Thursday, December 20, 2018

Merrily down the stream

I was an early adopter of the DVD-by-mail service of Netflix, signing up in June 2000, and maintaining my subscription without break to this very day, when few people watch DVDs anymore and indeed the company itself has orphaned its DVD division, to concentrate on streaming and original content.

As a cable TV subscriber, I was for a number of years happy with DirecTV satellite service with TiVo recorder, especially to follow my beloved Cleveland Indians with MLB Extra Innings, but became an early cord-cutter when streaming options began to supplement DVDs.  The problem there was an inadequate DSL internet connection, which frequently made watching a frustrating experience.

Last year, after four decades in this house, we finally got a cable company to extend the connection to our rural location, and signed up for a package that included cable TV and broadband internet.  The improvement in streaming was enhanced when we got a simple and economical Roku system.  From that moment, I was eager to cut the cable cord again, with news, sports, and Colbert the only hold-ups.  Now I’ve made the break and gone exclusively to a variety of streaming services, and this blog will reflect that change.

The “long tail” that offered so much choice in the earlier days of DVD has atrophied and fallen off, and now we are left mostly with the choices presented by various streaming services.  So instead of DVDs or cable broadcasts, I will be relying on Netflix, Amazon, PBS Passport, Hulu, YouTube, and other streaming services to deliver my daily viewing.  And as I comment on a film or show, I’ll link to the service through which I watched it.

Not willing to give up my long-term source of DVDs by mail altogether, I’ve cut back to one disk at a time. Once my subscription was for eight at a time, but that was when Netflix had only one warehouse, out on the west coast, so turnaround was up to a week. 

Not altogether coincidentally, I won’t persist in my attempt of recent years to see all the best-reviewed films of the year just past (per Metacritic and other year-end compilations).  I will pre-select more according to my specific interests, and to themes offered by the respective channels.

Here are a few tv series and films that have caught (and held) my eye over the past several months, organized by streaming channel or other provider.  I’m going to power through with the most cursory of comments, just to feel current once again. 

Netflix still leads the list of streaming services, despite changing their focus from depth of “backlist” or reach of coverage to their own original programming, much of it very well done.  (Other services followed suit, and the proliferation of them compensates for the loss in comprehensiveness.) 

As an example, I was already a fan of GLOW (MC-85, NFX), and recommended its first season, but it only got better in its second.  The whole concept of 1980s female wrestling may come across as T&A exploitation, but the creators of this series are almost all women, except for the Marc Maron character who is the impresario and nominal director of the show within a show.  As in that show, the patriarchy is supplanted by a feminist (or at least female) collective.  Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin lead a diverse and talented cast.  Offering a wealth of women’s stories and portrayals, this show has more staying power than Orange is the New Black, in my opinion.

While eagerly awaiting another season of Fleabag from Phoebe Waller-Bridge, I caught up with her other series from 2016, Crashing (NFX), which certainly features her same brand of cringe humor, fearless and clueless, scathing yet humane, bordering-on-disgusting-but-nonetheless-hilarious.  This show is about a group of young people who get to crash in an abandoned hospital - as “guardians” until it is torn down - and makes for a diverting take on the typical Friends template. 

If you only know Hugh Bonneville as the pompous papa of Downton Abbey, you’re in for a treat with two series that show off his comic chops.  W1A (NFX) is the follow-up to Twenty Twelve, but it’s the better show and easier to see.  In each Bonneville plays the same character, Ian Fletcher, as the BBC’s “Head of Values” after serving as “Head of Deliverance” for the 2012 London Olympics.  In the distinguished tradition of dysfunctional British workplaces, from The Office to The Thick of It and beyond, this mockumentary brings us inside the modern organization to observe the (lack of) work done by its denizens.  It was one thing for the BBC to parody preparations for the Olympics, but a delicious layer of self-parody is added in W1A (postal code for BBC headquarters).  Each of the characters has catchphrases that they repeat endlessly, as bureaucratic cover for being clueless or devious.  The dialogue is inventively repetitious, and all the players have the expressiveness and timing to make the phrases, while absolutely predictable, always fresh and frequently surprising.  I don’t remember any show that made me giggle so continuously.

W1A makes fun of the BBC’s reliance on its flagship success, The Great British Bake Off, which was tasty to me, because I have quite unexpectedly become a devoted fan of The Great British Baking Show (NFX), as it’s known in the U.S.  Just as the BBC lost GBBO to a commercial network, with a change of cast, the latest seasons now appear on Netflix instead of PBS, where I watched most of the previous seasons.  I miss Mary Berry and the two original comedians, but the charm of the show still resides in the characters and travails of the contestants.  This is the only food prep reality show that I have ever watched, and I don’t intend to watch another, but I’m pretty well hooked on this one, for its cross-section of British character types.

As Netflix original series go, I have to register disappointment at the sequel to The Staircase (MC-92, NFX), brought back largely to cash in on the true crime serial craze.  I was riveted by the first ten episodes sometime back, but finally made up my mind of the convicted murderer’s actual guilt.  And these extra three episodes, as he is released from prison on a technicality and has to decide whether to take a plea or be subject to retrial, as far as I was concerned, just gave a narcissistic psychopath the chance to perform for the camera.  It was especially annoying because that difficult choice was exactly what was offered so poignantly to the hero of Rectify, one of my all-time favorite tv series.

On the other hand, Netflix’s money was very well spent with Tamara Jenkins’ film Private Life (MC-83, NFX), starring Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as an artsy Lower Manhattan fortysomething couple trying to have a child “by any means necessary.”  Funny and true, at human scale, with generous acceptance of the characters and their foibles, this film is a delight.  Fertility treatments and adoption interviews consume much of the couple’s time and energy, with high hopes and crushing disappointments.  Hahn and Giamatti are outstanding as the neurotic and dyspeptic pair, who are amusing and affecting by turns.  Kayli Carter offers welcome support as the sort-of-niece who moves in with them and becomes enmeshed with their baby-making hopes and schemes.  This is independent filmmaking at its best, and Netflix deserves credit for throwing a bit of its money in this direction.

To a lesser degree, the same might be said of The Land of Steady Habits (MC-71, NFX), but while Tamara Jenkins outdoes herself, Nicole Holofcener does not come up to her very estimable best.  The title connotes suburban Connecticut, where Ben Mendelson has dropped out of the whole commuter-consumer lifestyle.  The best thing in this Cheever-esque film is his against-type casting.  His characters usually convey a sense of underlying menace or madness, but here he is by turns endearingly and infuriatingly bemused and befuddled by the new life he’s trying to find.  Edie Falco is his ex-wife, and Connie Britton is a potential new girlfriend.  (But where is Catherine Keener, Holofcener’s mainstay, in this man-centered dramedy?)

I doubt the Coen brothers were dependent on Netflix to back The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (MC-79, NFX), but I bet they relished not having to worry about box office gross, while still being in line for film awards recognition.  Though not always attracted to their gleeful mayhem or sardonic (if not nihilist) worldview, I always have to tip my cap to their mastery of filmmaking and witty approach to genre.  This six-part deconstruction of the Hollywood Western is shot and acted exceedingly well, beautifully designed and cannily directed, if a little off-putting in gore, and somewhat hollow at the core.  The gunslinger, the rustler, the traveling thespian, the gold panner, the gingham girl on the Oregon trail (an outstanding Zoey Kazan), the odd assortment of characters on a stagecoach – you’ve seen them all before, but given new life by the literate and visually acute style of Joel and Ethan Coen.

