Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Cinema Salon redux?

I’ve received no indication yet when, or whether, auditorium film programs will resume at the Clark, but either way, I’m reviving this website, starting with quick reactions to the backlog of films I’ve watched over the past six months, in a series of composite reviews – new features, new documentaries, old films, recent television series – that I will get to in quick succession.  To expedite the process of catching up and getting current, for most films I will give only a brief recommendation, or the reverse, but supply direct links to Metacritic summary of opinion and Netflix availability, and also rankings in Film Comment and Indiewire year-end polls of critics.  

In the spirit of renewal, I am giving this blog a new look.  I’ll continue to tinker with design and content, so feel free to comment or advise, either by blog comment or email to:

Checking my list

For the Clark’s 50th anniversary in 2005, I programmed a film series based on my choices for the “Top Directors Younger Than the Clark,” the careers to watch, of “filmmakers for the 21st century, whose names will be attached to some of the most thought-provoking, funny, and passionate movies forthcoming.”  As I survey the best films of 2013, I had occasion to revisit that list, and how I arrived at my choices.  

(As usual, I include links to Metacritic’s collective critical rating and Netflix availability for each film, and also its ranking in year-end critics polls from Film Comment and IndieWire.)

One of my choices back then, Richard Linklater, produced my very favorite film of 2013, Before Midnight (MC-94, FC #3, IW #3, NFX), which I already reviewed here.  Another, Alfonso Cuaron, got the Best Director Oscar for Gravity (MC-96, FC #7, IW #5, NFX), my review here.

Two more of my predictive favorites, David O. Russell and Alexander Payne, were nominated for Best Director and Best Picture.  Russell’s American Hustle (MC-90, FC #19, IW #15, NFX) builds upon the successes of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, taking Christian Bale and Amy Adams from one, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from the other, but I’ll need a second look before I put it in the class of its predecessors.

Payne’s Nebraska (MC-86, FC #18, IW #17, NFX) represents a return to home ground, and to form -- in stark, desolately beautiful black & white -- after the excursions to California wine country in Sideways and to Hawaii in The Descendants, but his precisely observant and deliciously dry wit still (con)descends a bit into slapstick and schmaltz.  (He almost always goes wrong with the scene where someone slugs somebody else.)   

One of the Coen brothers was born after 1955, so they snuck on to my list, until schedule was cut back from 12 to 10.  Their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis (MC-92, FC #1, IW #2, NFX) was a critical favorite that got no Oscar love.  As for me, I liked it better than their Oscar winner No Country for Old Men, but not as much as the subsequent A Serious Man or even their surprising remake of True Grit.  Like the movie itself, Oscar Isaac as Llewyn was amazing while he was singing, and purposefully annoying the rest of the time.

Of my other 2005 choices, Cameron Crowe has not made a film that came up to my earlier expectation, and neither has Atom Egoyan.  Lukas Moodyson made Mammoth, a film with Michelle Williams and Gael Garcia Bernal, which I rather liked, and has another well-received film not yet released in the U.S.  Michael Winterbottom has continued to churn out diverse, inventive films at an amazing rate, all of which I’m happy to see, but the high points have been the three he’s made with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story, The Trip, and forthcoming, The Trip to Italy.

Of my chosen women directors, Sofia Coppola has gone on to make Marie Antoinette, which I heartily endorse; Somewhere, which left me cold; and last year’s The Bling Ring, which I found better than could be expected, given the subject.  Gurinder Chadha has fallen off the map, but another young woman to watch has clearly taken her place among my favorites, Sarah Polley.

Dueling wits

I’m a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but not so much of Joss Whedon’s other work, so I wasn’t sure how I’d react to his home movie version of Much Ado About Nothing (2013, MC-78, NFX) but it turned out a delight.  Joss makes a practice of inviting friends over his Santa Monica house for readings of Shakespeare, and after the rigors of his superhero blockbuster The Avengers, he gathered them at his home for twelve days and turned out this lively contemporary adaptation in lustrous black & white.  The cast does a good job of rendering the dialogue in surprisingly demotic fashion.  Amy Acker is excellent as Beatrice, and Alexis Denisof (of Buffy) pairs nicely as Benedict, trading barbs until they can acknowledge their mutual attraction.  Whedon regular Nathan Fillion makes an offbeat but effective Dogberry, the comical constable.  The rest of the cast does a good job of keeping up.  It’s dashed off, but not slapdash, and reinforces Whedon as a filmmaker to watch.

I thought it would be fun to take another look at Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version of Much Ado About Nothing  (NFX), with him as Benedict and Emma Thompson as Beatrice, and while remaining enjoyable, it has easily as many flaws and gaps.  The leads are fine, and Denzel Washington holds his own, Kate Beckinsale is lovely, but Michael Keaton’s Dogberry is much broader and less effective, Keanu Reeves makes a stolid villain, and Robert Sean Leonard simply doesn’t have it.  The Tuscan villa setting is striking, but not so much all the scurrying and scampering of the company around it.  Gotta love Emma, however, and she brought out the best in Kenneth for a while.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Recent and recommended

After stuffing a wide variety of films into a grab bag of commentary on movies that you might like but I can’t quite recommend, here I offer up some films you really should see.

With home viewing of such high quality and wide availability, it takes a lot to get me out of the house and into a theater (other than the Clark auditorium, which I take as a high-tech extension of home).  Gravity (MC-96, Images Cinema) easily passed the test, arriving in 3-D to rapturous reviews, directed by Alfonso Cuaron and starring George Clooney, particular favorites of mine.  Sandra Bullock ain’t bad either.  And it really becomes her movie, to share with the head-spinning special effects.  Driving a bus that will blow up if it drops below 50 mph is a Sunday picnic compared to this.  Gravity lands as a space adventure that is intimate and epic at the same time, realistic and utterly fantastical.  An accident leaves astronauts Clooney and Bullock adrift in space, and they embark on an improbable but impressively detailed quest to return to earth.  As a somatic joyride, this film can hardly be beat – only at the end did I realize my body had been clenched in tension the whole time.  As to characterizations and backstory, Cuaron’s script, written with his son, is a bit formulaic and unconvincing.  But the technical achievement is so convincing, any story deficiencies hardly matter.  Of all the visual wonders, I cite one in particular:  We see Bullock tumbling over and over through empty space, and then we drift closer and see the earth doing flips in the visor of her helmet, and then we pass right through the visor, and get her view looking out, all in seamless deep perspective.  Emmanuel Lubezki cements himself as one of the most amazing cinematographers working today.  This one has to be seen to be believed (though not thought about too much afterwards).

