Friday, March 20, 2015

Thanks to Images

Though I see well over a hundred of films every year, I don’t go out to a movie theater very often, since I am a stay-at-home cheapskate, happy to see as many films as I can on Blu-ray disk or video streaming from Netflix, for a simple monthly membership, unbroken since June 2000.  The choice of films at Images Cinema in Williamstown usually represents exactly what I intend to see, even if I am typically content to wait a few months to see them at home.  Recently, however, Images offered three films in one week that I couldn’t wait to see.

Though I’ve never really liked any Jean-Luc Godard film after Masculine Feminine (1966), and certainly none since his break with my main man Truffaut, in order to maintain credibility as some sort of expert on film I had to see his latest, which came in at #2 on the Film Comment poll for the Best Film of 2014.  So when Images went out on a limb and showed Goodbye to Language in 3D (MC-75, NFX), I availed myself of the singular opportunity.  And since the primary interest of the film lay in the way it played around with the 3D format, such viewing was essential to any evaluation.  Nonetheless, this Godard will come nowhere near my list of the year’s best.  I did not so much watch the film, as observe myself in the act of watching it, piecing together perception out of visual clues and illusions.  Trying to find a point of reference around which to resolve a coherent visual perception, I often lifted the 3D glasses, but other times I simply reveled in the representational quality of the format.  I think in particular of a lingering shot of a passing ship with the waves of its wake lapping into the foreground.  (I wasn’t sharp enough to witness the effect that several critics mentioned, in the unreadable superimposition as a couple splits, which if you close one eye or the other, resolves into two separate, and separating, images.)  The film did suggest many ways that 3D could be used to good effect outside of action films or animation.  Of the actual content, and of Godard’s intellectual pretensions and hobbyhorses, the less said, the better.  You endure all that for 70 minutes in order to see the occasional amazing image, definitely not to see or hear two unreal characters pontificate, about how the two most interesting ideas are “infinity and zero” (the man) or “no, sex and death” (the woman, who elsewhere announces her purpose in life as “to say ‘no’ and to die.”)  Godard not only dredges up his old Mao obsession, but even attributes a Zhou Enlai quote to him in error.  He long ago claimed the privilege to fool around with film any way he wants, but hasn’t had a genuine new thought in forty years or more.  He’s always congratulating himself on his own cleverness.

After the Godard I went back to the box office, and into the theater again, for the humanistic antithesis and antidote.  A new Dardenne brothers film is an event for me, so I didn’t want to postpone the pleasure, and I truly appreciate Images for showing each as it comes out.  Two Days, One Night (MC-89, NFX) is not their greatest film (my personal favorites are Rosetta and The Kid with a Bike), but it is their most accessible to date, and I urge you to see it at earliest opportunity.  Relatively speaking, they calm down their herky-jerky, on-the-fly style, and they include a well-known actress in the lead.  Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard meshes seamlessly with the Dardennes’ regulars and nonprofessionals, and indeed received another Best Actress nomination.  She’s completely believable as a worker in a Belgian solar panel factory, who is threatened with losing her job when she tries to return from medical leave for depression.  The factory manager has determined that he can function with a crew of sixteen, so he will allow her to return to work only if her fellow workers forego a bonus to cover her wages.  She has one weekend, the time denoted in the title, to try to influence her fellows individually by direct appeal, fearful that without the job her family will lose the house they just moved into from public housing.  The film plays out as a parable of solidarity, without ever speaking the word, and as a demonstration of Jean Renoir’s famous dictum, “There is only one terrible thing, and that is, everyone has his reasons.”  With the breadth of a sociological survey, the Dardennes pose one question, and then observe the disparate answers of their characters, in a way that ratchets up suspense, and then provides a surprising but completely convincing resolution. Eschewing background music as usual, they feature two songs on the car radio, one by Petula Clark (in annoyingly unsubtitled French), and Van Morrison singing “Gloria,” in a music cue that was positively Bressonian.  There are few filmmakers working today with whom I feel more affinity than Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. 

Mike Leigh is right in there with them, and the next attraction at Images was his latest, Mr. Turner (MC-94, NFX), with commentary on the painterly subject from one of the Clark’s own attractions, Michael Cassin.  This was definitely a film that deserved to be seen on the widest possible canvas.  It ran long enough to feel a bit wearying, but I very much look forward to seeing it again at greater leisure.  One thing I’ll be more attentive to is the extent to which it serves as disguised autobiography -- a deep, late-life look at an artist with whom Leigh feels a close identity.  Having confirmed the film’s fidelity to the facts of Turner’s life, as close-mouthed and little-known as portrayed, I’ll relax into scenes whose meanings are fragmented, but eventually form a meaningful mosaic.  But this is judging the film from one’s fatigue at the end, rather than the sense of rapturous immersion with which it begins.  Never has the past felt more palpable in an historical film -- this is the past when it was present, just how it looked and even how it smelled.  The density of specification offers time travel to Britain two centuries ago.  As played by Timothy Spall, J.M.W. Turner is an enigmatic and rather unappealing character, boorish and boarish, but redeemed by a profound love of light and devotion to the discipline of its capture on a painted surface.  In accord with Mike Leigh’s trademark practice of lengthy rehearsal and character development, all the performances in the film are thoroughly lived-in.  In the vein of Topsy-Turvy, the amazement lies in the detail of the production – locations, sets, costumes – from a director best known for kitchen-sink dramas.  His longtime cinematographer Dick Pope also needs to be singled out for credit.  This is a must-see on a big screen.  

