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]

Saturday, December 06, 2014

What's up docs

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Loach is no slouch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Mopping up new films

I am going to pick up again right where I left off, with foreign films titled by a woman’s first name ending in “a” -- a surprisingly rich subcategory.  I really liked Gloria (MC-83, NFX), both the character and the Chilean film.  She’s a divorced woman of a certain age, who puts herself out there in a resilient manner, attending singles events for older people in Santiago, and flirting hopefully.  Played by Paulina García, and directed by Sebastián Lelio, Gloria is funny and touching and romantic in a real-life way, without wish fulfillment.  She connects with a Mr. Right who turns wrong; she gives him a second chance with discouraging results, but still winds up happy enough dancing alone.  The story is slight but true, and the telling is likely to seduce you.  (Again, I include links to Metacritic and Netflix listings for each film, and for 2013 films, I add rankings on FilmComment and IndieWire critic polls.)

Then there’s Yella (2007, MRQE-70, NFX), who certainly seduced me.  Impressed by Barbara, I went back and looked at this earlier collaboration between director Christian Petzold and actress Nina Hoss.  Petzold has a finely-tuned sense of film history as well as the divided history of postwar Germany.  In this film he makes an unlikely linkage between a documentary about modern business negotiations made by his film school mentor, and Carnival of Souls, a cult horror film from 1962.  Meanwhile the subtext conveys subtle clues about the lingering differences between the former East and West Germanies.  Just a lot going on, in an elusive and hypnotic story.  In Jerichow (2009, MC-71, NFX), the same pair take on another adaptation of the often-remade James Cain story, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and make it totally new.

This streak of similarly-titled films continues into this year with Ida (2014, MC-89, NFX), in which director Pawel Pawlikowski returns to Poland with major impact.  He left at age 14, now lives in Paris and works mostly in Britain (see My Summer of Love), but embraces his heritage not just by making a film set in the Poland of his childhood, but in the style of the great films of Wajda and Polanski from that time, not to mention hints of Kieslowski and Bresson.  In narrow-format black & white, he tells the story of a young novitiate, about to take her vows, who is sent by the mother superior to visit her only living relative, a complicated character played by an accomplished actress – powerful but slatternly – who has shocking news for the young nun, played by a fresh-faced non-actress.  I really advise seeing this film without preconception, so I won’t say more than that the two opposites team up for a roadtrip in search of their family history.  The film, in its restrained and meticulous manner, seems longer than its eighty minutes, but not in a bad way.  The drama is beautifully underplayed, and every moment counts.

I’m a fan of Steve Coogan, so I was interested in his new departure with Philomena (MC-76, NFX).  Judi Dench is always worth watching, and director Stephen Frears frequently so, but the resulting film was better than I expected, almost worthy of its Best Picture nomination.  Coogan adapted the screenplay from a nonfiction book, and plays the journalist with wit and nuance, but without broad comedy.  Dame Dench is his subject, an Irish woman who had her child taken away by the nuns from a home where she was consigned as an unwed teenager.  Now she wants to find out what happened to her son, so the unlikely pair make an investigative match to discover the story, for their own respective reasons.  In the quest, the odd couple also discover a bittersweet bond, and the search takes turns you don’t expect, to a sad but satisfying conclusion.

Dallas Buyers Club (MC-84, FC #48, IW #45, NFX) was also almost worthy of consideration among the best films of last year, and Matthew McConnaghey deserved Best Actor recognition, for this as well as a string of superior performances sufficient to make one forget -- and forgive -- the person behind the persona.  Like the actor, this film does not ask to be liked too much.  He’s a scrawny, ornery cowpoke, and drunken homophobic womanizer, who happens to have AIDS and won’t take death for a sentence.  In saving himself -- through savagery and subterfuge in his battles with the medical establishment -- he saves others, including the transgendered Rayon, played memorably by Jared Leto.  At least for a while some are saved, and an elemental drive for survival is celebrated.  The premise seems thin and predetermined, but director Jean-Marc Vallé does a nice job of giving it dimension and surprise. 

BTW, among Best Picture nominees I watched American Hustle a second time, enjoying the rom-com without having to figure out the con, and liked it even more, though not as much as Silver Linings Playbook, which I fell for completely.