What Maisie Knew (MC-74, NFX) is a transposition of the Henry James novel to modern Manhattan, directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel.  In telling the story of a divorce from the perspective of a child, they were dependent on the performance of a six-year-old and scored big with Onata Aprile, a grave and watchful little girl completely unaware of how adorable she is, with a rare gift for behaving naturally on camera.  Her parents are an aging rock star (Julianne Moore) and an irresponsible art dealer (Steve Coogan), who use Maisie as a pawn in a messy custody battle.  The daddy marries the nanny, and the mommy marries a bartender, both more attuned to the child’s needs, but with lives of their own, so the child is passed from hand to hand and frequently left alone, pampered and neglected by turn.  There’s suspense in the risks Maisie faces, and hope in her resilience and resourcefulness, what she knows and what she doesn’t.  The city itself is an important character in the film, with a nice little cameo for the High Line.  This is a small but well-calibrated film, with an absolutely riveting central performance.

Another overlooked little gem is In the House (MC-72, NFX).  The combination of Fabrice Luchini and Kristin Scott Thomas was plenty to hook me, though I’ve found director Francois Ozon’s previous work unmemorable.   I’ll remember this one, however, as a neat balance of wit and suspense, in the vein of a Gallic Charlie Kaufman, with a penetrating view of the writing process.  Luchini, a high school literature teacher (and frustrated writer), finds a rare gem of a student, whose writing exercises draw him and his gallerist wife (KST) into the world of the poor boy’s obsession with the perfect middle-class family of a classmate.  Under Luchini’s encouragement (and a good deal more), the boy (slyly played by Ernst Umhauer) draws them (and us) into his quest to get inside the house and into the bedrooms of that domestic haven.  Pleasingly saturated with allusions to literature and other films, with an abundance of clever reference and first-rate performances, this film really tickled my fancy.

If you’d like a fascinating look inside an exotic subculture, but with enough universal emotions to make the proceedings intelligible and moving, then the Israeli film Fill the Void (MC-81, NFX) fills the bill.  Rama Burshtein’s first directorial effort is quite an accomplishment, a taken-for-granted (though utterly unpolitical) view from inside an Ultra-Orthodox community, which registered on me as a testament to the power of women in a super-patriarchal society.  It’s Jane Austen-ish in its focus on authentic matrimonial choice.  Shira (compellingly played by Hadas Yaron) is an 18-year-old daughter of an elder, who is faced with a number of potential matches, in which she has to weigh her own feelings and the needs of her family and community.  Shot mostly in extreme close-up, the film focuses on faces in a way that enhances nuance, and elicits attention, extending one’s sympathies to an unfamiliar situation. 

Recommended with reservations

Completeness compels me to take note of a large number of new films released in the past year that I’ve seen but do not urgently recommend that you see.  Even the first, which I liked best of all, requires a willing receptivity by the viewer.  Still, there’s a good chance that you will find something in this bunch that you might like, if you can triangulate from my taste to yours.  (As usual, I include links to Metacritic for more info and Netflix for availability.)

One has to give Patrick Wang credit for the courage of his convictions with In the Family (MC-82, NFX).  Not only writing, directing, and starring, he undertook, after many festival rejections, his own distribution.  He definitely put himself out there, and didn’t compromise with the audience either, at a length of nearly three hours.   The film plays out with a whispery intimacy in prolonged scenes from fixed Ozu-like angles.  But if you give it your attention, this anti-polemic ultimately packs a punch.  We open very matter-of-factly on a gay couple with Tennessee accents and a young son, and we quietly share some of their daily rituals.  It’s an ordinary yet idyllic family, until the unthinkable happens, a death and a custody battle, which ultimately plays out like a Buddhist parable.  This film may put you to sleep, or it may wake you up, but for me it’s definitely the pick of this litter. 

I could almost recommend Mud (MC-76, NFX) except for the literal overkill of its ending.  Up till then, I liked Jeff Nichols’ latest better than his previous Take Shelter, or the highly-praised Beasts of the Southern Wild, with which it shares a lower Mississippi setting amongst an eccentric riverside community.  The Huck and Tom of this tale are called Ellis (a wonderful Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone, who go in search of a boat up a tree on a deserted island in the middle of the river, where it was tossed by a recent flood.  That magical occurrence heralds others, including first love for the 14-year-old Ellis, but mostly the meeting with the title character, marvelously embodied by Matthew McConaughey in another of the flavorful performances that allow one to forgive him for his “sexiest man alive” days.  Mud claims to be a lover, and a killer on the run, and enlists the boys in his quest to retrieve his darling Juniper (Reese Witherspoon, with not a lot to do) and escape down the river.  There are a number of other well-known faces in Nichols’ good-looking indie-turned-Hollywood, Michael Shannon and Sam Shepard for two, and it’s enjoyable to watch, until a few formulaic implausibilities intrude on a thoughtful and attentive portrait of an exotic subculture, and the immemorial pleasure of a boy’s own adventure.

I’d like to recommend To the Wonder (MC-58, NFX), but in truth it’s for Terence Malick fans only, an obsessive sketchbook of his favorite images.  If you want to a see beautiful young women dancing away from you through tall waving grasses while the music soars, then this is the film for you.  No one can deny the pictorial delight wrought by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki from Paris or Mont Saint-Michel, or most remarkably, from a suburban housing development in Oklahoma.  Malick has his own visual syntax, which you get or you don’t, but here he’s mainly repeating himself, beautifully and eloquently, but not to every taste.  You’ve got to give Ben Affleck credit for balancing the ego-trip of Argo with his submission to Malick here; he barely gets to utter a line of dialogue and is more likely to be caught making an inadvertent gesture than “acting.”  Same for Rachel MacAdam as an old rancher girl friend with whom he reconnects.  Javier Bardem gets a good deal of portentous narration, but not much chance to build his character, a priest having a crisis of disbelief but retaining his sorrowful sympathy with humanity and the mysteries of love.  But Olga Kurylenko is the darling of Malick’s eye, dancing before our eyes as she bewitches, then bewilders Affleck, and us too, with her high-flown voiceovers.  I could tell you the story, but the story is not the point.  The point is the celebration of the numinous qualities of nature and light.  If you’re yawning already, pass this by.  If your eyes and your heart are open, then watch it for its wonder and forgive its pondering ponderousness.

I have to give a “maybe yes” to No (MC-81, NFX), which is the opposite of ponderous, taking a surprisingly light-hearted and light-footed approach to the endgame of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.  Always a pleasure to watch, Gael Garcia Bernal is a mostly apolitical ad man commissioned by the opposition in a plebiscite, which Pinochet offered as thumbs up or down on his tenure in office.  Shot on 1988-vintage video equipment that meshes seamlessly with news footage from that time, Pablo Larrain’s film mixes Mad Men antics with serious political commentary, as the protagonists try to sell revolutionary change like a new brand of soda.  Can you overthrow a dictator with ad jingles featuring rainbows and sexy girls singing and romping?  According to this droll film, you can – a pyrrhic victory for freedom and market values.  I might have preferred a good documentary on the subject, but this Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film was worthy, and in its own way informative.