As I review the best films of 2014, I’ve devised a ranking system to reflect the critical consensus, as derived from various critic polls and top ten lists, against which I will posit my own rankings.  These three films come in at #8, #13, and #14 for the year – a pretty impressive week of programming for Images Cinema.  Thanks again to an invaluable community resource.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Pairings

Let’s start with best of these matched pairs.  Force Majeure (MC-87, NFX) was a critical favorite and has much to recommend it, but for me suffers by comparison to a film on the same theme, about a moment of masculine weakness that undermines the trust between a couple.  In this film Ruben Őstland piles on themes as he follows a picture-perfect Swedish family to a posh ski resort in the French Alps, whereas The Loneliest Planet pares the issue to its essence, as a couple hikes in the Caucasus, with only a Georgian guide as witness to their split.  From the title -- enigmatic if you don’t know the legal term, but excessively overt if you do (an act of God or nature that dissolves a contract) – to the admittedly spectacular SFX of an avalanche, amidst so many clashes of gender, class, setting, and character, Force Majeure lays it on too thick, tends to be too much of a good thing.  Still, it’s great to look at, and worth thinking about afterwards, even if its effect was mixed for me.

Dear White People (MC-79, NFX) was a pleasant surprise.  For a paired film I’d point to School Daze, even though DWP writer-director Justin Simien refers to his heroine as more a fan of Ingmar Bergman than Spike Lee.  While Lee deals with cross-currents of color at a historically black college, Simien tackles the same in a historically black dorm at a fictional Ivy League college.  His writing is sharp, and while his first-time direction sometimes overreaches, a solid cast delivers both laughs and ponderable moments.  This is a race movie in the best possible sense.

Two credit lines tell you all you need to know about Get on Up (MC-71, NFX).  First is Chadwick Boseman’s performance as James Brown in this biopic, which seems even more amazing next to his portrayal of Jackie Robinson in 42.  Second is director Tate Taylor, which explains the distaste I had for the style of the film all the way through, since his previous work includes The Help – I don’t even know whether he’s black or white, but he definitely has a Hollywoodized perspective on black culture.  (White, I find out, no surprise there – clearly a Spielberg wannabe.) 

Actually, there’s a third credit line that’s explanatory, producer Mick Jagger.  But much better to watch the other James Brown film he got credit on last year, Alex Gibney’s documentary, Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown (MC-79, HBO).  The fictionalized version is not just inauthentic, but positively annoying in its try-anything approach, darting around in time, and breaking frame with direct to the camera dialogue.  Every time the music stopped, it made me wince.  Still, either doc or biopic will remind you of the power of Mr. Brown’s influential holy-roller-meets-R&B style of performance. 

It’s been a long time since France was at the forefront of world cinema -- the New Wave is old news, its practitioners all but died out -- but the French “tradition of quality” sometimes reasserts itself.  Here are two films I happened upon through Netflix streaming, which you might find watchable as well.

I took an interest in The French Minister (MC-65, NFX) because of director Bertrand Tavernier, but was surprised to find it a rare comedy by him, rather reminiscent of the British film In the Loop and tv series The Thick of It (precursor to HBO’s Veep).  Apparently it’s adapted from a best-selling graphic novel by an ex-diplomat, based on his experiences in the French foreign ministry in the run-up to the Iraq War.  This is political buffoonery with a Gallic accent, but will be all too familiar in the vacuity of the movers and shakers, told from the perspective of a young speechwriter to the windy aristocrat who rules the Quai d’Orsay with imperious imbecility.

From a few years ago, The Well-Digger’s Daughter (MC-67, NFX) is a Marcel Pagnol re-make by Daniel Auteuil, placid and predictable, but nonetheless pleasurable,.  If you have radiant memories of Provence peasantry and landscape from Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, or from My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s Castle, then you might find yourself, as I did, drawn into this hackneyed tale of a lower class girl who gets in trouble with a bourgeois fly-boy at the start of WWII.  The girl is a pleasure to look at, if not a particularly revealing actress, and Auteuil allows himself to chew the scenery as the crusty old dad.  Something about the light on the landscape, however, made the film irresistible to me.

The same might be said of The Two Faces of January (MC-66, NFX), where the Mediterranean light falls on Athens and Crete.  Hossein Amini’s adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel goes for the Hitchcockian period vibe, and has some success, though the story hardly convinces, fudging key moments.  Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac, and Kirsten Dunst all offer magnetic performances, as a steamy triangle entangled in embezzlements and suspicious deaths.  Along with the travelogue pleasures of the cinematography, that’s enough to make this worth a try on Netflix streaming.

Gone Girl (MC-79, NFX) was a would-be thriller that attracted a lot more notice, but I confess my surprise that David Fincher could make a film so ridiculous, sleek as you’d expect but far removed from anything like real life.  The film certainly served as an admirable platform for Rosamund Pike in the title role (Ben Affleck is no more than okay as her beleaguered husband), but Gillian Flynn’s screenplay shows all the problems of a novelist adapting her own work.  What words can get away with, pictures make preposterous, plus there’s the excessive reliance on voiceover narration.  I’d somehow avoided all spoilers about this pop culture phenomenon, aside from the central twist, so I approached it with an open mind, which gradually closed into incredulity and derision.  Which is not to say there was no fun involved, but it was definitely splashing around in the shallow end.  I put this in a category with films like Vertigo and Mulholland Drive – I can’t really see what some people see in them.

