February 26, 2015

Still Alice

  In Still Alice, Julianne Moore triumphs in a role that would be tempting to write off as a pointed Oscar grab. Moore’s performance—as Alice Howland, a successful linguistics professor who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease—is haunting and complex, showing us the progression of a disease in a very believable way without sacrificing the dignity of her character. Still Alice might have been the kind of middlebrow message movie that the Oscars delight in, except for the fact that its treatment of Alzheimer’s disease is raw and authentic. The movie doesn’t strain for prestige as much as we might expect. Instead, it weaves compelling scenes together of Alice the successful intellectual (author of noteworthy books on language development), Alice the happy wife (married to a fellow academic, played by Alec Baldwin), and Alice the mother of three grown children (played by Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish, and Kristen Stewart), who struggles with a disease but is not defined by it.

     If we have to sit through a movie as depressing as Still Alice, I’m glad we can do it in the company of the great Julianne Moore. (Granted, I’m biased. She is one of my favorite actresses, and I was more than a little adamant that she deserved an Oscar for this performance even before I saw the movie.) And yes, Still Alice is a tough movie to watch. Few films released in 2014 so boldly stared viewers in the face with their own mortality. How many of us have loved ones who struggle with this and other diseases which seemingly erase their personalities, taking them from us long before their bodies give out?

    The writing-directing team of Still Alice, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (who adapted Lisa Genova’s novel of the same name), understand how to make a movie about human suffering and frailty without giving in to the temptation to preach or pander. Of course, viewers are likely to experience a “Niagara Falls” kind of emotional reaction to this movie anyway. This is a movie that will break your heart, not the least of which because it feels like we’re watching Julianne Moore develop Alzheimer’s. That is probably the hardest thing to take: seeing an actor you love suffer on the screen in such an urgent and real way. But because Still Alice is honest, and because its emotional wallops are never cheaply constructed, its melodramatic content works beautifully, the way tearjerkers should.  

    Emotions are such tricky things, and Hollywood movies so often falter when they try to dramatize the real emotions people feel. Still Alice gets at the complexity of those emotions for all the members of Alice’s family. We see the panic in Alice’s children when they are confronted with her disease; we see the denial and cowardice (and self-loathing) of her husband, who at the beginning assures Alice that he will stand by her, never believing just how costly this struggle will be; we see Alice, bravely speaking about her illness at an Alzheimer’s convention, using a highlighter to follow the lines of her speech. (In a prior scene, her youngest daughter, an aspiring actress living in L.A. who’s played by Kristen Stewart, suggests—via Skype—that her mom’s speech is too technical, not personal enough; Alice angrily ends the chat and turns away, frustrated at how difficult the task of writing has become; but she reworks the speech, and the movie doesn’t feel the need to show her revision process: we get it in the delivery itself, and it’s moving and inviting. If a movie must offer a kind of TED-talk presentation on a degenerative illness, the way Still Alice does so is the most effective, the most poignant method: humanizing, sympathetic, not self-pitying or self-absorbed.)

    I had a hard time convincing anyone to see Still Alice with me. And it’s no wonder. How do you recommend a movie like this—even when it’s so, so good—when you know people are going to be sad watching it? At some level, we go to movies like Still Alice for catharsis. The emotional intensity of the material demands that we confront our own fears. Perhaps the most honest thing Alice says is about the way this disease assaults her very identity, which is so wrapped up in her success as a professional thinker. Still Alice doesn’t try to explain this injustice. It confronts the tragedy—and the beauty—of human existence. And believe it or not, the movie isn’t a total bummer. “How can you call my life tragic?” Alice wonders. “I’ve had a successful career, a happy, stable marriage, three wonderful children” [I’m paraphrasing].”

    So, go see Still Alice, even though you are going to be sad, during and after. But let the intense gratitude of the film wash over you as much as the sorrow. My favorite moment in Still Alice occurs during Alice’s speech at the convention, when she quotes that lovely poem “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop, giving it a new kind of heartbreaking and beautiful meaning. I think I’ll close with it.

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art” from The Complete Poems 1926-1979. Copyright © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel. Reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC.

Source: The Complete Poems 1926-1979 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983)

Great Expectations

When Anne Bancroft, as the kooky old spinster Miss Dinsmoor, orders the young Finn (Jeremy James Kissner) to “Dance! Dance! Dance!,” I couldn’t help laughing. It reminded me of an early episode in 30 Rock when Jenna (Jane Krakowski) is at a ball trying to land an Austrian prince (played with so much grotesque brilliance by Paul Reubens), himself a long-suffering victim of the royal family’s generations of in-breeding. (He dies in the scene after drinking champaigne because his body cannot metabolize grapes.) The prince orders Jenna to “Dance!” and then keeps requesting different styles: “Jazz! Tap! Jitterbug! Charleston! Interpretive! Twirl! Do it again! Keep Twirling!”