Netflix also unearths some otherwise hidden independent films like Krisha (MC-86, NFX), which won some festival awards in 2016, then disappeared from view.  Trey Edward Shults raised money on Kickstarter to shoot this film, his first feature, in nine days at his mother’s home in Texas, cast mostly with family and friends – but there is nothing amateurish about it.  It’s a typical story of family dysfunction at Thanksgiving, but with a granular particularity that sets it apart.  It plays almost like a real-life horror film, but clearly went to school on John Cassavettes’ A Woman Under the Influence.  The title character, as performed by Shults’ aunt Krisha Fairchild, is an aging hippie with a history of addiction, trying to reconnect with her estranged family.  His mother is her sister, in the film as in real life, and their mother also appears as the grandmother, while he himself plays Krisha’s son, who wants nothing to do with the mother who abandoned him.  It sounds like a prescription for embarrassment all round, but unfolds like an accident pile-up in slow-mo, from which you can’t look away. 

[Click through for further choices from Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and other streaming services]

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Tough to be a teen

While I continue to add films to a forthcoming grab-bag review, I just watched two standouts that make a distinctive pair, so I highlight them here.  They each feature a motherless kid, a girl and a boy at opposite ends of the country and circumstance, but equally emblematic of the difficulties of growing up in today’s America.

Two people lift Eighth Grade (MC-89, NFX) way, way above the normal run of teen comedies, writer-director Bo Burnham and star-in-the-making Elsie Fisher.  The former is a 27-year-old YouTube performer and stand-up comic who delivers an amazingly assured film debut.  The latter is a genuine 14-year-old, just out of middle school, who is awkward and endearing and utterly convincing.  He combines the eternal verities of excruciating adolescence with the up-to-date stresses of ubiquitous smartphones and social media.  She combines closed-in shyness with out-there bravado, and emerging beauty with residual gawkiness, as only a person truly in the throes of that particular transition could.  She’s both tongue-tied and articulate, full of understanding and without a clue.  Josh Hamilton deserves a shout-out as her too, too sympathetic dad.  Overall, this winning film offers a perfect mix of the amusing, the touching, and the cringe-inducing.

Lean on Pete (MC-80, AMZ) is the story of the close relationship between a 15-year-old boy and the eponymous horse, but it’s hardly a heart-warming tale – well-shot and well-acted, but possibly too sad to bear.  Again the natural rapport between director and teen actor is crucial to the film’s success, in this case Andrew Haigh (45 Years) and Charlie Plummer.  The boy follows his ne’er-do-well father from job to job around the Northwest (WY to WA to OR), but finds a connection when they move close to a race track and he starts to work for a shady trainer played by Steve Buscemi, with Chloe Sevigny as a sympathetic but wised-up jockey.  But the boy’s supports are removed one by one, till he finds himself alone in the desert with his beloved horse, hoping to reach an oasis of care.  The film becomes a grim picaresque of a desolate landscape, both natural and social, marked by flashes of beauty and empathy, as well as calamity.  Harsh as it is, this film has heart.

P.S.  Now I have to add another superb film that falls under this rubric.  Leave No Trace (MC-88, NFX) is writer-director Debra Granik’s follow-up to Winter’s Bone, and is likely to launch the career of magnetic teen actress Thomasin Mackenzie, much as the earlier film did for Jennifer Lawrence.  I don’t remember anyone who could do so much with the quiver of her chin, and check out her native New Zealand accent in interviews.  She most believably plays the young teen daughter of the always-compelling Ben Foster, a war vet with PTSD, who has turned survivalist in the most basic sense.  The two of them live in a park near Portland OR, not just off the grid but way beyond it.  Foraging outdoors all day, and sleeping together in a small tent, they share a bond that is not at all creepy, but none the less disturbing.  Park rangers and child services intervene and set them up in a house on a horse and Christmas tree farm.  Too much civilization for the dad, so they head out for the territory, for (mis)adventures that are deep and scary, but not horrific.  While the father is determined to leave no trace, the daughter is at an age when she begins to want to make a mark on the world, and vice versa.  Her interactions with other people and animals are poignant with longing for connection, though her love for her father is pure and persistent.  We suffer with her in the push and pull of emotions.  And we rejoice in the maturity of her choices.  Lovely and thought-provoking.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Restless on the Rez

Take note of this name, and look for her films – Chloé Zhao.  She grew up in Beijing, but was educated in the West, high school in London and LA, then Mt. Holyoke College and NYU film school.  But her restless cosmopolitan energy found its focus on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, where she has made two films in a unique blend of documentary and narrative.  I went into The Rider (MC-92, NFX) not knowing what to expect, based strictly on a Metacritic rating that placed it among the best films of 2018 to date.  Not knowing what to expect is the best way to approach the film, as you have to continuously interrogate what you are seeing.  Is this real?  How did they get that shot?  What is intimate access, and what is staging?  So I recommend watching the DVD extras after the film, for some answers and orientation.  I’m not going to give anything away, except to say that Brady Jandreau plays (superbly) Brady Blackburn, who like him has sustained a head injury while rodeo riding.  His sister and father play his sister and father, in a seamless blend of script and improvisation.  Brady is a master of training wild horses, and his duets with various equines are masterpieces of inter-species communication, reminiscent of the great horse-whisperer documentary Buck.  Ms. Zhao and her film-school-classmate cinematographer Joshua James Richards have a marvelous feel for landscape and light, mixing light and dark in mood as well.  A latter-day cowboy story set in Western twilight, The Rider is deeply beautiful, deeply truthful, and deeply affecting. 

The same crew in the same setting, with the same method and some of the same performers, earlier made Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2016, MC-63, NFX), which made for a promising debut, but The Rider is the complete fulfillment of that promise.

Another late addition, falling under this rubric, is Wind River (MC-73, NFX), set on the Wyoming reservation of the title.  After success with the screenplays of Sicario and Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan gets to direct his own script for the first time, and does a decent job, aided by a superlative performance from Jeremy Renner, and good support all round.  But that’s the problem right there, why does a film set on a Native American reservation center on a white man?  And on the green FBI agent played rather implausibly by Elizabeth Olsen?  And then there’s my confirmed distaste for any more movies involving the rape and murder of young women.  But Renner (along with the snowy high-country landscapes) makes the film continuously watchable; he’s a wildlife service hunter who’s enlisted to help solve human rather than lupine predation.  Some aspects of the sociology of the rez come through, but the Tarantino-like thriller tropes distract rather than enhance.


To write about film, or not to write about film?  That is the question.  Or the one I’m asking myself right now.  After a half-year of preoccupation with family health matters, I am deciding which writing projects to revive.  I’m going to start by writing up a few eminently recommendable recent films, which are easy to praise, and then I’ll do a lengthy but cursory round-up of what I’ve been watching lately, and see if that seems to have any point.  Feel free to weigh in with comments.

