Monday, August 28, 2017

Menashe

Not sure whether I’ll stick to this film reviewing “business” now that my “career” as a film programmer seems to be over, but I am roused to recommend a new film with a near-family connection.  It may even be appearing at a theater near you, as it bids fair to fulfill Rolling Stone Magazine’s forecast:  “It has left-field sleeper hit written all over it.”

This is how far out of left field Menashe (MC-82, NFX) comes:  an American independent film almost entirely in Yiddish, made by a director and writers who do not speak the language, with non-actors from a Brooklyn Hasidic community, most of whom had never set foot in a movie theater till the premiere of the movie they were appearing in.  Degree of difficulty, high; execution, highly accomplished.

Menashe Lustig plays the title character, in a story that leaps off from his actual life predicament – as a widower who was prohibited by his strict Orthodox community from having custody of his 10-year-old son until he remarried – into a carefully-scripted 82 minutes of real humor and heart.  Poor Menashe is appealing mix of schlemiel and schlimazel, redeemed from his conspicuous flaws by his evident love for his son, played with equal appeal by Ruben Niborski.

The film is directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein, and written by him in collaboration with producer Alex Lipschultz, with additional credit to Musa Syeed.  Alex is my connection to the film, as the longtime companion of my daughter Rachel.  (Here’s a nice profile of Alex, which appeared in his hometown Chicago newspaper.)

So I’m not an objective observer in this case (if ever I am) and will refer you to the “Universal acclaim” indexed by Metacritic, and point particularly to the Boston Globe’s judgment that Menashe is a “funny, heartbreaking, impeccably observed, and nearly flawless drama.”  And I find IndieWire apt and amusing in describing it as “what might happen if the Dardenne brothers remade Bicycle Thieves with a screenplay by Isaac Bashevis Singer” – nice company to be in.  Documentary-inflected Neorealism lives!

Menashe debuted at Sundance – where it was picked up by A24 (distributor of Moonlight and other high-quality indies).  Thereafter it fared well on the international film festival circuit – Berlin, Edinburgh, Karlovy Vary, Jerusalem, Shanghai, etc. – and had its U.S. theatrical release on July 28 in NYC and LA, expanding through the month of August from 3 to 86 screens.

Back in March, it appeared in the “New Directors, New Films” series at Lincoln Center, and there was an after-film Q & A with director, producer, and star, which was among the most engaging post-film discussions that I’ve ever seen.  Should be an extra on the DVD when it comes out, but see it now on YouTube.

But above all, see Menashe when you get the chance. 

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Wrapping 2016

Here I follow up with last year’s films as they arrive on home video in one format or another, roughly in order of their rating by critical consensus (with some tardy releases to be added later: last update 6/8/17).

About Paterson (MC-90, NFX), let me confess that I adore this film, and also that it’s not for everyone – slow, mundane, and uneventful, but shot through with transcendent glimpses of light.  Jim Jarmusch is sometimes too arch for me, but here his trademark deadpan is alive with signs of grace and humor, love and insight.  Paterson is a place, a person, and a state of mind, a poem about the poetry of everyday life.  The place is the decaying industrial city in New Jersey, famous as the home of Lou Costello and William Carlos Williams, the doctor/poet who wrote a multivolume epic called PatersonThe person is Paterson, who drives a bus in the city, meanwhile jotting poems in his notebook (which appear in lettering onscreen as he recites and repeats them); he’s played soulfully by Adam Driver, in a role that totally supplants his image from Girls.  Equally spirited, but as outgoing as he is inward, Golshifteh Farahani plays his wife, for whom every phase of life is an art project.  It’s a beautiful relationship, though not without friction, much of it supplied by their pet bulldog.  The city is a character in itself, as Paterson walks to and from work, drives his bus through the city’s streets, with the (in)action returning periodically to the waterfall that gives the city its identity.  Each evening he walks the dog to a bar, where he goes in for one beer, and encounters passing moments of humor and drama.  You could say nothing happens in this film, or you could say nothing happens.  To me, every image and every beat seemed just so.  Unexpectedly, this film vies with Manchester by the Sea as my favorite of the year.  Despite its depressed condition, Paterson’s state of mind is ecstasy.

I can see many of the aspects for which Toni Erdmann (MC-93, NFX) has been so highly praised, but personally I’m just not feeling the love.  Much of what I wrote about Maren Ade’s earlierfilm seems to apply to this as well, yet I am less enthusiastic about the new film, in a reversal of critical consensus.  It may have something to do with the film’s length (162 minutes), and maybe with the central characters (though not the actors, who perform admirably), a father and daughter, he a shambling old music teacher and prankster, she a tightly-wound corporate consultant.  The title character is the name of the improvisatory role the father takes on, to embarrass and humanize his daughter, when he goes to visit her on the job in Romania, where she is ruthlessly bringing German efficiency to the formerly socialist backwater.  The movie could also have been different to watch in a theater, where audience laughter might have jollied me along.  Instead of funny, I found many of the scenes puzzling and marked by a weirdly opaque conviction.  So for this film I can issue neither recommendation nor warning, can only say “see for yourself.”
  
