December 31, 2014

The Imitation Game and The Gambler

If you’re homophobic, or you have homophobic friends, please take them to see The Imitation Game. It may be the best defense of gay people ever made, in that it depicts the closeted British mathematician, Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), essentially saving the entire free world from the Nazis. In return, because he’s a homosexual, his government charges him with indecency and forces him to undergo hormone “therapy” that chemically castrates him—to try and curb his homosexual desires. It’s amazing how little the movie has to deviate from the truth and still be both an astonishing tale of human achievement in the face of grave circumstances and a heartbreaking, infuriating look at the ways supposedly civilized creatures treat each other.

The story of Alan Turing is more compelling than this film adaptation of his turbulent life, set specifically during the Second World War when he and several other geniuses began trying to crack Germany’s Enigma machine. The group soon realizes that deciphering Germany’s messages—the codes of which are constantly changing—will take a human millions of years. However, Turing theorizes that a machine could be made to do the work much more quickly. What Turing invents—as the movie very obviously points out in the end—is one of the first computers.

The Imitation Game is an amazingly conventional film considering the unconventional person it portrays. It’s polished in every way, lavishly laying on an Englishness that feels somehow very Hollywoodized, very calculated to fit an American’s idea of England. The screenwriter, Graham Moore, and the director, Morten Tyldum, are working with a lot of big, emotional themes and situations, such as war and human sexuality and, more simply, human understanding. But the most complex emotional themes they touch on are never fully fleshed out. Those being Turing’s secret sexual proclivities and the fact that once the code-breakers finally do crack Enigma, they’re forced to keep it a secret, using their information to help the Allies without letting anyone know that they’ve accomplished their task. (Germany would simply change their codes and all the work would be wasted, the war prolonged, and more lives lost.)

The film doesn’t seem to know how to handle these themes that well. One of the code-breakers, Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard) realizes that his brother is on a ship that’s about to be attacked by German U-Boats, but the others insist that saving the ship would be disastrous, alerting the Germans of their success at cracking the Enigma machine. There’s a fleeting moment where everyone tears up and Peter is later pissed off at Turing, but the movie never mentions this specifically again. It forgets—the way conventional Hollywood movies do—this very complex, rich emotional problem.

Turing’s homosexuality, which is made sympathetic by all means, is also left unexplored. It’s used mainly as a device for the film, which is split into three stretches of time that are woven together intermittently: the late 1920s, when Alan was a teenager at a boys school, the main period of the film, World War II, and then 1951, when Turing, whose work was still classified, was being investigated by the police who thought he might be a Soviet spy and who then accidentally discovered he was gay. Anyone who knows the story of Alan Turing knows that his life takes an exceedingly dark turn after the war, and that so much of this has to do with English purity laws that, frankly, probably made criminals out of a lot of married heterosexual people too. But somehow, as much as the film tries to humanize Alan Turing, it never examines this subject with any freshness or depth. The biggest emotional beats of The Imitation Game feel the shallowest in terms of their realization.

Turing is portrayed as a typical genius, unable to relate to most people and hampered by his lack of social grace. Keira Knightley, as fellow code-breaker Joan Clarke, makes it her mission to humanize Turing to the other men with whom he’s working. Knightley is quite good, a real trooper and a smart, scientific-minded woman making her way in what is still very much a man’s world. Cumberbatch is fine, but his frequent blubbering feels like a sympathy grab for an Oscar. His Alan Turing doesn’t number among his most interesting performances. I have no idea how successfully (or not) he emulates the real Alan Turing, but the performance feels gimmicky, like a textbook portrait of a man with Asperger’s. (Or maybe it’s just a reiteration of his turn as Sherlock Holmes.) He’s like Hollywood’s British version of one of those guys on The Big Bang Theory.

But, the movie is still effective. It has funny moments, powerful moments, a race-against-time plot, and, as I said before, it may soften viewer’s hearts toward the plight of an entire group of people. With Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Allan Leech, and Rory Kinnear.

The Gambler—Mark Wahlberg’s latest vehicle—isn’t nearly as put together. It’s a slick study of addiction, but it’s also a complete and utter mess, confusing and weird, rambling and hard to follow. Wahlberg plays an English professor who’s secretly addicted to gambling. He gets in some pretty deep debt and then turns to his mother, played by Jessica Lange, as a rich bitch with genuine softness under her toughened-by-the-men-in-her-life exterior. Lange’s brief moments on screen are the brightest, and the movie quickly descends into a land without logical plot points. I did occasionally drift off to sleep, but I think it was still confusing, even if I’d been completely lucid. And there are times when Wahlberg’s dialogue is absolutely incoherent. He talks faster than he’s ever talked, and the stuff he says doesn’t sound all that important anyway. He uses his lecture class to berate his students for being conventional, and then he uses one of them—the star basketball player—to throw a game. (And he gets romantically involved with another student, a girl who works at one of his favorite casinos.) If this had been made by gambling addicts who put the film together in under 48 hours, it might explain some of its labyrinthine confusion. If you see it, let me know if I’m right or if I was just too sleepy to follow it.

Directed by Rupert Wyatt. Written by William Monohan (an adaptation of the 1974 film starring James Caan). With John Goodman, Brie Larson, Michael K. Williams, Anthony Kelley, and George Kennedy, in a cameo as Wahlberg’s dying grandfather.