First Reformed (MC-85, NFX) represents committed work by all involved, and is intensely watchable, if dark and disturbing.  It’s somehow fitting that Paul Schrader’s career-summing mash-up of Bresson and Bergman is being marketed as a horror film, given the previews on the DVD.  This is Taxi Driver meets Last Temptation of Christ (two of the films Schrader wrote for Scorsese), plus Diary of a Country Priest meets Winter Light.  It’s bleak and beautiful, stark and thought-provoking.  Ethan Hawke’s performance truly makes the film; I’m fully ready to anoint him as the best American actor of his generation, certainly with the greatest filmography.  He’s the pastor of a small historic church in upstate New York; from a line of ministers, his faith has been shaken by the death of a son and subsequent divorce from his wife.  He’s in bad shape, physically and spiritually.  Amanda Seyfried is a young pregnant wife who comes to him for help and guidance.  (That she is named Mary is indicative of Schrader’s willingness to be obvious, as well as subtle and restrained.)  He uses the borrowed set-up to make trenchant comments on contemporary themes, from megachurches to environmental catastrophe to domestic terrorism, while mastering the interiority of a tortured soul.  Appropriate to both his models and the constriction of his Dutch Calvinist upbringing, Schrader confines his film to an old-fashioned aspect ratio, with a stationary camera except for a few bravura moves in what might be taken as fantasy sequences, which will tend to mollify or alienate various viewers.  Not to everyone’s taste, this is a film that is both derivative and very much its own thing.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Last word on 2017

At last, I am able to comment on the most recent Oscar winner for best foreign film.  Netflix never even listed it on DVD or streaming, but I finally tracked it down on Starz.  And indeed, A Fantastic Woman (MC-86, Starz) is pretty fantastic, especially as played by transgender actress Daniela Vega.  She’s a singer and waitress in Santiago, Chile, who has just moved in with her lover, an older man who has left a wife and children behind.  On their night of celebration, he dies and she must deal with the consequences, finding a way to grieve while dealing with his aggrieved family, and with others who take her identity as a grievance.  Sebastian Lelio previously directed the wonderful Gloria, which he has remade in English with Julianne Moore, and also Disobedience, so he has established himself as a female-oriented filmmaker worth watching.  Combining fantastical moments with hard-eyed realism about human interaction, the film is continuously engrossing and surprising, and worthy of the award.

Also on Starz, I caught up with Loveless (MC-86, Starz).  There’s no denying that Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev is a downer, but the question is, what makes his films so compelling?  His is a world where the sun never shines, and all souls are tortured.  It’s Putin’s Russia, and from TVs we hear the official take on the war in Ukraine, but all these characters are far removed from political considerations.  None can see past their own pain.  There’s the divorcing couple, and most pathetically, their 12-year-old son.  When the boy disappears, the parents have to interact with each other, and with various officials and volunteers searching for him.  It’s all long, slow, and lugubrious when not scabrous.  The key is the film’s austerity, modesty, and patience, supported by universal empathy (and terrific acting across the cast).  There’s quiet beauty in many shots, and the minimalist music is maximally effective.  And oh yes, some pretty hot sex scenes, if you’re brave enough to watch the rest.  One critic (Peter Bradshaw) nailed the film’s quality by describing its “hypnotic intensity and unbearable ambiguity.”

On the other hand, Netflix streaming is the only way to see the Hungarian film On Body and Soul (MC-77, NFX), which is not an easy watch, but worth it for the award-winning work of two women, writer-director Ildiko Enyedi and lead actress Alexandra Bobely.  The latter plays a government inspector in a slaughterhouse, a pale fragile blond (I thought of Yvette Mimieux, if you can remember her).  Beyond shy, she’s clearly on the autism spectrum, and lives a bare life of managed scripts.  The boss of the place has his own social deficits, but reaches out to her, only to be rebuffed, until it is discovered that they are having literally the very same dreams – of the gentle relationship between a stag and a doe in a bucolic sylvan setting (shot beautifully, as in the finest of nature documentaries).  This film is a tough sell at best, starting with the slaughterhouse scenes, but develops a surprising power and poignancy. 

In The Insult (MC-72, NFX, AMZ), directed by Ziad Doueiri, a minor Beirut street encounter, between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee, escalates into continued altercation and eventual court cases, where the extent of sectarian atrocities and animosities that linger from Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s are brought into evidence.  I’ve tried to know as little as I could manage about Middle East conflicts during my lifetime, but this film was instructive in showing how Beirut went from cosmopolitan Mediterranean enclave to perpetual warzone, which prefigures Iraq, Syria, and all the rest.  It was also timely in reminding an American viewer of the extent of sectarian atrocities and animosities that linger from our Civil War in the 1860s.  A somewhat programmatic narrative is given depth by excellent performances across the board.

There were aspects of The Square (MC-73, NFX) that kept me watching long past the time when I knew I was not going to like it, primarily the film’s setting in an art museum in Stockholm, but by the end, I was resentful and wanted those two and a half hours of my life back.  Ruben Ostland’s film is provocative but inconsequential; it wants to make you uncomfortable, and does.  Occasionally comic in its satire but mostly cringe-worthy, it’s as smug and self-congratulatory as the people and situations it depicts, perfect for a Palme d’Or at Cannes.

I won’t go so far as to say the Swiss film The Divine Order (MC-67, NFX, AMZ) should have received a nomination, but I liked it more than most of those that did.  A polemical but sweet comedy about the coming of women’s suffrage to Switzerland (in 1971!), the film is obvious but rather endearing.  In a conservative village where no one will admit to favoring the vote for women, one housewife experiences an awakening, which becomes a movement that brings the tide of liberation to this backwater.  Somehow the film is simultaneously quaint and timely.

I mention Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune (MC-60, Hulu), about a houseful of characters in 1970s Copenhagen, for two reasons only:  to praise the central performance of Trine Dyrholm, and to point you in the direction of an infinitely superior film in the same vein, Lukas Moodysson’s Together (NFX, AMZ).

Though The Shape of Water made a bigger splash, the best performance of the year by Oscar-nominee Sally Hawkins was delivered in Maudie (MC-65, NFX), Aisling Walsh’s adaptation from the life of Canadian outsider artist Maud Lewis.  Afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis, Maud was virtually crippled, and mentally limited but shrewd.  Thrown out of her family home, she desperately attaches herself as housekeeper to an impoverished fishmonger played by Ethan Hawke, who is an even more limited product of an orphanage.  The house is so tiny that they have no choice but to sleep in the same bed, and eventually to marry.  The movie may have turned their lives into more of an unlikely love story than it was, but Hawkins and Hawke sell it convincingly, if inarticulately.  The husband’s harshness melts some when Maudie’s paintings start to bring in a little money, and then more as their house becomes a Nova Scotia tourist attraction (it now resides in a museum).  The seasons turn beautifully through the middle decades of the 20th century, as Maudie remains simply devoted to her painting and her man, the physical and emotional pain overcome by passion for her art.  I would show this at the Clark if I were still programming films there, maybe paired with another favorite of mine, Seraphine.

Last Flag Flying (MC-65, NFX, AMZ) is another film I single out as better than its general reputation.  Many critics seemed to resent Richard Linklater’s decades-later “sequel” to Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail, but I never shared that reverence for the original.  I would watch the Ashby again, if it were available, but it’s not really a prerequisite to the Linklater.  In the gap between Vietnam and Iraq, Jack Nicholson has morphed into Bryan Cranston, as filthy motor-mouthed iconoclast, now a drunken bar owner.  Laurence Fishburne has gone from hellraiser to preacher man, and Steve Carell is the gentle soul who served his time in the brig, only to lose his wife to cancer and his son to a Baghdad assassin.  He gathers the Marine buddies he hasn’t seen for thirty years, to accompany him to his son’s burial at Arlington.  Revelations lead to another road trip for the trio, as they re-forge their earlier comradeship.  Linklater’s relaxed and thoughtful direction gives the actors plenty of space to work out their characters, mixing the comic and the tragic, while commenting on America’s recent wars, those who serve and those who send them on fraudulent missions.