Alfonso Cuarón’s 1998 adaptation of Great Expectations may be the most beautiful film of the 90s. And it’s no wonder, because the director of photography is Emmanuel Lubezki. (He just won his second Academy Award for his work on Birdman; his first win was for 2013’s Gravity, also directed by Caurón.) The movie is like a dance: every image connects thematically and has a rhythm; the scenes are elegant, beautiful, and complex; they are full of associations of other movies—Sunset Boulevard, A Streetcar Named Desire, maybe even a little of Bertolucci’s The Conformist—and yet they do not feel like rip-offs of other works. They may be camera-work riffs, or maybe they’re just the result of two cinematic show-offs. But who cares? The visual beauty of Great Expectations is so dazzling that it threatens to undermine my own stubborn love of plot.

Cuarón isn’t interested in telling the Dickens story faithfully in terms of plot: he changes many of the names, the setting, and the time period. But thematically, Cuarón beautifully captures the essence of Dickens’s great work and the classism at the heart of Pip’s (or Finn’s) rise from poverty to success and his deep desire to be great, to be a gentleman, to attain a girl (Estella, played as an adult by Gwyneth Paltrow) who is ranks above him. So, while Great Expectations `98 lacks some of the weight of the novel (in the same way that the stunning, naturalistically filmed 2011 Jane Eyre was gorgeous to look at it but strangely less effective than the novel itself or even some of the stagier filmings of the material).

But, while I didn’t feel as much of an emotional wallop in Cuarón’s Great Expectations, I was struck by the way he gets movies and how to turn novels into movies, more than most filmmakers. When we’re watching two masters like Cuarón and Lubezki at work, we see all that is possible in movies that cannot be achieved on a page: the splendiferous greens which permeate every image, finding themselves on clothes, furniture, drapes, and in the lighting itself; the deliciously Gothic Miss Dinsmoor (Miss Havisham in the novel), played like an even older version of Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard, with a little Blanche DuBois thrown in for good measure. (The film is set in Florida, on the Gulf.)

Ethan Hawke plays Finn, who grows up with his simple handyman brother-in-law Joe (Chris Cooper) and becomes a sensation in the New York art world thanks to an unknown benefactor. Robert De Niro plays the escaped conflict Finn assists early in the movie. The film is at its most bizarre (and delightful) when dwelling with the eccentric Miss Dinsmoor, who makes him come visit her dilapidated Spanish mansion, which looks like a resort hotel that was abandoned thirty years ago with all the furniture and the glasses still perfectly arranged (though they're now covered with a thick layer of dust). With Hank Azaria, Kim Dickens, and Josh Mostel. Cuarón co-wrote the screenplay with David Mamet and Mitch Glazer.

The Duff

The Duff is a high school comedy which purports to be about the arbitrary nature of labels, but isn’t quite ready to exist without them. It’s also a movie about dating and the social hierarchy and bullying and self-image and the nature of beauty and social media. (Because teen comedies can’t just be about friendship, anymore). The film grasps at so many themes and plot elements that its most charming feature—an unlikely, weird friendship between the protagonist Bianca (who’s basically invisible in her high school) and her nemesis, a “jock” named Wes—flounders, only to be given artificial respiration under the guise of an obvious and clichéd romance.

Wes is played by Robbie Amell, whose eyebrows look like perfectly manicured little boomerangs, framing his forehead in a constant furrow. (He looks like a young Louis Jourdan.) His character is more than a bit confounding, probably because the movie, which claims to be anti-labeling, labels him a “jock” and a “man-whore” from the word go, and then tries to humanize him. (It works because Amell has charm to spare even when he’s being sleazy, and despite a contrived effort to give him home-life problems near the end of the film.)

Bianca seems to dislike Wes, even though they grew up together and he is the only guy who pays any attention to her. (Granted, he’s also kind of a jerk to her, unless they’re alone, which is when he actually acts like a friend.) It is Wes who sets the plot into motion, by telling Bianca that in her friendship with beautiful, popular girls Jessica and Casey, Bianca is the “duff” or the “designated ugly fat friend.” Bianca has no reason to suspect Jessica and Casey of such conspiracy, but she dumps them anyway (in a badly staged scene in the school library).

The Duff has a lot of structural problems, and chief among these is the way it loses track of certain plot elements and characters. After Bianca’s friendship with Jessica and Casey goes on the skids, we barely see them until the end of the movie. A film about teenage girls that fails to explore the dynamics of their friendship feels a bit like a copout. The movie awkwardly transitions into a romantic teen comedy about a girl who’s anti-labels trying to change herself so that she can impress a guy.