December 28, 2014

The Year in Review: 2014

What cinematic achievements of 2014 will be seared in our memories for years to come? Probably the fact that it was the year of a new Star Wars movie trailer (one for a film that admittedly looks like an improvement over the last three movies) and the fact that it was the year Sony caved in to the demands of hackers but then quickly backtracked and released their little piece of comic effigy, The Interview. And, maybe, 2014 will be remembered as the year that Richard Linklater finished a daring new project, Boyhood, which took 12 years to film. 

I used to feel sad that there were so many bad movies being made in my lifetime, but now I'm more optimistic. I'm ecstatic when a really good movie gets made, and I'm particularly amazed when a big studio release actually manages to be entertaining, or somehow miraculously elicits a strong or funny or otherwise memorable performance. 

The hardest task in writing this post was figuring out where to put Jonathan Glazer's hypnotic Under the Skin, which was so strange and beautifully made. In it, Scarlett Johansson plays an alien who lures men into her lair and then does unspeakable things to them. But this is just one layer of a movie that receives my 2nd "What the Hell" Award. (In 2012, I was so stunned and taken aback by the Leos Carax film Holy Motors that I gave the movie its own special—albeit ambiguous—acknowledgement.) Under the Skin will confuse you, possibly even frustrate you, but it is without a doubt the most unique movie of the year, and yet another reason to laud the career of Scarlett Johansson. 

I don’t know if 2014 was a good year or a bad year for movies. Since there are hundreds and hundreds of movies being released these days, the fact that I saw only about 50 of them means that my sampling is far from complete. But there were lots of movies to recommend this year, and the ones on this list remind me of the possibilities of movies and the sheer diversity of the stuff being made today. Granted, much of that diversity comes from the independent film world. But there were even major studio releases that surprised, or films directed by people who have worked inside the studio system that broke through the routine safety that studio heads prefer. There were, of course, lots of reasons not to go to the movies as well. But as I take stock of the movie year, I'm hopeful. So, without further ado, here are my "ten" favorite movies of 2014:

10. I’m squeezing three comedies into my #10 slot: Jon Favreau’s Chef—The exuberant, ridiculously unrealistic but wonderfully charming and fun foodie road trip movie; Nick Cassavetes’s The Other Woman—The much-maligned First Wives Club-esque farce featuring Leslie Mann’s deliriously funny performance; it's the movie that made me laugh the most this year; And finally, Justin Simien’s Dear White People—A refreshing satire in the vein of Spike Lee (which I enjoyed a lot more than any Spike Lee film I’ve seen) about race in the ivy league. (The first two are available for rental on iTunes.) 

9. Whiplash—Damien Chazelle’s intensely exciting and fascinating study of a young musician who endures his teacher’s abuse because he’s obsessed with being great. It’s flawed, but it’s a hell of a movie. (In theaters now.)

8. The Drop—James Gandolfini’s fine, slick, cold performance is just one reason to recommend Michael Roskam’s The Drop, which was a tense, subtle, weird and exciting little thriller. (And Tom Hardy was great in it too.) (Available for rental on iTunes.)

7. John Wick—Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, both former stuntmen, have crafted perhaps the most beautiful action film I’ve ever seen. And it’s certainly one of the best-choreographed action movies in recent memory. Keanu Reeves, always at his best when his performance is based on his physicality rather than his speaking, is terrific and commanding, and the movie is an elegant, at times garish concoction of cinematic depravity. (Possibly still in your theater.)

6. Wild—Reese Witherspoon, playing writer Cheryl Strayed, wanders the Pacific Crest Trail while having flashbacks of her self-destructive life choices and her beloved mother, played by Laura Dern. A movie (adapted from Strayed’s memoir and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée) that lets you feel its wounds without becoming overly self-serious or indulgently pitying toward its protagonist. (In theaters now.)

5. Only Lovers Left Alive—It’s surprising to think that I would like a Jim Jarmusch film this much, but Only Lovers Left Alive is a delicious night owl of a movie about vampires, romance, Detroit, Tangier, literature, and rock ‘n’ roll. A hipster gothic to be sure, but so good. (Available for rental on iTunes.)

4. Gone Girl—Maliciously entertaining, pulpy trash, beautified by the direction of David Fincher and, from what I can tell, a vast improvement over the novel (adapted by the author herself, Gillian Flynn). It's yet another reason to like Ben Affleck again.

3. Boyhood—Richard Linklater makes a daring movie about everyday life, filmed over 12 years’ time with the same actors, and it’s stunning, beautiful, funny, interesting, honest, and important without demanding our unmitigated devotion. (Available on iTunes for purchase, but soon available for rental.)

2. Force Majeure—Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund offers up a beautiful, uncomfortable, funny, profound little movie about the unexpected events that take place during a family’s trip to the French Alps. See this one on a big screen, preferably right before you go on vacation.

1. The ImmigrantThe Immigrant taps into an enormous need in movies right now: the need for feeling. I was completely blown away by its emotional power and visual luster, not to mention the performances of Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner. (And also, this one is streaming on Netflix.)

Honorable Mention

Dan Gilroy’s brilliantly sinister L.A. thriller Nightcrawler
Chris Rock’s terrific riff of a movie about race (among other things), Top Five
John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s fascinating shutterbug documentary Finding Vivian Maier
Anton Corbijn’s slow-moving but tense, intriguing terrorist thriller A Most Wanted Man
Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel
Nicholas Stoller’s Neighbors
and Mark Waters’s underrated teen gothic-comedy-romance-fantasy-thriller Vampire Academy.