Since it was also shot on vintage video, this a good spot to mention Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess (MC-74, NFX) a film on which I have to recuse myself as reviewer, because my daughter’s boyfriend is the producer.  This film is set a decade earlier than No, so the video image is even scuzzier, but if like me you used to cart around a Sony PortaPak, you will get a huge kick out of watching the flaring and ghosting of grainy black & white pictures, while within the frame we see some poor suckers lugging around those cumbersome machines.  Sometime around 1980, a convention of big-time geeks, from Caltech to MIT, is gathering at a nowheresville motel to pit their refrigerator-sized computers against each other in a chess tournament.  Meanwhile at the same motel, an encounter group weekend is touching and feeling its way to release, while the nerds remain attached to their machines.  In its witty, low-key manner, this film offers a neat retrospective prophecy of Facebook, Internet hook-ups, and a host of other human interactions with technology.  Don’t take my word for it, take that of A.O. Scott in the New YorkTimes.

[Click through for a score of recent films, not without merit, but for which my reservations exceed my recommendation.]

Friday, September 06, 2013

Coming to the Clark

Though much of the Clark is in the throes of construction, the auditorium will continue to function, though a bit of a challenge to reach.  The courtyard is closed off, so you will have to come through the West entrance -- park on South Street, or in the lot to the left of the entrance road, then walk under the bridge that connects the two museum buildings, and around the auditorium to the rear entrance.

On Saturday Oct. 12, the regular Clark fall film series will begin.  Here are the details:

"Artists Behaving Badly"
Free film series in Clark auditorium 
Saturdays at 2:00 pm 

Artists tend by nature to be transgressive, in the life as well as the work.  While the Clark usually celebrates the boldness of the artist’s work, this film series takes an ironical look at examples of bad behavior provided by the artist’s life – be it forgery or fornication; drugs or drink; mayhem, madness, or even murder.

October 12:  THE MODERNS  (1988, 126 min.)  Alan Rudolph’s evocation of Paris in the 1920s stars Keith Carradine as a fictional painter set amongst real world figures like Gertrude Stein, Picasso, and Hemingway.

October 19:  MY LEFT FOOT  (1989, 103 min.)  Daniel Day-Lewis plays Christy Brown in Jim Sheridan’s adaptation of the autobiography of the Irish artist afflicted with cerebral palsy and attendant demons.

November 16:  SCARLET STREET  (1945, 103 min.)  Fritz Lang’s classic film noir features Edward G. Robinson as a Greenwich Village Sunday painter who falls afoul of femme fatale Joan Bennett.

November 23:  THE FOUNTAINHEAD  (1949, 114 min.)  King Vidor’s fever-dream adaptation of Ayn Rand’s pot-boiling bestseller finds Gary Cooper, as F.L. Wright-like architect, subject to the steamy passion of Rand’s self-image in Patricia Neal.

November 30:  THE HORSE’S MOUTH  (1958, 95 min.)  Alec Guinness wrote this adaptation of the Joyce Cary novel and stars as an uncouth painter who will stop at nothing to realize his visions on any available space; Ronald Neame directs.

December 7:  AGE OF CONSENT  (1969, 103 min.)  Michael Powell directs James Mason as a painter who flees his New York gallery for the Great Barrier Reef, where he finds the voluptuous -- if under-aged -- Helen Mirren as model and muse.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Writers' revenge -- tops in TV

In this survey I’ll be commenting on the recent Emmy nominees for Outstanding Drama Series, work through some other quality television, and wind up with a strong recommendation for one series not nominated but certainly as good as any that were. 

Hollywood has a fabled history of scorn for the screenwriter, and his role in filmmaking.  (Forgive the pronoun, but gender disparity requires it.)  Not just the stories of writers like Faulkner and Fitzgerald being chewed up and spit out by the studio system, but look at the corpses of screenwriters that litter the landscape from Sunset Boulevard to The Player.  No more – that worm has turned.

The thematic thread running through my comments -- the rise to cultural prominence of the limited tv series, as a medium dominated by writers as showrunners – is derived partially from two books I’ve read recently: The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall, and Difficult Men by Brett Martin, both of which cover the ground from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad.  Sepinwall is more reporter and critic, more comprehensive, while Martin is more writer himself, more impressionistic and given to storytelling.  Both are as readable as the series they discuss are watchable.  

I don’t object to Downton Abbey (MC-83, NFX) as a cultural phenomenon, but I don’t believe it’s a very good show, just posh Anglophilic soap opera.  I’m not very posh myself, but with an English mother I am as Anglophile as the next man, and I appreciate the appeal of soap opera as the engine that drives all the series I’m about to discuss -- coming to know characters through time, to see the changes they go through, and the changes they ring on a basic personality we know so well.  Nonetheless, this program illustrates my point -- Julian Fellowes was the screenwriter for Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, but now he runs the whole show and gets to call on all that BBC talent in heritage productions.  He’s skilled but opportunistic, without much of a coherent worldview beyond a hazy nostalgia for aristocratic living, and the series reflects that, however many people add their own skills to the production.

The BBC/PBS series I much prefer is Call the Midwife (MC-80, NFX), which derives an authentic authorial voice from the memoir on which it’s based (narration read by Vanessa Redgrave).  It’s about a group of nurses and nuns operating a childbirth clinic and outpatient services in the East End of London in the Fifties, sort of the flipside to Mike Leigh’s great film Vera Drake.  The show has an appealing cast of diverse women, and grapples with significant social and personal issues episode by episode.  It’s funny and moving by turns, and flavors its sentimentality with grit, never sacrificing believability.  The same cannot be said of another British import about a group of women at work in the same period, The Bletchley Circle (MC-73, NFX) – these women worked in codebreaking during WWII, but are now thwarted housewives and the like.  They band together to catch a serial killer of other women, and over three hour-long episodes, drag out every woman-in-jeopardy trope available, hang all plausibility.

The better recent evocation of the Downton Abbey era and setting was HBO’s adaptation of the Ford Madox Ford novel, Parade’s End (MC-73, NFX), which makes little concession to viewers’ desires or understanding, but does stand as a literary monument to the passing of a certain aristocratic style in the crucible of WWI.  Benedict Cumberbatch is an upper class civil servant who goes to the front, while his wife Rebecca Hall gallivants around, and he pines for the sweet suffragette Adelaide Clemens (a perfect cross between Michelle Williams and Carey Mulligan).  The whole seems authentic even when it remains unintelligible.  In some ways this is to Downton what The Wire was to Law & Order -- it’s work to watch.  This one lacks the ultimate payoff for sticking with it, but still, the acting and the production design make it worth looking at for its duration.