Finally viewed, Columbus (MC-89, Hulu) bumped the previous film from my top ten list for 2017.  In direction and themes, acting and setting, this debut film from Korean auteur Kogonada stands out and stands above.  It’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen about architecture, and one of the most architectonic in its own right.  You might find the film static and eccentric in its pacing and framing, but unlike so many “art” films, the elements of the human comedy come through clearly.  Ozu is a clear inspiration.  The director withholds and diverts attention, but does not frustrate.  The humanity of the film is immensely enhanced by the performance of Haley Lu Richardson as an extremely bright girl just out of high school, who lacks the finances and family stability to go away to college (reminiscent of Lady Bird).  So, stuck in her hometown of Columbus, Indiana (coincidentally, where Mike Pence is from), she forms an attachment to the architecture of this surprising mecca of mid-century modern architecture (the Saarinens et al.)  She works in the striking public library, but dreams of giving tours around the town’s great buildings.  She meets a Korean man – whose father is an architectural scholar, in town to give a lecture, where he suffers a stroke and now languishes in the hospital between life and death – and they bond over buildings.  John Cho is the son, and Parker Posey is the father’s protégé and associate.  Wistful, amusing, thoughtful, this film is a poem of blood and spirit, concrete and glass.

Molly’s Game (MC-71, NFX) was more engaging than a film about poker has any right to be.  Aaron Sorkin directs one of his scripts for the first time, and the cutting is as quick as the dialogue.  Jessica Chastain is quite marvelous as the title character, and Idris Elba brilliant as her lawyer.  Her career as competitive skier short-circuited by a serious mishap on the slopes, Molly Bloom deferred law school and went to LA, where she went from cocktail waitress to hostess of a high-stakes poker game, eventually running the whole show, and then moving it to NYC, where she ran afoul of various mobs, including the Feds.  This a crime story that turns on matters of honor and pride, rather than of guilt or innocence.  Maybe the first-person narration, adapted from Bloom’s own story, is a little too insistent, and maybe the film drags past the two-hour point and would have been well-advised to severely cut Kevin Costner’s role as Molly’s father – nonetheless I wouldn’t fold on it.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (MC-65, NFX) depends a lot on the appeal of Annette Bening, and the woman she plays, the film noir star Gloria Graham, both of whom interest me but may not interest you.  It’s the story of Graham’s last years, told through the memoir of her young lover, played well by Jamie Bell.  The gender reversal from the usual May-December romance is refreshing, and Paul McGuigan’s direction is effective, if a bit tricky.  I rather liked this romantic weepie with a hard edge, but it’s far from a must-see, unless you’re a particular admirer of Ms. Bening.

To me, Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (MC-75, NFX) was a very mixed bag.  Joseph Cedar is an Israeli writer-director who made a point of casting his American Jewish characters against type.  Richard Gere transforms himself from WASP Master of the Universe into a Manhattan macher as shlub, a low-rent Madoff or Michael Cohen.  He’s well-dressed enough, but apparently homeless as well as officeless, walking the streets and taking refuge in libraries or coffee shops, always plugged into his phone, trying to make deals out of no tangible assets, except his ability to ingratiate and fabricate.  Michael Sheen is his nephew, Steve Buscemi is rather hilariously a rabbi, and Charlotte Gainsbourg is a corruption investigator.  Gere lucks out with a connection to an Israeli politician, who becomes an unlikely Prime Minister, and favors get exchanged, until he gets caught in a web of promises he can’t keep.  Cedar’s film is funny and sad, but tries too hard for an antic tone, while remaining serious, with a conclusion more wishful than convincing.

[Click through for more reviews and my tardy Top Ten of 2017]

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Ex Libris, et cetera

Given filmmaker and subject, there was little chance I wasn’t going to love Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (MC-91, NFX).  Predictably, I fell hard.  Frederick Wiseman is the unchallenged master of the institutional documentary, and in my view (and perhaps Wiseman’s) the library is the most representative institution of a democracy.  New York, the Public, the Library – all subjects dear to his heart, and to mine.  This is unquestionably my pick for Best Documentary of 2017, though I don’t believe any of Wiseman’s films have ever been nominated, even if he did receive an honorary Oscar in 2016 (check out his puckish acceptance speech).  He’s the ultimate fly on the wall, and lets scenes unfold at length without explication, and without any editorial intervention beyond shot selection, juxtaposition, and pacing.  His method is unvarying; his subjects diverse, but similar in the complexity of interlocking parts; the fascination of watching what he wants to show us is unfailing.  I confess to almost never viewing a three-hour-plus Wiseman film all in one sitting, not because I am ever bored, but rather because I am full up, sated for the time being, needing time to digest, and to refresh my attention.  Much of the film is devoted to the iconic building at 5th and 42nd, with the lions out front and Bryant Park out back, but many outlying and specialized branches are visited, including the Bronx Library Center designed by the firm of my architect friend William Stein.  You find yourself at meetings where none of the participants is identified, and at lectures where the speaker is unknown unless familiar from other contexts.  You are thrown back on your own resources of interpretation, though Wiseman is a subtle silent guide.  If you know his films, you must see the latest, but if you don’t, this would be an excellent place to start your acquaintance with one of my very favorite filmmakers.

I recently caught up with two Wiseman films that I’d never had the chance to see before:  Central Park from 1989, and Belfast, Maine from 1999.  These confirm that Wiseman’s work is all of one piece – and all of one quality, excellence – and by now his older films go beyond historical documentation to palpable time travel.  I’ve been following his career for fifty years, as a fellow Williams alum.  Too bad the availability of his films has been so limited, but there is now a representative sampling of DVDs on Netflix and streaming availability on Kanopy for cardholders of participating libraries.

The remainder of this post will be an omnium gatherum of loose ends – films or shows I’ve watched in the past year but never got around to commenting on.  But before the jump, I have to enter recommendations for a few streaming series that I’ve been absorbed in lately.

The Detectorists (BCG, NFX, Acorn) is a subtle, gentle, award-winning British comedy written and directed by Mackenzie Crook, who stars alongside Toby Jones.  The marvelous odd-couple pair spend their days in low-key bantering, out with their metal detectors crisscrossing fields in bucolic Essex, with pints at the pub afterward, and attending meetings with their strange-funny fellows at the detecting club.  This is one of those shows where the pleasures of making it – the people, the place, the material – show through.  The first two seasons stream on Netflix, but the third and apparently final season is only on Acorn (similar to Doc Martin in that respect, as well as others).

Sorry, but to describe the Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country (MC-75, NFX), I have to recall Jean Renoir’s rusty but trusty truism, “The terrible thing about life is this: everyone has his reasons.”  Directed by brothers Chapman and MacLain Way, these six-plus hours follow the fate of Rajneeshpuram, a large early-1980s commune in central Oregon.  Though extensive archival news footage shows the media sensation the “free-love cult” became, I was happy in watching the series that I did not know how the story turned out, which left me open to the twists of the tale, and free to change my mind about the central characters over and over again.  On the one hand the direction seems try-anything and somewhat intrusive, like the music, but on the other hand it lets the characters unfold through their own words and memories, as juxtaposed to ample documentation from thirty-odd years ago.  The conflict between the Rajneeshees and the townspeople led to government intervention, and all three sides maintain their sides of the story to this day.  While the guru remains an enigmatic cipher, his steel-willed personal secretary is a fascinating paradox, either visionary or psychopath, or maybe both, an Indian woman we see then and now, as ruthless young go-getter and grandmotherly humanitarian.  It’s up to the viewer to unpack truths stranger than fiction.  This is not a documentary that tells you what to think, but one that presents lots of conflicting testimony and evidence and lets you decide who and what to believe, in an odd, but often repeated, sidelight of American history.