This is director Ari Sandel’s first feature (he won an Oscar for his 2005 short film West Bank Story), and he is working with a script by Josh A. Cagan from Kody Keplinger’s novel. Sandel doesn’t yet have the knack of shaping a scene and drawing out the humor organically. There are some laughs, but Sandel relies too heavily obvious jokes and mugging from his performers. And, what’s more, he ties everything together with a clumsy narration from his star, Mae Whitman (whom viewers may remember as the girlfriend of Michael Cera’s character on Arrested Development). Whitman’s character, Bianca, often embarrasses herself for a laugh, and while this kind of self-deprecating humor can be charming, it sometimes feels like an act of desperation on the director’s part, as though he weren’t sure why we should like Bianca in the first place.

There’s a scene where Bianca and Wes go to a mall so that Bianca can revamp her wardrobe. Despite the fact that Wes is Bianca’s nemesis (at this point in the film, anyway), she enlists his help because he’s popular and knows what makes a girl look appealing. At least, that’s what Bianca imagines. But Bianca tries on a series of hideous outfits and the scene turns into a big joke. We’re just never sure who the joke is supposed to be on. Bianca makes out with a mannequin (calling him Toby, after the boy on whom she has a crush), while Wes records the scene with his phone so they can “evaluate” her later. This scene is really just a setup for one of the movie’s major plot points: Bianca’s mugging is also recorded by an underling of the high school queen bee and the video goes viral. Bianca becomes the school pariah, and all because the queen bee (played by Madison Morgan, who’s terrific and possesses not just a flare for being conniving and narcissistic, but also a real comic touch that accentuates her performance).

The Duff is an imperfect comedy, but even still, that moment—when the girl and the guy express their love for each other at the school prom— that we’ve been essentially conditioned to expect in a film like this is somehow just as exciting as if it were new. And, even though the film has problems, I appreciate that it has layers to it, despite the fact that those layers aren’t very seamlessly put together.

With Allison Janney (as Bianca’s mom) and Ken Jeong (as her journalism teacher). 

February 15, 2015

Purple Noon

Tom Ripley (Alain Delon) is a loafer and a sponge, but he’s also poor and undistinguished; luckily, Tom is very clever, so when he’s sent to Rome to corral his old friend Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), whose millionaire father wants him back home in America, their friendship revives in their mutual understanding that Philippe has no intention of honoring his father’s wishes. They spend their time idling around Rome together, sailing together, and chasing girls together. But Philippe knows that Tom is not a true friend; Tom is an interloper and an opportunist, a man who will pursue his own personal gain at all costs. This is the setup for René Clément’s Purple Noon (Plein Soleil, 1960), a beautifully shot adaptation of the 1955 Patricia Highsmith novel The Talented Mr. Ripley. (Anthony Minghella remade it in 1999 under the original title, and cast Matt Damon and Jude Law in the leads.)

Clément and his cinematographer, Henri Decaë, turn a decidedly unpleasant plot into a gorgeous-looking movie set along the sun-baked Mediterranean. It’s hard not to be taken with this film’s visual beauty; it’s also hard to take your eyes off the bronzed, beautiful actors, and that may be the reason that Philippe, who sees through Tom Ripley’s act, allows Tom to accompany him even when he catches Tom wearing his clothes, or flirting with his girlfriend Marge (Marie Laforêt). It’s obvious that Tom is at the very least enamored of Philippe, if not in love with him. And Philippe, perhaps because he’s also something of an egoist, seems flattered by it even if he doesn’t reciprocate. He likes having a devoted follower, someone to envy him; it’s a relationship based on the kind of power Philippe has versus the kind of power Tom has: one of them has money, the other smarts. Tom is a trained observer of people, and he uses this ability time and again to gain information and get what he wants.

When I saw The Talented Mr. Ripley in theaters fifteen years ago, I was struck by the nastiness of the whole plot. Purple Noon somehow manages to subvert that nastiness much more effectively. The moral decay at the core of this story is deliberately at adds with the enchantment of the Continent. Purple Noon is lighter in tone that the 1999 remake. While we’re never fully sympathetic with Tom Ripley or his designs, Clément still makes us identify with him. We fall under his spell too, even though really he’s not as charming as we think. He’s good-looking and ruthless. He knows exactly what to do, what to say, how to act. These are the chief talents of Tom Ripley. The remake turns him into something psychologically perverse: he’s a disturbed weirdo. In Purple Noon, he is a selfish bastard. It's the simplicity of it that makes Purple Noon the better film: it's a movie, not a psyche evaluation. 

February 13, 2015

Solaris, and Some Thoughts on Foreign Films

I can still remember the unmitigated agony of watching my first “foreign” film. (I employ the use of quotation marks because, somehow, the word feels like an American vulgarity, a dismissal of anything cinematic which did not issue from within our own borders.) The movie in question was Roman Polanski’s nightmarish psychological thriller Repulsion (1965), of which I’d read promising things. Leonard Maltin, in his giant annual movie guide, had given the film four stars and praised it as a classic of the horror genre. I loved horror movies. The title sounded intriguing. And how many horror movies got four stars? So when I finally encountered the movie, I was more than a little disappointed by how strange and dull it seemed. I think it nearly put me off foreign films for good. But at the time, IFC was showing a lot of them, and I somehow found myself watching another renowned Roman Polanski film, Knife in the Water, which I found equally insufferable.