Aquarius (MC-88, NFX) is the name of an aging beachfront apartment building in Brazil, where a widowed music critic is the only remaining tenant of a developer eager to tear down the building and replace it with a lucrative condo tower.  In a prologue that is indicative of the film’s indirect and leisurely approach, we first see her living there as a young mother and breast cancer survivor more than thirty years before.  Then we jump ahead to the present, where she is played by the great Brazilian actress Sonia Braga.  Her ability to command the screen while doing very little is key to the film’s appeal, as she interacts with friends and lovers, grown children and real estate adversaries.  A political or cultural fable about Brazil seems to be implied, but escaped this American viewer (though I could relate bigly to real estate developers as villains).  Nonetheless, the film held my interest through its long and rather slow progression. 


Asghar Farhadi garnered his second foreign film Oscar with The Salesman (MC-85, NFX), and I have no quibble with that choice.  The Iranian director of A Separation and other films is masterful at bringing us into domestic scenes, and absorbing us with small, quiet shifts of perspective, judgment, and emotion.  Each of his films in an inquiry into moral feelings and allegiances.  Each is calculated to engender post-film debate and discussion.  We start as usual with a couple, and work our way out into complicated webs of connection.  The actors’ names would likely mean as little to you as they do to me, but all the performances are layered and excellent.  Both man and woman are actors in the play within the film, a Teheran production of Death of a Salesman.  They are forced to leave one apartment and move into another, where there are complications with a former tenant, and an inciting incident with incisive consequences.  I leave the rest for you to see for yourself. 

20th Century Women (MC-83, NFX) has so many good elements that it ought to add up to more than it does.  Mike Mills memorialized his father in the excellent Beginners, and here does the same for his mother in what might better have been called “The Women Who Raised Me.”  The specificity of place and time – Santa Barbara in 1979 – vouches for the film’s authenticity, which seems more reported than dramatized.  Luckily the admirable cast fills in many of the gaps, most notably Annette Bening as the mother of the writer/director as a 15-year-old, played endearingly by Lucas Jade Zumann.  Bening commands the screen not just for the immediacy of this performance, but in the context of her past performances – she’s won our devotion going in, so has no need to ingratiate.  She’s a working single mother, who lives in a large, crumbling old house where she takes in not so much boarders as surrogate family members.  Director and star are generous with the supporting roles, Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning as two young women whom the mom enlists to help raise her fatherless boy, plus Billy Crudup as a live-in hippie handyman.  Throwing visual and musical cues into the mix, Mills does not spin out scenes, or the film as a whole, to the point of resolution, but prefers to pile on glimpses and glances to cumulative effect, shards of memory that combine to create a mosaic, which is striking and attractive but not recognizably coherent.

Diligently working my way through the list of films that Metacritic deems to have received “Universal acclaim,” I started Jackie (MC-81, NFX) with little expectation of enjoyment.  Natalie Portman has held no appeal for me since Beautiful Girls (1996), and I was pretty sure Chilean director Pablo Larrain wasn’t going to have an interesting perspective on events and personalities that were very familiar to me.  But I wasn’t prepared for how annoying every aspect of the film would be:  the acting (absolute antithesis to All the Way, where every historical character was immediately identifiable), the music, the editing, the sheer tone-deafness of the whole production.  I could bear no more than thirty minutes, and fast-forwarded through the rest, so all I can give is my reaction, not a review.  It’s odd to see a film in which the only thing I liked was Greta Gerwig.  When that Metacritic average is unpacked, you can see a bunch of 100 ratings (Ty Burr, what were you thinking, what were you seeing?), but I was reassured to see my most trusted critics (Anthony Lane, Stephanie Zacharek, Dana Stevens) clustered in the 50-60 range.  So I’m pretty sure I didn’t miss something here.

I am not generally a fan of sci-fi, but I held out some hope for Arrival (MC-81, NFX), since Amy Adams stars – as a linguist trying to communicate with aliens who have come to earth in a dozen huge spaceships around the globe – and Denis Villeneuve is not your prototypical action director.  Plus Bradford Young is always a cinematographer worth seeing.  Together they supply enough heart, brain, and eye to make the film watchable, if not a satisfying cinematic experience to me.  Beyond the well-done production values, it is unusually soulful, thoughtful, and beautiful as sci-fi, but for me obscure enough, as well as generic and overblown, to withhold a recommendation.

Fences (MC-79, NFX) represents two types of movie which have little appeal for me – a transposition from theater, and obvious Oscar-bait – but had numerous aspects that did appeal to me.  Starting with the two leads, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, who are every bit as good as you may have heard.  Having won Tonys for the revival of August Wilson’s play on Broadway, the cast is brought to the screen pretty much intact, directed by Denzel himself.  Not familiar with Wilson’s work, I have to say I was taken with the language, and the passion with which it is delivered.  The characterizations seem true to life, though the stagecraft is creaky, most notably in the final scene.  The setting – narrow enough to avoid “opening out” of the play – is the 1950s Pittsburgh backyard of a former Homestead Gray turned garbageman, a motormouth and force of nature, in whose climate his wife and children, brother and friend, have to exist.  Each performance lives up to the two leads, and the dialogue carries conviction, however theatrical.  Having followed Denzel’s career for decades, it was fascinating to watch him step into the shoes of James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson.  The years go by, as this film will tell you.  

