Sunday, July 17, 2016

2015 as deep as it gets

I’m certain never to see as many films released in a single year as the one just past, since I plan to revert to a more retrospective and thematic approach to my viewing and reviewing.  Once I’ve finished this round-up, I’ll post a listing of my hundred best films of 2015, in comparison to the Top100 Metacritic ratings.  Here I’ll group films by oddly similar MC ratings, though I will discriminate by my own opinion. 

There are films that arrive with a buzz or vibe -- or directorial track record -- that makes me avoid all reviews, so I can approach them with fresh and wondering eyes.  This was the case with two quiet mindblowers that have finally arrived on DVD, both of which would definitely reward repeat viewings.  For both, I recommend an initial innocent screening, to find out for yourself what is going on before the camera, behind the masks, beneath the surface, beyond what you can see.  Each will leave you with more questions than answers, enlarging in your mind long after the end credits roll.  Unless impervious to their respective appeals, you will find each achingly human, discovering humor in misery and a glimpse of spirit in the mundane.

45 Years (MC-94, FC #23, MC #8, NFX) denotes the anniversary that a comfortable British couple living in rural Norfolk is about to celebrate.  They are played by two old reliables, Charlotte Rampling and Tim Courtenay, who’ve done a lot more than survived since the Sixties, which period is evoked by music cues throughout.  The two leads alone are worth the price of admission, but that’s not all.  Andrew Haigh’s writing and direction is subtle but tight, everything is connected, and you have to stay sharp to see anything happen at all.  It takes an extraordinary gift to make the ordinary profound, and to insert a sense of suspense into the everyday.  Under a quiet surface secrets come to light, obsessions are unleashed, that shake the marriage to its foundation.  I am loathe to reveal any of what happens (or doesn’t) since it unfolds to an ending that many will see differently, or even find befuddling.  It seemed clear to me, but was not the end I wished for, which only made it seem more true to life.  Anyway – see it, and then we can talk.  And I mean that literally, since I think this would be a terrific selection for the Cinema Salon film club, supposing that screenings and discussions may resume with the reopening of the Clark auditorium in November.

Anomalisa (MC-92, FC #12, MC #7, NFX) would also yield an animated discussion, if possibly less suited to the demographic of the film club.  You really need some attraction to the depressive humor and twisted worldview of Charlie Kaufman to really get into the spirit of this film, which is even weirder than usual.  The fascinating and explanatory backstory of the film is revealed in an exemplary DVD extra, but I advise you to find your way into its weirdnesses without a guide.  I’ll go so far as to divulge that the story began as a three-person audio play with sound effects and music, but I won’t tell who the three voices were (and are), or how they’re embodied in puppet animation (with co-direction by Duke Johnson).  Suffice to say that the character Lisa is an anomaly in several ways, making for a mordantly moving romantic tragicomedy, as well as a bizarre look at what it’s like “Being Charlie Kaufman.”  This is another film that makes the ordinary strange, and the strange ordinary, to brilliant effect.  (For more detail without giving away too much, see Dana Stevens.)

I was strangely resistant to watching Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (MC-91, FC #30, NFX), even though I am a longtime fan of Jafar Panahi.  The first film he made after Iranian authorities put him under house arrest and forbade him from making any was This is Not a Film.  To me it lived down to its title, and I thought the critical acclaim represented political rather than aesthetic judgment.  So I expected this latest to be another dutiful exercise in support of free speech.  Not at all -- Taxi is fantastic.  Fascinating, thought-provoking, witty and winning, it could have been called Everything is a Film.  Panahi is driving a cab around Teheran, with a camera mounted on the dashboard, and picking up characters for sequential vignettes.  We’re never quite sure, and neither are some of the characters, who might be a real passenger and who might be playacting.  Each is a telling episode, however, and somehow in 82 minutes the film adds up to a lot, from a genial portrait of Panahi himself to a miniature retrospective of his film career (and other Iranian Neorealist masterpieces), from a disquisition on the ubiquity of video recording devices to a sly satire on fundamentalist censorship.  Characters range from a DVD bootlegger to a bleeding accident victim trying to record his last will and testament via cellphone camera on the way to the hospital; from two bickering old ladies carrying goldfish in a bowl to Panahi’s ten-year-old niece (or should that be “niece”?), cute as button and sharp as a tack, making a film herself and debating documentary with her uncle.  It’s a hoot, as well as a mindbender, and courageous as hell .

Two very intimate films about a woman’s health issues received similar critical acclaim.  In Blind (MC-83, NFX), a Norwegian woman is losing her sight and maybe her mind.  In Eskil Vogt’s direction, it’s not clear what we’re seeing, whether it’s her surroundings or inside her head, what’s real or what’s imagined.  In her effort to keep her inner sight alive through memory, the woman writes her husband and some neighbors into a series of sexual and romantic fantasies.  Moody and mysterious in a Nordic vein, this film engages both the eye and the intellect.

In James White (MC-83, NFX), Cynthia Nixon plays the title character’s mother, who is dying of cancer.  She offers as strong a portrayal of a woman dying as Emma Thompson in Wit (a role Nixon herself played on stage), but the film bears the deep personal imprint of writer-director Josh Mond.  His eponymous surrogate is played by Christopher Abbott, but you get the feeling he’s acting out scenes directly from the filmmaker’s life, as he copes with the end of his mother’s life and the deferred beginning of his own.  The film offers no excuses for his self-pity and bad behavior, as it captures a world of Manhattan literati with immediacy of insight.  Short, intense, and pitch-dark, the film packs a wallop, though hard to watch.

Two totally different indie takes on the horror genre wound up with identical Metacritic ratings but diametrically opposed reactions from me.  The Witch (MC-83, NFX) is officially a 2016 release though it won acclaim at Sundance in 2015.  Ultimately marketed as a scarefest, this first film from writer-director Robert Eggers has more than chills in mind, as signaled by its opening title card, “A New England Folktale,” and its source material in the writings of Cotton Mather.  At the opening, a stubbornly independent man is being expelled with his family from Plymouth Plantation in 1630.  The gates of the compound close behind them as they set out into the wilderness, in search of a solitary homestead at the edge of the woods.  The film is effective at establishing period and place, and the acting seems convincingly historical, and histrionic as well.  Scary creatures live in the dark woods at the edge of civilization, and demonic forces infiltrate the family.  Eggers exploits some genre shocks, but develops a disturbing mood and a folkloric sense of the uncanny.

With It Follows (MC-83, FC #22, MC #14, NFX), I couldn’t follow either the film or the critical consensus.  If you do choose to watch this -- if the idea of a topical update on the neighborhood teen scarefest of Halloween appeals to you -- then it won’t be because of anything I have to say about this half-clever, totally-fake remake.

Another dissent to enter in passing.  I’m not going to buck the critical consensus on Son of Saul (MC-89, FC #14, MC #12, NFX), but simply register my own inability to watch it.  Maybe my worldview is too fragile to face up to such an intimate portrayal of existence in a Nazi extermination camp, or maybe my cinematic appreciation is too narrow to encompass this film’s predetermined minimalist approach.  There are very few films I do not finish once I start, especially those that come with raves from critics I trust, but there was no way I was making it to the end of this one.

From around the world comes a quartet of well-regarded foreign films.  Coming Home (MC-81, NFX) represents a homecoming for Zhang Yimou -- after his swerve into government-sponsored spectacle -- and a reunion with his muse, Gong Li.  Rather than swordplay and martial arts, he delivers a family melodrama in historical context, in a vein similar to my favorite of his films, To Live.  During the Cultural Revolution, a longtime prisoner escapes and tries to return home, where a daughter he barely knows betrays him to the authorities, to curry favor for her dance career.  A few years later, he is finally released and returns home, but now his wife (Gong Li) no longer recognizes him.  Undaunted, he does everything he can to restore her memory.  Well-acted Sirkian melodrama with an overlay of political parable, Coming Home satisfies on several levels.