Looking back on it, I realize that what I needed was my own personal foreign film curator: someone to gradually introduce me to world cinema and help me understand that I was used to American sensibilities, which were different from say, European, sensibilities. Watching foreign movies isn’t all that different from visiting a foreign country. It helps to familiarize yourself with the customs of the people first. Going in cold can feel like a freefall through an enormous vacuum of space.

It doesn’t help that so many critics write and talk about foreign films as the art of the enlightened, movies you either “get” or you don’t. Those who are lucky enough to “get” them do so because they’re smart and hip, and the rest of us are hopeless buffoons in the world of art, wandering the museum with childish restlessness and mispronouncing the names of the painters. And that is true to a degree, because I entered the world of foreign films as a complete naïf. I was too stupid to watch a Roman Polanski film, except maybe one of his English-language ones like Rosemary’s Baby.

The good news is—I think—I did not stay stupid. Gradually, as I challenged myself to watch more films in other languages, I began to understand them better. It’s taken me a while, and there are still moments of genuine mind-numbing cinematic agony, like when I sat down to watch Godard’s Weekend (1967), which is the single most excruciating foreign-language film I’ve ever watched. But then there were also surprises. Happy surprises, like Bertolucci’s The Conformist. I remember watching it and being slightly disinterested, but then, as a day or so went by, feeling that the movie had begun to improve in my mind. Those images, so beautiful, held immense power over my memory. It was like the first time I tasted the things in the red wine that the label told me I was supposed to taste. My appreciation had turned into enjoyment, almost instantly, although really it had been a process of time and gradual understanding.

My advice for people who are challenging themselves to delve into the world (or is it worlds?) of foreign films is: Don’t demand too much of yourself as a viewer (at first), but also don’t stop challenging yourself. We don’t have to like a movie just because the Criterion Collection has released it in a beautiful new edition. (Their artwork turns me into the biggest sucker, paying thirty dollars for movies I haven’t even seen because of the gorgeous cover designs.) However, it is not always the movie’s fault that we don’t like it. Sometimes, it really is us. Our own response to a given film is dependant on so many things including our moods, our expectations, the setting in which we’re watching the film, as well as our own knowledge and love of art and literature.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) is a nearly-three-hour-long Russian science fiction film. (It’s based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem; it was remade in 2002 by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney.) I’ve been wanting to watch Solaris for years, but that running time, and the almost insurmountable certainty that I was not going to have a good time, held me back. With this in mind, I decided to watch it in sections. And I also decided not to expect anything riveting. This is a movie set mostly on the fictional planet Solaris, but the movie spends 45 minutes meandering on earth.

Somehow, the film’s slow pace and calm, contemplative nature work for it. You find yourself pulled in as the main character, a scientist named Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), visits a space station on the planet Solaris, where his colleagues have been experiencing some decidedly strange phenomena. Namely, people long dead are walking around the station. People they know. When Kris arrives, he sees his dead wife (Natalya Bondarchuk) wandering the station’s quiet, eerily winding corridors. His reaction isn’t an eruption of joy or grief or anything. He’s almost unnervingly calm, and then, as he begins to understand what’s happening and why, we are pulled even deeper into this strange, haunting, beautiful, and yes, sometimes boring, film.  

What is the cause of this seemingly supernatural occurrence? What does it all mean? What are the limits of human consciousness and the self? These are some of the questions Solaris asks. The film doesn’t rush to conclusions, preferring instead to linger with the questions. This may sound like a lot of philosophical, arty, naval-gazing. And perhaps viewers will find it hard to care about such questions in a movie that runs so long. But Tarkovsky’s images are compelling in and of themselves without all the philosophy.

The best science fiction movies allow us to enter a world and really take it in. We’ve become so accustomed to the flashy thrill ride pictures of sci-fi that may be partly the product of Ridley Scott’s and James Cameron’s early work (Alien, Blade Runner, The Terminator and Aliens). Hollywood sci-fi movies can create interesting worlds, but too often we spend very little time contemplating these worlds. (Or, the world is so grim and depressing that we wouldn’t want to spend any time thinking about it, let alone actually inhabit it.) Scott’s Alien is indeed (as I’ve written before) a masterpiece of deliberate pacing. Terminator and even Aliens to a lesser degree have a kind of brilliance to them in their cheap, big-movie aesthetics. They’re both entertaining films. Blade Runner, which is a convoluted mess, may be the closest in tone to Solaris, but that’s mainly because they’re both very slow-moving films. But what makes a film like Blade Runner so dull and a film like Solaris so interesting despite its slowness? (I should add that many people find Blade Runner to be a great film; I offer it up for comparison partly for that reason, and partly for the reason that I find it incredibly tedious.)