Despite superb performances from Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as Richard and Mildred Loving, Jeff Nichols’ patient, serious feature Loving (MC-79, NFX) would seem superfluous if more people had seen the moving and revelatory documentary The Loving Story (NFX).  The landmark Supreme Court decision in Loving vs. Virginia overturned state laws against miscegenation, and established marriage as a constitutional right.  Thankfully, Nichols’ film is less about courts and lawyers than the genuinely colorblind love between a white man and a black woman, a bond between two unassuming people that broke the bonds of ancient prejudice.  The film’s approach is appropriately quiet and unassuming as well, showing how deep racism runs without rubbing our face in its more violent aspects, more interested in the heroism of ordinary life than famous judicial triumphs.

In a good film year for African-Americans, it’s no surprise that Hidden Figures (MC-74, NFX) was the highest grossing of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture.  It’s certainly the most sanitized and domesticated, the most Hollywood of them all, in its approach to race relations and civil rights.  Theodore Melfi’s film strains to be entertaining, but does so all the same, because of the true story behind the film. and the three women who play “colored computers” working on the Mercury space program in the early ’60s: Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, and Octavia Spencer.  They endure the double discrimination of being women as well as black in segregated Virginia, at the beginnings of the liberation movement.  A little too much “You go, girl!” attitude, too many sitcom beats, and too little attention to truth of situation or character, meant that I would have preferred a straight documentary, but at least the film is true to its title, and the book on which it’s based, in celebrating some unsung heroes of the space race.

I’m a fan of Martin Scorsese, though not always in agreement about what is his best work, but all I can say about Silence (MC-79, NFX) is that there’s a fine line between passion project and vanity project, and for me this film crossed that line, becoming overt and unconvincing.  C’mon, Marty, 161 minutes on Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Japan?  Given your track record, and the Shusaku Endo source novel, I expected a lot from this adaptation.  I can see that you wanted to make a Kurosawa film, and this film certainly carries over his sense of spectacle, with lots of eye candy.  But Andrew Garfield?  He’s a good young actor, but you expect him to carry more weight than his slight frame can handle.  Adam Driver is surprisingly good in a much smaller role, as the other young priest sent to search for their spiritual guide (a monumental Liam Neeson), lost somewhere in Japan.  And Marty, I hate to say it, but you’re wandering into Mel Gibson pain-porn territory here.  But, but, but – I had to fast-forward through the second half of this film, and for the rest I offer only a polite silence.

It’s a little rich for me to come across as an arbiter of teen comedies, but Edge of Seventeen (MC-77, NFX) strikes me as one of the best, not as edgy as The Diary of a Teenage Girl, but genuinely witty and true to life, from an authentic female perspective.  In a most promising debut, Kelly Fremon Craig writes and directs, with a good cast led by the charming, piquant, and angst-ridden Hailee Steinfeld, as an outsider child who’s lost her beloved father, and is about to lose her best and only friend to her too-perfect older brother, while herself trying to navigate between an elusive dreamboat and the endearing nerd who has a crush on her.  In times of distress, i.e. frequently, she has recourse to her history teacher and reluctant mentor, played by Woody Harrelson with laconic but friendly satire.  It all sounds very familiar, but comes across as fresh and appealing.

Underappreciated despite an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film, Tanna (MC-75, NFX) is stunningly good.  Named for the South Pacific island where it was filmed by Bentley Dean and Martin Butler, having lived for seven months in a traditional village where men wear penis sheaths and topless women wear grass skirts.  Working with villagers to create a real-life scenario that includes elements of National Geographic, Robert Flaherty, and Romeo and Juliet in an ethnographic paradise (serving as a good companion piece to the recent Disney animation Moana), the filmmakers have put together a beautiful story that is mythic and elemental, but specific to a genuine culture.  The villagers all play roles based closely on their own lives, and the natural expressiveness of the acting is a wonder to behold.  As is the landscape, from jungle to ocean to volcano.  Altogether an experience not to be missed.

A Monster Calls (MC-76, NFX) was another film that exceeded expectation.  In fact I wasn’t sure what to expect at all of this part-animated, part-CGI-wizardry, not-really-for-children story of an 11-year old British boy coping with his mother’s impending death, in the process summoning a King-Kong-sized Green Man from a giant yew tree in the church graveyard.  One expects a lot from Liam Neeson (voicing and motion-capturing the tree), Sigourney Weaver (irascible grandmother), and Felicity Jones (mother with cancer), but the actor who makes this all work is Lewis MacDougall, as the inward boy who finds escape in drawing and fantasy, talents absorbed from his mother.  Sure, there’s shameless tear-jerking, but there’s also flawless production work all round, by a mostly Spanish team, including lovely, painterly animation and convincing special effects.  Mixing fairy tale, creature feature, and family melodrama, director J.A. Bayona strikes me as a cross between Pedro Almodovar and Guillermo del Toro.