We conclude with dueling doppelgangers, a hardy perennial theme of literature and film.  I enjoyed The Double (MC-69, NFX) but found it a chore to watch Enemy (MC-61, NFX).  The Double is adapted from Dostoevsky, directed by Richard Ayoade, and stars Jesse Eisenberg in the dual role.  Enemy is adapted from Saramago, directed by Denis Villeneuve, and stars Jake Gyllenhaal in the dual role.  Both films share a sickly yellow-green palette, but The Double creates an alternate 1984-ish world of drab conformity and amusingly primitive technology, while Enemy tries to make modern Toronto and its suburban high-rises look as unappetizing as possible.  The Double is darkly funny, while Enemy is lugubrious and enigmatic in the extreme.  The ending of The Double fails to convince, or resolve the situation it has artfully set up, but the ending of Enemy is deliberately whacked out, and far from satisfying to me.  The supporting cast of The Double includes Mia Wasikowski as love interest, and Wallace Shawn as the boss of both Eisenbergs, the recessive nerd and the genial con man, along with a host of humorous cameos.  Enemy has Melanie Laurant and Sarah Gadon as the interchangeable women of Gyllenhaal, but gives them far too little to do.

Having gone from pairings to parings, it’s time to move on to a whole new batch of new & noteworthies.  



Thursday, February 05, 2015

Recent viewing

Another installment of rapid-fire reviews of recent films in diary format:

Any evaluation of Calvary (MC-77, NFX) depends on how you add up the pluses and minuses of John Michael McDonagh’s highly heterogeneous film.  Things I liked included: impressive views of Sligo landscape, seaside, and village; Brendan Gleeson’s conflicted yet sympathetic Irish priest; the perspective on the Church’s change of status in contemporary Ireland; the mix of satire with serious consideration of religious vocation; the Guinness and the craic.  Things I didn’t like: some overly-theatrical writing and performance; the slipperiness of tone; the quasi-suspense reliance on murder to drive the story; some excess underlining of theme, as suggested by the title.  Still, with Gleeson occupying the foreground and Yeats Country in the background, I enjoyed watching this film, though disenchanted by the end.

But not so disenchanted that I didn’t seek out the previous McDonagh-Gleeson collaboration, The Guard (MC-78, NFX).  (There’s a third worth seeing, In Bruges, but that’s written and directed by John Michael’s brother, Martin.)  This genre mash-up was silly but smart, in ways that didn’t bother me as much as the overreach of the other film.  You can tick off all the influences -- from 48 Hours to spaghetti westerns, from Hawks to Tarantino – and still appreciate the fresh Celtic approach.  This time Connemara is the picturesque setting, and much fun is made of the psychic distance between Dublin and Galway, and the overriding insularity of the Irish.  Don Cheadle, as an FBI agent trying to head off delivery of a massive shipment of drugs, wonders to Brendan Gleeson, a do-it-his-own-way Irish lawman, whether he is “fucking dumb or fucking smart.”  Gleeson just smiles.  The film certainly gives him the benefit of the doubt, and I do the same with the film.  I put up with some over-eager genre borrowings for the quality of wit and surprise that the film generates.  And paired with his performance in Calvary, this marks Gleeson as one of the more versatile and substantial actors in the movies today.

The oddity Frank (MC-75, NFX) also touches down in Ireland, but goes awry when it departs for Texas and the SXSW music festival in Austin.  Freely elaborated from a real performer in the 90s, Lenny Abrahamson’s edgy film stars Michael Fassbender as the leader of an offbeat band that verges on a cult.  Wearing a large garish papier-mâché head that he never takes off, even in the shower, he and most of his bandmates (including Maggie Gyllenhaal) are refugees from mental institutions.  The outsider keyboardist who narrates and precipitates the story is played by Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan’s son.  The premise did not promise pleasure to me, but I was rather taken by the film’s deadpan wit and whimsy, until a sudden unmotivated turn took it in a direction that was grimmer and less satisfying.

After belatedly catching up with Transparent (which just won several Golden Globes), I looked into the creator behind the show, Jill Soloway.  After finding out that she ran The United States of Tara, which kept my interest longer than most Showtime series, I noticed that she’d won a Sundance directing award for Afternoon Delight (MC-49, NFX), so I decided to watch the film in spite of mediocre critical response.  My own response was decidedly mixed -- there’s no doubt that Transparent represents a big step forward, though movie and series come out of the same milieu, well-off Jewish families in LA, all endowed with sexual and other kinks.  Kathryn Hahn plays a bored housewife who throws a bomb into her life, by inviting a young stripper into her house; Josh Radnor is her husband, Juno Temple the unapologetic sex worker.  I glided over the improbable set-up, but stumbled on some turns of story and character.  In the end I decided it wasn’t all that much fun to spend time with these people, without the sort of alchemy that Transparent does somehow achieve.

Bird People (MC-70, NFX) took strange turns and ran long, so I wasn’t with it all the way through, but it turned out to be a film that lingers in the mind, and makes more sense in retrospect than it did at first viewing.  Pascale Ferran, director of Lady Chatterley, turns from that lushly sensual immersion in nature to the arid life of the modernly mobile.  Starting with random shots of people withdrawing into their devices, electronic and otherwise, as they ride the train to the Paris airport, the film settles on two faces in the crowd: a Silicon Valley executive (Josh Charles) stopping over for a business meeting enroute to Dubai, and a young college dropout (Anaïs Demoustier) working as a chambermaid in the Hilton airport hotel where he is staying.  They never really meet, but their stories unfold in parallel, he making the abrupt      decision to drop out of his life, and she magically soaring out of hers.  The observations are precise, even when the point is not obvious, mixing visual analysis and wild metaphor, without the usual promptings of storytelling formulae.  You may be puzzled, you may be bored, but you will definitely have something to think about.