Theeb (MC-80, NFX) is rather like Lawrence of Arabia from an Arab perspective.  First-time Jordanian writer-director Naji Abu Nowar centers his story on a Bedouin child who gets caught up in the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule during WWI.  His style echoes the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, but it is the performance of Jacir Eid in the title role that really warrants attention for this folkloric tale, which visits four desert water wells, symbolic sites of anarchistic conflict among tribes, rebels, bandits, and imperial authorities.  In the rendering of landscapes as well as faces, Theeb warranted its Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

As did the Turkish entry Mustang (MC-83, NFX).  Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut is reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, but highly distinctive in its portrayal of five endearing teen sisters who are imprisoned at home when their emerging sexuality threatens social norms.  A minor indiscretion on the last day of school lands the orphaned girls in lockdown, to be married off in short order by their gruff uncle and kindly but old-fashioned grandmother.  Lively and funny, despite the girls’ outrageous fate, this spirited film is as much a celebration of sisterhood as a condemnation of patriarchy.

More teen girls in Breathe (MC-78, NFX), one shy, awkward, and asthmatic; one sexy, mean, and crazy; each beautiful in her own way.  This French film is likewise directed by a young woman, Mélanie Laurent, and marked by extremely winning performances from young actresses.  When the brash newcomer at school befriends the less social girl, their bond becomes too tight to survive.  This depth of intimacy is risky all around, such suffocation is bound to end in betrayal and damage, in this inside view of the throes of teenage angst.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Oscar & I choose "Best Picture"

Most Oscar nominees arrive on Blu-Ray disk after the awards are announced, so I’m typically late to see them, but this is the rare year when I’m happy to second the Academy’s anointing of Best Picture.  Here I offer my belated commentary on the nominees. 

Spotlight (MC-93, FC #7, MC #2, NFX) definitely earned the award -- important in subject, well-judged and well-made across the board, combining truth and art to tell a real story, explaining while entertaining, documenting while fabulating.  Where to start?  I guess one has to start with director and co-writer Tom McCarthy, who must have set out to atone for his role as the bad Sun reporter in season five of The Wire, by showing exactly what a good reporter does.  He brings “truth of place” to the film; perhaps that’s the proper definition of a phrase I’ve never quite understood, mise-en-scène.  Next, the familiar and admirable cast – Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel MacAdams, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and others – are all highly authentic in their roles.  As are the city of Boston, the newsroom of the Globe, the neighborhood juxtapositions and class distinctions.  Most authentic of all – the job of reporting, what it looks like, what it feels like, as an investigative team delves into the cover-up of pedophile priests by the Catholic Church.  The film portrays journalism as not glamorous, but driven by purpose.  And its purpose is the same as that of the characters of the film, to shine a spotlight on an abuse of power by a big institution preying on vulnerable individuals.

The Big Short (MC-81, FC #40, MC #18, NFX) is almost as good at revealing systemic institutional mendacity, but plays more as a revel than a cautionary drama.  Adam McKay’s film does a good job of explaining the financial crisis of 2007, but lays the glamour on thick, and humor as well, riffing freely on Michael Lewis’ nonfiction bestseller of the same name.  Need a definition of some arcane acronym? -- this film will stop and deliver it through a beautiful blond in a bubble bath sipping champagne, or a celebrity chef making a stew out of old fish, or a pop star at a roulette table.  Plenty of glamour and humor from the cast as well:  Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, and all the rest, with all but one of the leads a fictionalized composite of the originals in the book.  The movie is somehow anarchic and cogent at the same, eliciting laughs as well as righteous anger.  Reality is freely embellished, but never ignored.  Departures from fact are explicitly flagged by direct-to-the-camera commentary.  You get the feeling that this is how the housing and bank crash actually happened, just funnier.

Hmm, a story about a kidnapped teenager being kept in isolation for years, raped repeatedly and raising a child alone in small garden shed?  No wonder I did not gravitate to Emma Donoghue’s acclaimed novel,  Room (MC-86, FC #35, MC #11, NFX), but when her screenplay was directed by Lenny Abrahamson and embodied in the Oscar-winning performance of Brie Larson, whom I’ve admired since Short Term 12, I was drawn in, and mightily impressed by the result.  Excellent as Brie is, she is overshadowed by the central role of Jacob Tremblay as the five-year-old boy through whose eyes most of the film unfolds, and the love between them is the beating heart of this film.  I won’t say more about what happens, because if you don’t know the story already, I advise you to approach it with innocent eyes.  Moreover, I urge you to have confidence in the sincerity and sensitivity of all the people involved, and not avoid the story as unpleasant.  The last half-hour is a little too rushed to fully convince, as if trying to cram in too much of the book, but otherwise this is an exemplary adaptation of a difficult book, with dimensions far beyond its “woman and child in jeopardy” horror movie aspects.

Just as the first two films in this survey make a pair of sorts, so do the following two, about young women trying to find a place and an identity under trying circumstances.  Brie Larson has a harder passage through isolation than Saoirse Ronan does in Brooklyn (MC-87, FC #18, MC #5, NFX), but the latter is equally effective at making inner struggle visible.  She plays Eilis (whom I learned from the movie to pronounce Ale-ish, after reading Colm Toibin’s book in all ignorance), a girl who in 1952 reluctantly leaves her older sister and mother behind in Ireland to pursue an opportunity that opens up for her in America.  And she in turn gradually opens up to her titular new home, and to a devoted Italian boy who falls hard for her.  Then a family tragedy takes Eilis back to Ireland, where unexpected new possibilities arise for her, forcing her to choose between staying where she’s from or going back to Brooklyn.  Both the star and the film are lovely and emotionally expressive, and Nick Hornby’s screenplay also warms the novel up a bit.  Director John Crowley captures a fond but clear-eyed retrospect on the past, which pairs nicely with Carol, as stories about NYC department store shopgirls in the Fifties.  I was prepared to see through this film after reading a single dismissive review, but wound up watching it through tears and smiles.

I feel more ambivalence about Steven Spielberg than any other major director, but Bridge of Spies (MC-81, FC #20, MC #25, NFX) falls mostly on the positive side of the ledger.  Spielberg is unquestionably a consummate filmmaker, but to me seems to have a shallow, sentimental worldview, with more drive to entertain than to understand, less commitment to truth than to a good story.  He marshals vast talents to create a cinematic otherworld, then populates it with puppets, sometimes letting the strings show.  On the other hand, he frequently works with actors who have the stature to cut the strings and go their own way, notably in this case, Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance.  Spielberg effectively conjures the era when the Cold War was at its height, in telling the story behind the swap -- on a dark, frigid Berlin bridge in 1962 -- of convicted Russian spy Rudolf Abel for downed U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (plus an American student caught on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall as it was being erected).  Told mainly from the point of view of the Hanks character, the straight-arrow lawyer picked to represent Abel, who comes to appreciate the stoic integrity portrayed by Rylance; he’s later recruited by the CIA to arrange the swap.  Spielberg’s movie magic works in making us a root for a Russian spy, as well as the lawyer’s devotion to due process, in a plot strand with plenty of contemporary relevance.  Where he fails is in the plastic replica of his own birth family, which he inserts into so many of his films, with Amy Ryan wasted as the lawyer’s wife, and mother of their three utterly generic children.  Still, in mood and setting this is a masterful film, marked by two superlative performances.  Stevie’s bag of cinematic tricks reliably conjures life out of projected images, and when my sentiment is in tune with his, preeminently with Lincoln, I am happy to believe in his act.

The Martian (MC-80, FC #44, MC #13, NFX) represents a lot of effort and expense without a lot of effect, aside from special effects.  My god, the stars! – though aside from Matt Damon, they don’t get much to do.  And the SFX! -- the surface of Mars looks terrific, space ships have never looked glossier or sexier, and the same goes for NASA facilities on earth.  Director Ridley Scott certainly knows his way around a blockbuster.  But to me this film smacks of propaganda for a space program to which I’ve never lent credence or support.  It’s fun to see a lot of familiar faces in small roles, but not a lot of characterization is offered, though there are plenty of jokes and amusingly appropriate disco music.  The scientific problem-solving -- amplified from Apollo 13 -- is the most appealing part of the movie, but the political and international setting is thin to the point of transparent.  I can’t deny this sci-fi is engaging to watch, infinitely more entertaining than Interstellar, but I can’t help wondering about the waste of resources involved, and the unexamined calculations of this movie.