Solaris works because of the questions behind the imagery, anchoring the film. Blade Runner, which does ask similar questions about what defines humanness (the replicants in Blade Runner begin to take on human emotions just like the human “manifestations” in Solaris), doesn’t hold up at the root. It’s essentially a shallow piece of filmmaking, with garish aesthetics tacked on to give it the semblance of grand, “important” art. Solaris, which is a spare, simple production on many levels, doesn’t try so hard to be gaudy art. As arty as it is, it’s easier to take on its own terms than a film like Blade Runner. Both are visually grand; only one has any real depth to it.

There is real human feeling in Solaris, and that is the ingredient which some of our own genre pieces have failed to achieve. If a world like Solaris is capable of regenerating human forms, does it matter if they aren’t really the people we once knew? Or, are they the people once knew? I love the mysteries embedded in these questions. The emotions conjured up in Solaris are powerful, like reading a line of poetry that breaks your heart. Indeed, Solaris is maybe the most poetic science fiction film. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, which is a ridiculously self-important, inflated piece of moviemaking that I kind of love anyway, strains for poetry but doesn’t always achieve it. Solaris doesn’t have to strain for anything. Yes, it’s asking big questions and yes, it’s an arty movie, but somehow, these aspects never feel like superficial props. Tarkovsky is not trying to manipulate us. He’s wondering (and wandering) out loud, and inviting us to come with him.

February 08, 2015

Raging Bull

Raging Bull (1980) is probably the most overrated movie of the last 50 years, from probably the most overrated director, Martin Scorsese. Admittedly, I’m a biased reviewer. (Who isn’t?) I don’t usually respond to movies about boxing, and in the last few years I’ve developed a real antipathy for films that are about men and men only, with only marginal roles for women in them. (When half of the population is women, and when there are so many good women who act, why are movies so man-centric?) That’s probably why the only thing I liked about Raging Bull was Cathy Moriarty’s performance. She plays the wife of the film’s subject, boxing legend Jake LaMotta, who’s played by Robert De Niro.

Movie-lovers often bemoan the fact that Robert Redford’s suburban-family-coming-apart-at-the-seams drama Ordinary People won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1980, beating the obviously artistically superior Raging Bull. I’ve bit my tongue until now because I hadn’t bothered to watch Raging Bull. Now that I have—an endurance test if ever there was one—I remain securely tethered to team Ordinary People, even if Raging Bull is cinematically superior. It’s incredibly well-made, technically speaking. The stark, naturalistic black-and-white camera-work and the editing are truly masterful.

But the film’s technical achievements do not change the fact that its subject matter and its execution are monumentally unsatisfying and truly disturbing. This is a film about the emptiness of a New York prizefighter who’s consumed with jealousy and reduced entirely to his physical powers in the boxing ring. He’s a piece of meat. There’s no depth to De Niro’s characterization. Pauline Kael (I’ve never been so happy to be in agreement with her on a movie) put it best when she argued in her review that Raging Bull is looking back to the films of Brando and Coppola, trying to top them. Movies that scratch and claw their way to greatness can sometimes be fascinating—especially if they fail—but Raging Bull’s quest for greatness works against it.

Beneath all the showy cinematography and the showy acting of Robert De Niro, there’s very little humanity. Critics have repeatedly used this argument against De Niro (most recently for The Wolf of Wall Street), but not necessarily for Raging Bull, perhaps because they’re convinced by its technical style and De Niro’s macho machinations that the film is a brilliant piece of art. What Martin Scorsese achieves is a really well-made film about terrible people, but the film’s seriousness and its grandiosity make it seem like we should find these people interesting, or redeeming, or worth our time in some way. But that’s not true about any of them except for Jake LaMotta’s wife, whom he beats up on, accuses of infidelity, and then woos back with sweet nothings in a constant vicious cycle. Watching self-destructive men beat up on their women just isn’t that gratifying, especially when the women don’t get to fight back much. (There is one scene where Moriarty stands up to him, but he socks her in the face, and not long after, she’s back with him and all is apparently forgiven. She does eventually leave him, but years later, and the dramatic effect of the act is underwhelming.)

Joe Pesci, as Jake’s brother and manager, is admittedly very good in his role. But like De Niro’s performance, the acting he does turns into a tired, repetitive schtick. He, just like LaMotta’s long-suffering wife, seems always to be coming back to his brother even when Jake abuses him physically and accuses Pesci of sleeping with his wife. (Jake LaMotta’s mood ring is a constant volcanic red, and his absurd jealousy becomes tiresome, maddening and eventually infuriating.) I don’t want to make definitive statements about movies, but in this case, I really do not have any desire to see a movie about these kinds of characters. (And again, boxing.)