I’m not feelin’ the love for Love is Strange (MC-82NFX), which had its good points, but let me down at the end.  You can’t argue with the performances of John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a longtime gay couple, painter and music teacher, who finally get the chance to marry, but in the process lose their apartment and have to crash separately with friends or relatives.  I really liked the slices of New York life, and the realities of Manhattan real estate.  The oblique observational style of Ira Sachs appealed to me, as he tends to elide the dramatic moments and focus on meaningful sidelights to the main “action,” which is derived from Make Way for Tomorrow, the Depression-era drama of an elderly couple forced into homelessness.  Yet some scenes remained opaque to me, perhaps because I’m not sufficiently attuned to the Chopin that is integral to their effect, and the willful reach for sentiment at the end left me cold.

There are two touchstones widely cited in response to Jason Reitman’s departure from his earlier films in   Labor Day (MC-52, NFX).  Those who don’t like it, reference Nicholas Sparks for sappy implausible romance.  Those who do, hark back to Douglas Sirk and lush Fifties melodrama.  Me, I’m a Sirk fan and relished this film, without believing a minute of it.  Normally that’s a bar to enjoyment for me, but here I was happy to put my critical intelligence on hold, and just revel in the straight-faced nonsense.  First of all, it looked so familiar, shot in towns along MA Route 2 (I immediately recognized Shelburne).  Then there’s Kate Winslet, who can make the most ridiculous of plot points convincing.  Josh Brolin uses his undertone of menace to establish his character as escaped convict, while overlaying a romance novel’s portrait of an ideal partner – hunky handyman, completely sympathetic cook and baker, perfect father substitute to teenage son.  Okay, okay, it’s an utterly preposterous adaptation of female fantasy fiction – just relax, and enjoy it.  There’s even a little light bondage for “Fifty Shades” fans.  If Streep and Eastwood were enough to make you swallow Bridges of Madison County, then Winslet and Brolin may do it for you here.

I have to put a question mark after the title of What If (MC-59, NFX).  Michael Dowse’s film is a harmless little rom-com, updating a familiar formula.  Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan make an appealing will-they-won’t-they couple.  The Toronto setting is fairly fresh, and there’s a recognizable connection to real life, above and beyond the whimsy.  But it’s all remarkably unsurprising, and somehow the romantic choices of twenty-somethings are not that thrilling to me anymore.  Unless, of course, raised to startling particularity or universality.  This film is not of that class.

You cannot be more surprised than I at how enjoyable The Lego Movie (MC-83, NFX) turns out to be, neatly negotiating the trick of being corporate merchandising at the same time it’s making fun of corporate merchandising.  If there’s ever been a Lego-lover in your life, you’re likely to relish this confection, insanely busy but consistently witty.  The animation apparently is a mix of stop-action and CGI, in a universe constructed totally of Lego blocks and peopled by blocky Lego figures, many of them licensed characters.  The pop culture references fly fast and furious -- no one could get them all, but everyone can get enough to stay amused throughout, maybe even agree with the catchy Devo-derived theme song, “Everything is Awesome.”  Directors Christopher Miller and Phil Lord seem to have taken the corporate sponsor’s money, and decided to have as much fun as they could playing with the toys, whether they followed the instructions or not.


From fast and funny to slow and stately, from computer-generated to hand-drawn, from the complexly simple to the simply complex -- The Wind Rises (MC-83, NFX) represents the animated antithesis to The Lego Movie, though each deserves its identically positive Metacritic rating.  Both are geared more to adults than to children, but while one smoothes its rough edges, the other leaves them defiantly on display.  Hayao Miyazaki’s last film is in essence a biopic of the aeronautical engineer who designed Japan’s Zero fighter plane, which turned the lovely wonder of flight into an effective weapon of imperialist aggression.  Neatly bookended with Porco Rosso, this film brings Miyazaki’s trademark flights of aerial fantasy into the real world of warfare and natural disaster, both large- and small-scale, from a devastating earthquake to a young tubercular woman coughing up blood.  I always prefer to watch foreign animation subtitled rather than dubbed, but this is one I plan to watch again sometime in English, not just for the quality of the voiceover actors, but in order to concentrate on the glorious visuals and enigmatic storytelling, to appreciate the many dimensions of this 2-D animation.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Starting a new year

I begin again on the 10th anniversary of this Cinema Salon blog, with a renewed commitment to spontaneous and immediate comments right after viewing a given film, so I’ll kick off with the movie I watched on New Year’s Eve.

You won’t be able to keep this straight -- nor should you want to -- but I found the prequel-sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (MC-79, NFX) much worse than its less-well-regarded predecessor Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  The CGI special effects and simian simulations get even better, but the dialogue gets more phony and shopworn, with themes less provocative, characters thinner, and action sequences bigger but more formulaic.  The new film has it moments, mainly from expressive simian faces, but struck me as tedious, with an open-ended conclusion that definitely does not have me looking forward to a further sequel.

Let me get another negative reaction out of the way before getting into more favorable responses.  There’s nothing you can point to that’s actually bad in Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins (MC-74, NFX), but the film is just good enough to make you wish it were better.  SNL-alums Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader are on the same wavelength as self-destructive siblings with an ineffable bond, but trust me, this is no You Can Count on Me.  The Hudson River setting is barely sketched in, and the story is hammered home by endless watery metaphors, instead of being allowed to breathe in genuine human interaction.  This film delivers all its best moments in the trailer, adding very little at full length.