Favorite Performances:
Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner in The Immigrant
Johannes Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli in Force Majeure
Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon, and Kim Dickens in Gone Girl
Patricia Arquette in Boyhood
Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern in Wild
Keanu Reeves in John Wick
Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, and Riz Ahmed in Nightcrawler
Chris Rock and Rosario Dawson in Top Five
Leslie Mann in The Other Woman
Rose Byrne and Zac Efron in Neighbors
Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin
Jenny Slade and Gaby Hoffman in Obvious Child
Bill Murray and Bob Balaban in The Monuments Men

Favorite New-to-Me Movies:
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1975)
Jack Reacher (2012)
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)
Passion (2012)
The Right Stuff (1983)
Rio Bravo (1959)
Top Hat (1936) 

Movies I Still Need to See:

Inherent Vice
Maps to the Stars
A Most Violent Year
Still Alice

December 27, 2014

Four Mini-Reviews

Below are capsule reviews for four movies I didn’t get around to writing about during the year.

The Captive—Ryan Reynolds (who’s admittedly very good) plays a beleaguered father whose young daughter vanishes without a trace. The police suspect him, but actually she’s been kidnapped by an ultra-creepy predator who’s part of a network of child abusers. In its own way, The Captive works. It’s effective, but it’s probably the most unpleasant movie experience of the year, particularly because of the absolute misery the film puts its characters through. Rosario Dawson plays a detective who specializes in finding predators. (Her character is put into a ludicrous situation that hampers the film’s credibility.) With Scott Speedman, Mirielle Enos, and Kevin Durand. Written by the director, Atom Egoyan, and David Fraser.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me—Equal parts maudlin and amusing, this documentary about the blowsy comedian is interesting and yet, it’s kind of depressing to see old celebrities having to essentially whore themselves out in order to make ends meet. (It’s not unlike the Joan Rivers doc from a few years ago.)

The Heart Machine—A dull indie drama about a man whose girlfriend—whom he meets online—may be putting one over on him. He believes her to be living in Germany on a writing fellowship, but then he sees a girl who looks just like her on the subway one day. Is she a doppelganger or is his girlfriend lying to him? The film isn’t nearly as interesting as its premise.

The LEGO Movie—I just wanted it to end.

December 26, 2014


Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making experiment Boyhood turns out to be marvelous entertainment, intrinsically everyday yet extremely compelling, and breezing through its nearly three-hour running time without any truly unwatchably dull scenes. Boyhood has topped more end-of-the-year best-of lists than just about any other movie in 2014, and, happily, it’s worthy of all the praise people are giving it.

That Richard Linklater could successfully assemble a cast—including a seven-year-old boy (played by Ellar Coltrane) and keep them all coming back each year for more filming, is a testament not only to his talent as a director but also to his vision for a film that presumably morphed a lot during its 12-year-long process. The film traces the life of Mason Evans, Jr. and his family throughout the course of Mason’s childhood and adolescence, culminating in his departure for college. The parents, Mason, Sr. and Olivia (played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) and the older sister, Samantha (played by Lorelei Linklater, daughter of the director) are at times much more interesting than Mason, who sometimes embodies too perfectly a 21st century entitled American teenager. (He grows his hair long and starts taking pictures; he’s full of questions; it’s sometimes disgustingly like looking into a mirror, and then realizing life would sometimes be better if you just stopped blathering so much.) At times, he grated on my nerves with his mumbly, grouchy self-centeredness. And the only people who criticized this were his mom’s succession of alcoholic husbands, with whom I don’t relish sharing any common ground.

But Boyhood is good enough that it survives the sometimes irritating attitude of its main character, particularly because it takes such a vital, honest look at normal people. By no means do the film’s four central characters represent all of America in the early 2000s. But they do represent four Americans in the early 2000s, and as such they may one day become historical artifacts. The movie won’t teach future generations important history lessons (which would be so very dull), but it may remind future generations that we are all very much alike, no matter how much time separates us.  

I always love learning about the Victorians and how crazy—and similar to people living now—they were. Their technology was less advanced in a lot of ways, but they were truly a lot like us and their values still shape the world of Western culture and thought and politics. The things that scared them, scare us. They were obsessed with purity but secretly naughty, they were simultaneously reaching back toward a more religious tradition and reaching forward toward rationality rooted in scientific research. (Some of their science was, of course, pretty amazingly bad, such as their fascination with phrenology, or the study of the shapes of people’s skulls as an indicator of their morality and intelligence and ultimate worth as human beings.) But my point is, realizing the common humanity shared with people from generations before is strangely freeing. It connects us to the past and the future, and that is the value that I believe Boyhood will have in the years to come.

What keeps Boyhood from being a dull, self-important movie experiment is the fact that Richard Linklater isn’t obsessively drunk on his own idea. He made other movies between then and now, so he wasn’t completely focused on this one project. Moreover, Linklater allowed the actors to draw from their own personal lives and pour that experience into their characters, letting them evolve with each successive year. As a result, these characters emerge richer than they would have been if every scene had been worked out at the film’s inception.