Having segued seamlessly from films titled with a feminine first name to last year’s Oscar nominees, I can round things off with a simple pronoun, Her (MC-90, FC # 17, IW #4, NFX).  As someone whose phone is defiantly un-smart, who relies on computer technology at least a dozen years old, I was not the ideal audience for Spike Jonze’s latest mind-bending fantasy.  Another thin premise here opens out into a surprisingly full world of the near future (LA crossed with Shanghai).  Joaquin Phoenix works at an internet company where he composes, prints out, and mails heartfelt “handwritten” letters for paying clients.  He is an early adopter of the first cross-platform operating system with artificial intelligence.  Given a choice, he asks for the system to speak as a female, and soon he is in constant confidential communication with Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied voice.  Having met cute, they fall in love.  The idea is sold better than I imagined possible, but then oversold, the movie running long and petering out.  Amy Adams has to be mentioned in a small supporting role that could not have been more different from her character in American Hustle. 

Jonze seems to have a thing for making beautiful women look as plain as possible, as with Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich, though there he turns Catherine Keener into the hot item, rather against type.  Even lacking the wild surprise of first viewing, a recent third or fourth look confirmed that film as masterly inventive, with one of John Cusack’s best performances.  My impulse would be to ascribe much of the kooky charm of the film to Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay.  And another look at Synecdoche, New York, which Kaufman directed as well as wrote, suggests he rather than Jonze was the heavyweight auteur behind Malkovich and Adaptation.  The brilliant hall of mirrors that is Synecdoche is given a retrospective poignancy by Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s lead performance.  How long will we have to wait for Kaufman’s next masterwork?  (BTW, I just watched another Kaufmanesque film, Stranger Than Fiction (2006, MC-67, NFX), which highlights by contrast his continuously inventive genius.)

Scarlett Johansson plays a totally different kind of seductress in Under the Skin (2014, MC-78, NFX).  Here she has a body but almost no voice and virtually no affect, like a computer in sleep mode.  If she seems inhuman, that’s because she is, an alien wearing human skin, luring men to a black widow-like fate.  Black as the wig Scarlett wears, which makes her look startlingly like Ava Gardner.  Hard to convey just how strange this movie is, and hard to recommend to viewers who aren’t ready to work at making sense of the story or experiencing very uncomfortable reactions.  Jonathan Glazer’s film mixes sci-fi and horror film tropes with Glaswegian social realism, all delivered with art gallery visuals and music.  Hypnotic, disturbing, weirdly beautiful, and definitely not for everyone.  (P.S. Don’t make the mistake I did, and watch Glazer’s previous film -- Birth (2005, MC-50) -- on the strength of this one, unless you’re besotted by Nicole Kidman.)

Next up are a half-dozen recent foreign films that I think are worth seeing -- if you’re a viewer willing to make an effort -- starting with two by Iranians in exile.  Abbas Kiarostami has become the ultimate international filmmaker.  His previous film, Certified Copy, was set in Italy with French and British stars.  His latest, Like Someone in Love (MC-76, FC #15, IW #22, NFX), is set in Japan with a Japanese cast, and an Ozu-like style that remains unmistakably his own.  I find Kiarostami thrilling in a way that’s hard to articulate.  He makes you think, to be ever seeking for his meaning, yet in a manner that instills confidence that there is meaning to be found.  Take the very first shot, a wide, deep-focus set-up in a Tokyo bar, where we don’t even see the speakers of overheard dialogue, and only by paying patient attention do we have any idea who they are and what they are talking about.  From there the story takes turns we can’t even guess at, just try to piece together after the event.  I’ll say no more, so you can find out for yourself.

Asghar Farhadi follows up A Separation with The Past (MC-85, FC #40, IW #30, NFX), which again plunges us into a complicated domestic situation and asks us to sort out conflicting views and mixed motives.  The film is intelligent and observant, but perhaps a little forced, a little overcomplicated.  The setting is Paris instead of Teheran, which removes the inherent interest of seeing into an unknown world, but Bérénice Bejo has the same effect on the audience as on the men in her life, attracting and confounding.  She’s called her Iranian husband back to France to finalize their divorce, so she can marry the new man whose child she’s carrying (except that he’s already married to a woman in a coma).  She’s got two daughters from an earlier relationship and the new man has a young son, so there’s an excess of family drama.  Still -- compelling to watch, if not in the end completely convincing.