Watching Juno (2007)--for the first time--reminded me of all the other independent movies I saw during the first decade of the 21st century, and how they all had a kind of disaffected, ironic tone to them. This was a trendy way to make movies in the decade of the 2000s, perhaps as a reaction against Hollywood’s big dramatic escapist gestures of the 90s, like Titanic or Braveheart or Saving Private Ryan. I’m not quite sure what it is that made so many independent films between 2000 and 2009 have this quality of resistance to direct emotion, but suddenly it was not cool for movies to have feelings unless the characters were fully “aware” of what they were feeling and how they were feeling it. Moreover, all of these indie films took on a hipsterish quality, embracing everything that was aesthetically vintage, and indeed the ironic tone of which I speak is pretty hipsterish in and of itself. It made for an interesting if underwhelming spate of films such as Donnie Darko, The Life Aquatic, The Door in the Floor, Garden State, Napoleon Dynamite, Sideways, Junebug, The Squid and the Whale, Away We Go, and (500) Days of Summer. I hated a lot of these movies (and loved a handful of them), and now that we seem to have gotten over this period of disaffectedness in movies (I mean, last year’s The Immigrant was absolutely in touch with its emotions, and 2013’s Frances Ha, which did embody some of these qualities to a degree, wasn’t ashamed of letting you feel for its heroine), it seems like a good time to go back and take stock of them. What was going on in these films? What was it that, despite the fact that independent films are supposed to be known for their stunning originality, made them all feel like slight variations of each other? (I hope to explore more of them in the coming months, but for now I'll focus on Juno.)

Juno absolutely embodies these trendy-indie qualities. The film’s writer-director, Jason Reitman, has created a character who seems almost unreal in her self-awareness. Juno, played by Ellen Page, is a teenager who gets pregnant in high school and then decides to have the baby and give it up for adoption—to a loving, wealthy suburban couple played by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner. Juno waltzes through the movie with a cutting, self-deprecating sense of humor, her armor against a world that has presumably proven itself again and again to be a place of disappointment. For the first hour or so I found her incredibly grating. (Chief among my complaints was the dialogue, as Juno says a lot of stupid phrases like “do me a solid” that feel like a middle-aged person trying to write youthful dialogue and missing the mark.) 

Worse yet was the hipster-music soundtrack. Every song was precious and felt like bad folk tunes merged with bad high school band music (ala Sufjan Stevens). These songs are of the cutesy and vintage variety, and this was a particular annoyance to me, because it felt like the movie didn’t want to experience any kind of direct emotion, not even in its music. Instead of having a score that would move the audience (which might be manipulative), the music instead coats every scene in a kind of superficial self-awareness glass cage, like the Pope driving in a motorcade encased in bullet-proof glass. Juno is prickly under the weight of all this armor, and seems unable to have a real conversation without a continuous self-commentary, like someone who berates herself so as to prevent anyone else from doing so. Reitman also can’t resist having his characters (namely Ellen Page and Jason Bateman) argue about their taste in music and movies, name-dropping directors and bands. At one point, they sit down and watch a Herschell Gordon Lewis splatter movie called The Wizard of Gore (on VHS, which is so hipster). There was also the critique of suburbia that is oh so easy for movies to make. But, the movie redeems itself in that area, because Reitman humanizes his characters (most of them), and doesn’t try to make some sweeping statement about all people living in suburbia (or anywhere, for that matter).

Halfway through the movie, my attitude toward Juno shifted because of a realization I had: Despite the “indie”-ness of this film, Jason Reitman does want his characters to feel things directly, and his story is actually quite sentimental and touching. But for some reason he felt compelled to lay all this hipstery independent-movie paraphernalia on top of the story, perhaps to make it feel less like a CBS movie-of-the-week, or one of those low-budget teenage abortion dramas from the 1970s. (Also, watching Juno really improved my feelings about 2014's Obvious Child, starring Jenny Slate. I think it's probably the better film.) So Juno is a faux-clever indie comedy-drama about teenage pregnancy that, underneath all its prickles and irregularities, is a truly affecting, winning study of human drama. The individual emotional crises of all the characters are well-thought-out and proportional; the problems between the married couple feel both believable and believably resolved (or is it unresolved?) at the end of the picture (Jennifer Garner, it should be noted, gives a terrific performance), and Juno’s journey of self-awareness actually achieves something: the too-smart-for-her-own-good protagonist does feel things, and can be affected by the people in her life. (And even though some of Juno's dialogue is irritating, there are many laugh-out-loud funny lines in this movie.)

Also, Juno isn’t nearly as cynical as its top layer would have us believe. Indeed, it’s a movie that wants to hope that people can be better than they are, without cleaning up all the mess in a specious, sitcom-like finale. I liked Juno in spite of itself at times, and if I could just change the soundtrack and some of Juno's inane dialogue, I’d probably be content with it. With J.K. Simmons (as Juno’s dad), Allison Janney (as Juno’s stepmom, who delivers a few good zingers), Michael Cera (as Juno’s best friend and baby daddy), and Olivia Thirlby (as her best girlfriend).