The down-and-dirty problem-solving of Leonardo DiCaprio - as a mountain man of the Rockies in the 1820s - is the best part of The Revenant (MC-76, MC #22, NFX), besides the always-magical cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki.  But director Alejandro G. Iñárritu has never engaged my interest, despite back-to-back Oscar wins.  In his films, there is spectacle aplenty, with bravura flourishes, but ultimately little substance, and shallow insight into character.  Despite the unfulfilled storytelling, the acting is good across the board.  DiCaprio might have deserved his Oscar, if only for what he had to suffer for his art, playing an indigenized guide to a fur-trapping company, who is mauled by a bear and left for dead.  Bad-ass Tom Hardy and carrot-topped Domhnall Gleeson seem to be everywhere recently, always delivering quality performances.  The special effects are wondrous, whether grizzly attack or bison stampede.  But the story is a simplistic revenge fantasy, less sophisticated than the similar but far-superior Jeremiah Johnson of 1972, or even the psychologically complex Hollywood Westerns of the 1950s.  The scenery is magnificent, but there’s a wised-up grubbiness to this tale of endurance, which keeps me on the outside, barely enduring the film.  Despite its basis in historical fact, the story seems made up, and the sense of period more fabricated than lived in.  Still, those vistas…

What can I say?  What causes some people to sit up and take notice -- makes me fall asleep.  And vice versa, no doubt.  I could barely keep from dozing off during the nonstop vehicular collisions and fireballs of Mad Max: Fury Road (MC-90, FC #3, MC #1, NFX).  I stayed awake long enough to take in some of the aspects that won this genre film an Oscar-nom as “Best Picture,” but remained quite immune to its charms.  I am happy to say that I have never seen anything at all of Mel Gibson as Mad Max, and wish I could say the same about this series re-boot, though I’ve come to expect interesting character work from Tom Hardy.  I derive some amusement from Charlize Theron’s perpetual and futile attempts to look ugly – here, cut off my arm (as well as my hair), bloody my face, drain my blood, beat the shit out of me!  I guess the trick is to make live action look like a comic book, and CGI effects look as real as real could be.  In the Metacritic compilation of Top 10 lists, more critics anointed this pile of something as best film of the year than the next three vote-getters combined.  Apparently, partisanship is as rife in film as in politics, and I’m clearly on the opposing side.

Germane to romance

German literature in general, and German Romanticism in particular, is terra incognita to me (might have something to do with coming of age in the immediate wake of two World Wars), but chance has led me that way lately.  First there was an essay in the New Yorker that asked the question, “What’s great about Goethe?”  Then Amour Fou (MC-68, FC #48, NFX) leapt from a library shelf into my hand, with writer-director Jessica Hausner looking at the life and death of Heinrich von Kleist, from the perspective of the woman who died with him in a notorious suicide pact.  This is at the opposite emotional pole from Mayerling, for example; portrayed with dry wit in the spare, formal style of Eric Rohmer’s Kleist adaptation, The Marquise of O.  The precision of the framing creates a cage around the characters, who recite their lines in a stiff manner that reflects the rectilinearity of the social milieu, and the pastness of the past.  Rather than rising to surges of romantic feeling, this film hews to historical facts, but examines them with a feminist sociological eye for the absurd.

From that film, I was directed by a review to Beloved Sisters (MC-66, NFX), and found it absorbing and quite lovely.  If I knew anything about Friedrich Schiller, I might object to the liberties this film takes with his life, turning the author’s relationship with his wife and her sister into a ménage a trois.  But in my ignorance of historical fact, I was much more taken with how writer-director Domink Graf went to school on Truffaut, repeatedly echoing two of my favorite films, Jules et Jim and Two English Girls.  Whatever the fabrications of the story, a slice of German literary life between 1788 and 1805 is rendered with impressive authenticity at nearly epic length.  And the sisters themselves – oh my!  Played by Hannah Herzsprung and Henriette Confurius, they command our attention with their blue eyes and emotional intensity.  (I’d say remember the names of these actresses, but that is hard to do; think of heart-leaping beauty and the wisdom of Confucius.)  Goethe (and Weimar Classicism) figures only on the fringes of this romance, appearing from behind or in long shot, as if he were Mohammed and no image allowed.  The previews on the DVD, however, led me to the next film.

For the German title, apparently untranslatable – Goethe! (beware of film titles with exclamation points!) – American distributors clearly chose Young Goethe in Love (2011, MC-55, NFX) to call up memories of Shakespeare in Love, for costumed hijinks with a literary veneer.  Lots of lusty embraces out in nature, galloping horses, bouts of drink and drugs, and of course the bonnie lass who inspired The Sorrows of Young Werther, which made Goethe a continental celebrity at the age of 25.  Actually I found Miriam Stein quite piquant as Lotte Buff, but the actor playing Goethe was too puppy-ish to represent the universal Germanic genius, even as a stripling.  That said, I rather enjoyed this film for its evocation of Germany in 1772, and for its Classics Illustrated comic book version of a literary classic that I will never get around to reading.  But if you want to see romantic poets cavorting like rock stars, I would refer you to Coleridge and Wordsworth in Pandaemonium (1999), if you can find it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Still deeper into 2015 films

After the Oscars comes the season when last year’s prestige productions arrive on DVD in a rush.  I’m still holding off comment on the Best Picture nominees till I have seen them all (spoiler: Spotlight truly was the best of the bunch), but there are many other critical faves to cover.

In Carol (MC-95, FC#1, MC #3, NFX) the feel for place and period - New York in the early Fifties - is as sleek and soft, lush and thick, as Cate Blanchett’s mink coat.  In this adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel, directed by Todd Haynes, she is the title character, a well-to-do New Jersey housewife in town to get a Christmas present for her preschool daughter.  The young sales clerk who waits on her is played by Rooney Mara, admirably channeling Audrey Hepburn.  You could say that sparks fly, but on a slow-burning fuse.  Carol is divorcing her husband -- even though he’s Kyle Chandler -- and after a subtle mating dance, suddenly Carol and Therese are off on a cross-country road trip, where they might well cross paths with Humbert and Lolita.  Their love affair, scandalous for the time, threatens Carol’s custody arrangement, so hard choices are in order, exquisitely rendered by Cate and Rooney.  The associative force of this film is strong and classic, evoking Sirkian Fifties melodrama, and calling up for me the mood of one of my all-time favorites, The Apartment.  Every aspect of the production is carefully considered and mutedly beautiful.  I can’t think of a film from last year that I admired more, though I’m not quite ready to anoint it my best of 2015.

Sicario (MC-81, FC #47, MC #15, NFX) has many worthy elements, but in sum they do not deserve your attention, unless you have a thing for dark drug-smuggling thrillers (and if you do, I’d point you in the direction of the Oscar-nominated documentary Cartel Land).  This title is Mexican slang for “hitman” and there are several candidates for the eponymous role.  Our eyes and ears into this hellish cycle of border violence – criminal and governmental, with blurry lines between the gangs on either side – is Emily Blunt, a good-soldier FBI specialist in hostage situations, who is recruited as a blind for two nefarious operatives (CIA? DoD?) with obscure objectives, Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro.  Director Denis Villeneuve inflects Zero-Dark-Thirty-ish elements with moody and arty touches, as well as deep ethical ambiguity, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography makes the desert landscape a palpable force in the story.  This is a good-looking, well-acted, pulse-pounding action film that wants to be something more, but doesn’t really escape its genre.

Suffragette (MC-67, NFX) is a notch above Masterpiece Theater in the vein of British historical drama -- for production values, cast, and gritty realism.  The script seems somewhat manufactured, however, and Sarah Gavron’s direction, though competent, does not discover added dimension.  This film depicts a moment before WWI when the movement for woman’s suffrage - goaded by official resistance turning violent - switched from words to deeds, from peaceful petitions and marches to incendiary bombings and provocative actions.  Though the focus is on a fictional character, a gradually-radicalized laundress played by the reliably-appealing Carey Mulligan, other characters are more historical, such as the leader played by Helena Bonham Carter, with a cameo by Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst.  Suffragette dramatizes neatly enough a pivotal point in the still-ongoing stuggle for women’s rights, but hardly digs deep into its characters or the full implications of their actions.   

Trumbo (MC-60, NFX) seems cut from the same cloth – worthy historical drama, good cast, decent production values, but still missing some element of engagement with character or theme.  Bryan Cranston plays blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo from his appearance before HUAC in 1947, through his prison sentence for (well-deserved) contempt of Congress, and his pseudonymous Oscars (including script for Roman Holiday), to the reappearance of his name in the credits for Spartacus.  Cranston is first-rate, but Helen Mirren nearly steals the show as Hedda Hopper, his adversary and spokesperson for the “loyal anti-communist” community of Hollywood.  A lot of familiar faces do well by their roles, though some, like Diane Lane as Trumbo’s wife, are sadly underused.  Jay Roach’s film leans more to self-satisfied preaching than to honest soul-searching, but the backstage view of the movie business is quite entertaining.  