Jia Zhangke is one of the most interesting young directors in world cinema.  His latest, A Touch of Sin (MC-77, FC #5, IW #13, NFX), brings an unusual martial arts focus to his usual social (sur)realism, though each of the four interlocked stories is based on a recent Chinese news event.  Beyond his typical documentary-style critique of the inequities of China’s economic boom, each of these episodes explodes in stylized violence.  So it’s not one of his films that I particularly esteem, but it certainly has the hallmarks of his visual flair and seriousness of purpose.

Broken Circle Breakdown (MC-71, NFX) is an oddity that sometimes endears itself and sometimes does not.  The Oscar nominee from Belgium is deep into the world of bluegrass – who knew there was a Flemish slice of Appalachia in Ghent?  In a fractured time scheme, flashing back and forward, it tells of the meeting, marriage, and parenthood of a blond tattoo(ed) artist and a Kris Kristofferson type.  She starts singing with his band, and the performances of songs like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” are very well-done, as is the sensuous love story.  The turn into family melodrama (hardly a spoiler since you find out right away their young daughter has cancer) is less satisfying.  Director Felix Van Groeningen’s film is not quite Once all over again, but it plays the same bittersweet tune.

As someone who has never found himself on Wes Anderson’s wavelength, I’m not the person to tell you whether you should see The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, MC-88, NFX).  Many, apparently, were entertained.  I watched it in a drowsy state, not giving it my usual level of attention, which may have been cause or effect of my lack of appreciation.  To me, it was cute but inconsequential, a live-action cartoon.  Energetic and meticulously made, yes, but to me frankly a bore.

I grant you that Ralph Fiennes was terrific in Budapest, and he is equally good as Charles Dickens in The Invisible Woman (MC-75, NFX), directed by himself.  I really liked this literate literary biography, except that it left me with the feeling that they ran out of money and abandoned the last ten pages of the script.  Up to that point the film feels well-appointed, in true Victorian style.  As I say, Fiennes makes a highly plausible Dickens, conveying the drama of his celebrated public readings as well as his more closed-off private persona, and Felicity Jones is effective as Nell Ternan, the young actress who becomes his long-term mistress.  This film does what shocked W.H. Auden about Jane Austen, “Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’ / Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety / The economic basis of society.”  Tom Hollander as Dickens’ friend Willkie Collins, and Kristin Scott Thomas as Nell’s mother round out an all-round quality production that falls just short of an outright recommendation from me.  

I’m not sure whether the prolific British director Michael Winterbottom intended to jump the gun on Richard Linklater’s Boyhood but he did something like that with Everyday (MC-55, NFX), casting four real siblings and filming them intermittently over a period of five years.  Their mother is played by Shirley Henderson, and their imprisoned father by John Simm.  As a working single parent of four, the mother’s life is an everyday grind as she waits out her husband’s sentence.  And yet there are glimmers of satisfaction, maternal and otherwise, in her troubled, relentless life.  She’s hard-pressed but not crushed, surviving each day until the long-sought reunion of her family, which of course brings its own problems.  Very much a kitchen-sink story, told in a documentary, caught-on-the-fly style, I found it highly watchable, like all of Winterbottom’s work.  Not everybody does.  Rule of thumb – if you like Wes Anderson more than Mike Leigh or Ken Loach, stay away from this.

In somewhat the same vein, I was more open than some to Run and Jump (MC-72, NFX).  In Steph Green’s film, an Irish wife and mother (very winningly played by Maxine Peake, of whom I look forward to seeing more) is trying to hold her family together after her husband has a stroke and returns from the hospital a mere shadow of himself.  With him comes an American neuroscientist (Will Forte) who wants to study his recovery, which is not expected to be anything like full.  So besides the incapacitated husband, demanding children, and difficult in-laws, the wife has to deal with this interloper, observer, and -- you guessed it -- love interest.  Steph Green is a young American woman exploring her Irish roots, and relies a bit too much on indie pop-song montages to glide over emotional transitions, but she’s still a talent to watch -- funny, sincere, and truthful.

After the break, you can read my off-hand reactions to a score of recent films, only the last of which I endorse and truly recommend.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Round-up of recent films

My aim is to make this round-up useful and fun, both for me and for you, but I’ve got forty or more new films to comment on, so let’s get right to it.  I’ll start with the prestige pictures of the year, notable for award nominations or high critical ranking, continue with my own particular recommendations, and then work my way through various groupings by category or theme.  (Included for each film -- links to Metacritic and Netflix, plus rankings in Film Comment and IndieWire critical polls for 2013.)