I wouldn’t call Pride (MC-79, NFX) a great movie, but it certainly pushed my buttons, with an energetically-told true story about a miners union strike in 1984 Thatcherite Britain, in which an unlikely solidarity in oppression develops between striking Welsh miners and London gays and lesbians.  In the tradition of The Full Monty and others, this film by Matthew Warchus mines humor and pathos from traditional working class characters getting a fresh dose of the swinging life.  Any film that includes Paddy Considine, Dominic West, Bill Nighy, and Imelda Staunton has an excellent chance of connecting with me, and while the real story is sugarcoated and glossed over, there are many moments that are funny and touching.  As long as you go with the flow, and don’t stop and say, “Now wait a minute,” you’ll have a rousing good time.

With varying levels of recommendation, I point to two literary French films and several Asian family dramas, all of which are recent and available on Netflix streaming.  I was drawn to Bicycling with Molière (MC-61, NFX) by the pairing of two French actors whom I particularly admire, Fabrice Luchini and Lamont Wilson.  The latter, playing a celebrity with a popular TV doctor series, tries to lure the former, a solitary curmudgeon who has given up acting, to join him in a stage production of The Misanthrope.  Some of the best scenes involve them in working through rehearsals of the Molière play, and director Phillipe Le Guay inserts several overt homages to Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, which went over well with me.  There’s some slapstick and some romantic complications that don’t fit very well, but the byplay between the two acting frenemies is continuously engaging and surprising, subtle and multi-leveled, and the sense of place, a resort island on the Atlantic coast in the offseason, is strong.

Again, it was Emmanuelle Devos in the title role that drew me to Violette (MC-72, NFX), about the French writer surnamed Leduc, whom I didn’t know previously -- a wild thing whose career was sponsored and nurtured by Simone de Beauvoir (intriguingly played by Sandrine Kimberlain).  In Martin Provost’s film, not at the level of his previous, the sublime Séraphine, we follow Violette from her WWII days as a black marketeer, through various sexual and emotional escapades up to literary notoriety and bestsellerdom in the Sixties.  Sartre does not make an appearance, but Jean Genet and other writers do.  I can’t say that I ever really “got” the thorny main character, but I appreciated the perspective on the Existentialist milieu.

In contrast, I got every character in Ilo Ilo (MC-85, NFX), however remote their experience from mine, and that breadth of sympathy is the signal virtue of Anthony Chen’s film, about one family confronting the financial crisis of 1997 in Singapore.  A husband and wife work diligently as salesman and secretary to raise their family’s status, but their neglected 10-year-old son starts acting out, so they hire a Filipino nanny, who has reluctantly left a young child of her own back home.  So precisely observed; so knowing about the economic basis of family and society; so unblinking at the flaws of the characters, yet so warmly accepting of their humanity, this first feature must be largely autobiographical, and totally won me over.  For America in the wake of the Great Recession, this is a foreign film with great domestic resonance.

Jumping off from the familiar tale of babies switched at birth, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son (MC-73, NFX) follows its own path through a tangle of social class and personality in contemporary Japan.  When the hospital informs two couples of the mistake made six years before, they are all complicated individuals with a complicated problem, and the film unfolds the dilemma in a complicated manner.  As is typical of Kore-eda, the kids are a complicated delight as well.  Though the film comes to focus on one of the fathers, a striving young urban architect with father issues of his own, each of the parents and children is presented with sympathy and understanding, along with humor and some satire.  The other father first comes off as a grasping slacker, but turns out to have a warmth of affection that the imperious one lacks.  As in The Other Son, the mothers take a more cooperative approach.  Though structured like a fable, the story is told with impressive and ponderable reality. 


I found this film quite wonderful, and it reminded me how much I liked Kore-eda’s previous films, Nobody Knows and Still Walking, which led me to another that I had missed.  I Wish (MC-80, NFX) again focuses on children and their perspective on the grown-up world.  Again the story is a fable of adventure told in realistic and domestic terms.  Two delightful brothers are separated when their parents split, and concoct a long-distance plot to bring the family together again, by making a wish at the crossroads where two bullet trains from their respective towns pass.  Each enlists a group of friends to accompany him, so there are seven kids altogether on the adventure, each with a wish to make.  And for most of them, there is a parent or grandparent who aids or foils their quest.  The film flashes back and forth with the speed of the children, who seem to run everywhere they go, a little faster than I could follow, so I would flip Metacritic ratings between these two most recent, but urge you to watch some Kore-eda film at first opportunity.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Watchlist

With the Clark auditorium dark during the current phase of construction in the Manton building, I have no idea whether or when I will resume film programming there.  I’m particularly dubious about future Cinema Salon screenings, but do intend to keep my film blog going, even if the film club is no more. 

There certainly has been no abatement in my own film viewing, and I am once again dozens of films behind in my commentary.  My intention is to make another big push to catch up, and then to take a two-pronged approach to future films -- keeping a daily diary of immediate reactions to what I’m watching, back to my original intent of a decade ago; but for films and filmmakers about which I have something more extensive to say, or strong recommendations to make, posting longer essays on occasion.

First off, I have two films to recommend that were shown during the fall at Images Cinema, and for which I led an After Images discussion.  In advance I prepared career summaries of two of my favorite active directors, Richard Linklater and Michael Winterbottom, which I’ve posted here as “Pages.”

