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.  

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


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]