Though Hulu scored big with The Handmaid’s Tale (which I abandoned halfway through the first season), I took their month’s free trial to watch The Looming Tower (MC-74, Hulu).  Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-winning book was the one that informed my initial understanding of Al-Qaeda and the lead-up to 9/11, and he remains a much respected journalist, so his involvement here was key for me.  The actors also drew me in – led by Jeff Daniels, Peter Sarsgaard, and Michael Stuhlbarg, though others less known perform equally well, as do name directors in several episodes.  In transition from book to screen, the emphasis shifts from the background of Islamic fundamentalism to American police procedural (or failure to proceed, given lack of cooperation between CIA and FBI), with some romantic complications added gratuitously.  Nonetheless, both stories track toward their familiar confrontation, but remain continuously involving.  The location shooting budget must have been substantial, and the intermix of documentary and drama works quite well.  I was reminded of Olivier Assayas’ outstanding Carlos trilogy.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Awards-season films

As I begin this round-up, just before the Oscar ceremony, I’ve seen only two of the nine Best Picture nominees, but this is the season when all the award candidates come to DVD in a rush, so I’ll be getting a steady diet, and updating this survey as they and other award-worthy films come to home video.

I’m going to start with the missing “tenth nominee,” namely The Florida Project (MC-92, NFX), which will certainly make my list.  Its only Oscar nom was for Willem Dafoe as Best Supporting Actor, and his performance was definitely an embellishment, but Sean Baker’s film has a lot more going on – its neophyte actors, its setting, its themes, and the humor and heart of its storytelling.   Foremost is the preternaturally poised and charming Brooklynn Prince, as the 7-year-old Moonee, who lives with her young single mother (Bria Vinaite) in the shockingly-mauve Magic Castle motel (where Dafoe is the sympathetic but overburdened caretaker) on an Orlando strip just outside Disney World, along with other “hidden homeless” parents and children.  It is literally a hand-to-mouth existence, but it is also a “magic kingdom” to Moonee and her friends, as they free-range over a tacky but kid-friendly environment, delineating both the deprivation and the delight of their enchanted existence.

There must have been something in the air, or the water, or the White House, for 2017 to welcome several films about a beleaguered nation in direst peril.  Two were nominated for Best Picture, but neither was my personal favorite on the subject of Dunkirk.  Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (MC-94, NFX) was a technical marvel (a good deal of which I missed by watching at home) with visual bravura, complex storytelling, and excellent actors, but did not in the end really satisfy me either as history or drama, more like an action flick with historical gloss.  I readily acknowledge it might have been different as a more immersive experience.

Somewhat better at the history and drama, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour (MC-75, NFX) stands or falls on Gary Oldman’s impersonation of Winston Churchill, who’s as perpetually present here as he is absent from Dunkirk.  Oldman does breathe some new life into the figurehead (as did John Lithgow in The Crown), but it still amounts to hero worship, and special pleading.  Ben Mendelsohn is good in the uncharacteristic role of King George, as are Kristen Scott Thomas as Clemmie and Lily James as the lovely typist who is our window into war room.  The film is not especially convincing or revelatory, but it is atmospheric, and suitably dark.

The Dunkirk movie I liked best was Their Finest (MC-76, NFX), which puts a frame on the event that is more humorous than super-serious, and leaks some of the hot air out of the other two.  Directed by Lone Scherfig, with an engaging lead in Gemma Arterton, and sterling support from the rest of the cast, the film follows an ambitious young woman into the film business, and into the making of a propaganda film about the Little Ships and Operation Dynamo, to serve the same purpose as Mrs. Miniver, to engage American popular support for Britain’s war effort.  After the elaborate CGI effects of Nolan and Wright, it’s a hoot to see how the movies at the time simulated the masses of men waiting on the beach at Dunkirk, by filming through a painted glass panel.  The rest of the film has a similar demystifying and humanizing effect, as a wartime rom-com.

Earlier in the year, I saw two films nominated for Best Original Screenplay.  The Oscar winner was Jordan Peele for Get Out (MC-84, NFX), though he was denied for Best Picture and Best Director, as was Daniel Kaluuya for Best Actor.  This is another film that strikes me as a good-but-not-great extended episode of Black Mirror, which is indeed where I first took note of Kaluuya.  The premise is certainly provocative, and I can see that genre trappings might have helped sell a thoughtful perspective on racism, and bring it to a wider audience.  I get the horror-show metaphor for slavery by other means, but there came a point when I tuned out on the twists of the plot.  On second viewing, I was more impressed with the witty double-meaning dialogue of the beginning, but just as put off by the blood-splattered zombie ending (though I can imagine the cheers going up among black audiences). 

Won’t have to look again at The Big Sick (MC-86, NFX), an early-year favorite that received token recognition with a screenplay nom.  This is a film that delivers all its pleasures on first viewing, and they are substantial, beginning with the script by Kumail Nanjani and Emily Gordon, firmly grounded in the truth of their actual history together.  Kumail has already endeared himself on Silicon Valley, and he is paired with the equally endearing Zoe Kazan.  Trouble is, his parents are trying to arrange his marriage to a nice Pakistani girl.  “Emily” gets sick bigly, and Kumail must interact with her parents in hospital waiting rooms.  They are Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, so the riffs are pretty funny as well as wryly truthful, as is the whole film under the direction of Michael Showalter. 

I guess I must take back all the snarky things I’ve said about Greta Gerwig.  I’ve generally found her to be an oppressively free spirit, but in the wake of Lady Bird (MC-94, NFX), her first solo effort behind the camera, I have to acknowledge her artistry.  Clearly autobiographical in spirit, if not in fact, it follows the passionate and troublesome senior year of a Catholic high school girl in Sacramento, yearning to go to New York for college, despite her family’s sketchy finances.  One of the most amazing aspects of Saoirse Ronan’s pitch perfect performance (BTW, have you ever heard her natural Irish accent?) is coming across as more Greta than Greta, without slavish imitation.  Laurie Metcalf has been justly celebrated for her role as Christine’s (aka Lady Bird’s) mother, a psych nurse working double shifts to keep the family afloat, while Tracy Letts, in a gentler role than usual, is the sympathetic but superannuated dad.  Swift, funny, clear-eyed but affectionate, well-judged in every scene, Ms. Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated directorial debut certainly ranks among the best films of the year.  How could I not love a film whose central moment appropriates one of my own key insights (or lifts it from the same place I did, wherever that was, as a fellow English/Philosophy major) – that love and attention are the same thing?

Here’s a brief detour to a film that is not in any awards discussion, but may give you a glimpse of the next Greta Gerwig, if you’re in the mood for an accessible, inoffensive Millennial rom-com.  Noël Wells writes, directs, and stars in the transparently autobiographical Mr. Roosevelt (MC-73, NFX).  She’s trying to make it as a comedian in LA, when she hears from her ex-boyfriend back in Austin that her cat is dying.  Impulsively, she flies back and finds out that not only has her cat died, but another woman has moved in with her ex.  Very much part of the Austin milieu, this is a witty and promising calling card for Ms. Wells (late of SNL and Master of None).

I’m going to enter a minority report on Call Me by Your Name (MC-93, NFX).  Luca Guadagnino’s film did not turn me on, as it did so many others.  I did not fall in love with either precocious teen Timothée Chalamet or grad student Armie Hammer, or the sensuality of a ripe Italian summer.  Nor with the former’s father and latter’s employer, archaeologist Michael Stuhlbarg (though Amira Casar is nice as the boy’s mother).  Perhaps I am a dried up old man, but I did not see this film as the critical consensus did.  I saw vacancy where many were filled with emotion.  I found the whole production slick and overblown.  Not without merit, but the film did not call my name.