Linklater’s latest, Boyhood (MC-100(!!!), NFX), has been so widely acclaimed that adding my own praise would be carrying coals to Newcastle.  As a cinematic stunt -- filming intermittently over a dozen years to literally enact a child’s growing up -- it’s amazing, but even better for its substance.   As much as this film seems to be life caught on the fly, in fact every line is scripted and rehearsed, repeating the process for as long as it takes to seem spontaneous.  Its realism inheres in the practice of basing every scene on something that actually happened to Linklater or one of his actors or acquaintances.  The film is naturalistic, but not improvised, and definitely not documentary.  It’s a lived-in film, and a pleasure to live through.  I doubt it will be supplanted as my choice for best of the year.

I like the nakedness of remaking that Michael Winterbottom, Steve Coogan, and Rob Bryden bring to The Trip to Italy (MC-75, NFX).  That was fun, let’s do it again, in Italy instead of Yorkshire.  Flip the script in few ways, then let’s go.  If the material is thin, we lay on the layers – person, persona, impersonation; food, scenery, cinematic and literary allusions.  We’re a group of guys who are getting older, and mortality is much on our minds, so everything revolves around that theme.  Just do it, then do it again, until we can’t do it anymore.  See what happens.

Reviewing the films that Winterbottom and Coogan have made together, I saw that there was one I had missed.  The Look of Love (MC-57, NFX) was not up to the standard of 24 Hour Party People, but did profile another major figure in British popular culture.  Paul Raymond leveraged strip clubs and titty mags into massive holdings of Soho real estate, and one of the greatest fortunes in the UKCitizen Kane this is not, though it tells a parallel tale of the emotional emptiness of public success.

Considering myself a big fan of Steve Coogan, I felt it was time to make the acquaintance of his alter ego – he certainly has more than enough ego for two – and the film Alan Partridge (MC-66, NFX) was a good place to start, though it finds Partridge on the downside of his career, fallen from national TV host to provincial radio DJ.  This film stands on its own as a humorous character study, but I have to say that a sampling of the TV shows that made Partridge a figure in British pop culture did not travel very well, especially with annoying laugh tracks. 

Another of the directors from whom I expect great things, Lukas Moodysson, returned to form with one of my favorite films of the year, the aptly-named We Are the Best! (MC-87, NFX), about a trio of 13-year-old girls who form a punk rock band in 1980s Stockholm.  Only one of them is the least bit musical, but they don’t let that stop them, and their anarchic energy is utterly endearing, as their friendship allows them to negotiate a world of parents and schoolmates that seems to have no space for them, until they carve out their own personal niche.  It’s all utterly specific, yet remarkably universal.

That set me off on a rewarding cycle of films about (pre-)adolescent girls.  Sundays & Cybèle (1962, NFX, CC) was a film of which I had fond memories, so when the Criterion Collection re-issued it, I leapt at the chance to see whether fifty years had changed my impression of Serge Bourguignon’s Oscar winner for best foreign film.  Certainly, modern sensitivities about pedophilia cast a different light on the proceedings, but the adult/child romance between a shell-shocked veteran and a preternaturally grown-up little girl retains its power, largely because of the enchanting performance of 12-year-old Patricia Gozzi.  Hardy Kruger is the damaged manchild who meets her halfway.  Though dismissed for sentimentality by New Wave critics at the time, now it seems very much of that era, with delicious widescreen black & white cinematography by Henri Decae and music by Maurice Jarre.  While one can see why Bourguignon’s career went nowhere from here, I’m still a sucker for his first effort.

A more sensual and much scarier approach to a 14-year-old girl’s awakening sexuality is offered by It Felt Like Love (MC-76, NFX), a first feature from Eliza Hittman, starring a magnetic Gina Piersanti.  On the summer streets and beaches of working-class Brooklyn, she is taunted by an older friend, who is sexually active, into pursuing a wildly-inappropriate older boy.  She has no idea what she is getting into, but we do, and hope she manages to elude the manifest danger, and retain her childish illusions for a little while longer, in this effective mood piece.
  
In Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy (MC-74, NFX), the girl is only ten, and when her French family moves to a suburban housing complex, she is able to introduce herself to the neighboring group of children as a boy.  Through a summer of soccer games and swimming she is able to maintain her masculine identity as Mikael, even while at home Laure has good relations with her parents and adorably girly 6-year-old sister.  The imposture can’t go on forever, but you root for her to keep her gender freedom for all long as possible.  Nothing especially dramatic happens, but the quality of observation and empathy is delicious.

Moving to an age when teenage romance is more appropriate, Shailene Woodley is utterly charming in the cancer kids weepie, The Fault in Our Stars (MC-69, NFX), Josh Boone’s adaptation of John Green’s YA blockbuster.  It could be all too much, but only steps over the line a couple of times, as Shailene and her costar Ansel Elgort keep it realistically based in genuine teenage emotions, which don’t really need the overemphatic underlining by pop songs on the soundtrack.

Felicity Jones is another appealing young actress, and helps make Drake Doremus’s Breathe In (MC-60, NFX) watchable, if not memorable.  She’s a British exchange student living with a family in upstate New York, a shy musical prodigy.  Her host father, Guy Pearce, is the high school music teacher, frustrated in his professional career.  You know where this is going.  The two leads are the only thing that keeps the proceedings somewhat interesting.