The saddest part of the film comes at the end, when Patricia Arquette, as the single mom who struggled to put herself through college so she could build a better life for her two young children, cries out to her son: “I thought there would be more.” It’s heartbreaking, and one of the most honest things that’s been said in a movie this year. Boyhood doesn’t undermine the importance of having a family; it’s not cynical about normal life, just truthful. People work hard and then their lives pass them by and they look back and think, “Was it all worth it?” Kids grow up and seem eager to fly out of the nest, and in some deep part of a parent, it must be intensely painful. It’s like something Alec Baldwin’s character said in an episode of 30 Rock: “Being a parent is like wearing your heart outside of your body.”

Do I wish for a Girlhood? Absolutely. Boyhood does have strong female characters, and in many ways, it’s not ultimately about Mason Evans or even boyhood in general. It’s about the ordinariness of life. How Richard Linklater managed to make that subject as fascinating and fresh as he did is a wonder. 

December 25, 2014

The Interview

Has there ever been another fictional movie about assassinating a real, living ruler? I’m guessing so. But The Interview managed to find itself in a perfect storm of media hype thanks to the Sony hacks and North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, responding so negatively (and threateningly) to the idea of the film. Then again, it’s about his purported assassination, so I can certainly understand his vexation. But is it wrong to make a movie like this, since everything we hear about Kim Jong-un (and his father, Kim Jong-il before him) is so horrible? It does feel a bit wrong-headed, if only because of the real tragedy that exists for the oppressed millions living in North Korea, where a strong propaganda machine controls all information, and where there is apparently mass starvation. At least in movies like Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, the bad guys are so far removed from us in the present—and so vilified—rightly—in our minds—that the horrors perpetrated against them in the movie don’t feel horrific, just funny and even deserved. Perhaps The Interview is ahead of its time. But I’m doubtful it will be remembered as a great comedy, especially when it’s so pickled in its own insipid view of the world.

At any rate, with all the hoopla surrounding the tumultuous release of The Interview, it’s perhaps ironic—and more than a bit disappointing—that the movie isn’t very good. As a comedy, it delivers almost no laughs. (And all of them are squeezed into the film’s trailer.) The film may actually work better as a bad drama trying to understand the mind and the world of an eccentric dictator whose imprisoned people have been fooled into thinking he’s a god. But regardless, there’s little to recommend in The Interview.

James Franco spends most of the film trying really hard to be funny by hamming it up, but his mugging isn’t charming. It’s the bad over-acting of a comic performer whose directors (Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg) don’t have the sense to reign him in. Throughout the film, which runs nearly two hours (and could have easily been thirty minutes shorter), I felt strongly that the makers of it were convinced everything they were doing was hysterically funny.

Franco plays Dave Skylark, the host of a popular entertainment television show that features segments like Rob Lowe revealing his baldness and Eminem unceremoniously coming out on the air. Seth Rogen plays Dave’s producer and best friend, who becomes convinced that the show needs to focus on more important subject matter. When the pair discovers that North Korea’s dictator, 31-year-old Kim Jong-un, is an avid fan of the show, they decide that interviewing the infamous despot will catapult them into a more respectable, serious level of TV journalism. But the CIA has other plans for them, namely to assassinate Kim Jong-un during their stay in the country’s capital, Pyongyang.

Inept assassins can be funny. The plot of The Interview could almost be that of a Marx Brothers movie. James Franco and Seth Rogen try very hard as those inept assassins, but there’s not much fun to be had in their many botched attempts at killing Kim Jong-un. The gags must have seemed funny in the abstract, but the movie is so enamored of its premise that it doesn’t feel the need to do anything more than let that premise play itself out. There’s no invention in the humor, only the dull satisfaction of the performers and the writers who think they’re doing something funny. (Franco acts like a child and makes idiotic decisions that frustrate their plans over and over again; Rogen generally suffers the consequences, like when he’s forced to insert a metallic capsule into his rectum to hide a poison agent from some of Kim Jong-un’s goons.) The jokes are repeatedly delusional, content to recycle an antiquated notion of Asian culture and an arrogant, ignorant nostalgia for Asian stereotypes. (As when James Franco says, “Koniwicha” to North Koreans as he alights from his plane.) Even those feeble gags might have been funny if they had been written and acted out with any imagination.

Perhaps Sony didn’t orchestrate the hack that led to The Interview’s canceled—and then marginally un-canceled—premiere. But the free publicity they’ve gotten out of this event will likely help make up for a loss in revenue. (And the film is sure to do well as an online rental via Youtube and Google Play.) And it has, strangely enough, secured a weird little spot in cinema history for a markedly forgettable movie.

With Randall Park, who gives the film’s most authentic and heartfelt performance as Kim Jong-un himself; Lizzy Caplan as a CIA agent (whose chest is ogled by the camera in one of the film’s classiest moments), and Diana Bang as Sook, one of Kim Jong-un’s propaganda ministers, with whom Rogen’s character falls in love. (Her hairdo, which looks like a soft roll of black charcoal, is somehow perfect, especially when she’s holding a vintage-looking machine gun and firing away.) Written by Dan Sterling.

December 21, 2014


In 1995, Cheryl Strayed (whose last name is itself a piece of hand-picked autobiography) embarked on a thousand-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, which begins at the border of the U.S. and Mexico and ends at the border of the U.S. and Canada. She later wrote about her experiences in Wild, and it was adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club).  Playing Cheryl Strayed, Reese Witherspoon (who also helped produce the film) is quite good, reminding us of the performer who did such excellent work in films like Election and Walk the Line. The film, especially given its weighty, emotionally raw subject matter, is surprisingly light on its feet. I haven’t read Strayed’s memoir, but it’s pretty clear that her own take on her life is at least somewhat ironic (especially given that last name, which she picked for herself after getting divorced).