Another minority report:  I fervently disliked Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (MC-88, NFX), by writer-director Martin McDonagh.  I’ve never seen so many good actors so utterly wasted; I’m not even going to list them, to protect the innocent.  Somehow Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell won Oscars for this mess, and at least in her case, an argument could be made for her performance.  As in Olive Kittredge, she makes a sympathetic character out of an angry, strong, and difficult woman, but the material never rises to anywhere near her level.  To call the tone of the film uneven does not begin to address its lack of plausibility or coherence.  Is it an unfunny comedy, an unmoving tragedy, or a limp thriller?  I didn’t believe or care about a minute of it.  Watch if you must, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

With a predilection for documentary realism, I’m not generally a fan of movies dependent on CGI, though sometimes I simply have to acknowledge the state of the art.  I, Tonya (MC-77, NFX) was most acclaimed, and justly so, for the performances of Margo Robbie as Tonya Harding, and Allison Janney, cannily cast against type as her odious mother, deliciously evil.  Director Clark Gillespie sets a breakneck pace that is impossible to sustain throughout, even when driven by well-chosen pop songs of the era, but the film is grounded in a mostly truthful script, about the self-described redneck girl determined to make it big in the prissy, princessy world of figure skating.  Especially after watching the recent winter Olympics, it was fun to revisit early ’90s competitions, and I was particularly impressed (as with the tennis in Battle of the Sexes) at the way superhero and fantasy technology has been adapted into sports movies, for more seamless verisimilitude than heretofore.  I’m sure Margot Robbie and Emma Stone are fine athletes who worked themselves into shape, but CGI turns them into convincing professionals.  Fast, funny, factual, and even insightful, I judge this film to be an 8.1.

I approached the anointed “Best Picture” with mixed feelings.  Neither creature features nor Latin American “magic realism” have ever been my thing.  But I love Sally Hawkins, and I definitely appreciated Pan’s Labyrinth, so I had an open mind toward Guillermo de Toro’s latest, The Shape of Water (MC-87, NFX).  The film also features many familiar faces (mostly welcome):  Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer, and Michael Shannon (though is he ever going to be cast against type, as a good guy?).  The unfamiliar face is the most striking, the Amazonian fish-god played by Doug Jones in a dazzling meld of make-up and CGI effects.  Our girl Sally, a mute cleaning woman in a nefarious military research facility where the creature is alternately studied and tortured, falls in love with the figure in the water.  The affair is worked out with some plausibility, at least emotionally, but I myself did not fall in love with this “beauty and the beast” fairy tale, even with its cinephiliac gloss.  So while I don’t call bullshit on the Oscar win, this film was not the best in my book.

Phantom Thread (MC-90, NFX) is another film for which I cannot work up the expected enthusiasm.  In my view, filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson looks magisterial but misguided.  He is a master of style(s), but his understanding of story and character is not congruent with mine.  I am left dazzled but befuddled.  It’s no surprise that my favorite of his films, Inherent Vice, tells someone else’s story.  In fact, he seems much like the character played here (impressively but opaquely) by Daniel Day-Lewis, a British fashion designer in the 1950s.  Both of them piece together designs that are striking and impressive, but outlandish and inhuman.  Lesley Manville is cut from the same cloth, as the sister who is the no-nonsense business and personal manager of the sensitive, odd artist.  Vicky Krieps is the waitress whom our Pygmalion plucks from obscurity to be the next in his succession of model-muses.  She is not a person to be dislodged, however, and makes unprecedented demands on the fragile genius.  Is this a love story, or a tale of mutual mania?  Don’t ask me. 

Be forewarned that I have an inherent bias toward films in which we see a linotypist setting copy – shades of my father! – after the reporters have done their work, and before the pressmen and mailers can do theirs.  Roll the presses, and you’ve won my attention and affection.  So it’s no surprise that I loved The Post (MC-83, NFX), like Spotlight and so many other newspaper films, even though I can go either way with Steven Spielberg films.  A few of his signature scenes are a touch much here, but on the whole he’s shooting a good script with masterful ease.  The astounding cast manages to match very familiar actors to historical characters in a way that offers a double layer of recognition.  Starting of course with Meryl Streep as Kay Graham and Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, but the rest of the large cast comprises a who’s who of quality cable tv stars, too many to mention here, but you’re sure to glimpse some of your favorites.  Many strands are woven through the story of the Washington Post and the Pentagon Papers, rapidly braided with plenty of historical context and highly-pointed contemporary relevance, about government lies and freedom of the press.  So of the Oscar nominees, I would have voted for The Post as Best Picture, while citing Lady Bird as Most Perfect Picture.

In the category of Best Documentary Feature, the Oscar-winner Icarus (MC-68, NFX) was a fascinating mess – too long and too scattershot – but timely and suggestive.  It starts as filmmaker Bryan Fogel takes PEDs to improve his performance as an amateur long-distance cyclist, and to unmask the failure of testing to reveal cheating.  He enlists as his guru the head of the Russian anti-doping lab, and the film takes an abrupt turn when that flamboyant character becomes central to the state-sponsored doping scandal that got Putin & Co. banned from the Olympics.  So what starts as a narcissistic project turns into a very telling inquiry into how Putin and his cronies operate, borrowing in style from the Citizenfour playbook.

A far better film, but also timely and suggestive, was Steve James’ Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (MC-73, NFX, PBS).  Now here’s an accomplished documentarian (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters), with an intimate approach that opens out into a wealth of important and overlapping themes.  Abacus is a bank in NYC’s Chinatown, which was the only one prosecuted for the mortgage meltdown of a decade ago.  All the big banks paid huge fines without ever admitting guilt and never going to trial, but Abacus is taken to court in what amounts to a show trial.  On top of a conviction of their own innocence, the Chinese family had three daughters who were lawyers and could mount a multiyear defense amounting to millions of dollars.  The personalities of the patriarch and founder of the bank, along with his wife and daughters, and the community of Chinatown, become as important to this multidimensional film as the outcome of the case, which is suspenseful and eye-opening throughout.

Whether or not you’re already a fan of Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners & I and The Beaches of Agnès, or all the other films of her 60-year career, you ought to see Faces Places (MC-95, NFX), a thoroughly charming and characteristic collaboration between the 89-year old doyenne of the New Wave and a young French street-artist named JR.  He has a photo booth van in which they drive around to villages (as in the French title, Visages Villages), and invite people they meet into the booth, which immediately produces large-scale portraits.  When JR finds a surface he likes – abandoned brick house fronts, sides of barns, water towers, etc. etc. – he and his crew paste up huge images of local appeal.  Then Agnès films the reactions of the locals, as she and JR banter along.  The result is a miracle of delight and substance, a roadtrip into the heart and soul of France.

Netflix gives wide distribution to Oscar-nominated documentaries, not just streaming but actually producing them.  The unjust deaths of black men have been well documented over the years, but Strong Island (MC-86, NFX) is a very strong and personal addition to the genre, with much to make it more than a story you’ve heard before.  (Though you have heard it before, with distressing regularity.)  Yance Ford’s brother was murdered twenty-some years ago on Long Island, in a case where he was transformed from victim to suspect, and the white triggerman never charged.  Ford dives deep into the case, and into the legacy of pain and disbelief in his family, as well as revealing his own transgender experience.  It’s an intimate and unflinching self-portrait of a family under the greatest duress.

The final nominee is also on Netflix, and probably a worthy exposé, but I’m sorry, I couldn’t get more than a few minutes into Last Men in Aleppo (MC-80, NFX).  The sight of a crying infant being unburied from the rubble of a bombed building was too much for me.  The humanitarian crisis of Syria and the wider Middle East is beyond my ability to comprehend or to bear.

So my personal fifth nominee would be Jane (MC-87, NFX).  Apparently as plain and simple as its title, Brett Morgen’s film relies on rediscovered footage of Jane Goodall as a twenty-something English rose, lovingly shot by her husband-to-be, living alone amidst a community of chimpanzees in the depths of Africa.  You can readily see why she became an international media sensation – lovely, captivating, brave and determined.  And with latter day interviews, and some filling in of the intervening years, you can see how Ms. Goodall has put her celebrity to good use, and the wisdom she has distilled from her experiences.  It’s interesting to compare personalities and fates between her and Dian Fossey (about whom NatGeo also did a doc series).  This film is as artful as it seems plain and simple.  See for yourself.