I’m partial to British historical costume dramas, so it’s no surprise that I rate Belle (MC-64, NFX) somewhat higher than the critical consensus.  We’re in Jane Austen territory here, but with an interesting twist, since the title character is the daughter of a slave and a sea captain, who is brought up in his aristocratic family.  The story is based on an enigmatic double portrait of a Georgian beauty and her mulatto companion, but is freely fictionalized, to good effect, and handsomely directed in Merchant-Ivory style by Amma Asante, a British woman of Ghanian descent, who gives the gimmick a substantial foundation in class and racial history.  Gugu Mbatha-Raw is both dazzling and believable as Dido Belle, and the film successfully balances romance and social reality, to a history lesson finish that is not quite fully realized.  But if you like this sort of thing, the film is well worth seeing.  Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson play Lord and Lady Mansfield, so you know it’s a quality production.  Unfortunately, the double portrait in the film is not nearly as mysterious as the real one, which is shown all too briefly at the very end.

There is also much to recommend in a rather different historical drama, The Immigrant (MC-77, NFX).  In James Gray’s dark-amber-hued melodrama, Marion Cotillard is a Polish refugee from the First World War, who comes through Ellis Island and is taken under the protection of an ambiguous impresario played by Joaquin Phoenix, strange and intense as always.  Jeremy Renner is a magician and rival, but it’s definitely the two leads that carry the film and lend mystery to this earnest evocation of a particular past.

Certainly worth seeing for Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s final performance, I found A Most Wanted Man (MC-73, NFX) more comprehensible and rewarding than the last well-received John le Carré adaptation, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and an effective update of his Cold War concerns and tone, to a world of jihad and unleashed antiterrorismI was taken by the sleek and seedy look of Hamburg in Anton Corbijn’s film, and by an extremely effective cast that included Robin Wright, Willem Dafoe, and Nina Hoss.  As much a mood piece as a spy thriller, this seemed to divide critical response as radically as the foregoing film, and again I tended to fall on the favorable side.

[click through for more quick reviews of recent and older films, mostly on the less favorable side, but with some outright recommendations]

Saturday, December 06, 2014

What's up docs

Now I’ve got the prompt I need to write up another long composite post -- a jumping-up-and-down recommendation for a recent documentary.  I loved Finding Vivian Maier (MC-75, NFX), but perhaps I over-identified with the subject, by reason of class status, artistic endeavor, and lifelong obscurity.  Vivien Maier was a nanny and caregiver who was also an obsessive photographer, taking hundreds and hundreds of rolls of film, and never showing her pictures to anyone.  She was also a hoarder, and a crank verging on mental illness, but she certainly belongs in a pantheon of street photographers that includes Helen Levitt, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and Weegee, as well as Joel Meyerowitz and Mary Ellen Mark, who comment intimately on her work.  John Maloof is the young man who happened to buy at auction a random box of negatives and discovered the work of an unseen artist, just about at the time of her death, which allowed him to corner the market on Maier’s photographs.  He co-directs this movie in both celebration and exploitation of this cache of unsung work.  The question of whether this benefits or betrays the intention of the artist is one of many interesting themes this film touches upon.  You could take it as a slick piece of self-promotion, cashing in on someone who was the antithesis of self-promoter, or you could revel in the revelation of a powerful but unknown body of work.  The film follows the successful template of Searching for Sugar Man to tell a crowd-pleasing but troubling story of a lost artist redeemed, in this case posthumously and with many attendant questions of ethics, aesthetics, and value, as well as mysteries of personality and fate.  Plus, the photographs are truly great.  Find Vivian Maier! – that’s as close as I’ll ever come to an order.  Check out some of her work here, then see the movie, and then decide whether you agree it constitutes a genuine discovery.

First Cousin Once Removed (MC-94, NFX) is another great find.  I recommend all of Alan Berliner’s films but his latest is not a bad way to start.  Instead of focusing on himself or his immediate family, this film follows the progressive dementia of the eponymous relative.  That Edwin Honig had been a distinguished poet and translator makes the gradual extinguishing of his light even more poignant.  Filmmaking does not get more intimate and thoughtful than this.  As sad as the poor man’s decline may be, the film remains respectful, clever, and even witty, a Berliner trademark.

I’ve been planning this round-up of the best recent documentaries since the time of the Oscars, so I’ll start with what was named Best Documentary Feature, 20 Feet from Stardom (MC-83, NFX), which I really enjoyed, as the most ingratiating of the nominees, again following last year’s winner, Sugar Man.  This time the artists being rediscovered, celebrated, and given their due, were a number of female back-up singers, mostly from the Motown era.  Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and the others were (and are) powerful artists in their own right, but had the special knack of backing up some of the defining acts of the time.  Most of these ladies came out of gospel and put the soul in Soul music, but there was only room for one Aretha in the business, so for most of their careers they labored at the distance suggested by the title.  Morgan Neville’s film shines the limelight on them, and they more than fill the stage.  Might be enraging, if it weren’t so entertaining.

[click through to read commentary on a score of recent recommendable documentaries]

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Loach is no slouch

[With the Clark auditorium off-line during the latest phase of construction, and all programming moved or canceled, the future of film programs at the Clark is murkier than ever.  On the personal side, I continue struggling to catch up with various categories of film-reviewing, but one group of films I’ve seen lately lends itself to stand-alone consideration.  So here’s an appetizer, for the banquet to come.]

Perhaps no director is more identified with the democratic Left than Ken Loach, both politically and aesthetically.  His films portray the antithesis to Thatcherite Britain, and an alternative to a soul-dead Labour Party.  Though censored and stymied at various points in his career, he has established an impressive filmography, with which I have been catching up.
  
I’ve always liked Ken Loach, found him highly simpatico, but had succumbed to the prevalent view that he’s an eat-your-peas sort of filmmaker, good for you but not much fun to watch.  Oddly, I lost track of him after seeing a particularly good movie, Sweet Sixteen (2002), the culmination of a solid dozen years worth of films, after he had struggled for two decades to secure work and to get his films seen.