I’ve been backpacking twice, in the mountains of North Georgia and the mountains of Tennessee. Both times, I was filled with self-hatred during, but proud of myself afterward. I remember the exhaustion and the pain and the fact that I ate an apple during one of those hikes that tasted like candy. It was truly the best apple I will ever taste in my life. In the film, Strayed comes to a check point where other hikers are camping and where there’s shelter and food. She asks for a Snapple and a bag of potato chips, and then gratefully partakes in them. Oh, the little things we miss when we isolate ourselves from the creature comforts.

Cheryl Strayed has a reason for this extreme, demanding, exhausting, long hike. In the wake of her mother’s death from cancer, Cheryl’s personal life took a self-destructive turn. She became addicted to heroin and began sleeping with any man she met, which—as one might expect—destroyed her once happy marriage. (Her husband is played by Thomas Sadoski.) Cheryl sees this thousand-mile journey as a kind of quest for healing, although she isn’t sure she wants to be healed.

We watch as Cheryl’s memory winds back through the events of her life, and tries to make sense of them, as she’s struggling to survive in the wilderness with an extremely overstuffed backpack. (Finally, someone pulls her aside and helps her prune the pack, in one of the movie’s funnier moments.) Cheryl’s flashbacks provide little glimmers into her life and the painful experiences that have brought her to the Pacific Crest Trail, from her abusive father to her dead mother to her descent into drug abuse.

A lesser director would have used Strayed’s emotional baggage as a device, erecting its heroine as an untouchably noble piñata of tragedy, beaten into the dust by her life. Instead, Vallée lets the memories of Cheryl’s trauma drift in and out of her head, the way memories do in real life, and they feel organically connected to her story rather than obviously calculated for dramatic effect. Cheryl is never completely sold on fixing herself, and yet she longs for more time with her now dead mother (played beautifully by the iridescent Laura Dern) and some kind of reconciliation with her ex-husband (Thomas Sadoski).  

Obviously, Wild is a movie that wants to tackle big emotions. But it rarely resorts to cheap ploys. Cheryl Strayed becomes a person we relate to. The kind of heartache she bears is the same kind of heartache we all suffer from in our lives, and instead of saddling the film with meaninglessly cheerful Hallmark-ish resolutions or contrived happy endings, Wild lets the wounds bleed and the hurts hurt.

Reese Witherspoon’s performance is terrific. She’s plucky, but also disarmingly honest, especially when it comes to her status as a hiking novice. Because Witherspoon is blonde and beautiful, she’s had to fight the impression—perhaps self-imposed thanks to movies like Legally Blonde—that she’s a Barbie doll first and an actress second. Actually, she’s a fine performer, and Wild reminds us of the complexities of which Witherspoon is capable of showing on the screen.

What makes Wild work are the numerous encounters Cheryl Strayed has during her journey with fellow hikers and also with people who give her the occasional ride, or the people working at the check-points, where Strayed has care packages sent (containing clean clothes, food, books, and money, among other things). And of course, the movie is bolstered even more by its beautiful landscapes. It’s like National Geographic and Eat Pray Love had a baby. But my suspicion is that Wild is much more emotionally honest than Eat Pray Love (which I haven’t seen).

Wild may be a calculated end-of-the-year release, but it’s also funny, powerful, moving, and rough around the edges in a way that truly works for it. The human brokenness it depicts is as honest as the terrain Cheryl Strayed travels is gorgeous. Jean-Marc Vallée, who seemed too distant from his characters in Dallas Buyers Club, finds a vision for Wild that is compassionate without being overly sentimental or maudlin. It may be catharsis at the movies, but it’s also a vital piece of filmmaking.

With Gaby Hoffman, Keane McRae, Michiel Huisman, W. Earl Brown, and Kevin Rankin. Cinematography by Yves Bélanger.

December 20, 2014

Top Five

Hollywood loves movies about itself, which explains part of the current fascination with the overrated Birdman. But there’s another film out this year about the industry that is better than Birdman, although unlikely to get as much praise: Chris Rock’s latest triple-threat effort, Top Five. It’s a welcome addition to the usual self-important prestige pictures that bombard movie-goers at the end of the year. Top Five is funny, bold, even inventive at times, and it gets better as it goes along.

The story feels all too realistic: Chris Rock plays Andre Allen, a comedian-turned-movie-star whose biggest movie role was that of a giant bear named “Hammy” in three extremely lucrative Hammy the Bear movies. But Andre doesn’t feel funny anymore. The glitter has worn off his star. He’s battled alcoholism, faced a downward turn in his career, and is engaged to a reality TV star (played by Gabrielle Union) whom he doesn’t really like that much. Andre’s latest movie, Uprize, is a personal labor of love about Haitian slaves revolting against their white slave-owners. But his wedding is getting more press, and the movie is being virtually ignored at the box office. Top Five takes place in one day as Allen travels all over New York City doing press for Uprize while a writer for the New York Times named Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) tags along with him so she can write a piece about his career. As they wander the city together, their conversations take on an increasingly honest and personal tone. (Both actors give fine performances.)

