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)
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)
Jimmy’s Hall
Duke of Burgundy (#22)
The Gift (#90)
Queen of Earth (#84)
Beloved Sisters
Far from the Madding Crowd
Paddington (#91)
Learning to Drive
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)

Friday, September 02, 2016

"In Jackson Heights" & best of rest

Frederick Wiseman is a hero of mine, and convinces me that it could be worthwhile to live to the age of 85, if one were able to continue to turn out work of the caliber of In Jackson Heights (MC-81, FC #13, NFX).  His latest documentary has all the virtues of the institutional studies that he has been turning out for decades, but his latest is very much of the moment, embodying both antithesis and antidote to Trumpism.  Jackson Heights is a diverse multi-ethnic neighborhood in Queens, welcoming to communities marginalized elsewhere -- immigrants from Latin America and Asia, Muslims and Jews, children and seniors, LGBT people of all rainbow stripes.  In his trademark style -- running in excess of three hours, and eschewing narration, talking-head interviews, on-screen text, or any other explanatory material beyond editorial selection and sequencing – he paints a portrait of a place, and the manifold faces and stories that populate it.  From farmers markets to halal butchers, from madrasas to support groups of every sort, from beauty shops to discos, from politicians to musicians, from classes for cabdrivers to meetings of small business owners – in each venue, articulate spokespeople adumbrate themes, and evocative images drive them home.  Ominously, one undercurrent is the threat to diversity from gentrification.  Like all Wiseman’s films, this is a crowded canvas of human endeavor.

I’m still on my mad quest to see the Top 100 films of 2015, as ranked by Metacritic score, and here are the last few documentaries on the list, most available on Netflix streaming.  Dreamcatcher (MC-86, NFX) is reminiscent of The Interrupters in several ways, including the Chicago setting.  Kim Longinotto is not quite the filmmaker that Steve James is, despite her Sundance award, and the focus is narrower, but in both films reformed denizens of the mean streets go back out there to help young people avoid the same mistakes they made.  In this one prostitution, and in the other gang violence.  For 25 years on the job, Brenda was Breezy, but now she’s on mission to rescue girls from the life.  She visits schools and support groups, and drives around in the Dreamcatcher van, handing out condoms and advice to streetwalkers.  A dynamo, though damaged herself, she is profligate with her helping hand.  The subject is grim, and the lives depicted burdened with multiple dysfunction, but Brenda is a vital force and her story is inspiring, a testament to sisterhood and survival.

I do not understand the critical acclaim for Western (MC-89, NFX), which seemed pedestrian to me.  Its angle on vexed border issues between the U.S. and Mexico is different from Cartel Land, but not as fully realized.  This film from Bill and Turner Ross is about two sister cities, on either side of the Rio Grande, that have always had intimate relations, now threatened by storms from south and north, with drug cartel violence on one side and Washington’s mania for wall-building on the other.  OK, but unremarkable in my view. 

On the other hand, I found the similar ranking of Democrats (MC-89, NFX) quite justified, more engaging than a film about Zimbabwean politics has any right to be.  As with so many documentaries, Camilla Nielsson’s film is based on astounding access.  When the international community took issue with the tainted reelection of Robert Mugabe, the dictatorial president since independence in 1980, the two contesting parties agreed to cooperate on the process of creating a new constitution, first by outreach to the people themselves, and then by protracted negotiation.  We follow the personable lead negotiators for both sides through the three-year process, though Mugabe’s retention of power seems preordained.  Sad to say, but the Zimbabwean experience casts an unflattering light on America’s current political travail.

Laurie Anderson’s cinematic personal essay Heart of a Dog (MC-84, NFX, HBO) may blow your mind or may bore you to tears.  Results will definitely vary.  I liked it, but even at 75 minutes found some parts slow going -- certainly a many-layered effort, visually, musically, intellectually, narratively.  It’s largely a meditation on death, of her beloved rat terrier Lolabelle, of her unloving mother, and implicitly of her recently-deceased husband Lou Reed.  It mixes her narration -- including shout-outs to Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead – with her music, and various sorts of animation and found footage, including her as a child.  Making frequent use of superimposition, through raindrops or snowflakes, as well as friezes of nature, the film is often witty and sometimes woo-woo.  It makes me more eager to see the part she will play in the imminent expansion of MassMoCA.

One well-received film that I liked even better than the critical consensus was Hitchcock/Truffaut (MC-79, NFX, HBO), though I have to confess partiality, on the grounds that Truffaut is my favorite director, the book of interviews being celebrated has long had a treasured place on my shelf, and the director of the documentary, Kent Jones, is a Pittsfield native and a friendly acquaintance of mine.  But there’s no denying that the film is very well put-together, so if the subject has any interest for you, I strongly recommend it.  Kent’s choice of Hitchcock films to analyze is different from my own list of favorites, but his visual analyses, guided by the masters’ own conversation, are always acute and informative.

There’s one more recent documentary that I should mention before it disappears from view.  She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (MC-80, NFX) is a memorable group portrait of second-wave feminists from the late Sixties on.  Mary Dore’s film shows, then and now, the collective that created Our Bodies, Ourselves; womanist writers, scholars, and critics; female Black Panthers and Young Lords; and others who comprised the woman’s liberation movement.  The historic footage is evocative of what I think of as my era, and the recent interviews fascinating as a record of the passage of time.

Oops, one more worthy doc I forgot was Twinsters (MC-81, NFX), about Korean twins separated at birth, growing up in LA and in France respectively, who happen to meet and connect through social media.  The girls are energetic and endearing, and so is the film, perhaps not as lightweight as it seems.

Okay, this is the last one for now, I promise.  I’ve had Levitated Mass (2014, MC-82, NFX) in my Netflix queue for some time, but a profile of Michael Heizer in the 8/29/16 New Yorker made me move it up, and then I saw that its streaming availability was ending soon, so I watched it immediately and was glad to do so.  Doug Pray’s film about the installation of the eponymous work of art at LACMA works on many levels, and I’ll look for the opportunity to show it at the Clark sometime.  The work was a 340-ton boulder that made a 100-mile, 10-night journey through 22 communities, from Riverside quarry to downtown LA, to rest atop a long concrete trench alongside the museum.  The picture takes in origin and destination, and most especially the journey itself, which became a public sensation.

I conclude with my own ranking of the best documentaries from the past year, compared in parenthesis to its MetacriticTop 100 ranking of all 2015 films(My similar listing of fiction films will be posted soon, and you can find my review, and further links for each film, by pasting title into search box at top of this page.)

DOCUMENDATIONS for 2015 (in rough order of my preference):

In Jackson Heights (#59)
Amy (#27)
Iris (#67)
Seymour: An Introduction (#34)
Hitchcock/Truffaut (#77)
Look of Silence (#8)
Black Panthers (#75)
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry
Dreamcatcher (#25)
Salt of the Earth (#31)
Cartel Land
Democrats  (#18)
Winter on Fire (#60)
Finders Keepers (#72)
Little White Lie
How to Dance in Ohio
Twinsters (#53)
Heart of a Dog (#29)
Best of Enemies (#94)
Listen to Me Marlon (#21)
Going Clear (#61)
Western (#17)

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 get into the spirit of this film, which is even weirder than usual.  The fascinating and explanatory backstory to 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 more 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.