Almodovar’s Julieta (MC-73, NFX) could have been called “All About Her Mother,” and as such recalls the best of his films, as well as Douglas Sirk’s.  He disciplines his maximalist style in the material of minimalist writer Alice Munro, in the process transposing her stories from cold, dark, barren Canada to hot and colorful Spain, without betraying their spirit.  If you like Almodovar at this most raucous, this will be a disappointment, but if you appreciate his heartfelt appreciation for the emotional travails of women, then this is a film to seek out.  A glamorous Classics professor, if you can imagine such a thing, is played in the present by Emma Suarez and in flashback by Adriana Ugarte, and in each incarnation the character is transfixing.  The older woman gets chance word of the daughter she has not seen in a decade, and thinks back to how she met her husband and then lost him, in the process getting and then losing the beloved daughter.  This is a careful and caring film that unlocks unexpected depths.

I was inclined to resist Lion (MC-69, NFX), but didn’t entirely succeed.  I suspected it was another production that the Weinstein Company had muscled into an undeserved Best Picture nomination.  And I’m not really susceptible to the presumed soulfulness of Dev Patel, which novice director Garth Davies tries to exploit in repeated wordless close-ups.  There are some pretty things and some touching things in this “based on a true story” tale of a poor young boy (a captivating Sunny Pawar) from rural India who gets separated from his family and winds up on the streets of Calcutta.  After Dickensian adventures, he is eventually adopted from an orphanage by an idealistic Australian couple (Nicole Kidman as fashion victim?), only to grow up into a longing for his unknown birthplace and birth family.  But the self-dramatization of the originating memoir, and the manipulations of its presentation do not come with an aura of truthful exploration of feeling.  Nonetheless I confess to a tear in the eye, at least for the birth mother at the inevitable reunion. 

If, like me, you think that Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal are reason enough to watch a movie, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals (MC-67, NFX) will disabuse you of that notion.  To call this movie a hollow exercise in style is to make the best case for it.  To call it a garish mixture of lifestyle and violence porn is closer to the mark.  Don’t bother.

The Light Between Oceans (MC-60, NFX) is a well-acted and beautifully-shot “woman’s weepie” directed by Derek Cianfrance in a quasi-documentary style.  With Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, and Rachel Weisz giving their estimable all, I was happy (and sad) to suspend disbelief in this over-plotted melodrama.  Fassbender is a survivor of WWI, who embraces the isolation of a job as a lighthouse keeper on a remote outcropping of an unnamed country (presumably Australia, actually shot in New Zealand).  Vikander is the strong-willed and open-hearted young woman he meets and marries on the mainland.  After an idyllic interlude on their lovely but lonely sea-girt promontory, they suffer tragedies, and circumstances that turn tragic after misguided choices.  I can see why some would reject the twists of the source novel as preposterous, but I was so won over by the persuasive acting, and by the immersive direction, that I had no urge to quibble as the story unfolded.  The hypnotic beauty of the people and the place swept away any resistance I might have had to the manipulations of the story, so even if duped, I recommend this film.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Surveying 2016 films

I’m so far behind in my commentary on new films that I’m going to take on the whole year at once, using Metacritic’s list of the hundred best-reviewed films of 2016 as an organizing guide, working my way down through the numerical ratings, but adding my own pluses or minuses to the ranking.  So far I’ve only seen half the Academy Award Best Picture nominees, so I’ll start with those.  [I’ll do a supplemental survey of late-arriving DVDs.]

My personal favorite was Manchester by the Sea (MC-96, NFX).  I was definitely predisposed toward it, being highly appreciative of Kenneth Lonergan’s previous films, You Can Count On Me and Margaret.  I avoided reviews and spoilers, and actually got out of the house to watch it, renewing my lapsed Images Cinema membership to see this, and the next two films, before any reached home video.  Now it’s out on Blu-Ray and I’ve seen it again, without the profound sense of surprise and discovery upon first viewing, but with a finer grasp of its artistry, just as riveting the second time around.  Lonergan’s film is sad and funny, harsh and lovely, all at once, and true as life itself.  He has a feel for the complexities of place and personhood, and perfect control of the story’s whiplash emotions.  Those emotions, either expressed or repressed, are rarely overt, though frequently overbearing.  For me the film calls to mind the T.S. Eliot line, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”  Any plot summary would be full of spoilers, and give the false impression of melodrama, or be superfluous if you’ve already seen the film.  All I can do is praise every technical aspect of the film, writing and direction, cinematography and editing, the music and above all, the acting.  Casey Affleck gets the role he was meant to play and makes the most of it, with suppressed affect but deep thought and churning emotion.  Superlative support comes from Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, and Lucas Hedges, not to mention a host of peripheral characters.  The New England seacoast setting, and grief-inflected humor, hit all the right notes for me.  This is certainly my pick as the best film of the year, and moves Lonergan into the ranks of my most esteemed living filmmakers.

For Moonlight (MC-99, NFX), the most acclaimed film of the year, I have to enter a modest demurral.  I liked it a lot, but didn’t love it.  While appreciating the authenticity that director Barry Jenkins and writer Tarell McCraney bring from their own experience – in telling the story of a gay black youth growing up on the wrong side of Miami, following his life as he tries to create a space to be himself – I was not swept along with all the visual and storytelling choices.  Strong performances are contributed by the three actors who play the central character as boy, youth, and young man, and especially by Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae as an unlikely pair of surrogate parents who take him in when his single mother descends into drug abuse.  The film is inventive and original, well worth seeing, but my preference for Manchester over Moonlight was predicated more on regional – rather than racial or sexual – prejudice, along with my own elder person taste, in discriminating the styles, preoccupations, and maturity of the respective directors.