February 07, 2015

A Most Violent Year

In writer-director J.C. Chandor’s film A Most Violent Year, Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, an Hispanic immigrant living in New York City in 1981. Morales wants to build his business empire without resorting to the illegal acts of so many of his counterparts, but finds this increasingly difficult when he becomes the target of an ambitious district attorney (David Oyelowo) as well as an unknown thief, who has apparently hired men to steal the gasoline from Abel’s trucks, to the tune of 200,000 dollars-worth of fuel. Abel is about to make a massive real estate purchase—of a shipyard right on the Hudson River—that will ensure the growth of his company, but when his banker reneges on the loan, his wife (played by Jessica Chastain), herself the daughter of a mobster, encourages him to do whatever is necessary—whether legal or not—to obtain the shipyard. This movie is about Abel’s personal struggle to remain legitimate and how such an aspiration seems almost impossible in Abel’s chosen field.

All you need to see is one of the movie trailers for A Most Violent Year to tell that the film has been christened as an important work. It oozes prestige like sap from a massive oak tree. The National Board of Review hailed it as the best film of 2014, and it has garnered a host of other accolades (although Oscar ignored it completely). What’s unfortunate is that A Most Violent Year has some truly fascinating elements that fail to come together, and these elements are further pushed down by the movie’s own heaviness. Chandor, so grimly obsessed with emulating a great 70s movie, has captured none of the vitality of a film like The Godfather or Dog Day Afternoon. He has some wonderful assets, chiefly his star Oscar Isaac, who’s a terrific performer and who can carry a picture like this with ease. Chandor makes him up like a Ken Doll version of a 1970s Al Pacino. Isaac sports a thick wisp of black hair sprinkled with grey, and he strides around in nice-looking suits and a beige trench coat. The look is flawless, almost too flawless; and the movie itself is too perfect, too slick to be what Chandor wants it to be, but also too lifeless.

For one thing, the title A Most Violent Year is misleading. It suggests a catalog of the crimes of 1981, which was apparently a very active year for crime in New York. With such a title and such a time period, we expect the movie to be about the district attorney, but he has relatively little screen time. It’s a clunky, constricting title that again raises our expectations for something grand and definitive. The intriguing element at the heart of J.C. Chandor’s film—the attempted rise of the anti-gangster—cannot stay afloat.

In fact, the 1981-ness of the film feels so tacked onto the story that one wonders why this movie had to be set 35 years ago, or why even the movie has been made in the first place. We can only assume that J.C. Chandor, whose debut film, 2011’s Margin Call, was a first-rate exploration of the 2008 financial meltdown, is convinced that looking into the past will certify him as a great filmmaker. As fantastic as the 1970s were, we need filmmakers who can speak to what’s happening now, who can push movies forward rather than backward. (Chandor did that so well with Margin Call). Learning from cinema of the past is incredibly important, but wallowing in it just feels like cheap imitation, not real art. Margin Call is a compelling, surprisingly complex film, while A Most Violent Year lacks depth.   

As Abel’s wife Anna, Jessica Chastain looks like a homicidal, ferocious Barbie doll. She keeps her nails long and sharp and her breasts featured prominently in her clothes, maintaining a weird mixture of sex-kitten femininity and aggressiveness. It doesn’t always work, chiefly because her character never gets to do much. In an early scene, we see Anna taking charge of a situation: While driving one evening, Abel hits a deer, and Anna insists that he put the deer out of its misery. He extracts a tire iron from the trunk of the car and hesitantly approaches the dying deer (the only heartbreaking moment in the film), and pauses, waiting, hesitating more. Then we hear two shots, and we see Anna holding a gun. That’s when it becomes clear why Chandor included this scene in the first place: Anna will do what’s necessary when Abel will not. Chandor does make use of Anna near the end of the movie when Abel is unable to make his payment on the shipyard. But other than that, her character seems dramatically untapped. She’s a grenade waiting to go off, but she never goes off.

There are more problems. One of Abel’s truck drivers, Julian (Elyes Gabel) is accosted by two thieves and put into the hospital with a broken jaw and some other severe wounds. When he finally gets back on his feet, he’s obviously unhinged, partly because he’s afraid of another robbery and partly because he feels powerless to improve his economic circumstances. When Julian is attacked again, he brandishes a handgun and gets involved in a shootout with the attempted robbers. The police arrive, but Julian runs from the scene like one of the criminals instead of telling the police that he was being attacked. Julian’s emotional breakdown never worked for me because it seemed so illogical for him to run. (Perhaps if Chandor had shown us that the police were corrupt or unwilling to believe his story, Julian’s decision to flee the scene might be more credible.)   

A Most Violent Year isn’t even as violent as you might expect, although it does have a surprising number of jolting moments, as though Chandor were jumping out at us from behind a door and yelling, “Boo!” He does this multiple times, and it’s never clear why we’re meant to be on edge, unless the director mistakenly thinks that this is how you build tension. This film is yet another example of a movie having a variety of excellent parts (strong actors, an interesting subject, good technicians working on it) and amounting to a disappointing result. It may be the only Oscar decision I can really get behind. (Although, I do think people should see this movie. It’s certainly interesting even when it fails to work.)