I already covered five of the year’s top films here, but the most acclaimed of all was Best Picture Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave (MC-97, FC #2, IW #1, NFX), and I am no nay-sayer about that.  It was an honest piece of work, and I found it an appropriate successor to Lincoln and antidote to Django Unchained, in historical films from the previous year.  Well-directed by Steve McQueen and well-acted by Chiwetel Ejiofor and others, with a decent respect for historical accuracy, unflinching but not sensational, my only quibbles with this film were the almost-too-pretty cinematography and cameos by actors whose recognizability threw me out of the veristic sense of period.

I’m a dedicated follower of Paul Greengrass and his immersive documentary-like style, but going in, I put Captain Phillips (MC-83, FC #50, IW #41, NFX) more in a crowd-pleasing category with the Bourne films than with Bloody Sunday, so I was pleasantly surprised to find it effective in the vein of United 93, making the reality of a recent news story come alive with vivid immediacy and broad sympathy.  Tom Hanks dials back the charm to play the matter-of-fact ship captain, and real Somalis play the pirates who hijack his container ship and take him hostage.  The film elicited an intriguing disparity of opinion among reviewers I typically trust, with one finding it a  “disturbing celebration of American power,” another suggesting that Greengrass “wants this victory to shatter you,” while a third wonders, “how does a left-wing conscience find room to maneuver in a right-wing form?”  I side with those who find this film an exceptional success.

A different perspective on Somali piracy comes across in the Danish feature A Hijacking (MC-82, NFX).    In Tobias Lindholm’s film, American military might is not involved, and the incident goes on for 134 days of tense negotiations by phone, with the pirate mastermind on one end, and a Danish shipping CEO on the other.  The boss is all business. but not without a conscience, and can’t always accept the advice of his professional piracy consultant.  This is “Getting to Yes” with a vengeance.  Instead of slam-bam action, we get excruciating tedium with an ominous hum of potential violence, for an involving experience nonetheless.

Another approach to maritime adventure is applied in All is Lost (MC-87, FC #26, IW #19, NFX).  J.C. Chandor’s film, quite a departure from the financial thriller Margin Call, follows a solitary sailor from the moment his yacht’s hull is breached by an errant flotsam shipping container to the time when, despite his inventive and arduous efforts, it sinks and abandons him at sea in the Indian Ocean.  Unlike Captain Phillips, which was actually shot on a ship that was a corporate twin to the original, this was mostly filmed in a tank with a green screen background, but special effects and sound design convey a genuine sense of being at sea.  Robert Redford, doing a lot of stunts for a 77-year-old, also does a lot of characterization with virtually no dialogue.  We watch because the character is making an inventive and fascinating series of stabs at survival, but we really pay attention because it’s that familiar face, however weathered by the storm.

Going back to Best Picture nominees, there are three I haven’t seen yet, but one I sadly decline to recommend.  There’s lot to appreciate in The Wolf of Wall Street (MC-75, FC #37, IW #21, NFX), but I found its extended length fundamentally unrewarding.  You can see why Leonardo DiCaprio would want to play the financial sleazeball Jordan Belfort, a person who is all over-the-top performance anyway.  And Martin Scorsese brings a good deal of filmmaking genius to the bad-boy spectacle, but no discernible soul, despite his typical autobiographical subtext.  Much of it is funny, but in a disgusting way, Hangover-style.  None of it is very enlightening. 

As “Best Foreign Film,” The Great Beauty (MC-86, FC #24, IW #14, NFX) was a more reputable Oscar choice than many.  I went into it with a certain skepticism, but came out reasonably enchanted.  I’d even venture the heresy that it’s as good as the film it updates after fifty years -- La Dolce Vita -- not that I rank that benchmark among my favorite Fellini films, I much prefer the view of Rome in The White Sheik.  And I have to say Paolo Sorrentino does a better job than Scorsese in satirizing decadence and debauchery without exemplifying it.  Toni Servillo excels as the central character who holds the pulsing, scattershot energies of the film together.  He’s a jet-set writer, just turned 65, who long ago swapped his commitments from literature to the high life, to become the party master of the Roman rich.  He’s understandably weary of his world, but not yet dead to the beauties of his city.