Back in 2011, reviewing a not-so-good film with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, I made the prediction, “One of these days Ms. Stone will be in a decent movie, and she will be amazing.”  Well, La La Land (MC-93, NFX) is that movie at last, and she is indeed amazing.  But you don’t need me to tell you that, since by now she’s garnered an Oscar, while the movie itself came this-close.  I join the chorus of praise for Damien Chazelle’s resurrection of the movie musical, with nods to masters from Minnelli to Donen to Demy (but I do have to point to the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! (see below) as an even more impressive pastiche of lapsed Hollywood genres).  What’s notable about all three of these top films is the commitment and personal vision of directors who write for themselves.  Each of Chazelle’s films is obsessed with jazz, and the passion comes through.  Emma and Ryan are charmingly inexpert at singing and dancing, but pleasing in their naturalness, energy, and conviction.  From the razzle-dazzle opening – where an L.A. freeway traffic jam becomes an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza – to the extended wish-fulfilling fantasy ending, the film is flashy and exuberant, and director Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren earned their Oscars.  In fact, I wouldn’t have objected to this film as Best Picture, though I understand the political considerations that gave the award to Moonlight.

Hell or High Water (MC-88, NFX) will remind you of many films without ever seeming like anything other than itself.  It’s classic, yet of the moment.  Something you’ve seen a million times, but there’s nothing quite like it.  Two brothers go on a bank robbing spree in hardscrabble West Texas, and a Ranger tracks them down.  A familiar story, to be sure, but in Taylor Sheridan’s script, David Mackenzie’s direction, and Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography, it is something to see, as if for the first time.  Violent yes, but so much more – witty and pointed, beautifully structured and designed, and impeccably acted from top to bottom.  Chris Pine and Ben Foster are the brothers, the former showing a lot more than his dreamboat blue eyes, and the latter releasing the suppressed energy that underlies all his performances.  Jeff Bridges is the Ranger, indolent but canny, racist but funny, utterly in command while showing no effort at all.  This being the Trumpian Wild West, everyone has a gun and an itch to use it, the banks are the enemy, the land has been stolen many times over, and poverty gets passed down like a disease.  After the inevitable shootout, the film resolves itself in a quiet scene of open-ended menace and something oddly like reconciliation.

Given the back-loading of quality in the film year, early release Love and Friendship (MC-87, NFX) spent most of 2016 as my favorite film, and still ranks among the best for me.  I’m an unabashed Janeite, but not always happy with what the movies have done with Miss Austen.  In this case, Kate Beckinsale in the lead role carries all before her.  Kate is Lady Susan, “the most accomplished flirt in England,” of the eponymous novel by a teenage Jane (the film appropriates the title of another piece of her juvenilia).  Whit Stillman outdoes himself in adapting his trademark comedy of manners to Austenite dress.  Along with Kate, he brings over Chloe Sevigny from The Last Days of Disco, and freed both from his own autobiography and the constraints of the official Austen canon, he lets rip with a rollicking tale of romance and the cash nexus.  But Kate, oh Kate, you are the essence of our dear Jane, so deliciously witty, and so wicked to boot.  (It’s worth mentioning that twenty years ago, she was a perfect Emma.)  Good sharp fun all round.

So that’s my top five so far from films of 2016 -- click through to read my brief takes on more than fifty others.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Immigrant sagas & other classics

Over the past year I’ve continued to watch way too many new films (and my mammoth year-in-review should be posted here sometime after the Oscars), but I’ve been making an alternative effort to re-watch classics from all-time lists, my own or others.  Here are some brief reactions.

This seems a good moment to celebrate family sagas about the vitality and heartbreak of the immigrant experience in America.  I’ve been waiting decades for a decent video release of Jan Troell’s magnificent diptych from the early 70s – The Emigrants and The New Land – and when the Criterion Collection finally delivered, with a pair of beautifully-restored Blu-Ray disks, which Netflix does not deign to carry, I had no choice but to purchase it.

It’s odd for such an acclaimed classic to be lost to general memory, and to be treated so shabbily by its American distributor, who began by cutting forty minutes from the three-hour running time.  The Emigrants was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 1972 Oscars, and the next year, after the release of an execrable and nonsensical version dubbed into English, it was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.  So why is this film, and its equally superlative second half, so difficult to see?

But so worth the effort to see.  Except for one extended sequence in the second film, nothing in the appropriately slow-paced six-hours-plus is less than enthralling.  The Emigrants follows the 1850 journey of a group of Swedish farmers from the land to the sea, across the sea, and across half of the American continent to MinnesotaThe New Land shows them carving a homestead and a community out of the wilderness over the next decade.

Troell adapts the celebrated Swedish tetralogy by Vilhelm Moberg, and also directs, photographs, and edits the film, a truly commanding accomplishment.  He must be the least-known of great filmmakers, though for me his Everlasting Moments (NFX) was the best film of 2009, so he has had a long and productive career.  As Terrence Rafferty writes of his do-it-all approach, “The documentary-like freedom of Troell’s shooting style gives his historical epics an unusual sense of intimacy; they’re alert, unstudied, dense with small revelations.”