To return to the Emmy nominees, I have to say that Homeland (MC-96, NFX) is out of consideration for me, having sacrificed all believability in the course of its second season, revealing its DNA from 24 and leading me to take a rather violent turn against the show.  I still think Claire Danes and Damien Lewis are terrific, and even Mandy Patinkin, but if the writers don’t care about the integrity of their characters, why should I?  They’re just puppets being moved around a storyboard to provide dramatic beats.  I really don’t care what happens next, and that’s quite a fall for a show that riveted my attention for a season and a half.

The Netflix-produced House of Cards (MC-76, NFX) almost reached the same point, when a venal, power-greedy politician turned to hands-on murder, but somehow I weathered that blow to credibility and wound up impressed with the series overall.  If you thought Congress’s approval rating could go no lower than its current 9% or whatever, wait till you meet these denizens of the Beltway.  No heroes here, but at least the villains have multiple layers.  Kevin Spacey is denied his rightful spot in the victorious administration, so he uses his position in Congress to manipulate matters behind the scenes.  As his wife, the ever-amazing Robin Wright is just as hungry for power as the head of an environmental NGO.  It takes two great actors to give this power couple a complexity beyond mendacity.  Betokening a shift in primacy both from film to television, and from networks to new content providers -- in this case Netflix --Beau Willimon’s adaptation of a British series enlisted David Fincher to direct the first episodes.  The production was impeccable, and the instantaneous release of all 13 episodes completed the evolution of tv series that can be read in the manner of a novel.  I’d definitely watch a second season, but now we turn to three serious contenders for the title of best current series.

Though the showrunners (David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) are hardly household names, HBO’s Game of Thrones (MC-90, NFX) does celebrate the primacy of writers in its devotion to the George R. R. Martin novels on which it’s based, and they do an excellent job of balancing multiple storylines from his immense series of books.  Don’t let an aversion to sword & sorcery, dungeons & dragons, and other medieval fantasies steer you away from this show, if you are at all susceptible to the lure of soap opera, or even to opera without the soap.  Whether it’s a carefully nurtured attachment to characters, or grand and lurid spectacle, you will find here a bounty on which to feast your eyes.  You may never sort out the Lannisters and Starks, Tyrells and Targaryens, but you’ll come to recognize a colorful and absorbing swirl of characters vying for the Iron Throne.  Whether in Washington or Westeros, the lust for power never gets old, nor the power of lust.  But I have to say, this must be one of the worst series to drop into at random.  Commit to it, or pass it by.  Some episodes are better than others, but the whole is overpowering.

Mad Men (MC-87, NFX) has even greater variation between episodes that make me say “Wow!” and episodes that make me say “Huh?”   But on balance I am determined to keep watching Matthew Weiner unfold his vision of the Sixties, from the perspective of Madison Avenue and its denizens.  Again with the characters – Don, Peggy, Roger, Joan, Pete, Sally, et al. – you just want to know what they will do next.  Again with the stylish design, and evocation of another period and place.  The setting in an era I lived through, with reference points that I shared, adds to the appeal.  Matt Weiner and his Don Draper are archetypal “difficult men,” in direct descent from David Chase and his Tony Soprano -- all men impossible to deal with, but necessary to pay attention to.

The same applies to Walter White in Breaking Bad (MC-99, NFX), though apparently not to his creator, Vince Gilligan, reputed to run the happiest writers room in Hollywood.  I will have more to say after the series-concluding episodes, which begin to air August 11 on AMC.  If that date is not already marked on your calendar, you ought to go back and catch up with the 54 prior episodes, now streaming on Netflix.  I’m working my way through all of them a second time to prepare for the story’s climax, of the meek chemistry teacher turned power-mad drug overlord – Mr. Chips to Scarface, in the off-cited pitch phrase -- and finding it a surprisingly rewarding experience to watch with foreknowledge of how everything will unfold.  That really enhances one’s appreciation for what Vince and his writers bring to the table, in terms of both imagination and a deep collective understanding of the characters and their histories.  There’s potent acting across the board and a great setting in Albuquerque, rendered with thrilling visual effects, along with phenomenal, fearless, and funny storytelling.  Breaking Bad is better than good – it’s superbad.

On the topic of new platforms for original programming, the Sundance Channel aired a couple of well-regarded series this year.  In another interesting move from film to television, Jane Campion directed Top of the Lake (MC-86, NFX), a police procedural with a fantastically picturesque setting in New Zealand.  Elizabeth Moss plays the lead detective, in an interesting departure from Mad Men’s Peggy.  Peter Mullan is thrillingly intense as the patriarch of a criminal clan.  It’s all very moody and atmospheric, but didn’t repay me enough for seven hours of investigating yet more violence against young women.  I just don’t need to see any more progeny of Twin Peaks.

Rectify (MC-81, NFX), however, struck me as something quite different.  Ray McKinnon’s series, set to come back for a second season, follows a man who returns from the dead -- or at least from 19 years on death row, exonerated by DNA testing for the murder of his high school sweetheart -- and tries to fit back into his family and his small hometown in Georgia, where his guilt is still generally accepted.  Returned to a life where everything is disorienting, circumstances familiar but utterly transformed, the central character is played with stunned, unfiltered receptivity by Aden Young.  Very slow-paced but meaningfully so, with great visual acuity, and a profound appreciation of the protagonist’s viewpoint, back in a world he never expected to see again, back to his teenage self in a weird sort of time travel, transformed by two decades of reading in solitary confinement.  The show is well-populated with convincing actors, but two stand out, Abigail Spencer as the steadfast sister, and Adelaide Clemens (again) as a very sympathetic sister-in-law.   If you’ve got the patience for these six episodes, it will be repaid.

In comedy categories, Arrested Development on Netflix (MC-71, NFX) and Veep on HBO (MC-75, NFX) got some Emmy recognition, but I want to point your attention in a different direction.  I looked forward to the revival of Arrested Development for a fourth season after a decade’s delay, since I had belatedly become a fan of the first three, but I watched several episodes without getting involved at all.  Veep I like okay, but not nearly as much as the British series on which it’s based.  So I point to yet another platform for viewing, Hulu-Plus, which has exclusive US rights to The Thick of It (MC-90, Hulu).  The show has an hilarious ensemble of political types, in a British cabinet office, but becomes transcendent in the foul-mouthed director of communications played by Peter Capaldi, who takes invective and insult to levels not heard since Shakespeare.  Hulu also had an exclusive on the latest season of The Peep Show (NFX, Hulu), which certainly came up to the level of the previous seasons, which are available on Netflix.  I urge you to give it a try – you’ll quickly find it either quite annoying or just about the funniest show you’ve ever seen.

