You’ve got to have a tolerance for this sort of thing, but if you can take the premise and the languorous pace, Jarmusch has delivered a witty, moody tone poem.


Remember, if you can, this name – Gugu Mbatha-Raw.  She is destined to become a star, but remain an actress.  She book-ended last year with extremely-winning roles in the Jane Austen-ish historical romance Belle and the of-the-moment show biz story Beyond the Lights (MC-73, NFX).  The latter film, by Gina Prince-Blythewood (of the fondly-remembered Love & Basketball – she could title her films more memorably), is a soapy romance enhanced by good acting from appealing characters, and a sophisticated perspective on the context of celebrity.  Gugu is Noni, an interracial child groomed for success by stage mother Minnie Driver.  She wants to sing Nina Simone, or better yet, her own songs, but her mother has managed her career into a role as bootylicious foil to an odious white rapper.  (Many reviewers reference Rihanna, but that’s a pop culture reference that means next to nothing to me.)  Providentially, Noni encounters Kaz, a Cory Booker-like cop and political aspirant, played by an equally attractive Nate Parker.  You know, and I know, and every viewer knows, that they are meant for each other, but will confront obstacles before the final clench.  So, no surprise in where the story is going, but lots of incidental pleasures and telling points along the way.  And thus, a believable star is born.