While on the subject of documentaries worth seeing on Netflix, let me highlight two that merit their high MC ratings.  Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan (MC-87, NFX) follows the prima ballerina from twenty years of headlining for the New York City Ballet, through a late-career injury and extensive rehabilitation, to the reinvention of herself as a dancer – a beautiful, brutal, and inspiring journey.

Also beautiful and brutal, but rather dispiriting, is Chasing Coral (MC-86, NFX), which documents the widespread phenomenon of coral bleaching, caused by rising ocean temperatures.  The viewer is captivated by the passion of the coral scientists and researchers who set out to capture the process, the life and beauty it destroys, in time-lapse underwater photography.  It’s a quest, but when the results are shown to a conference on the subject (and to us), all faces take on a funereal aspect, literally watching an ecosystem die from climate change.  If facts don’t convince you, feelings might.

This year’s slate for Best Animated Feature was not as strong as last year’s, with two nominees I have no intention of seeing.  The winner was Coco (MC-81, NFX).  Pixar’s film is not on the level of Up or Inside Out, let alone Toy Story or the studio’s other early hits, but still was appealing.  It followed more in the vein of its owner Disney with Moana, trying to be authentically multicultural, in this case by exploring the mythology of Mexico’s Day of the Dead.  Full to the brim with humor, color, music, and family feeling, Coco checks all the feel-good boxes in a story about the afterlife, in which half the characters are skeletons.  The protagonist is a plucky 12-year-old boy who defies his shoemaking family’s ban on music, in force since the long-ago disappearance of his guitar-playing great-great-grandfather.  Coco was his little girl at the time, but now she is the venerable matriarch of the clan.  Checking out how successful the film was, I realized that of the fifty top-grossing films of the year, Coco was the only one I’ve seen, aside from Wonder Woman and Dunkirk.  Keep that in mind when evaluating my movie recommendations.

The Breadwinner (MC-76, NFX) approaches the gravity of Takahata’s classic Grave of the Fireflies, in portraying the survival (or not) of children in the direst of situations, in this case a mother and two daughters who have to navigate a narrow path to get food on the table in Kabul, after the Taliban have thrown the father in jail for no reason.  I have to agree with the IndieWire reviewer that Nora Twomey’s film “cements Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon as an animation powerhouse worth mentioning alongside the likes of Pixar, Laika, and the great Studio Ghibli.”  (He forgot Aardman.)  Like the The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, this film does drag a bit at times, but the simple graphic style is versatile and surprisingly expressive, like an excellent children’s picture book, and the story is worthily multicultural, giving a picture of Afghanistan from the perspective of its own history, even though the film is essentially a Western production (and decidedly PG-13).

I would have enjoyed presenting Loving Vincent (MC-62, NFX) at the Clark.  I’m sure art historians might quibble with the investigation of Van Gogh’s last days in this film by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, and painting aesthetes might sniff at jejune imitations of his style, but I still found the film remarkable in its unprecedented animation by thousands upon thousands of oil paintings.  The technique is something like rotoscoping, in that a live-action original is being rather woozily animated, but here it is not a digital process.  It’s created from a succession of painted frames based on Van Gogh’s iconic images, painstakingly executed by more than a hundred artists, in slightly varying styles, generating a pictorial kaleidoscope and an indelible homage to the beloved artist.  (The DVD includes a most interesting “making-of” extra.)

[I’ll be back to catch up with the nominees for Best Foreign Film, and other loose ends.]

Friday, March 02, 2018

Looking at the past year in film

As with my previous post on tv shows, I will lead with a somewhat gynocentric approach to the films of 2017, since most of my favorites featured women characters and creators.  That applies to one of the year’s best, My Happy Family, which I’ve already written about here.

Also guaranteed a place on my final best of year list is Mudbound (MC-85, NFX).  Though the film is the product of many voices, and seems to feature male characters, it is overwhelmingly a product of female sensibility, from the author of the original novel, to screenwriter/director Dee Rees (who is right up there with Ava DuVernay in the tiny elite of black female filmmakers) and cinematographer Rachel Morrison (first woman to get an Oscar nom in that category), to Cary Mulligan and Mary J. Blige, who are the soul of the cast.  The film truthfully depicts racial tensions in the Mississippi Delta in the Jim Crow years just before and after WWII, in a way that is both thoughtful and horrifying.  It tells the polyphonic story of two interlocking families: one white, poor and feckless but privileged to own their farmland; one black, hardworking sharecroppers with no rights to the product of their labors.  No Hollywood prettying up here, despite the intimately epic style.  These people are dirt poor, and bound to the mud from which they try to extract a living, and in which they wrestle with historic injustice.

A surprise possibility for my Top Ten is Marjorie Prime (MC-82, NFX, AMZ).  Though Michael Almereyda is the director, the soul of the film feels female, from its title to its two central characters, a mother and daughter played wonderfully well by Lois Smith and Geena Davis.  Jon Hamm and Tim Robbins play their respective husbands, in clearly supporting roles.  You might call this sci fi, or more probably speculative fiction – it could be a top-notch extended episode of Black Mirror – but it plays as a low-tech chamber piece.  I found out after the fact that it was a filmed version of a play, and that makes sense (I had to back up to catch some of the abrupt scene changes), but I did not feel my usual aversion to filmed theater.  The movie is a puzzle piece, and I’m not going to say anything more about the story, except that it’s a film to exercise your emotions as well as your intellect and insight.

Here’s a pair of 19th-century period pieces, each an unflinching portrait of difficult Victorian era womanhood, in their different ways.   In A Quiet Passion (MC-77, NFX, AMZ), Cynthia Nixon overcomes physical unlikeness to offer a highly credible portrayal of Emily Dickinson.  Terence Davies’ inventive and idiosyncratic approach to writing and directing renders her life with the paradoxical insight of his title, clearly identifying with her mysterious character, subdued and formal yet wild inside.  Jennifer Ehle offers superb support and counterpoint as Emily’s light-spirited sister, while Keith Carradine does the same as her rigid but intense father.  Like Dickinson’s poetry, this film requires submission to its individual vision, but rewards those who succumb to its lovely, subterranean power.

Lady Macbeth (MC-76, NFX) is based less on Shakespeare and more on a Russian novel, opera, and film about a 19th century character who is a cross between Madame Bovary and Lady Chatterley, with an even darker shade of Gothic horror.  Transplanted from Siberia to the north of England, the story is immaculately filmed in a constrained style, directed by William Oldroyd, and held together by a magnetic performance from Florence Pugh, as the layers of the poor young woman’s abused character are disturbingly peeled away to reveal an amoral heart of darkness.  It’s an intense and unsettling experience, powerful but not at all uplifting.

To me, Kristen Stewart is not the mega-star of the blockbuster Twilight series, which of course I haven’t seen, but an inventive actress who inhabits challenging roles in independent films.  She is decidedly unglamorous but still transfixing in Certain Women  (MC-82, NFX), which Kelly Reichardt adapted from three short stories about women navigating the man’s world of small-town Montana.  You can understand why a lonely young horsewoman develops a crush on her, and your heart aches for that character, played by affecting newcomer Lily Gladstone.  In the other two barely-connected stories, the leads are played by Michelle Williams and Laura Dern, so you know there is some serious acting going on here, which makes it easy to ride out Reichardt’s slow-paced but meticulous storytelling.  Meanings remain elusive, but tangible reality is strong.