And now I kick my recommendation engine into overdrive, and bend your ear about the best show you might never have heard of.  Justified (MC-90, NFX) garnered no Emmy nominations for the FX channel, but I would rank it right at the top of the heap, alongside Breaking Bad.  Indeed, I was motivated to give BrBa another run-through because I found the experience of re-watching the first three seasons of Justified so compelling, as it has remained through the fourth.  The whole is very much of a piece, the product of a singular voice and vision, which are owed to the original source material in Elmore Leonard and to the “What would Elmore do?” showrunning of Graham Yost.  Leonard has had his books turned into any number of crime films or westerns, but this show is a perfect summation of his long career -- humorously demotic and tersely poetic, an elevation of low-lifes into figures worthy of classical comedy or tragedy.  Leading an attractive cast consistently superb in character development and timing of delivery, Timothy Olyphant plays Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal exiled back to his home in Harlan County for being quick and deadly on the trigger, though always with some justification.  Walton Goggins is transfixing as his nemesis and doppelganger; they came up through the coal mines together, both scions of Harlan crime families.  The whole series revolves around issues of clan and brotherhood, and Oedipal conflicts between fathers and sons.  (Or in the especially memorable second season, mother and sons, as the story centers on Margo Martindale as the legendary Mags Bennett).  In a nifty back and forth, Elmore Leonard reclaimed his characters by writing a book called Raylan, and I relished that as well as the tv series.  Besides Olyphant and a number of other actors, this show also owes a good deal in tone and complexity to David Milch’s Deadwood, a very powerful line of descent.  If you don’t enjoy Justified, then never take my word about another show.  As with Breaking Bad, if you can handle the gore, the wit will keep you coming back.

(P.S. – between writing and posting this, I got the news of Elmore Leonard’s death in Detroit at the age of 87.  What a legacy of literary wit he left!  He will be missed.  Here’s the New York Times obituary and a subsequent appreciation, of which there will be many more in coming days.)

Best Documentary?

Having finally caught up with the last of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature, I am prompted to offer a slew of documentary recommendations (many available on Netflix streaming). 

While perfectly happy with sentimental favorite Searching for Sugar Man (2012, MC-79, NFX) as the Oscar winner, I have to say that two nominees seemed weightier, from either side of the wall between the Palestinians and the Israelis.  Sugar Man was certainly a delight and a marvel, but simply more calculated to please than the other nominees, feel-good rather than feel-bad.  Rather artfully constructed after the fact, the “search” nonetheless turns up an amazing find.  Rodriguez recorded a couple of records to some acclaim around 1970, and was well positioned somewhere between Bob Dylan and James Taylor, but he lacked the drive to perform and promote (would sometimes play with his back to the audience) and disappeared into odd jobs around Detroit.  Meanwhile, bootlegged copies of his album became a legendary phenomenon in South Africa, of all places.  Among the tales of the popular cult were different versions of his onstage suicide.  Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul teamed up with South African music lovers on a quest for the real story, and eventually they found the real Rodriguez, who still writes and sings while not working construction jobs, and is quite a character, sort of a mellow sage.  Sold out shows in South Africa provide a rousing climax to the film, with the Oscar for capper.  The whole story is surprising and inspiring, heartwarming in its recognition of hidden genius, but the other nominees confront issues that are chilling and cautionary.

I cultivate a deliberate ignorance about the conflict between Palestine and Israel, since I do not choose to ponder insoluble problems over which I have no control, but two films cracked my shell this year.  On the Palestinian side, 5 Broken Cameras (MC-78, NFX) documents the deterioration of relations year by year, as olive groves are burnt and the wall is built, demonstrations meeting violence from nervous young soldiers of the occupying army.  With those five cameras, filming up to the instant when they are broken by club or bullet, Emad Burnat filmed not just the demonstrations but his youngest son growing up into this climate of oppression and hate -- a home movie for those without a homeland.  Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi helped shape the footage into an intimate and revelatory passage to the other side, seeing with the other’s eyes.  Extremely powerful, extremely disturbing.

In its own way, the view from the other side of the wall is even more powerful and disturbing.  In The Gatekeepers (MC-91, NFX), Dror Moreh interviews six former directors of Israel’s domestic security service, and brilliantly recapitulates the history of the Palestinian occupation since the Six-Day War in 1967, through all the various intifadas and retaliations and all the squelched peace initiatives.  The wonder is that not one of these officials toes the official line.  All of them come by various paths to the conclusion that the occupation and the settlements are a mistake, that Israel can win every battle and still lose the war, that the only real solution, the key to security, is not military, but diplomatic; negotiation not confrontation, coexistence in two separate states.  Moreh was inspired by Errol Morris’ interrogation of Robert McNamara in The Fog of War, and has compiled an equally compelling document of second thoughts by those in a position to know.  Just the fact that it has been made and shown in Israeli is a small ground for hope.

On the home front, The Invisible War (MC-75, NFX) is a well-made and effective piece of advocacy for a public problem – sexual harassment and rape in the armed forces -- that needs the light of day, and with the aid of Kirby Dick’s film has now become a national issue for Congress and the military.  Mixed with telling statistics and other context, the film focuses intently on the Catch-22 perversities that a number of women (and the occasional man) have suffered after being subjected to sexual assault while in the service.  The personalizing of the pain makes the numbers and arguments all the more intense.  This is a worthy effort to open eyes and change minds.

Another Oscar nominee that delves into the vicissitudes of political activism and public enlightenment in a good cause, David France’s How to Survive a Plague (MC-87, NFX), has the advantage of lots of on-the-spot archival footage, in telling the story of AIDS activists trying to move the system toward effective research and treatment in the 80s and 90s.  The film’s most fascinating aspect, so inside the immediate proceedings, is in dramatizing the way movements inevitably wind up going to war with each other, whether they succeed or fail with the institution they’re trying to move.  The mix of historical scenes and contemporary retrospection by survivors tells the tale effectively, in a way that spins out from gay issues, partially past though still poignant, into questions of political activism in general.  With ACT UP as a test case, we can see what activism accomplishes and what it fails to accomplish, and at least partially, why.

Catching up with this year’s Oscar nominees, I realized I’d never seen last year’s winner, and like many of these docs under discussion, it’s available for instant viewing on Netflix.  Undefeated  (MC-71, NFX) is a perfectly serviceable sports documentary, easily pitched as Hoop Dreams meets Friday Night Lights, about a high school football team.  As the story of a white coach who lifts the spirits and competitiveness of an all-black football team at a Memphis school, it flirts dangerously with comparison to The Blind Side, but stays pretty honest as well as righteous.  I liked it, but it doesn’t bear comparison with The Interrupters by Steve James, which wasn’t even nominated that year.