For Steve Jobs (MC-82, MC #27, NFX), Danny Boyle’s direction is too razzle-dazzle and Aaron Sorkin’s script too rat-a-tat, but Michael Fassbender in the title role carries the day (Cranston and Fassbender were both nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, but I’d give the nod to the latter).  He is supported adeptly by a nearly unrecognizable Kate Winslet, as the “work-wife” who keeps him sane and almost human, plus Jeff Daniels as the Apple CEO who was ally and then adversary of Jobs.  Also convincing are Seth Rogan as Woz, Apple co-founder, and Michael Stuhlbarg as a menschy Apple engineer (he played Edward G. Robinson in Trumbo). The three-act structure is too theatrical and too simplified (but the editing too complicated), as each part revolves around a product launch -- the Mac in 1984, NeXT in 1988, and iMac in 1998 – and requires each character to come back on stage in turn, along with Jobs’ ex-girlfriend and the daughter he first disowns, then embraces, then alienates.  Though this portrait of a tech-age titan falls well short of The Social Network, it’s still worth seeing.  As is the nearly simultaneous documentary by Alex Gibney, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (MC-72, NFX); I watched them back-to-back and now the films blur a bit in my memory, but together they give a more rounded portrait than either separately, though neither really solves the enigma of its subject, or the implications of his career.

I might be inclined to dismiss The Danish Girl (MC-66, NFX) as the performance of a performance of a performance, but then, there are the performers.  I don’t go as wild as some do for Eddie Redmayne, but he is certainly right for this role.  I am, however, totally on the Alicia Vikander bandwagon, and was happy to see her win an Oscar for what was her third best performance of 2015. His performance is all about external gestures, hers about internal emotions.  It’s the story of a painting couple in 1920s Copenhagen, living a mildly bohemian life, while the man gradually realizes his womanhood and seeks radical surgery to confirm it. Every aspect of the production is tastefully, even artfully done (I loved the interiors copied from Hammershoi paintings), but for me it failed to engage on any but a surface level.  Except of course for Ms. Vikander, whose gaze I find bottomless.

Better you should watch the first film of this young Swedish actress, readily availability on Netflix streaming.  Lisa Langseth’s film Pure (2010, NFX) tells the story of a troubled young woman, who stumbles upon classical music as way to bring order and beauty to her disordered life, to save her from the suicidal fate of her promiscuous mother.  She bluffs her way into a job at the Gothenburg concert hall, and into an aspirational affair with the conductor, which can only lead to disappointment and further consequences.  This film has merits beyond Alicia as Katarina, but doesn’t really need them.  There are faces that the camera loves, that reveal every blush of emotion, every flicker of thought – hers is such, self-evidently from her first film.  And with her dancing background, every movement is beautifully articulated (as in Ex Machina).  Sorry if I seem smitten, but you should see for yourself this emerging star from the constellation of Ingrid Bergman.

Similar in theme and in Netflix availability, also written and directed by a woman, Marya Cohn's The Girl in the Book (MC-68, NFX) tells another story of a young woman seduced and exploited by an older creative type.  Emily VanCamp plays a 29-year-old assistant at a Manhattan publishing house, her father an obnoxious high-powered agent, and her boss not much better.  They both involve her with an author, with whom she has a difficult history.  In flashbacks, Ana Mulvey-Ten plays her as a young teen, whom the author mentors with dubious motives, turning her into his most famous character, “a female Holden Caulfield.”  I liked both these actresses, and enjoyed the setting within the NY publishing world (much more plausibly portrayed than in Showtime series The Affair).  Meanwhile, the elder Alice meets a paragon of normality, who may or may not end her streak of bad luck with the men in her life.  This film is hardly unique, but still authentically its own thing, made with Kickstarter passion.

Speaking of girls in books (and in movies), who could be more of one than Cinderella (MC-67, NFX)?  It certainly sounds superfluous for Disney to do a live-action remake of its animated classic, and do so without revisionist irony, but rather literalist sincerity.  But then there’s direction by Kenneth Branagh, costumes by Sandy Powell, and set design by Dante Ferretti, so you can expect a ripe visual spectacle.  Excellent acting too, by Lily James and Richard Madden as Cinderella and the prince, but moreover Cate Blanchett as the stepmother, and Derek Jacobi as the king.  On one level, I didn’t need a straight retelling of this fairy tale, but on another, even with CGI embellishments, this film seems a vindication of traditional movie pageantry over the modern magic of animation.

Michael B. Jordan played memorable characters in two of my all-time favorite tv series, The Wire and Friday Night Lights, so I’m happy to see him become a leading man in the movies.  Creed (MC-82, FC #28, MC #17, NFX) is bound to be his career breakthrough, as he and his sculpted pecs convincingly embody a light heavyweight boxer, in this afterthought to the series of Rocky films.  I saw the first two or three of those, and it’s pleasant to see this film play off them, not least in Sylvester Stallone’s reprise of the Rocky role.  Boxing films make up a genre all their own, with stories as predictable as Greek tragedy or afternoon soap operas, so don’t expect any surprises out of Ryan Coogler’s film, but it’s competently made and well-performed, with a compellingly different angle on the traditional story, as you would expect from the director and star of Fruitvale Station.  I liked the urban feel for Philadelphia, with several scenes shot in my brother’s neighborhood.  But honestly, I hope Michael B. is not trapped into playing this character again and again.

Does Chi-Raq (MC-77, FC #41, MC #28, NFX) work?  Depends on the work you’re looking for.  Is Spike Lee’s latest film a shapely aesthetic object?  Well, no, it’s a mess, and has ambitions beyond its reach.  But is it amusing and impassioned?  Eclectic and daring?  Calculated to entertain and enrage in equal measure?  Yes, that it is.  Like Lee’s School Daze and Bamboozled, it’s a radical minstrel show that uses song and dance, jokes and jive to make a strong argument about racial politics, and sexual politics as well.  From hip-hop to slow jams, it celebrates black music and culture, while documenting the shocking truth that since 2001 there have been more gun murders in Chicago than American military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.  Based on Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata, and told largely in verse, it tells of the revolt of women against the senseless carnage of gang warfare by the strategy and slogan, “No Peace, No Pussy.”  The cast is graced by Samuel L. Jackson as the rapping Greek chorus, John Cusack as a radical priest on a crusade, and Angela Bassett as the leader of the women’s protest.  But the focus is on Nick Cannon as one of the gang leaders (an unrecognizable Wesley Snipes is the other) and Teyonah Parris as his lady, the firebrand Lysistrata.  Call it one of Spike’s more effective provocations.

I’m more a “Love & Mercy” than a “Fuck tha Police” sort of guy, but I could appreciate the anger and aspiration embodied in Straight Outta Compton (MC-72, NFX), as well as the contemporary relevance of thirty-year-old music.  Never a fan of hip-hop, let alone “gangsta rap,” the story of N.W.A. (“Niggaz Wit Attitude”) was mostly news to me.  Almost as interesting as Brian Wilson, to follow these young men into the recording studio.  Less so, however, to follow them into their booty palaces, and the personal conflicts of success.  This is definitely the authorized version of the group’s history, following standard music business tropes (white businessmen ripping off black artists), but the young cast makes it all quite watchable, notably Ice Cube being played by his own son.

The Fellini-esque style of Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth (MC-64, NFX) is familiar from his Oscar winner, The Great Beauty, but while the earlier film overcame my class-based resistance to the lifestyles of the rich and famous, this one does not -- despite elements that won me over, including intermittently sharp writing and winning performances from long-familiar faces, such as Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Jane Fonda.  I appreciated the setting in the Swiss alps, but the denizens of a posh resort spa did not interest me much.  For every well-turned scene or dialogue, there was also some empty posturing, supercilious attitudinizing, or pictorial excess, not adding up to much in the end.  I watched the spectacle without pain, but without engagement either.

