Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Checking my list

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXHORTATIONS (I urge you to see these):

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

RECOMMENDATIONS (I advise you to see these):

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Women on their own

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Black power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 09, 2015

After the awards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

New & noted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 -- 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


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.