Of crucial importance in that run of good films was the development of a continuing relationship with screenwriter Paul Laverty, beginning with Carla’s Song in 1996.  Laverty had been a lawyer in Glasgow, and worked in Nicaragua for a human rights organization, which informed the theme of that first collaboration.  Many of their subsequent films shared the Glaswegian location and dialect, which makes subtitles necessary for nearly every one of their films, each of which deals with marginalized and exploited people, working class or worse.

My Name is Joe (1998) and Bread and Roses (2000) led up to Sweet Sixteen, though Loach maintained a continuity of intent from working with other writers on Riff-Raff (1991), Raining Stones (1993), Ladybird Ladybird (1994), and Land and Freedom (1995), all of which I had seen and admired.  Subsequently, Loach seemed to get a lot of love from the Cannes Film Festival, but only spotty distribution in the U.S.

I picked up the thread of his career by starting with a film that I’d been meaning to see, more out of duty than expectation of pleasure, ever since it was re-issued by the Criterion Collection several years ago.  Kes (1969, MRQE-92, NFX) was Loach’s second feature film, after a successful career in British television, and remains his most universally admired, despite the nearly impenetrable Yorkshire accents.  It tells the story of a young boy, bullied at home and at school, who finds companionship and purpose in the training of a kestrel, and is really made by the intimacy that develops between boy and bird.  In Loach’s typical practice of mixing nonactors with professionals, he found a gem in David Bradley as the boy, and with cinematographer Chris Menges developed the naturalistic, observational style of filmmaking that would become his trademark, much influenced by the likes of DeSica’s Bicycle Thieves.  Perversely, the Criterion disk lacks subtitles, but you can miss much of the dialogue and still be moved by the intensity and sincerity of this painful but rewarding film.  It made me want to see more Ken Loach, and I was surprised to see what I had missed.

The Navigators (2001, NFX) was another labor-based story, about the privatization of British Rail, following hard on the heels of Blood and Roses, which had been about a strike by Latino janitorial workers in L.A.  As always with Loach, the hardscrabble realities of working life are balanced by the humor of camaraderie and circumstance.  One after another, a tight crew of railroad workers take buyouts, with one profit-squeezing owner succeeding another.  Then the boys continue working, without union protection, as independent contractors, to disastrous result.

In subsequent films, the balance tilts more toward humor without losing the didactic intent.  Ae Fond Kiss (2004, MC-65, NFX) might even be mistaken for a romantic comedy, but the romance is complicated by Romeo and Juliet-type conflict, between a Pakistani son of Muslim immigrants and an Irish schoolteacher in Glasgow.  Loach fans were unimpressed by unprecedented sex scenes and Loach foes bemoaned the characteristic schematics and liberal pieties, but I liked the whole thing, the realism of relationships, the satire of bigotry and narrowness from both sides, but most especially a winning lead performance from Eva Birthistle.

Looking for Eric (2010, MC-66, NFX) continues Loach’s comedic approach, in a project initiated by the eponymous Eric Cantona, a great hero of the Manchester United football team.  Not that I had ever heard of him before seeing this film, but he’s easily translatable into a comparable figure like Reggie Jackson of the New York Yankees, both a big-time star and a character.  He’s the idol of a down-on-his-luck postman, who many years ago abandoned the love of his life and their infant daughter out of sheer cold feet.  He later married another woman, who abandoned him in turn, along with two stepsons by other men.  He comes back in contact with his lost love through shared care of a granddaughter, and seeks guidance from the life-sized poster of his hero on his bedroom wall.  In a Play It Again, Sam twist, the French footballer appears in the flesh and dispenses romantic advice and life wisdom from a Gallic sporting perspective.  The film loses its focus on some interesting relationships to become a comic revenge caper, but remains rather endearing.

The balance of sweet to sour shifts even more in The Angels’ Share (2013, MC-66, NFX), though like the scotch whiskey in which the story is steeped, it’s got bite as well as smoothness.  And another real find in a nonprofessional actor, Paul Brannigan, who could be the boy from Kes after more years of hard knocks, or the boy from Sweet Sixteen after a further descent into violent criminality.  In this case, the pregnancy of his girlfriend generates a wish to reform, and he winds up on a community service work gang instead of in prison.  A kindly overseer interests the boy in whiskey and he turns out to have an educated nose for spirits.  But being the lad he is, and the world being stacked against him as it is, he puts his knowledge to use by organizing a liquor heist.  Here the caper seems a bit more organic, and the title pleasingly metaphoric, indicating the portion of whiskey that evaporates from the aging cask.

This succession of films led me back to The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2007, MC-82, NFX), which won the top prize at Cannes and I reviewed indifferently at its release.  I definitely appreciated the film more the second time around, from the lovely Irish countryside to the brutal conflict between two brothers, who originally fight together against the British but then wind up on opposite sides of the Irish Civil War.  It all seemed much clearer to me on second viewing, even down to the highly Loachian debate among the partisans about socialism vs. nationalism, which echoes from Land and Freedom, his film about the Spanish Civil War.  It’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking film, as long as you are awake to its concerns.


I appreciate Loach for wearing his left-wing politics on his sleeve, and also for his self-effacing approach to filmmaking, in which he tries to get the camera out of the way of the actors and just to let them act naturally, going so far as to shoot in sequence without letting the actors know what’s coming next, so he can catch their spontaneous reactions to surprising developments, whether they are trained thespians or beginners whose background matches their characters’.  His is a form of socialist realism that I can get behind. 

[Here's a good link for more information on Ken Loach's career.]