I happened to come upon a DVD of In the Heart of the Sea (MC-47, NFX) at a public library, and picked it up without consulting Metacritic, which could have warned me away.  I had heard good things about the book, and it’s set in the era I’m obsessed with, in a seafaring genre that usually appeals to me.  But you know what, it’s not very good.  It wastes talented actors, has a poor sense of period or locale, and devolves into formulaic and chaotic action/adventure.  The weak frame of the story has Ben Whishaw as Herman Melville interviewing Brendan Gleeson, as the last living survivor of the whaling ship Essex, which was sunk by an enraged leviathan.  For me the most entertaining moment in the movie comes when Melville sets off for home, “Pittsfield, Massachusetts,” to write Moby Dick.  Shipboard relations and the shipwreck itself are not well-directed by Ron Howard, but there are a few visual effects that work.

If you found the male stripper extravaganza Magic Mike more entertaining than you might have guessed, do not imagine that Magic Mike XXL (MC-60, FC #38 (!), NFX) is more of the same, only bigger.  It’s simply trashier in every respect.  Even if down and dirty is your thing, this is dirtier and a bigger downer than you expect.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

My latest documendations

At 86, Frederick Wiseman is still going strong, turning out his lengthy documentaries at a regular pace, each one figuring among the best of the year (case in point, In Jackson Heights, which I am super-eager to see, ranks FC#13 of all 2015 features).  His latest on DVD, National Gallery (2014, MC-89, NFX), certainly appealed directly to my interests, bringing his usual panoptic viewpoint to every facet of the London museum.  He’s the most intelligent and all-seeing fly-on-the-wall in the history of film, who fashions his very personal storytelling about institutions without narration or other editorial intervention, aside from his own feel for pace, insight, and connection.  Recording sound in a two-man crew with brilliant cinematographer John Davey for almost thirty years, Wiseman gets close to his subjects and studies them from many angles, and delivers his reports with impressive objectivity, flavored by his own distinctive craft.  The more attention you bring, the more you will get out of his films. 

The behind-the-scenes operation of a world-class museum is bound to engage my interest, but for a test of Wiseman’s magic, take a look at Boxing Gym (2010, MC-83, NFX), which I was surprised to find quite riveting for its 91-minute running time, a mere short subject by Wiseman standards.  The time is spent just hanging around a gym in Austin TX, getting to know a range of characters and their reasons for embracing the “sweet science” of boxing.  Would make an intriguing double feature with Andrew Bujalski’s Results.

Two other European museums have recently received Wiseman-like (or Wiseman-lite) treatment, highlighting the differences in Dutch and Austrian national cultures.  The New Rijksmuseum (2013, MC-66, NFX) demonstrates the democratic culture of Amsterdam, construction being held up for years by public arguments over a bikepath, and hearings on every other issue imaginable.  The available DVD cuts almost two hours from the theatrical release, but still takes its time and gets into many corners of the museum, and portrays the many characters who must come together to allow the outstanding national museum to open again, after a decade of renovation and construction.  The Great Museum (2015, MC-66, NFX) refers to Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, also dealing with a major renovation, the installation of a gallery of Hapsburg family treasures.  It’s interesting to see how old imperial culture lingers in Austrian politics, especially in contrast to Amsterdam’s liberal democracy.  Other than that, this shorter film shares the style but does not have the dimensions of the other two.

Here are two more documentaries I vetted for possible showing at the Clark, once the auditorium reopens after renovation, probably next January.  Art and Craft (MC-68, NFX) would certainly get a discussion going.  It’s the true story of Mark Landis, a not-for-profit art forger who paints copies of second-tier artists and gives them to second-tier museums, impersonating a priest and saying the works were inherited from recently deceased relatives.  He’s a Southern Gothic sort of character – schizophrenic? autistic? – who has managed to get his work into sixty different museums.  One registrar he duped goes on a crusade to reveal the con.  Except Landis broke no laws, not even taking a tax deduction for his gifts.  There’s the mystery of his character and motivations, but also a wider inquiry into questions of authenticity and value within the art world.

No problems of provenance in Very Semi-Serious (MC-74, NFX, HBO), in which all the works are signed, sealed, and delivered to the New Yorker art department, where cartoon editor Robert Mankoff makes the weekly selection of trademark panels.  This is a sharp and funny look behind the scenes at the irregular characters behind our regular weekly comics, including Roz Chast and others, and what it takes to make a living by drawing.

Here’s one strong documentary recommendation that might be a tough sell.  Racing Dreams (2010, MC-78, NFX) is an examination of NASCAR culture, through the prism of its corresponding “little league,” where middle-schoolers travel around the country to race go-carts at speeds up to 70 MPH.  Following the template of Hoop Dreams and every kids’ competition film from Spellbound on, Marshall Curry deploys his curiosity and canny filmmaking skills to tell a tale of pre-adolescence that is both universal and tied to a very specific sociology, brilliantly edited to turn 500 hours of footage into a swift, compelling 90-minute narrative.  Following two young boys and a girl as they compete on the Karting circuit for a national title, we come to know them and their families well, and the unfamiliar milieu they inhabit, in a manner that makes me almost willing to think of auto racing as a genuine sport.  I’d put this in a category with Red Army, as a doc that uses a sport in which I have no interest as a window onto much more than a game.  It’s endearing, informative, and even stirring.  You should see it to believe it.

That documentary was so surprisingly accomplished that I felt impelled to look deeper into its director, Marshall Curry.  Turns out his first was Street Fight, an excellent film that first brought Cory Booker to my attention.  Since Curry seems like a documentarian who qualifies as an auteur, I made a point of catching up with his other films.  Unfortunately, in nonfiction the characters are chosen and not created, so unless you’re a genius like Fred Wiseman, real authorship is elusive.  I didn’t mind watching Curry’s other two films, but the subjects portrayed were not as engaging. 

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011, MC-65, NFX) follows a tree-hugging “ecoterrorist” years after he was arrested by the FBI and jailed for acts of arson against logging companies and other supposed environmental villains.  The question of violence in the service of a good cause is looked at from many angles, through news footage and interviews, but the central character is not interesting enough to carry the film.  Same deal with Point and Shoot (2014, MC-65, NFX), where a pipsqueak Lawrence of Arabia wannabe takes a motorcycle trek through the Middle East for a “crash course in manhood,” filming himself obsessively along the way, and winding up with anti-Qaddafi fighters in Libya.  Both the location footage and the subsequent interviews are queasy with the subject’s self-regard, which Curry views all too dispassionately. 

Before surveying the Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature, I want to offer three further personal recommendations:

How to Dance in Ohio (MRQE, NFX, HBO) is something I never learned growing up there, but something a group of autistic young adults undertake to do, in a program designed to prepare the high-functioning for independent living.  You may not feel the degree of identification I did with these unusual young people trying to find their way in the neurotypical world, but Alexandra Shiva’s film will make you empathize with the effort they put it, and the delight they take in such against-the-grain sociability.  The film follows three girls in particular as they prepare for a spring formal, and the problems they face in doing so, with a winning blend of insight and uplift.

I was rather surprised to wind up adding Little White Lie (MC-80, NFX) to my list of outstanding first-person documentaries.  I’d suspected a vanity project but discovered something much more profound.  Lacey Schwartz grew up in a Jewish family in Woodstock, where her unusual looks were ignored or explained away, in a conspiracy of silence about her actual parentage.  Only when she went away to college was the obvious observation made, as she was invited to join the Black Students Union.  She then confronts her family over long-buried secrets, and embraces a black identity.  Through family photos and interviews, she puts the story together in a brisk and moving 65 minutes, with implications well beyond the narrowly personal.

I also suspected Ethan Hawke of a vanity project in directing Seymour: An Introduction (MC-83, NFX), but found an honestly searching portrait of a mentor he’d met at a party, where they discussed the problem of stage fright.  Octogenarian Seymour Bernstein has plenty to say on that subject and many others.  He was an acclaimed concert pianist who gave up the stage suddenly at the age of fifty, and has since devoted himself to teaching and composing.  Despite my frightful ignorance of music, his passion and precision gave sense to everything he said, about the practice of music, and the vicissitudes of performance.  Talking with Hawke, and other interlocutors like ex-student Michael Kimmelman, he reveals understanding not just of his art and craft, but of life.  This film makes a nice match with Albert Maysles’ Iris, in introducing us to a deeply vital elder with a lot of life wisdom to pass along.

(Click through for reviews of the five Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature, and others.) 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Digging deeper into the past year

Still catching up with 2015 releases, I’m saving Oscar Best Picture nominees and my final picks of the year’s best for a subsequent post.  In this one, I go down a list of worthwhile titles in roughly the order of my own appreciation, linking as always to Metacritic tabulation of critical opinion and to Netflix availability, also making note of ranking in Film Comment and Metacritic annual polls of critics.