Moving into candidates for next year’s Oscar, we start with two excellent films that explore the persistent racial and class discrimination built into our legal system.  The House I Live In (MC-77, NFX) makes the personal political, and vice versa, for Eugene Jarecki, who directed the outstanding Why We Fight and other worthy documentaries.  The well-to-do house he grew up in, with two brothers who also became filmmakers, was overseen by his “second mother,” Nannie Jeter, and her children were playmates of his, but they went in different directions.  Asked why, their mother has a one-word answer, “Drugs,” but from there Jarecki goes on to show that the more accurate answer is “The War on Drugs,” which registers as racial, ethnic, and class oppression for some, and as public works money for others, incarcerating vast numbers of casual users under draconian mandatory sentences.  Combining personal inquiry with wide-ranging research and telling interviews, most strikingly with David Simon, creator of The Wire, this film makes a strong case against current policing and judicial policies.

Another angle on a related problem is provided by Gideon’s Army (MC-93, NFX), part of HBO’s generally excellent summer documentary series.  Dawn Porter’s film examines similar judicial issues through the narrow but salient lens of various public defenders in the South, those assigned to shepherd the poorest of the poor through the legal system, negotiating its traps and snares in ways that are simple for those who can afford more aggressive representation.  The real-life hero of the film is a public defender who vows to have the name of any client of his who is convicted tattooed to his back.  The passion these young lawyers bring to making the system play fair is admirable, even while it seems a hopelessly Sisyphean labor.

There are documentarians who draw you by their subject, by its social or political significance, and then there are those who draw you by their empathetic insight and storytelling skill.  Lucy Walker is one of the latter.  Here last two films were deservedly Academy Award nominees, Waste Land for feature and The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom for short.  So I gave The Crash Reel (MC-82, NFX) a chance when it appeared in the HBO series, despite my extreme lack of interest in X-treme sports such as competitive snowboarding.  And I advise you to do the same if you get the chance.  You may go slack-jawed with either wonder or boredom at the stunts these guys pull, but you can’t help becoming involved with an attractive Vermont family confronting a number of crises, as the film becomes an examination of parenting and brotherhood, as well as bro’-hood and competitive rivalry, not to mention the medical facts of traumatic brain injury.  If like me, you are totally unaware of who Kevin Pearce is, I’ll let his story unfold with all the twists and turns that Lucy Walker documents so well.

Where to begin with 56 Up (MC-83, NFX)?  Well, ideally with 21 Up or even earlier in this septannual series, which documents an assortment of British boys and girls as they grow up to become parents and grandparents.  It’s much better to come back every seven years and revisit a group of old acquaintances – Neil and Bruce, Suzie and Nick, Paul and Tony, the three East End girls, et al. -- but if you are not already among those who avidly await the next installment, you could do worse than simply start with 56 Up.  Each installment recapitulates the earlier ones, so in the blink of an eye you see someone go from 7 to 14 to 21 and on, which makes up in inherent visual interest for the necessarily sketchy backstories.  But then of course you miss the more rounded play of expectation and surprise in the passage of life that the whole series conveys.  Michael Apted has continually come back to this project between making features as good as Coal Miner’s Daughter and Gorillas in the Mist.  We can only hope he keeps it up.  He knows his subjects, they know him, and we are invited to the illusion that we know them as well, their joys and sorrows, triumphs and defeats, and just plain muddling through.  Funny, touching, engrossing, with full appreciation for the ambiguities of observing -- if you’re not already hooked, find out what the fuss is all about.

It takes a pretty deft touch to present people one wouldn’t want to know, exemplars of mindless excess, in a way that can be seen as sympathetic portrait as well as scathing satire.  That’s what Lauren Greenfield achieves in Queen of Versailles (MC-80, NFX).  She began filming a couple in the process of building a monument to conspicuous consumption, the largest private home in America.  He was a billionaire timeshare magnate, she a tacky trophy wife, and they named their home after Louis XIV’s palace, without being able to pronounce it.  The real estate bubble burst, and their lifestyle crashed around their ears.  A just comeuppance in one sense, but in another it offers an exemplum of a society living beyond its means, and coming into rough contact with economic reality.

Ross McElwee presents a mordant self-portrait in Photographic Memory (MC-79, NFX), the latest installment in his series of first-person documentaries, including most notably Sherman’s March and Bright Leaves.  Trying to come to grips with the creeping estrangement of his 20ish son, whom we see growing up under his father’s camera eye, McElwee tries to revisit himself at the same age, when he was on extended stay in France working as a photographer’s assistant.  He returns to Brittany and tries to find the man he worked for and the woman he lived with.  He goes down paths familiar and unexpected.  And returns with at least a bit better understanding of his son’s stage of life.  Nothing earthshaking, but McElwee’s wry tone and honest self-inquiry make for enjoyable and thoughtful viewing. 

I’ve recently watched a number of documentaries about dance, but there are two new ones that I’m happy to recommend.  First Position (MC-72, NFX) follows a well-worn path, from Spellbound on, of young people pointing toward and eventually competing in a high-stakes contest.  In this case, Bess Kargman tracks a number of school age ballet dancers who come to New York from all over the world to compete for prizes and admission to professional ballet companies.  If the frame is familiar, the commitment and talent of the young dancers is fresh and astounding.  Never Stand Still (NFX) is a highly-watchable celebration of a Berkshire cultural landmark, the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, with historical background and a sampling of the venue’s variety of programs.  It made me want to get in the car and drive down to Becket, for the first time in ages.

I’ve always been a big advocate for the art of documentary, which has been enriched by each advance in the quality and portability of filmmaking equipment, and sustained by a long tradition of nonfiction storytelling, fulfilling in many different ways the classic Grierson definition of documentary – “the creative treatment of actuality.”  On the evidence presented here, documentaries are better than ever.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Stories We Tell

Stories We Tell (2013, MC-90, NFX) confirms Sarah Polley as one of the directors (and actresses) whose next film I am most eager to see.  Away from Her was my favorite film of 2007, and last year’s Take This Waltz well worth seeing twice.  Of films in which she acts but does not write or direct, I recommend the little-known Guinevere and The Secret Life of Words. Her latest is classified as a documentary, and certainly qualifies under Grierson’s seminal definition of the genre, “creative treatment of actuality,” but the film is thoroughly designed and not merely recorded.  Polley delves into her own family history, in a way that recalls Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies.  I won’t say much more, because the less you know going in, the greater the surprise of the film’s unfolding.  I’ll only say that it is simultaneously clever and heartfelt, and highly multivalent, with a profound understanding of our need to make meaningful stories out of our own lives, and to perform them.  Through home movies, interviews, and other means, Polley recounts the history of the mother she lost at the age of 11, and the mysteries of her own birth.  Hers is an absorbing family of performers, and they play out their stories in engrossing fashion.  Stories We Tell will certainly rank with the very best films of this year in any genre.

