Thursday, December 29, 2011
One more random compilation and I will be caught up with my film reviewing, and then proceed in a more systematic manner.
Among some recent American indies, the standout was Beginners (2011, MC-81, NFX), in which Mike Mills makes an autobiographical film about discovering his father and himself. Ewan McGregor plays the lead, a graphic artist whose profession yields animated sequences, flashbacks and forwards, and all sorts of goofy but endearing interpositions. Christopher Plummer plays the father, a museum curator who comes out after his wife dies, and delightedly embraces a gay lifestyle for a few years before his death from cancer (the movie starts there, so that’s no spoiler). In watching his father come out of the closet, the lonely 38-year-old tentatively starts to come out of his own, a reluctance to open up to the women of his serial relationships. He meets a new woman, Melanie Laurent, who is equally winsome and withdrawn. They cavort with the adorable terrier Ewan has inherited from his father, but will they embrace the joy of being together or retreat to comfortable solitude? This romantic folderol is almost as charming as it intends to be, with enough genuine detail to give the story some weight.
Turns out girls can do mumblecore as well as boys. In Tiny Furniture (2010, MC-71, NFX), Lena Dunham, a year out of Oberlin, makes a home movie that is worth watching, about a recent college grad coming home to the elegant white-on-white Tribeca studio loft of her artist mother. She plays the lead, her mother plays her mother, and her sister plays her sister, mostly in their own space. Her character is certainly more hapless than the go-getter who got this film made, and if the intimacy can be a bit icky, that is certainly the point of this highly self-aware exercise. Ms. Dunham turns herself into a poster girl for “smart women, foolish choices,” right down to probably the least erotic sex scene ever filmed. Her mother comes across as stiff and remote, but it’s hard to know whether that is characterization or poor acting. Her younger sister, however, hogs the scene just as the character should. The two boys she dallies with on the rebound from her end-of-college breakup are effectively vacuous. Self-revealing yet highly-mediated, with a sharper and steadier camera than is the rule for such D-I-Y efforts, this is a funny and pointed debut that promises much.
Win Win (2011, MC-75, NFX) was not as winning to me as Tom McCarthy’s previous film, The Visitor. But there was much to like in this story of a small town New Jersey lawyer, who cuts a corner or two to get by, but is still a good guy, volunteering to coach the high school wrestling team. That is Paul Giamatti in a familiar mode, but Amy Ryan as his wife stands out, totally Jersey but not a caricature in the least. The decidedly unglamorous sport of wrestling allows for some amusing takes on classic sports movies clichés, and McCarthy’s decidedly unglamorous hometown of New Providence keeps the story similarly grounded. Though reactions differ, I thought it was an excellent idea to cast a real high school state champion wrestler as the homeless boy the couple takes in -- with highly mixed motives -- and to rely on him to behave naturally on camera, rather than “acting.” I think that works to sustain an air of gritty reality, while the obligatory heart-tugging goes on.
In Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011, MC-65, NFX), the accent is on the middle word. Despite decent performances and a few winning moments, this was not to my taste. I know nothing about codirectors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, but I would be surprised if they were not a gay couple – not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that the gay sensibility in disguise adds an element of falsity to the proceedings. Come out of the closet, guys. This is the story of an entertaining “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” makeover, which goes all mush-headed with talk of “soulmates” and “your one true love.” The women just get in the way, with Juliane Moore and Emma Stone wasted. (One of these days Ms. Stone will be in a decent movie, and she will be amazing.) Steve Carell is his usual endearing everyman self, as a 40-year old dumpee rather than virgin, but Ryan Gosling brings his usual surprise, showing an aptitude for humor and humanity in the uncharacteristic role of a preening peacock. “No -- seriously? It’s like you’re Photoshopped.”