The first thirty minutes of Top Five didn’t strike me as all that funny, although the opening dialogue between Rock and Dawson, in which they argue back and forth about the degree of progress minorities have made in the United States—which serves as a kind of prelude to the movie—was fresh and funny. That chunk of the film felt a bit uninvolved, like a stand-up comedian who hasn’t quite warmed up yet. But then the movie does warm up, and once Top Five gains its momentum, the movie is often uproariously funny and dead-on in its frank discussion of a variety of issues. It’s been a while since a movie so deftly and loosely talked about the politics of race and gender and stardom and fame all at once (without getting lost in the fray). We see Andre Allen as a real person who lives in that weird fame bubble in which he’s  living a seemingly charmed life. But in another very different sense, he’s trapped by the often insipid demands of the public who just want one more “Hammy’ movie, and trapped into indifference to the world around him, which seems to have gone madder by the minute. He’s still stinging from insults made by thoughtless critics, he’s suspicious of so-called racial progress, and he wants desperately to be taken seriously.

What distinguishes Top Five from most of the other comedies this year (except the other racially-themed comedy I saw, Dear White People), is that it knows how to be cinematic. Most comedies tend to veer into the realm of the sitcom in that they focus on thin set-ups and lots of gags. But Chris Rock’s film takes time to develop its characters into real human beings, and lets the humor grow within that framework. He’s smart enough to focus on things he knows a lot about, and thus creates a refreshingly honest and surprising and funny movie. He also lets Rosario Dawson go head to head with him, and she’s more than a worthy opponent.

The film has several terrific set pieces. Andre recounts with horror a disastrous night in Houston, ten years earlier, when he hit rock bottom in his personal life. (That scene, among others, will probably deter any viewers who find crude humor offensive.) Rosario Dawson’s character, Chelsea, later serves up her own horrifyingly funny tale about her boyfriend (played by Anders Holm of TV’s Workaholics). I won’t spoil either of these scenes because they’re absolutely hysterical. But believe me, if you are turned off by gross humor, these scenes alone are reason enough to avoid the film. But it’s a rewarding movie, and it manages to find a real sense of truth within the comedy, and a real humanity within its study of the nature of fame. 

With Kevin Hart, J.B. Smoove (as Andre’s bodyguard), Sherri Shepherd, Tracy Morgan, Romany Malco, Hayley Marie Norman, Anders Holm, and in cameo performances as themselves: Jerry Seinfeld, Whoopi Goldberg, and Adam Sandler.  Written and directed by Chris Rock.

December 18, 2014


There’s much to admire in Ida, and if you peruse the Internet you can find dozens of critics lauding it as one of the best movies of 2014. Perhaps the hype is itself deadly for a little movie like Ida. It’s an austere, 80-minute-long Polish film about a novice named Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska)—weeks away from taking her vows to become a full-fledged nun—who goes on a road trip with her aunt to track down the graves of her parents, who were Jewish refugees that were betrayed and murdered. Ida grew up in a Catholic orphanage unaware of her Jewish roots or the existence of any family members, and her life until now has been completely confined within the walls of the Church. Her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) is a boozing, unhappy former judge who cannot forget the atrocities of World War II, but despite Wanda’s bitterness, the two form a quiet bond in their mournful quest.

Ida is beautifully shot, in black-and-white, but a number of critics are completely bowled over by this and by the fact that the movie isn’t in widescreen. Some critics are convinced that this stylistic choice is daring and important. But viewers may find themselves underwhelmed by Ida, which is spare, quiet, and emotionally muted. There’s a lot going on under the seams, but those seams are perfectly in place and even more perfectly controlled. The director, Pawel Pawlikowski, isn’t interested in Ida having some kind of big emotional scene. She maintains control of herself, even when she flirts with a looser, more flesh-and-blood existence toward the end of the movie.

I don’t want to damn Ida with faint praise, but it’s hard to see in it what so many others are seeing in it. Perhaps its starkness and its quietness are simply refreshing in a movie culture that offers seemingly endless varieties of the same big, dumb explosion-obsessed drivel year in and year out.

December 09, 2014

The Galapagos Affair

It’s 1929, and a German doctor named Friedrich Ritter and his lover, Dore Strauch, have set sail for Floreana, an uninhabited island that is part of the Galapagos archipelago, hundreds of miles from the coast Ecuador. Hitler is rising, war is only a decade away, and Ritter and Strauch are finished with modern society, and on Floreana they hope to found a kind of paradise free of the sicknesses of civilization. But their dream of paradise is short-lived. News of their strange move makes it back to the Continent, and soon they are joined by Heinz and Margret Wittmer (also German) and their children, and later by an eccentric woman named Eloise von Wagner, who calls herself The Baroness, who’s accompanied by her two gigolos. The anti-social doctor and his girlfriend—who is stricken with multiple sclerosis—aren’t exactly happy about the unexpected social activity on their isolated island paradise. Soon, there will be mysterious disappearances and deaths, and possibly even a few murders.

If the plot I just described entices you, then check out The Galapagos Affair, a thrilling new documentary that’s currently streaming on Netflix. The film is strung together with narrations of the writings of Ritter, Strauch, the Wittmers, and others, and also features interviews with current residents of the Galapagos Islands. It’s a tad long, and some of the interviews are a bit confusing (and needless), but the story of these seven eccentrics is absolutely delicious, and the film sizzles with juicy speculation. (There’s also lots of actual footage of the islands now and then, including moving images recorded by the inhabitants themselves.) Among others, narration is provided by Cate Blanchett, Diane Kruger, Sebastian Koch, and Connie Nielson. Directed by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine.