This is the film that made Liv Ullmann an international star.  Max von Sydow had already crossed over to major Hollywood epics, from all the films they’d made with Ingmar Bergman.  But they’ve never been better together, than as Kristina and Karl-Oskar Nilsson, on their long, hard, but exquisitely beautiful journey from stony times in Sweden to the harsh struggles of settling the American heartland.  They’re supported by a large cast that rings true in every particular.

While I can no longer proselytize for my favorite films by showing them at the Clark, in this case I can make this rare gem available to locals who own a Blu-Ray player, by donating my disks to the Milne Public Library in Williamstown (along with the dazzling Criterion disks used to show the “Colors of Japan” film series at the Clark).  If you can, take advantage of this rare opportunity to see one of the least-known great films of all time.

Hard to say that The Emigrants got robbed of Best Picture, when that award went to The Godfather, another magnificent family saga of American immigration, which is equally appropriate to re-watch and remember, at this vexed historical moment.  I recently had occasion to confirm the high esteem in which the first two Godfather films are held, after which I was primed to find The Godfather Part III  better than it’s reputed to be.  Alas, the third installment does represent a major falling off, but not in a way that casts shade on Francis Ford Coppola’s monumental achievement in the first two parts.

[Click through for my brief comments on a number of classics worth seeing again, or must-see for a first time]

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

TV picks from past year

Before this blog gets away from me altogether (see here and here and here for others that have gotten more of my attention lately), I want to catch up with a few categories of viewing, starting with television series.  Guided by Metacritic’s compilation of critics’ top ten lists, I survey my favorite tv series, since my last round-up.

I may be getting obnoxious here, but I have to insist – if you take the medium seriously at all, you need to watch Rectify (MC-99, NFX, SUND)!  Never mind that the recent series finale moved Rectify into the #2 spot on my list of all-time favorite tv series, right behind The Wire and edging out Breaking Bad; no, that’s just my opinion (and that of the few others who have actually watched it – check the Metacritic score), but what I know for certain is that any viewer who watches this show with open eyes, open ears, and an open heart will come away in possession of an enhanced capacity for human understanding and empathy.  And if you can embrace its skeptical spirituality, or spiritual skepticism, its commitment to uncertainty, with the possibility of hope, well then, you’ll be able to face the future with some of the “cautious optimism” that show creator Ray McKinnon preaches.

Okay, sure, the show is slow and sad, lingering lugubriously over troubled relationships and the minutiae of everyday life.  But it’s beautiful and true, a moody minor-key masterpiece of melodrama.  Profoundly somber, it’s just as profoundly humorous.  The show’s generosity of spirit extends to a wide range of characters, authentically placed in a small Georgia town. 

The ensemble acting is outstanding across the board, above all Aden Young in the lead role, a young man released on DNA evidence after 19 years on death row, for the murder of his teenage girlfriend.  So there’s a murder mystery buried here, but if that’s what you’re after, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.  The real mystery is in the minds and hearts of all the characters:  J. Smith-Cameron as his mother, Abigail Spencer as his sister, Clayne Crawford as his stepbrother, Adelaide Clemens as his sister-in-law, Luke Kirby as his lawyer.  And that’s just the inner circle; the whole town seems to be drawn into the story, with every character seen in the round, given dimension and depth rather than caricatured or categorized.

Meditative and melancholy, this show might seem off-putting at first glance, but trust me (and nearly every tv critic), it’s ultimately very funny and uplifting, all at the same time.  Maureen Ryan of Variety gave the show an impassioned send-off, but since that piece would come across as the ultimate spoiler for the uninitiated, I will just appropriate some her well-chosen words for the attributes of Rectify:  perfect control of tone, luminosity, quiet gravity, complexity, subtlety, delicacy, tenderness.

I want to enter the strongest possible recommendation that you watch the first three seasons, now available on Netflix streaming.  That’s actually a better experience that watching the latest episodes on Sundance; even if you are able to FF through commercials, it disrupts the signal virtue of Rectify, the constancy of its mood and tone, and its total immersion in the mindset of its protagonist, along with the place he lives and the people he lives with.  Ray McKinnon is a genius, and I will avidly follow whatever he does next.

In my view, The Crown (MC-81, NFX) is by far the best original programming to come from Netflix so far, the perfect antithesis to House of Cards.  Though I confess to hereditary Anglophilia, I’m far from a royalist -- but Peter Morgan certainly knows how to make Queen Elizabeth II interesting.  He did it with Helen Mirren in The Queen, and here he does it with Claire Foy as Elizabeth at the beginning of her reign.  Ms. Foy was positively Dickensian as Little Dorrit and royally imperious (until headless) as Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall, but surpasses herself in combining both meek maiden and willful sovereign into the character of Elizabeth Windsor, mainly through speaking silences.  Though the production values of this series are impeccable, the most amazing thing about the cooperation of The Crown with The Crown was not the astonishing location access, but the Palace’s seeming lack of interference with the content, which puts a very human face on the royal family indeed.  The realism of setting enhances the prevailing realism of character and emotion.  John Lithgow is appropriately impressive and many-sided as Churchill, and a host of familiar faces from BBC prestige productions inhabit every role convincingly.  The stories deal with real history in a way that is both informative and compelling.  The sense of genuine politics going on (painfully absent from our own recent election) is so palpable that my best comparison is to the Danish TV series Borgen, with Sidse Babett Knudson dazzling as the female PM (in fact, I strongly advise watching either series for those wistful for female governance).  This is a vast elaboration of Morgan’s play, The Audience, which dealt with the Queen’s private weekly audience with PMs up through Margaret Thatcher and beyond, so we can look forward to five more seasons of this sumptuous but sensible spectacle.

