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.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Recent and recommended

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended with reservations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 06, 2013

Coming to the Clark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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