December 07, 2014

The Immigrant

Marion Cotillard as a sad Polish immigrant who comes to New York in 1921 and joins Joaquin Phoenix’s Burlesque show? And then Jeremy Renner shows up to complete an impending love triangle? Where do I sign up? The Immigrant is the whimsically depressing period piece we’ve been waiting for in 2014, and thanks to Netflix streaming, you can gobble up all the elegant, gorgeous helpings of “how depressing was New York in 1921 if you were dirt poor” from the comfort of your own computer.

In all seriousness, I loved this movie. It’s a hard sell to tell people: “Hey, The Immigrant is streaming on Netflix, it’s really sad and beautifully made and you should see it.” But that’s the truth. It’s one of the few recent movies set in the past that actually works, that looks old. The director, James Gray, captures the dismal yet hopeful feel of 1920s American life. Everything has been realized with artful precision, from the costumes and the make-up to the music and the settings to the stylized gloom. If you ever had some delusional ideal about moving to New York City and making something of yourself, The Immigrant will throw cold water on that happy little dream and hit its mark with icy precision.

But The Immigrant isn’t a depressing movie, really. It has lightness of spirit and it never loses hope. As Cotillard, who plays Eva, learns how to live in a world full of strangers who mostly want to take advantage of her, she develops an intensely unusual relationship with Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Bruno, her would-be suitor, employer, pimp, manager, destroyer, and savior. At the beginning of the movie, we see Eva and her sister Magda in a long line of just-off-the-boat Europeans at Ellis Island, where a health inspector is making the rounds to see if any of them are sick. Magda sports a death rattle of a cold (tuberculosis we later discover) that gets her sent to the infirmary. But Eva is healthy and strong and can speak English. Bruno, who manages a seedy striptease act at a seedy club in the city, is there looking for new “talent,” and he plucks Eva from the beleaguered masses. Poor, determined unflinching Eva is unaware of the hard life that lies ahead of her. Marion Cotillard lets us feel pity for her for just a moment before she shows us just how strong Eva really is. But she’s also tender, vulnerable, afraid, confused, greedy, hopeful. You can’t ask for more in a character than to be human and to exhibit all of these conflicting emotions throughout the course of a movie.

Perhaps Bruno fell in love with Eva right from the start, or perhaps his love for her developed over time. But regardless, his relationship with Eva is uncomfortably realistic from the moment he takes her under his wing. He puts her in the show despite her gaucheness and he exploits her quiet beauty, eventually turning her into a prostitute. But we begin to suspect that he really and truly loves her. He’s doing his strange version of looking out for her, which at times feels indefensible. And yet there are moments of real tenderness, of genuine compassion, that constantly throw his character into ambiguous light.

The world of New York in 1921 appears grim and chaotic. The Burlesque show scenes serve as a microcosm of this. Everyone is ambling to get ahead, and yet the idea of coming to America to achieve a kind of crazy idea of happiness—and monetary success too—seems all the more elusive once the reality sets in that this is a desperate place full of desperate people. The camera captures the unfeeling terrain of the city: all brown, stone buildings and grey skies and people shrouded in dark, grungy jackets that make them appear shapeless, faceless, hopeless. The ladies don some color for their shows, sport rings of pearls around their torsos, some bangles on their arms (whatever suits the “look” Bruno creates for them, so long as each girl represents a different culture for his show), and all the while, the film exudes a richness that is overpowering. The world and the texture of The Immigrant is rich and thrilling.

The love triangle that forms between Eva and Bruno and Orlando (Jeremy Renner), Bruno’s cousin and a traveling magician, is compelling too. Renner’s performance adds a lightness to the film that is much needed. He’s the first man in Eva’s life who genuinely cares about her, and while she is standoffish at first, she eventually warms up to him. The whole time, we long for Eva to succeed, to save her sister from being deported and for the two of them to start a new and happy life in America, and for maybe a little romance to blossom for Eva as well. The movie isn’t unfeeling in that way—it doesn’t try to manipulate us or take any cheap shots in terms of dramatics. The tragedies—both large and small—feel very much bound up in the difficult milieu of 1920s New York and the plight of the foreigner, so unwanted and yet so vital to the economic and cultural construction of the America we know today. The Immigrant lets us feel the weight of all this, and thanks to the excellent camera-work of Darius Khondji and the direction of James Gray, the film is a magnificently affecting work of art, a powerful and lovely and sad and grim and happy and depressing and hopeful love letter to a time we have now lost to the ghosts of history.  

The performance are of Joaquin Phoenix really grabs you and holds you. He’s so pathetic and touching in his love for Eva, so calculating in his misuse of her, so out of control in his jealousy of the happy-go-lucky Orlando. Seeing him lose it and chase Orlando through the drunken crowd at the Burlesque show is quite funny, and seeing him transform into something greater than himself to help Eva is sad, heartbreaking even. Cotillard is fine too. She’s especially good when she becomes a strong character, perhaps too awakened to the reality of her situation. Eva never loses her purpose, even if she loses her way. Most importantly, Eva believes she has value, and there’s a powerful moment when she says to another girl, “I’m not nothing.” She has to say it out loud to believe it. She utters it again later this time directed at someone else, passing it on to Bruno when he’s at his most unlovable, even to her: “You’re not nothing.”