From an unexpected quarter comes a film that is both substantial and entertaining.  Second Mother (MC-82, NFX, AMZ) is written and directed by Anna Muylaert, and stars Regina Casé, an actress and tv celebrity referred to as the Oprah Winfrey of Brazil.  She plays a long-time live-in maid in an upper-class household, called part of the family but in no illusion regarding her inferior domestic status.  She adores the boy she’s raising for parents removed by their own preoccupations, but misses the same-aged daughter she hasn’t seen for years, while sending money for her support.  That daughter shows up on her doorstep, with quite different notions about class relations within the household.  The set-up is simple, the permutations are not.  Sociologically acute, the film has humor and heart in complementary proportions, and is notable for its evenhandedness.  Every character is satirized, but each has his or her own reasons, and intelligible feelings.  For an extensive review deeply informed by personal experience, see Dana Stevens in Slate. 

While Lily Tomlin wasn’t enough to make me stick with the blandly jokey Netflix series Grace and Frankie, she was more than enough for me to rank Grandma (MC-77, NFX) amongst the best films of the year.  While short on story and running time, writer-director Paul Weitz combines hard wit with soft heart in very palatable proportions.  Clearly based on Eileen Myles (who is certainly having a late-life cultural moment, not just deeply enmeshed in Transparent -- as character, actress, and lover of the show-creator --but also winner of the Clark Prize for art writing), and also on Lily’s history and persona, the title character is a lesbian poet, deadpan misanthrope, and survivor of first stage feminism and other Sixties phenomena, who is called into action to help her waiflike granddaughter, as both try to avoid confronting the daughter/mother in the middle, Marcia Gay Harden playing a hard-charging professional in opposition to the generations before and after.  The young and the old hit the road in the latter’s 1955 Dodge (Lily’s own in real life), trying to scare up cash for the girl’s abortion, scheduled for the end of the day, and confronting aspects of their past, present, and future along the way.  Amidst the snark and the sentiment, truth stands out.

After three increasingly masterful films in a neorealist vein, and one Hollywood misfire, writer-director Rahmin Bahrani puts it all together in the unjustly-neglected 99 Homes (MC-76, NFX).  I get it -- watching people being evicted from their homes is a hard sell as entertainment, but this film combines the you-are-there virtues of documentary with superb acting and a thriller-ish narrative propulsion.  It’s Orlando after the housing crisis; Andrew Garfield is a young single-father construction-worker, when suddenly there are no building jobs, and the home where he lives with his mother and son is repossessed.  Laura Dern plays the mother, warm and nuanced as usual, though it’s awfully disconcerting for her to be playing a grandmother, when to me she will always be the mesmerizingly hot teen of Smooth Talk (1985).  You can’t say Michael Shannon is cast against type as the odious real estate agent who has figured out how to make big bucks off other people’s misery, but here more than elsewhere he gets past the demonic menace to a devilish charm that seduces the younger man from exploited to exploiter.  This film puts all-too-human faces on the millions of home foreclosures, and is informative on the whys, hows, and whos of the mortgage crisis.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (MC-87, FC #19, MC #23, NFX), Marielle Heller’s adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic (in both senses) novel, is unapologetic and uncomfortable, but has the authenticity of lived experience.  It’s San Francisco in 1976 and 15-year-old Minnie is walking through the park with a smile on her face, thinking “I’ve just had sex.”  Minnie’s embodied most convincingly by over-20 British actress Bel Powley, and she’s about to embark on a series of ill-advised sexual adventures, to be recorded on cassette, as we listen to her narration.  Wide-eyed and fearless, bright and dumb, hungry for love, but most of all open to experience, Minnie does -- and has done to her -- many things of which you may not approve, but she keeps her wits about her and comes out okay, despite questionable mothering by a Me Decade party girl (Kristen Wiig), and interference from the mother’s boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard).  She’s witty and imaginative, and very winning in Powley’s performance, and by the end of the film finds her calling in cartoons, which animate the screen at many points.

A Brilliant Young Mind  (MC-68, NFX) is the flat-footed American title for the charming British indie known, much more evocatively, as X+Y.  The American title mis-appropriates that of Beautiful Young Minds, director Morgan Matthews’ previous documentary set in the same milieu, about the International Mathematical Olympiad.  So the direction conveys a real authenticity, but moreover, the film is well-cast and well-acted across the board.  First honors go to always-impressive Sally Hawkins, as the good-hearted but baffled young widow, mother of autistic teen math prodigy Asa Butterfield (Hugo).  Rafe Spall is his tutor, and Eddie Marsan the head of the UK team -- as they train at math camp in Taiwan and come back to Cambridge for the Olympiad itself – so the film has a flavor of Mike Leigh about it.  As must be in a teen movie, there are potential love interests for the boy, one Chinese girl and one British, both believable and winning as female math nerds, vying to get behind those haunting blue eyes and bring him out of his shell.  Sally and Rafe have their tête-à-tête as well.  And then of course, the competition.  Familiar elements all, but none of them work out just as you expect.      

Like an Academician confronting a Monet for the first time, it may take you a while to realize how impressionist strokes add up to an overall picture in Mia Hanson-Love’s Eden (MC-82, NFX), grounded in genuine sense experience and attentive observation.  She wrote the script with her brother, on whose life it’s based, tracing two decades of his career as a DJ in Paris and America, and the changes in dance music over that time.  Like 24-Hour Party People, this film introduced me to a style of music -- and of life -- quite foreign to my experience, but left me with some appreciation of a new sound.  “House” or “Garage” as styles of music mean nothing to me, and I’ve only heard of Daft Punk because Stephen Colbert once did a bit about their failure to show up for gig on his show.  I’m emphatically not a dancer or a party person, and of a totally different generation, but I got in tune with this production.  Much more so than with a film about my own generation to which this might be paired, Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air.  In this case, there’s definitely something in the music, and something in the way the story builds out of glancing strokes over decades.  Give it time, feel the beat, enter Eden, and it will move your body and soul.

C’mon, guys, let a girl have some fun!  Show she can still rock out in her sixties, bond with her daughter, bring people together, young and old.  Besides, Meryl Streep is the essential actress of my generation, so I’ll watch just about any movie she’s in.  We go way back -- Shakespeare in the Park, 1976.  So let’s not pretend this is an objective evaluation, but I really enjoyed Ricki & the Flash (MC-54, NFX), however thin it may be dramatically.  Jonathan Demme knows his way around concert films, and maybe he was looking for the antithesis to Rachel Getting Married.  So accept this as a fun evening with a bar band, appreciate the engaging personalities, laugh at some of the jokes, but do not expect any great revelation of character or resolution of plot.  Oddly, the dvd menu page sets the tone perfectly, with Meryl looking a dead ringer for Cindy Lauper.  She’s Ricki, and the Flash is her band at a bar in the Valley outside LA (day job: checkout cashier at Total Foods); she was formerly Linda, and left her family back in Indianapolis, until called home to deal with a family crisis.  Her daughter, appropriately, is played by Mamie Gummer; her ex-husband, Kevin Kline; his second wife, Audra MacDonald; her guitarist, Rick Springfield – all appealing, if given too little to do.

Infinitely Polar Bear (MC-64. NFX) is a cracked family affair.  First-time writer-director Maya Forbes tells the child’s-eye-view of growing up with her bipolar father, and casts her daughter as her pre-teen self in the late Seventies.  Mark Ruffalo is his usual rumpled teddy-bear self as the father, manic-depressive offspring of a declining Boston Brahmin family, unable to keep a job or to stay on his meds.  Zoe Saldana is the wife who’s grown beyond the charm of bohemian squalor and decides she needs to go to business school to save her two girls from poverty, with no choice but to leave them in their unstable father’s care.  While the delightful girls express dismay at their father’s fecklessness, they feed off his manic buoyancy, and their retrospective view is of warmth and adventure, more than fright and embarrassment.  That limits the depth of these memories of growing up with a parent’s mental disorder, but makes for a mildly pleasant viewing experience.