Before Midnight

Before Midnight (2013, MC-94, NFX) is the latest installment of Richard Linklater’s ongoing masterwork -- the “Before” series, which collectively could be titled à la Proust, “In Search of Lost Time.”   Made in close collaboration with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, as stars and co-writers, the three films to date, made at nine-year intervals, are obsessed with the passage of time, the interpenetration of past and future in the present, all the modes of time travel.  Each deals with one day in the life of a pair, American writer and French social activist, as they reflect on the past and imagine a future, as individuals and as a couple, trying to come to terms in and with the present moment. 

It doesn’t hurt that while each film is inordinately focused on just two people walking and talking, they do so in picturesque places – Vienna, Paris, and the Greek Islands.  And the two characters, whom we have watched age from their 20s to 30s to 40s, are extraordinarily appealing, in all their complexity of confrontation and evasion, showing the slippery side as well as the rough edges of each.  Permanence and mutability, connection and separation, fantasy and disenchantment, all the vicissitudes of a relationship over time are explored with wit and point. 

Though tightly scripted and rehearsed, and intimately intertwined with the characters’ prior incarnations, the endless back-and-forth seems spontaneous, even improvised.  And the three-headed creative process assures an even-handed, fully-rounded treatment of both the boy and the girl, the woman and the man.  We come to know Jesse and Celine as they come to know each other, for better and worse.  They’re funny and sharp, and they each have their reasons, and their unreasons.  There’s no denying that sparks fly, but will the fire burn itself out? 

Linklater contributes a deep sense of cinema history, setting the film in a great tradition, explicitly alluding to Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, but obviously indebted to Eric Rohmer’s delicate tales of erotic negotiation, and Truffaut’s longitudinal study of Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel over five films and twenty years, not to mention Michael Apted’s monumental 7 Up series (now at 56 Up).  This third film in the series ends Before Midnight, after what could definitely be called “A Long Day’s Journey into Night.”  The ferocity of marital argument recalls Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, and Linklater builds upon his own Tape, a no-budget exercise shot in a single motel room with Ethan Hawke and then-wife Uma Thurman. 

Following Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), with luck we will be looking at Before Noon in 2022.  I won’t recount what actually has happened so far with Jesse and Celine, but I highly, highly recommend that you catch up with their stories.

Looking for more Julie Delpy, I watched 2 Days in New York (2012, MC-62, NFX), which wasn’t as good as her 2 Days in Paris, but no chore to watch.  Chris Rock plays her husband, her crazy French family comes to visit, complications ensue, end of story.  In her own films, she plays a character who is neurotic but not as sharp-edged as Celine.

Beginning to catch up

In posting my David Lean career retrospective (see below), I was shocked to see that it had been more than two months since my previous post, and now it's longer since.  I’ve seen a lot of films over that period, so it will take a while to bring myself up to date.  I intend to follow with wrap-ups of well-rated recent films and documentaries, plus outstanding tv series, but in this catch-all I’m including a bunch of English-language classics that I’ve been re-watching, many on the big screen at the Clark.  Expect a chatty approach to some familiar movies.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Leaning toward the epic

While not an auteur in the approved sense, David Lean had two great talents as a director, in essential aspects of the art of film – editing, and staging action in space for the camera (whether confined space of a room or endless space of desert or steppe).  Overcoming the prohibitions of his strict Quaker parents, passing up college and quitting a job with his father’s accounting firm, Lean developed a passionate awe for cinema and went to work at a movie studio, working his way up from “tea boy” to film cutter, and that background marked his entire career.

In 2008 Anthony Lane wrote a great centenary remembrance of David Lean in The New Yorker, and quoted Lean’s own account of his cinematic annunciation:  “I would look at that light as a pious boy might react to a shaft of sunlight in a cathedral.  I still find it a slightly mystical experience.  Something to do with forbidden and secret things.” 

(Here is link to Lane on Lean article, if you have subscriber access.  And while I’m at it, here’s link to Netflix listing of the films discussed below.  Click through to read my summary of all the director’s films.)

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Good pictures?

Not making any “Best of 2012” lists, here are some other recent films I’ve watched lately, again ranked in rough order of my enthusiasm, from a couple of sleeper recommendations down to a shrug of the shoulders.

Never on a bicycle -- certainly not a fixed-gear, steel-frame, no-brakes bike – but I have in my time enjoyed the rush of battling taxis, trucks, and pop-up pedestrians, to get from here to there on the streets of Manhattan, so I was primed for Premium Rush (2012, MC-66, NFX), a velocipede comedy-thriller of sorts, directed by David Koepp and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  He’s a champion bike messenger, who is assigned a package labeled as in the title, and has to get it from Upper West Side to Lower East Side, while competing with a Black rival and for a Chica girlfriend who is also an expert rider.  Meanwhile he is being chased by a drug-crazed bad cop (Michael Shannon, in full bug-eye mode) in a patrol car, leading to a chase under the El that pays homage to The French Connection, with the ironic twist of the bike managing to outrace and outmaneuver the car.  JGL does an amazing amount of his own riding down Manhattan canyons in real traffic, but there are four different stunt riders who astonish with all the things they can do on a bike.  I particularly liked the visualization of on-the-fly calculations of routes, from aerial maps to frozen moments at intersections that diagram the possible outcomes of different routes through the melée.  Fast and furious fun, as far as I’m concerned, this movie (in the most kinetic sense) is a premium rush indeed.

Despite some over-obvious plot twists that verged on soap opera, Yaron Zilberman’s first feature film, A Late Quartet (2012, MC-67, NFX) certainly snowed me with its inside view of the Lincoln Center-Julliard-Central Park lives of a group of musicians.  Touching all the high cultural bases, the title alludes to late chamber pieces by Beethoven and T.S. Eliot, but refers specifically to the four string players who’ve been performing together worldwide for 25 years.  Are they entering a late phase, or are they already late, in the sense of defunct?  Christopher Walken plays the eldest (and wisest!?!) of the four, a cellist whose medical difficulties set off the collective crises of the group.  Second violinist Phillip Seymour Hoffman is married to viola player Catherine Keener.  First violinist Mark Ivanir was long ago in love with Keener, but his ultimate, fanatical devotion was always to his own instrument.  Throw in the couple’s ripe young daughter, a violinist who studies with the other members of the quartet, and you have the makings of bedroom farce played with a straight face.  None of that mattered to me because the four players seemed so real, inhabiting a world I’ve been in proximity to but never part of, both the realms of music and musicianship, and of uptown Manhattan.  Walken is superb in an uncharacteristically gentle and sane role, while Hoffman and Keener are reliably fine, and the other players are plausible enough to paper over the script’s flaws.