One underlying theme of this round-up will be the surprising emergence of FX as the most consistently creative station on your TV dial (do any TVs still have a dial?).  Justified was the first FX show that I really committed to, but by now it’s no surprise that the network’s Emmy haul rivals HBO’s, or that it has become my most watched network, and that’s even while taking a pass on some of their best regarded shows, such as The Americans.

Exhibit A is The People v. O.J. Simpson (MC-90, NFX, FX).  Now at the time, the Simpson trial was an unfortunate media sensation that I tried to block out of my consciousness as much as the recent presidential election, so I’m surprised how much of my attention it commanded two decades later, not just with this brilliantly acted, written, and directed docudrama, but with the equally brilliant and ramified documentary series O.J.: Made in America (MC-96, NFX, ESPN), so much wider and deeper than you would expect from a sports station.  Both series succeeded in making the trial and the social context, and the various characters, more emblematic of wider concerns than I could have imagined going in.  Both were less about Simpson’s guilt or innocence than the vexed issues of race in America, especially the relationship between the police and black lives, and thus absolutely relevant to today.  Both series come, astonishingly, with my highest recommendation, well worth the sixteen hours spent to watch both.

I bailed on season one of Fargo (MC-96, NFX, FX) almost as quickly as on The Americans, but over-the-top reviews led me to give season two – with a different cast, timeframe, and story – a second chance, and I’m glad I did.  It was violent as hell, but so very well done, with terrific humor, brilliant acting, and a real sense of style.  With the same askance viewpoint as the Coen brothers’ original film, the second season of the tv series leaps back to 1979.  Here Patrick Wilson is the decent and smarter-than-he-seems state trooper, and Ted Danson is the sheriff, his father-in-law.  A delightful Kirsten Dunst and befuddled Jesse Plemons are a young couple that somehow get tied up in a triple-murder at a Waffle Hut in Minnesota, which involves a Fargo crime family led by Jean Smart, and gunmen from the KC mob.  If you can take the blood, the laughs and characters will certainly keep you coming back.

FX is also home to two innovative and excellent half-hour comedies that debuted in Fall 2016.  Atlanta (MC-90, FX) got the most attention, deservedly so as Donald Glover’s offbeat look into Southern hiphop culture fearlessly went off in many unexpected directions.  It was a lesson in unfamiliar settings, characters, and approaches, making a virtue out of never letting us know where it was actually going next.  I appreciated its strangeness, but actually preferred the more familiar Better Things (MC-79, FX), with Louis C.K. pitching in with Pamela Adlon to tell the story of her working single-mom relationship with her three growing daughters, each of whom is amusingly yet realistically portrayed.  The series was acidulous yet charming, with hugs exchanged and lessons learned, but genuine conflicts expressed.

In its second season, Better Call Saul (MC-85, NFX, AMC) definitively emerged from the shadow of Breaking Bad, from which it was spun off.  Vince Gilligan’s new series is decidedly its own thing, and we’re in no hurry to see Slippin’ Jimmy morph into Saul Goodman, and meet up with Walter White.  Bob Odenkirk is terrifically good/bad as the charming scoundrel, and Rhea Seehorn steps up admirably as Kim, his fellow lawyer and love interest.  Jonathan Banks remains stolid and solid as the imperturbable fixer Mike.  The show is admirably layered with humor, nuance, feeling, and observation, and remains among my favorites.

AMC seems to be a network that displays some patience in letting shows develop depth and build an audience.  At first glance Halt and Catch Fire (MC-69/83, NFX, AMC) seems as reverse-engineered as the IBM PC clone whose development the first season follows, with parts appropriated from Mad Men and Breaking Bad in a kludgy mix.  Recent critical momentum for its third season led me to its first two on Netflix.  There was supposedly a big jump in quality in the second season, so I started there and was gradually drawn in enough to go back and watch the first, because I wanted to know where these characters came from, as well as where they’re going.  By focusing on the tech industry in the 80s, Halt makes a dramatic bookend with Silicon ValleyLee Pace is the Don-Draper-ish leading man, mysterious, driven, and charismatic.  Scoot McNairy is the brilliant but messed-up computer engineer exploited by the Jobs-like super-salesman.  Kerry Bishé is his wife, equally brilliant in tech but consigned to cleaning up other people’s messes, including those of punk prodigy Mackenzie Davis, a coding genius with dubious people skills.  Characters to care about, if not exactly to like.  The framework of the first season reminded me of Tracy Kidder’s book Soul of a New Machine, from the same era; the second delved into the development of online gaming and chat, among other things; in the third, I gather, everyone moves from Dallas to San Francisco; there will be a fourth, despite low ratings, in the hopes that the whole series will eventually find an informed audience. Without hammering it home, the show constantly generates moments of recognition, pointing to the differences (and continuities) in tech over the span of thirty years.  (BTW, of techie type series, I didn’t get more than an episode or two into the second season of Mr. Robot, after being prodded through the first.)