As usual, the most esteemed foreign release was not even nominated for an Oscar, though it did not lack for notoriety.  Blue is the Warmest Color (MC-88, FC #12, IW #8, NFX) is best known for its explicit lesbian sex scenes, and would probably be better with them cut, given the three-hour running time, but Abdellatif Kechiche has plenty of other stuff to offer in his follow-up to The Secret of the Grain.  This film has an intimacy that goes well beyond sex, as we follow Adèle Exarchopoulos as a character named Adèle in tight, constant close-up, registering every change of color or expression on her face, from a schoolgirl who develops a tortured passion for an older art student, into a teacher of young children trying to put her life back together after their break-up.  It’s a rich emotional experience, and your heart goes out to Adèle as hers breaks.

Turning to films rated among the top fifty of 2013 in critical polls, I’ll start with two I personally would rank higher, and then go on to five I’d rank lower.

I expect to like any film by Nicole Holofcener, but Enough Said (MC-79, IW #47, NFX) surprised me with delight.  It’s honest and funny about romantic relationships in a way rarely seen this side of Eric Rohmer.  Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a divorced LA masseuse who meets a possible mate (James Gandolfini, in one of his last roles) and a new best friend (Catherine Keener) at the same party, but later finds out they know each other, and keeps the secret from both.  Meanwhile each of them has a daughter about to go to college.  The slight but significant story follows each character with wit and empathy, and offers a steady stream of sparkling dialogue.

Short Term 12 (MC-82, FC #47, IW #16, NFX) is set in a foster care facility, and clearly bears the fruit of direct observation from writer/director Destin Cretton.  Based on his previous short film, which had a male protagonist, this film revolves around Brie Larson, who may prove a star with real gravitational pull.  She certainly holds this group of kids, and this film, together.  The character’s name is Grace and she displays plenty of it, in a modest, understated way, as she supervises the facility.  Clearly subject to some neglect and abuse in her own childhood, she is adept at caring for her charges and dealing with her fellow staff members, with one of whom she’s romantically involved.  Potentially grim, with sad stories of damaged children, this film celebrates small steps and glimmers of hope, with humor and heart.

As for films that worked better for some other people than they did for me, I’ll start with Upstream Color (MC-81, FC #10, IW #9, NFX), a freaky sci-fi-ish thriller/romance/something by one-man-band Shane Carruth.  I was content to let some of the spectacle wash over me, but I didn’t care enough to try to figure out the enigma. 

In Frances Ha (MC-82, FC #9, IW #10, NFX), Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig get to play out their mutual attraction through a scrim of early French New Wave visuals and music.  Like the 20-something title character, footloose and at loose ends in NYC, this film is endearing up to a point, and then it’s a little much, or not enough. 

Large claims are made for another small film, which had its moments, but made no strong impact on me – Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours (MC-83, FC #11, IW #20, NFX) tracks the passing connection between two lonely middle-aged people, a Canadian woman in Vienna to watch over a cousin in a coma, and a guard at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, where she idles away the waiting hours.  The pair are appealing enough, but the proceedings are so low-key that the most exciting thing in the film is a gallery lecture on Bruegel.  Nonetheless, I would definitely consider showing this at the Clark, if I ever wind up showing anything at all. 

Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster (MC-72, FC#20, IW #33, NFX) is a splendid visual spectacle, with Oscar-nominated cinematography by Philippe Le Sourd, and serious about the philosophy of martial arts, while delivering all the outlandish kicks and jabs that the genre demands.  But it’s an insider’s film that leaves me on the outside.

Some people keep announcing Woody Allen has made his best film in years, and I keep feeling that I don’t care whether I ever see another Woody Allen film.  Blue Jasmine (MC-78, FC #25, IW #27, NFX) is worth viewing for Cate Blanchett in full-diva mode, as someone like Mrs. Madoff after the fall, but not much else held my attention or earned my appreciation.

Of other highly ranked films, I’ve already expressed my love for Polley’s Stories We Tell (FC #16, IW #12), my admiration for Bujalski’s Computer Chess (FC #8, IW #18), and my ambivalence about Malick’s To the Wonder (FC #31, IW #23).  After the jump, I will comment on two good indies about run-ins between the police and African-Americans, three films from the Middle East, four teen comedies, two made for viewers mad about Mads, two about intellectuals and two about artists, and three foreign films titled with a woman’s first name.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Cinema Salon redux?

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

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

Checking my list

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dueling wits

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

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