Experimenter (MC-81, FC #26, NFX), like its subject matter, is experimental in a way that raises more questions than it answers.  Director Michael Almereyda tells the story of social psychologist Stanley Milgram and his eponymous experiment, as well as his life beyond it, in a very free way.  Such a blend of fact and artifice made me wonder whether it wouldn’t have been better as documentary, though some strenuous efforts at whimsy -- from direct-to-the-camera address, to transparently fake theatrical stage dressing, to a literal elephant in the room -- certainly disavow that intent.  Still Almereyda offers a lot to ponder (as he did with modern-dress Hamlet with Ethan Hawke), tracing the career path of the famous author of Obedience to Authority in some detail.  Besides his controversial test of how far subjects would go in inflicting pain after relinquishing moral choice to an authority figure, Milgram also devised the “Small World” experiment that established the idea of “six degrees of separation.  Peter Sarsgaard plays Milgram with his usual blend of recessive charm and dubiousness, Winona Ryder is good as his wife, and other familiar faces make the most of small roles, so on the whole this film offers a satisfying mind game, despite some deliberately disconcerting elements.

(Click through for further reviews of films I can’t really recommend, whatever redeeming attributes each may have.)

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Catch-up catch-all

Back again.  So much for staying current -- got to give it another try.  I thought about giving up on film commentary, foreseeing little likelihood of my return to film programming, but somehow found a reason to keep going.  Even if I’m never back in business at the Clark, I may have a role in programming at a revived Mohawk Theater in North Adams.  And I still have to justify in some way all these hours I spend watching movies.

Having once again regained the urge to write about film, I’ve got four months of viewing to catch up with.  I’ll do so conversationally, mostly in double-feature pairings, in roughly descending order of my recommendation.  One advantage to my delay in writing about these films is that they sort themselves out, into the pictures that linger in the memory and those I have to work to remember at all.

Another advantage is that the year-end critical consensus has been tallied, and I can reference the FilmComment critics poll of top fifty films of 2015, and the Metacritic compilation of Top Ten lists to rank the thirty most admired films of the year (plus my usual link to MC numerical tabulation of critical ratings).  So my opinions are offered in the context of more general evaluation, and I know what I need to see before finalizing my own annual ranking.  As I write, the Oscar nominees have been announced, and I’ve not seen any of the supposed “Best Pictures,” but nonetheless have seen a lot -- too many -- of the year’s releases.

Two of my favorites from 2015, not prominent on the other lists, are about tortured contemporary artists, biopics with a difference, portraying writer David Foster Wallace and songwriter Brian Wilson.  I’m more a fan of Wallace’s nonfiction than fiction, but I loved The End of the Tour (MC-82, NFX), admired the way Jason Segel improbably disappeared into the persona of DFW, and enjoyed the subtle push-pull of admiration and antagonism in Jesse Eisenberg, as the Rolling Stone writer doing a profile of DFW at the peak of his reclusive renown.  James Ponsoldt is a director who seems to get better with each film, here following three films examining alcoholics with one about a lucid but fragile recovering alcoholic.  This film offers a snapshot in time, of the author confronting his ambivalent fame, implicitly revealing the self-doubt that would lead to his suicide, but more importantly demonstrating his sensibility in an oblique but seemingly authentic manner.  Like My Dinner with Andre, it makes more than you could imagine out of two guys talking.

Love & Mercy (MC-80, FC #29, NFX) was another film I went into with reservation, but came out with commendation, convinced by stellar performances and subtle storytelling.  Paul Dano, in his best performance by far, plays Brian Wilson in his ’60s Beach Boy heyday, and dependable John Cusack plays him in drug-addled despair and eventual comeback in the ’80s, an unlikely combination that works remarkably well, under James Pohlad’s direction.  In episodes of the later period, which are interwoven in the editing, Elizabeth Banks as future wife saves Cusack from the clutches of nefarious therapist Paul Giamatti.  While this may be the authorized version of the musician’s life, it remains convincing in its portrayal of the thin line between madness and creativity, and excels in its detailed portrayal of genius at work in a recording studio.

Like almost everyone else, I truly enjoyed the latest Pixar animation, Inside Out (MC-94, FC #9, MC #4, NFX), in which director Pete Docter follows Up with an insightfully mind-blowing film for all ages, subtle and spectacular, funny and moving, more true to life than all but the best live-action.  There are two planes of narration: the “real” world, where an 11-year-old girl named Riley makes an unhappy move from Minnesota (where hockey’s her delight) to San Francisco; and the world inside her head, where five basic emotions control her memory and motivation.  For a long time, Joy (Amy Poehler’s voice, as infectious as Leslie Knope’s) has predominated, but now Anger, Fear, and Disgust take turns at the controls, while it’s Sadness who has to save the day.  The visualization of mental terrain is dazzling and witty, the pace never flags, laughs and tears go hand in hand.  See it to believe it.

Amazed that such a film could begin with Disney’s Wonderland logo, I finally caught up with their recent mega-hit Frozen (2013, MC-74, NFX), which was more in the Disney Princess vein, with a few up-to-date twists to the old-fashioned tale, but did have some spectacular animated sculptural fun with ice crystals.  Another CGI feature I really enjoyed was Paddington (MC-77, NFX), in which only the title character of the Michael Bond books -- a Peruvian bear who comes to London in search of a home -- is animated (and voiced wonderfully by Ben Whishaw), from red hat to his magically realistic fur.  Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville are the couple who take him in, and Nicole Kidman is the villainous taxidermist who wants to stuff him.  Paul King directs this veddy, veddy British production, again suitable for all ages.

Two emergent directors in world cinema were well-received in the past year, by critics and by me -- Christian Petzold from Germany and Asghar Farhadi from Iran – though neither delivered their very best work.  In Phoenix (MC-89, FC #8, MC #16, NFX), Petzold continues with Nina Hoss one of the great director-actress collaborations in cinema history, his fixation on her face definitely a communicable obsession.  I wouldn’t put their most recent in a class with Barbara and Yella, but it’s still remarkable.  Petzold makes movies about movies, as well as real life in real social situations, in spite of the stylization.  Phoenix references films from German Expressionism to film noir, Sirkian melodrama, Hitchcockian suspense.  The story is implausible -- about a survivor of the concentration camps looking for her husband in the ruins of Berlin after the war – but its implications -- not least in the transformations of Nina Hoss’ face -- are profound and far-reaching.  And it all sets up a final scene that justifies and transcends everything that went before.

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi made About Elly (MC-87, FC #27, NFX) before his Oscar-winning A Separation or The Past, made post-exile in France, but this earlier film wasn’t released here till 2015Again the cinematic point of reference is obvious -- this story of a woman vacationing with friends, who disappears and thereby transforms the lives of those left behind, owes something to L’Avventura, but is far from imitative.  Seven old friends, plus Elly, the acquaintance of one matchmaker, take a weekend excursion from Tehran to a derelict villa on the Caspian Sea.  Interactions and consequences ensue, ambiguous situations lead to levels of deceit and conflict in what seemed a tight-knit community.  There’s likely a political parable involved, but what sustains interest is suspenseful characterization and moral quandary.

Less noticed generally, but even more to my taste were two films set in Italy.  There’s also a hint of L’Avventura in La Sapienza (MC-74, FC #46, NFX), in which a Swiss architect tries to revive his love of the profession by taking a tour of Italy that focuses on the Baroque buildings of Borromini, which are made suitably magical by the cinematography.  He has a young architecture student in tow, to remind him of the ideals of his youth, as he refreshes his taste for building.  Meanwhile his wife, on her own quest for revival, becomes attached to the student’s sister.  Director Eugene Green, an American who has lived in France since the 70s, has a distinctively Bressonian style, involving the actors’ direct, impassive address to the camera.  He speaks up for mystical beauty in the face of rationalized design, favoring spirit over reason.  The title refers to a church of Borromini’s, but ultimately to wisdom and knowledge.  Maybe not for every taste, but I found this film oddly compelling.

I feel much more confident recommending Human Capital (MC-63, NFX), though it got middling critical reception here after great success in Italy.  Paolo Virzi directs -- and dissects class conflict, inequality, and unequal justice -- in this multi-layered, interlocking story.  A waiter at a private school celebration is run down on his bike afterwards.  Which attendee is responsible?  In three segments, from the points of view of three different characters, we eventually piece together the whole story.  For some reviewers it was too disjointed in style and tone, for others too tied up with a bow, but I found it satisfying throughout.  (One dissed it as American Beauty, Italian Style, but I can’t see anything wrong with that.)  Good to look at, satirical and dramatic, and well-acted overall, especially Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as the stunned wife of a wealthy hedge fund manager, whose son is the primary suspect in the hit-&-run, and Matilde Geoli as the boy’s girlfriend, not to mention Valeria Golino, a particular favorite of mine.