[Lots more after the break!]

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Coming to the Clark

Don't think I've abandoned this blog -- I have extensive round-ups of the past year in movies and tv in process, and will post here soon.  I regret that it seems unlikely that the Cinema Salon film club will ever return to the Clark, but I will continue to offer advice and comment to the cinematically curious through this blog.  So if you're an avid and adventurous film viewer, return here for recommendations.  Meanwhile, don't miss this film series at the Clark, which may turn out to be my "last picture show":

“Colors of Japan: Cinematic Impressions”

Come revel in the colorful beauty of Japan, in cinematography as well as printmaking, in this film series presented by the Clark on Sunday afternoons in its newly-renovated auditorium, in conjunction with “Japanese Impressions,” the concurrent exhibition of color woodblock prints.  (All films in Japanese with English subtitles.)

Sunday, January 22, 1:30 pm:  The Makioka Sisters (1983, 140 min.).  Kon Ichikawa’s lyrical adaptation of Junichiro Tanizaki’s novel follows four sisters through the cycle of seasons in the late 1930s.  The elder two are married, but the passionate youngest must wait for the reluctant third to wed.  Their family is in the kimono business, but war is on the horizon, and tradition is about to give way to modernity.  This graceful study of changing times and fading customs is rendered in vivid and evocative color.

Sunday, January 29, 1:30 pmGate of Hell (1953, 89 min.)  Teinosuke Kinugasa directs one of the first color films from Japan, winner of Academy Awards for best foreign film and best costume design.  This feast for the eyes, set amidst dynastic conflict in twelfth-century Japan, portrays the passion of an imperial warrior for a married lady-in-waiting.  The acting will seem stylized to Western eyes, but the lavish pageantry sweeps the viewer along, and the colors are a wonder to behold.

Sunday, February 5, 1:30 pmKwaidan (1965, 183 min.)  Masaki Kobayashi adapts four ghost stories collected by Lafcadio Hearn in the 19th century, with a fine eye for the colors and themes of that era’s printmaking masters.  From the credit sequence images of ink in solution throughout the surreal settings of four separate period folktales, Kobayashi delivers a rapturous immersion in the colors of the Floating World.  This version restores one of the haunting stories cut from the initial American release.

Sunday, February 26, 1:30 pmEquinox Flower (1958, 118 min.)  Late in his career, the superlative Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu turns to color for the first time, and creates a film in which color -- red in particular -- is a prime character in its own right.  As always with Ozu, the story is about a father dealing with the marriage of his daughter, and of the confrontation of family and tradition with a changing society, which as always yields to the profound and humorous harmony of the director’s vision.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Final word on 2015

Here I do my traditional sort of the best-reviewed films of the year, running them down in roughly my order of preference, with some clustering by type or subject.   In parenthesis, I offer comparison to the consensus calculated by the top Metacritic scores of 2015 (note how this differs from the critical polls I cite in individual reviews).  As you can see, my viewing is extensive but selective.  I don’t expect to survey so many of the “Top 100” in future years, as I return to programming film series for the Clark, and turn more retrospective in my reviews here, concentrating on career summaries of selected directors and performers.  Use search box at top left of page to find my reviews of these films, along with links to Metacritic overview and Netflix availability.

EXHORTATIONS (I urge you to see these):

Spotlight (#4)
Carol (#1)
45 Hours (#2)
Anomalisa (#7)
Inside Out (#3)
Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (#9)
The Big Short (#55)
Room (#24)

RECOMMENDATIONS (I advise you to see these):

Brooklyn (#19)
Clouds of Sils Maria (#83)
Second Mother (#41)
Ex Machina (#87)
The End of the Tour (#42)
Love & Mercy (#65)
Mississippi Grind (#92)
Grandma (#100)
Results
Diary of a Teenage Girl (#20)
Girlhood (#26)
Something Anything
Tangerine (#25)
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (#10)
La Sapienza
Human Capital
Timbuktu (#6)
Phoenix (#16)
Blind (#36)
James White (#37)
Mustang (#49)
Breathe (#86)
Coming Home (#50)
Theeb (#66)
Eden (#47)
’71 (#32)
Creed (#44)
Bridge of Spies (#51)
Black Mass
Testament of Youth
Ricki & the Flash
I’ll See You in My Dreams
While We’re Young
Z for Zachariah
Pawn Sacrifice

APPRECIATIONS (you might find something to like in here):

Steve Jobs (#45)
Sicario (#54)
The Martian (#62)
Experimenter (#48)
About Elly
White God (#70)
Chi-Raq
Jimmy’s Hall
Duke of Burgundy (#22)
The Gift (#90)
Queen of Earth (#84)
Beloved Sisters
Suffragette
Far from the Madding Crowd
Cinderella
Paddington (#91)
Trumbo
Learning to Drive
Trainwreck
Mistress America
Heaven Knows What
Welcome to Me
I Smile Back
Gangs of Wasseypur (#14)
Arabian Nights (#40)

EQUIVOCATIONS (you’re on your own with these):

The Forbidden Room (#35)
Mad Max: Fury Road (#15)
The Assassin (#71)
Son of Saul (#12)
It Follows (#38)
Hard to Be a God (#11)
Horse Money (#28)