Written by the director and Ric Menello. The lovely and haunting music score was composed by Christopher Spelman. (This film showcases one of the richest uses of music in recent memory. There are so many sounds that linger in this film’s atmosphere: The nun’s singing as they walk down a hall, the church music at the cathedral where Eva goes to make her confession at Candlemas, the tinny, familiar folk songs being played at the Burlesque show.) With Yelena Solovey and Dagmara Dominczyk. 

Force Majeure

The Alps. A ski resort nestled inside them like the interior of a snow globe, absolutely blanketed in the white. It’s both isolated and inviting, cold and warm at the same time. The movie, Force Majeure, is the kind of film in which you can get happily lost. There’s a sense of being pushed right up to the foreground. It probably helped that I was sitting in the front row of the theater, but it’s also a testament to the camera-work of the film’s cinematographer, Fredrick Wencil. Wencil’s camera is comfortably up close, a front-row spectator in the very personal lives of its subjects, a Swedish family vacationing for a week in the French Alps. But the camera also lingers over the captivating landscape, letting us take in the vastness of the mountaintops, the quiet, the grandeur, the strangely comforting smallness we feel in the presence of such grand beauty. Not enough movies take the time to savor imagery, especially when the image is something as breathtaking as the Alps. But this movie does. The setting is starkly gorgeous by day and hauntingly enchanting by night. Either way, it feels completely other-worldly.

But the family that is the central focus of Force Majeure puts the film firmly on the ground. Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) is the husband, a businessman who’s apparently detached from his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and children, Vera and Harry (played by Clara and Vincent Wettergren), who are about 10 and 7 years old respectively. When Ebba runs into an old acquaintance at the ski lodge, she half-jokes—within earshot of her husband—that the trip is a chance for the family to reconnect, for Tomas to spend a little less time thinking about work. Tomas is sort of well-trained in the art of appeasing his wife at the surface level. When his phone rings, he looks at it, but then says, “I’ll turn it off.” He’s learned the right things to say, even if it hasn’t changed what he actually does.

Force Majeure opens up the dynamic between Tomas and Ebba by using a device: a near-catastrophe—in this case an avalanche—where Tomas’s actions throw some pretty unflattering light on his character. Ebba’s trust in their relationship begins to unravel, and the movie takes a deftly comic look at the moral underpinnings of human beings and how the urge to survive may trump the urge to protect others. The film manages to take seriously the emotions of its characters without enshrining them. These are, after all, well-to-do white people whose only real moment of crisis is an avalanche that doesn’t actually harm them. They’re not struggling to put food on the table, they don’t live in a violent, crime-ridden neighborhood. They can afford week-long ski trips in the French Alps.

The movie adroitly balances the self-righteousness and genuine gut-wrenching pain Ebba feels, with the shallow selfishness mixed with real isolated hurt of her husband Tomas. (Both of the actors are terrific, by the way.) Writer-director Ruben Östlund is generous to his characters, and fills the movie with amusing little touches, like a scene where Tomas and a male friend are mistakenly hit on by two women at an outside bar. One of the girls comes over and tells Tomas, “My friend says you’re the most attractive man here.” She wanders away after Tomas is vaguely unresponsive (he’s not sure how to act, being married but unhappy in his relationship), and then, just as Tomas puffs up with macho self-confidence, the woman returns and says, “I’m sorry. I was mistaken. My friend meant somebody else.” Subtly, we see the vast range of feelings in Tomas. He is by turns flattered, aroused, curious, mentally unfaithful, and then embarrassed and proud, trying to laugh the experience off with his friend.

There’s also a powerful and hilarious scene between Tomas and Ebba and the children. Tomas has been fake crying, finally realizing he needs to acknowledge his own selfishness if only to pacify Ebba. But she calls him on it. Then he really does tear up as he admits to her how horrible he is. But the tears are purely for himself. He’s a victim of his own bad behavior, and self-pity is the thing that opens his tear ducts. He weeps uncontrollably until finally the children are awakened. When they see him, burying his face in a bean bag chair and wailing, they climb onto him, wrap their arms around him, and cry too. Ebba stands over them, exasperated by the scene, until Vera drags her into to the family crying blob. How many different feelings are going on in this one scene? More than you’ll find in most movies in their entirety.

There are a few small problems. The film is almost unbearably uncomfortable and tense at times. Occasionally, the characters begin to grate on the nerves. And it could have been sped up ever so slightly. But overall, the movie is dramatically well-paced. Östlund knows just when to ratchet up the dramatic conflict, and he knows how to work his performers at the right moments. They become so very real to us that we like them even with their flaws. And the movie doesn’t automatically side with Ebba, even if Tomas is clearly suffering—as he would call it—from being a self-loving prig. (He’s not just that. Neither of them can be reduced to one character trait, good or bad.)

What strikes me most about Force Majeure is that it feels nourishing to see a movie this good about the selfishness and the brokenness and the humor of human relationships. It feels honest and raw, but it’s not dramatically self-indulgent, which is why the moments of great drama feel like little gifts. And it’s a movie that isn’t afraid—thank you European filmmakers—to be a movie: a story that is held together visually. I’m all for talk, when it’s as clever or juicy as in a movie like All About Eve (or even the occasional Quentin Tarantino gab-fest), but real human relationships, at their core, are about what’s left unsaid. And Force Majeure gets at this so beautifully, so vividly, and with a leavening sense of humor and an indulgent (in a good way) appetite for beauty.