Speaking of magnetic actresses, the past year saw the definitive emergence of Alicia Vikander.  In Ex Machina  (MC-78, FC #34, MC #5, NFX), most of the time she’s only half there -- the other half transparent to her robotic innards – but she makes quite an impression with the part that’s there.  Ava is the creation of reclusive billionaire tech genius Oscar Isaac, and Domnhall Gleason is the employee summoned to give Ava the Turing Test, to determine whether the machine can convince the observer that she is human.  With Ms. Vikander, what do you think?  The two male actors are effective as well, as all three play games of cognitive cat and mouse.  With this nice piece of speculative fiction, Alex Garland successfully completes a rare novelist-into-screenwriter-into-director transformation, giving the film a sleek look and many intellectual twists, before descending to a genre denouement.

In Testament of Youth (MC-76, NFX), we see Alicia in the flesh.  Period flesh, well-covered, in James Kent’s traditionalist direction of this adaptation of Vera Brittain’s classic WWI memoir.  Alicia as Vera is headstrong and passionate, devoted to dreams of study at Oxford as much as to heartthrob Kit Harington (better known as Jon Snow).  When war comes and her love enlists, she gives up the academic career she longed for and goes to the front as a nurse.  The men of her generation are mown down, and she becomes a devout pacifist.  Leagues better than Downton Abbey, set in the same period, this film doesn’t escape the ghetto of British heritage productions, but Alicia Vikander assures its place near the top of that ilk.

Can’t really say the same for Far from Madding Crowd (MC-71, NFX), despite the endearing presence of Carey Mulligan as Hardy’s heroine Bathsheba Everdene.  Director Thomas Vinterberg makes the odd transition from Dogme 95 to Masterpiece Theater classicism, creating a film that is entirely too pretty.  Carey is certainly given more spunk and agency than was Julie Christie in John Schlesinger’s 1967version, where Bathsheba was more a flirt at the mercy of fate and men, but Julie will remain definitive for me.  Schlesinger’s film is more burnished monochrome than picture postcard, and has a superior trio of actors in Alan Bates, Peter Finch, and Terence Stamp.  In their respective roles, Matthias Schoenaerts is too impassive, Michael Sheen okay but not as impressive, and the other guy just a caricature of the dashing redcoat.  Still, as a sucker for adaptations of 19th-century British novels, I enjoyed watching both versions back to back.

For modern romantic comedies, two stand out in my recent viewing, though of disparate generations.  I had forgotten the director of Results (MC-73, NFX) until the final credits rolled, where the name Andrew Bujalski explained why I’d found the film surprisingly intelligent and offbeat, and so authentic in its Austin TX setting.  Guy Pearce is the gung-ho owner of a fitness center and would-be lifestyle guru, Cobie Smulders is a personal trainer who works for him, and Kevin Corrigan is a depressed client from New York who just inherited a lot of Texas loot and wants to get into shape, learn how to take a punch.  This triangle plays out in ways, and in rhythms, you don’t expect, against the grain of rom-com conventions.  I can’t do better than A.O. Scott’s characterization of this small gem: “a beautifully played game of underhand slow-pitch screwball.”

Another rom-com that avoids many of the stupidities of the genre, I’ll See You in My Dreams (MC-76, NFX), comes courtesy of Blythe Danner, who convinces us that romance is ageless, and so is comedy.  Writer-director Brett Haley is well-served by his cast.  His leading lady showcases all her talents, including singing.  The salty chorus of widowed girlfriends features Mary Kay Place, Rhea Perlman, and June Sprigg.  Blythe’s pool cleaner crush is Martin Starr, growing well beyond geekdom, and her late-life flame is Sam Elliott, a silver fox if ever there was one.  It’s not immediately obvious how it will all turn out.  Relax and enjoy, you’re in good hands.

Having worked with a friend on a book about his travels in Ireland, I’m always eager to revisit Irish settings.  Ken Loach does the same, extending the story of The Wind that Shakes the Barley with Jimmy’s Hall (MC-63, NFX).  As I’ve already argued, “Loach is no slouch,” and though this film is not among his best, it’s well worth viewing, for the Irish countryside and the generally good acting from many unfamiliar faces.  What’s familiar is the didacticism of Loach’s (and screenwriting partner Paul Laverty’s) politics, as he demonstrates that a decade after independence from Britain, the Irish people’s opponents are the same, “the masters and the pastors.”  Jimmy had emigrated to America, met some success, but came back to Ireland when the depression struck.  Before, he had organized a community hall for education, arts, and entertainment, including dancing and debate.  Now the young people beg him to re-open the legendary gathering place, but the Powers That Be resist and defeat him.

The times and the types are quite different in What Richard Did (2013, MC-80, NFX), Lenny Abrahamson’s taut and effective precursor to Frank and Room.  The title character, an Irish prep school golden boy played with tremendous conviction by Jack Reynor, makes a very grave mistake, and the drama is whether he will own up to it, or instead, friends and family will allow him to exercise his inherent privilege and get away with it.

Staying in Ireland, we revisit the Troubles in ’71 (MC-83, NFX), which in turn led me to revisit the 1947 Carol Reed film Odd Man Out, starring James Mason as an IRA man injured and on the run through the Belfast night.  Here the man out and on the run is a teenaged British soldier, portrayed with great range of emotion by Jack O’Connell.  Yann Demange’s direction is immersive and on-the-fly, as O’Connell gets into one difficult situation after another, being chased by both sides after a botched mission.  The situation is specific, but the film comes off as a sadly universal parable of occupation and insurgency, rough stuff but with the ring of truth to it. 

It is, however, nowhere near as rough as O’Connell’s earlier film, Starred Up (MC-81, NFX), which had a reputation for brutality that kept me away -- until I wanted to see more of our boy Jack.  The title describes his situation, sent from a juvenile facility to an adult prison as punishment for bad behavior.  Fresh meat indeed! -- and you can be sure it gets pounded to pulp.  Even though his pa is in the same joint (Ben Mendelsohn, with his usual muffled menace), there’s no protection for the boy, and no give in him either.  A sympathetic anger management counselor (Rupert Friend) tries to befriend him, but is no match for prison bosses who only want to subdue the boy, make an example of him.  Frankly I would have been happy to have subtitles on David Mackenzie’s film, since I missed half the dialogue to unintelligible down-&-dirty British accents.  Nonetheless, Jack O’Connell is surely destined to be starred up, in an entirely different way.

Ben Mendelsohn shows a different side in the surprisingly delightful Mississippi Grind (MC-77, NFX).  This could have been another tired tale of two guys (Ryan Reynolds is the other, and shows himself more than just a pretty face) on a life-defining roadtrip, but directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck make it nimble, surprising, and well-grounded in real locations (and local music!).  In fact, the inspiration for the film came when they were shooting Sugar, and making Iowa seem like a field of dreams to a young pitcher from the Dominican Republic.  They decided to return to the area for this light-on-its-feet travelogue, following the Mississippi River down to New Orleans.  Mendelsohn and Reynolds are two compulsive gamblers, one pathetic and one blithe, who team up to hit every big casino on the river, on their way to a high-stakes poker game in the Big Easy.  You may think you’ve seen this movie before, but you’re in for some surprises, especially from two actors at the top of their two-handed game, and two directors as well.

I confess this “double feature” pairing only reflects that I happened to watch both in the same evening, and found both so much better than I expected, but nonetheless there’s some geographic proximity to Slow West (MC-72, NFX), and oh yes, Ben M. turns up again in a small role.  As does the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender, as a bounty hunter who takes under his wing, for good or ill, a teenage Scottish laird in search of the peasant girl he loved and lost, when she and her father fled from murder charges to the Wild West.  First-time writer-director John Maclean’s film is a landscape-loving, people-despising mash-up of the Coen brothers’ True Grit and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, with a dash of Wes Anderson, and a host of other offbeat approaches to the Western genre, with New Zealand standing in prettily for 1870 Colorado.  All this yields an intriguing mix of whimsy with walloping action scenes of frontier violence.

That does it for films that I can confidently recommend.  Click through for comments on another two dozen recent films, among which you may find a number to your taste.