Yet another Jarecki, this time Nicholas rather than brothers Andrew and Eugene, makes his feature film debut with Arbitrage (2012, MC-73, NFX), a glossy glimpse inside the world of high finance.  Richard Gere certainly looks the part of a big money guy, sleak as a shark, comfortable on TV or the cover of Forbes, really comfortable on his private jet, even more comfortable at his sixtieth birthday party with extended family and wife Susan Sarandon.  Not quite so comfortable with the young mistress he leaves the party for.  His Madoff-maneuvering to salvage a big bet gone bad is soon overshadowed by greater crimes, but our anti-hero barely breaks a sweat or creases his suit.  The feel is right, the look of this particular world, but the twists of the story don’t necessarily carry us along.  Handsome all right, but is it handsomely done?  My reaction was positive, but not enthusiastic enough to urge upon viewers not naturally attracted.  Simply put, it’s not something you gotta see, but something you might want to see.

Turning up on my Netflix queue on some forgotten recommendation, I wondered at first whether The Wise Kids (2012, MC-74, NFX) was just a mistake, some sort of amateurish evangelical production, but soon twigged to the personal authenticity of the story, about growing up gay in a Southern culture where that made you a child of the devil.  The film’s look may suggest a decades-old tv show, but the sentiments are raw and real, and the acting is fine.  Writer-director Stephen Cone plays a youth director at a church in Charleston, whose companionable marriage is tested by his attraction to one of the boys in his Easter pageant.  The boy, played with spirit and appeal by Tyler Ross, seems to be based loosely on Cone’s own experiences.  He’s in the last semester of high school, headed for NYU, and best friends with two girls, a pastor’s daughter who is beginning to have doubts, and another who remains an eager-beaver believer (“Jesus is just awesome!”) shocked by revelations from her friends.  Molly Kunz and Allison Torem are young actresses I would definitely like to see more of.  And the youth director’s yearning wife is well-played by Sadieh Rifai.  It’s a world that may seem backward in time to us blue-state sophisticates, but its authenticity is vouched for by its low budget.  The cast stayed in the director’s parents’ house, and shot scenes there.  It’s a perspective not often seen in the movies, and presented with humor, conviction, and breadth of sympathy.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is definitely the best reason to watch James Ponsoldt’s slight but honest Alcoholics Anonymous drama, Smashed (2012, MC-71, NFX).  She’s a lively young second-grade teacher, whose nighttime carousing with husband Aaron Paul intrudes in the classroom when she drunkenly barfs in (or near) a wastepaper basket.  Nick Offerman (Ron of Parks & Recreation) is a sympathetic vice principal who introduces her to AA meetings.  Winstead’s character is from a hardscrabble background, with bad habits acquired from her mother, whom we see in only one scene, but Mary Kay Place makes it count.  Her husband comes from money, which allows him to get by as a music reviewer, attending concerts and partying nonstop, so he’s not inclined to follow her into sobriety.  Olivia Spencer becomes her AA sponsor, and after a relapse when her past behavior catches up with her, she winds up staying sober one day at a time.  It’s really the plain (though pretty) freshness of Winstead that takes this film out of the realm of the familiar and ordinary. 

Michael Winterbottom turns out at least one film a year, and moves on to the next, always looking for a different subject or approach.  Sometimes the result is superlative, and sometimes it’s merely interesting.  Trishna (2012, MC-57, NFX) interests on several levels.  It’s his third adaptation of a Thomas Hardy novel, this time Tess of the D’Urbervilles (previously Jude and The Claim, a McCabe-like Western based on The Mayor of Casterbridge).  Always exploring exotic locales, he sets the story in contemporary India, and one acute pleasure of the film comes from the location shots in Rajasthan, Jaipur, and Mumbai.  Ever the avid absorber of divergent cultures, Winterbottom works in a lot of Bollywood scenes.  It’s not entirely clear that Freida Pinto can act, but ye gods, she’s so beautiful one is happy to watch her just stand or walk.  Maybe the same holds with Nastassi Kinski in Polanski’s Tess, a film I’m always happy to re-watch, and another interesting point of comparison to this adaptation.  (The book I don’t remember well, since I read it as a teenager, well before I could understand it.)  The story’s two principal male characters are combined in one, which makes for a bit of muddle and some arbitrary shifts in personality, and the final third of the film lacks tragic conviction.  Less the hand of fate than the forced hand of the screenwriter.  So the film feels longer than it is, petering out instead of rising to climax, but well worth watching along the way.

More exotica is on view in Chicken with Plums (2012, MC-70, NFX), Marjane Satrapi’s follow-up, both as graphic novel and film, to her wonderful Persepolis (also co-drected with Vincent Paronnaud).  This one is more live-action than animated, but does retain much of the visual magic of graphic panels.  It’s the story of a melancholy violinist in 1958 Tehran, played with silent comedy wit by Mathieu Amalric.  His violin is broken as well as his heart, so he decides to die and takes to bed to wait out the end.  There are flashbacks and flashforwards, fantasies and visual fillips, some of which soar and some of which fall flat, in this fractured fairy tale.  It doesn’t hang together or finally satisfy, but it does have marvelous moments of visual amazement.

Of an inter-related group of three recent offbeat rom-coms, I liked best Your Sister’s Sister (2012, MC-72, NFX), largely because the sisters in question are Rosemary DeWitt and Emily Blunt.  The guy who comes between them is Mark Duplass, as his standard would-be-lovable lunkhead.  Lynn Shelton puts these three together in a picturesque Puget Sound vacation cabin, and puts them through their paces, frequently improvised.  The results sometimes feel fresh and true, sometimes funny, and sometimes forced and evasive, like the ending.

Duplass is crackpot as well as lunkhead in Safety Not Guaranteed (2012, MC-72, NFX).  He places a classified ad in a Seattle paper, seeking a partner in time-travel (with the proviso of the title), and three journalists at a hip magazine go in search of a satirical story behind the ad.  One of them is Aubrey Plaza (April of P&R), who in the way of such things, falls for the subject of their investigation, and gets drawn into his fantasies(?).  Colin Trevorrow’s film is cute enough, but not believable enough to make me care.

The involvement of Rashida Jones (Ann Perkins of P&R) was sufficient to get me to watch Celeste & Jesse Forever (2012, MC-59, NFX), but not enough to make me enjoy it.  She co-wrote the script as well, but the proceedings strike me as too fey (and not in the Tina way).  I still like Rashida Jones too much to bash her earnest and well-meaning efforts here.