Appropriate Adult (2011, MC-77, Sundance) is plenty serious. I don’t know whether the Brits have a particular thing with serial killers, or whether I’m just more willing to watch a crime drama with a British accent, but I’ve been seeing a lot of them lately (Red Riding Trilogy, Luther, Longford), and this one was authentically creepy without a bit of gore. Dominic West (McNutty again!) plays the real weirdo Fred West, and Emily Watson is the title character, someone who accompanies through interrogation a defendant whose mental competency is in question. West insinuates himself with Watson, and a dance of calculated revelations, attractions and repulsions, follows. Julian Jarrold, who directed one of the Red Ridings, provides a disturbing but absorbing experience, with more thought-provoking ambiguity than shock value.
There are multiple reasons for me to have a soft spot for Made in Dagenham (2010, MC-65, NFX), which is basically just Norma Rae in England. First off is Sally Hawkins, who was forever endeared to me by Happy-Go-Lucky. She’s the normal working class mum who takes control of a strike by women at a Ford plant outside London in 1968 (and thereby puts me in mind of my own mum, a working class war bride from Slough). The soft-focus direction by Nigel Cole is in the vein of his Saving Grace and Calendar Girls, with the ladies going about a bit of fetching naughtiness, with “you go, girl” uplift. The film could well have done with a good deal more documentary flavor, but the subject is catnip to me, having grown up in a union household. In fact at just about that time, I was working with the American counterparts of these very women. At a GM plant in Cleveland, I had a summer job as a “trim key checker,” basically keeping up with the women who operated the piecework machines to sew or glue vinyl interior parts. So the UAW was the only union I ever joined, and despite what unions have become, I am always susceptible to the call of solidarity. Back in the 70s, one of my very favorite films was about a similar labor action by women, Coup pour Coup, now nearly forgotten and in fact not well know at the time – when I went to see it a second time at Film Forum in Manhattan, I was the only person in the audience. All this is to say that I quite liked Made in Dagenham, but you may not.
Days and Clouds (2008, MC-69, NFX) is another tale of economic hardship, in another time, class, and country. Silvio Soldini’s story of an upper middle class marriage under stress from fiscal setback is timely, as the impact of financial panic persists and Italy becomes the case in point. But it is timeless as well, and well served by the unfamiliarity of the actors, however well known they may be in Italy. Margherite Buy in particular convinces as the wife who went back to school as an art restorer after her grown daughter left home, but then is compelled to take call center and secretarial jobs, after her husband is forced out of his shipbuilding concern in Genoa, then keeps his dismissal a secret for several months, and fails to find any new work for himself, even as their well-heeled lifestyle evaporates. The couple literally winds up flat on their backs, in this tough but not despairing film.
Two recent newspaper documentaries deserve note. My father was a printer at the Cleveland Press, and a leader in the local and International Typographical Union. My brother and I grew up with printer’s ink in our veins; Chris was longtime editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and though he has deserted that sinking ship for public broadcasting in Philly, remains every inch a journalist. So I watched Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times (2011, MC-68, NFX) with keen interest. By no means a definitive panorama, Andrew Rossi’s film offers a peek behind the doors of the embattled media giant. The access is limited but still involving, with the newly formed media desk the focus, and the fate of newspapers in a digital world the main news story. Reporter David Carr becomes the star of the show, with a hard-boiled attitude and a gravelly voice, as an ex-crack-addict who can’t believe his luck in winding up at the Times.
No question who’s the star of Errol Morris’s Tabloid (2011, MC-74, NFX). The only question is whether Joyce McKinney is “barking mad,” or a canny fabulator of her own life. Back in the 70s she became a tabloid sensation in Britain as the American beauty queen (Miss Wyoming) who kidnapped her Mormon ex-boyfriend in London and took him to a cozy B&B in Devon, manacled him to the bed, and proceeded to “rape” him for three days (Joyce rightfully asks, how do you put a marshmallow in a parking meter?). As usual, Morris’s documentary method seems straightforward, mostly head-on interview, but strangely destabilizing (compare, at a totally different level of seriousness, his portrait of Robert McNamara’s second thoughts on Vietnam in Fog of War). You will definitely laugh at or with Joyce, but you will have a hard time knowing what to believe about her. And the current hacking scandal at a British tabloid puts this film in the context of a larger question of sensationalized journalism.