Kristen Stewart also made another film with Olivier Assayas, following up on Clouds of Sils Maria.  In Personal Shopper (MC-77, NFX), she is again a personal assistant to a celebrity, but now much more the center of attraction and attention, as she seeks paranormal contact with her recently-deceased twin brother.  I’m not much into ghost stories (or Ghost Story – see below), but this is definitely one that managed to be spooky without being real cheesy.  The film wanders and meanders, but one’s gaze never wavers from the morose Ms. Stewart, who can go from mousey to glamorous with a simple change of clothes.

A change of clothes also does wonders for Gal Gadot, but she is never mousey.  She is Wonder Woman (MC-76, NFX), and makes the movie well worth seeing.  I generally make it a rule not to watch any superhero flicks, but I made an exception for this film’s supposed feminist slant.  That may be overstated – all nine credited writers are male – but it is directed by a female (Patty Jenkins), and certainly is dominated by its actresses.  I was quite taken with the mythological backstory of the Amazon kingdom ruled by Robin Wright and Connie Nielson, and impressed by the transition to WWI Britain.  But the dazzle soon wore off in the inevitable and interminable action sequences.  Not my idea of cinema, but not an unpalatable taste of popular culture.

More my sort of thing, in various ways, was the backstory behind the female comic book superhero, in Professor Marston & the Wonder Women (MC-68, NFX).  First off, it added another black female writer-director for me to follow, in Angela Robinson.  In this cultural moment of female (dis)empowerment, she streamlines and dramatizes the same story told by Jill Lepore in The Secret History of Wonder Woman: how an academic psychologist wrote the comic in the Forties, to advance radically feminist ideas along with B&D sexuality, while living and having children with his wife and another woman.  As always for me, Rebecca Hall stands out in the cast, as the professor’s more brilliant wife and research partner.  Luke Evans is Marston, and Bella Heathcote is the student who becomes the other woman in the long-term triangle.  It’s all quite kinky, but serious and funny at the same time.  The Metacritic rating is decidedly on the low side, but Manohla Dargis’ review in the NYT captures the right note, in my estimation.

Speaking of wonderful women, Billy Jean King is engagingly played by Emma Stone in Battle of the Sexes (MC-73, NFX).  As you would expect from the directors of Little Miss Sunshine, this film is rather obvious and crowd-pleasing, but it does have some genuine period flavor and a lot of appealing performances.  Steve Carell makes Bobby Riggs more manic clown than calculating boor.  Their eponymous 1973 showdown in the Astrodome (watched by 90 million people on tv, including yours truly) provides a foregone conclusion, but also an exhilarating thrill of nostalgia, as the tennis scenes unfold with verisimilitude.  Among the women, Sarah Silverman and Andrea Riseborough provide distinguished support, as Billie Jean’s promoter and newfound lover respectively.  In the year of #MeToo, the creepiest scene of all is the actual Howard Cosell with his arm wrapped around the neck of his co-commentator Rosie Casals.  An enjoyable movie, if not an estimable film.

Not vying for my best of year list, but mentioned here for their female directors, are two quite different films from careers going in different directions.  In Beach Rats (MC-78, NFX), Eliza Hittman takes a further step into the moody, sensual, scary world of teen sex in Brooklyn.  As in It Felt Like Love, this film is carried in all intimacy by its lead performer, in this case the captivating Harris Dickinson (incredible to learn after the fact that he is British) as a boy with a girlfriend, who nonetheless trolls the internet for hook-ups with older men. 

While Ms. Hittman is coming into her own and finding her voice, Sofia Coppola is reduced to repeating herself, and older films.  Her remake of the Civil War drama The Beguiled (MC-77, NFX) is also a reprise of her first film, The Virgin Suicides, in its depiction of the sexual urges of sequestered females.  Style is all well and good, but here it decays into nonsense, without grounding in any sense of truth.  This story of a wounded Union soldier taking refuge in a southern female seminary is pure fairy tale, and its arbitrary transplantation from Louisiana to Virginia is indicative of the film’s carelessness and unreality.  I generally like Colin Farrell, but he is no Clint Eastwood, for better or worse, and this character is just an unmotivated hash.  The schoolmarm is Nicole Kidman, and among the rest are Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning, who are of course watchable, even when their actions are either too obvious or too senseless.  I’ve been a follower of Ms. Coppola’s career, but here she leaves me behind.

Now we turn our attention from women to men, as characters and creators.  Ken Loach is among my favorite workingdirectors, and I, Daniel Blake (MC-78, NFX) ranks with his best films.  David Johns is excellent as the title character, a Newcastle widower who has had a heart attack and is unable to return to his job as a carpenter.  As such, he falls into a bureaucratic hell where he is ineligible for either welfare or unemployment benefits, just churned through the system and spit out.  He forms a bond with another of the system’s rejects, a young single mother with two small children (Hayley Squires), and caring for them gives him a reason to persist, and eventually to enunciate the film’s credo:  I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user.  I am not a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar, nor a thief.  I am a man, not a dog. As such, I demand my rights.”  The lead actor’s background as a comedian does a lot to lift the mood of a film that could have come across as grim, though the residue of outrage remains.  The Criterion Collection disk of this film also contains an excellent feature length documentary, Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach.

Working in very much the same leftist vein as Loach, though in a different style, the Dardenne brothers’ latest is The Unknown Girl (MC-65, NFX).  I don’t understand the reservations represented by that Metacritic rating, twenty points lower than their typical score.  Maybe not quite up to the very highest level of their previous films, it’s nonetheless among the best of the year, IMHO.  In the same manner, the actress around whom the film revolves, Adele Haenel, may not reach quite the level of Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night or Cecile de France in The Kid with a Bike, but she is quite magnetic.  Maybe some critics were put off by the Dardennes spicing up their austere style with genre trappings of crime procedural, as a young female doctor investigates the circumstances of a death for which she feels guilty.  The setting, as ever for the Dardennes, is among the struggling lower classes of Seraing, Belgium, with a tone of deep human sympathy and understanding.

Lucky (MC-79, NFX) was written as a final starring vehicle for 90-year-old Harry Dean Stanton, and it turned out to be something beyond memorial or reminiscence, astringent rather than nostalgic, as befits the long-time character actor.  Another busy character actor, John Carroll Lynch, makes his directorial debut in this comic meditation on mortality and the meaning of life.  In a hardscrabble desert landscape, a cranky old codger goes through his daily routine, waking up to his first cigarette of the day, doing his set-up exercises in his underwear, walking to the local diner for coffee and crossword, home to watch his afternoon tv shows, then back out at day’s end to hang out with the local eccentrics at his regular tavern, declaiming mordant affirmations of misanthropy and atheism at every stop.  He’s wised up, and dried up, but he’s not giving up.

Another miserable guy you come to like and even admire for his peculiarities is the Ray Kroc portrayed by Michael Keaton in The Founder (MC-66, NFX).  I don’t know why this film was not better reviewed; certainly Keaton’s performance here was much more impressive than in Birdman.  As Kroc, he’s a sharp businessman in every sense of the word, screwing the MacDonald brothers (Nick Offerman and the aforementioned John Carroll Lynch) out of their name and franchise.  He’s by no means a sympathetic character, but he is shrewd and indomitable.  Sure he’s as predatory a capitalist as they come, sure he dumps loyal wife Laura Dern for equally mercernary Linda Cardellini, but somehow you have to grant his energy and drive in transforming the landscape (and waistline) of America, for better or decidedly worse.  With this witty cast and even-handed irony, director John Lee Hancock delivers a smart satire of business to rival The Big Short.

[Click through for a score more films of possible interest]