February 04, 2015

Tokyo Drifter

Tokyo Drifter (1966). Director Sejuin Suzuki’s dazzling, violent story of a young gangster named Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari) who tries to quit his career as a gangster's hired man, but finds it more difficult than expected when his own former gang turns on him, threatening to kill him if he doesn’t return to them. Other rival gangs are after Testu too, so he decides to leave Tokyo, but he’s pursued across Japan and is continuously dragged into fights with them—which he wins with his amazingly precise reflexes and keen instincts. Watari is a terrific lead: He’s charming, smart, quiet, and knows how to act with his body, conveying his character’s motivation, conflict, and anguish with movement. This kind of acting, because it doesn’t involve dramatic soliloquys, is highly undervalued. It’s the kind of acting at which Keanu Reeves is so adept, and what made his latest action film, John Wick, a particular treat. (John Wick, incidentally, owes more than a bit to Tokyo Drifter.)

Like The Conformist, Tokyo Drifter is a film that improves the more I reflect on it. It’s probably very American of me to lump two foreign films together simply on the basis of their foreignness, but they're two foreign films that I've really enjoyed, not just endured. As I’ve purposed myself to absorb as many of the “great” movies of world cinema, I’ve often found it tough going. Foreign movies are frequently more challenging than American movies, and not because of the subtitles. It’s the fact that so many international films eschew the plot-driven aspect of the movies in favor of a more visceral cinematic experience. (This isn’t to say that American films never achieve this, or that either method is better than the other; nor is this meant to be a definitive statement about world cinema, but rather a general observation about many of the foreign movies I’ve watched.)

Bertolucci’s The Conformist was the first foreign film I saw that stuck with me for weeks after I’d seen it. The images of that movie really ingrained themselves in my mind, and even if some elements of the plot have faded away, I remember the images with pleasure, with a feeling of wonder at their beauty and their power, even when removed from the context of story. I must admit, I've had to acquire and nurture an appreciation--and an enjoyment--for the impressionistic feeling movies can give. I was raised to consume movies as mindless entertainment, so watching them in such a different way didn't always come naturally. But as I was watching Tokyo Drifter, which at first seemed incoherent and boring, I began to realize that the same thing--that movement into a new corridor of enjoyment and experience which had happened during (and after) The Conformist--was happening with this film. The plot of Tokyo Drifter isn’t all that difficult to follow, but Suzuki doesn’t always take the time to explain every scene thoroughly; he assumes the viewer won’t care if he makes certain jumps in action or exposition; instead, he’s interested in the next set piece. And you really can’t fault him for that. The action, though a little less believable now, is nothing if not well-choreographed and exciting.

Tokyo Drifter has the same kind of philosophical underpinning as an American Western film: it’s about a man who’s driven by some inner force that propels him forward and compels him to act; that internal push is, quite naturally, a threat to those on the outside, which is why so many people are out to kill poor Tetsu in cold blood. He’s so utterly likable that it’s hard to believe anyone would to kill him (and some often withdraw because they see the futility and the immorality of harming someone so easy to like as Tetsu), and yet, he’s also so much in command of his powers that you’re never all that worried for his safety. (And still, the film is still exciting and compelling, rather than pointless.)

I will probably have to watch Tokyo Drifter again to fully appreciate it, but even now I can see images from the movie which are utterly gorgeous, and some of them also incredibly violent. Watari, who gracefully moves through every shot like a panther, --decked out in a handsome blue-gray suit--is reason enough to like Tokyo Drifter. And there are lots of seedy bad guys, some of them fighting over a real estate scam, and lots of scenes of night clubs and other film noir-type locations. The jazzy score, so emblematic of that swinging 60s style, is a reminder that this is a movie. That’s one of the truly beautiful things about this film, one which distinguishes it from so many of our own action films, especially of recent years: it’s light, even though it’s not particularly comedic. Even the seriousness of the movie is light in tone, so you never feel bogged down emotionally. It’s exciting, it’s thoughtful, it’s serious about being a good movie, but it’s not interested in being an important movie, or being anything other than a well-crafted, thoughtful piece of entertainment.

February 02, 2015

Thelma & Louise

A blockbuster about the friendship between two women is rare. Not because they can’t make money, but because studios think of them as risky. Thelma & Louise (1991) isn’t always successful as a movie, but it is successful as a study of two women who’ve been burned one too many times by the men in their lives and the men who run the world. Thelma and Louise take it on the lam after unexpectedly committing murder (that of a rapist pig) and most of the film dramatizes their trek through the West toward Mexico as the police struggle to keep up with them. 

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis are perfectly cast, and it is their performances and the bond that develops between these two characters that breathes a real vitality into what is really a very conventional Hollywood road movie. It’s nowhere near as groundbreaking as Bonnie and Clyde was in terms of violence, and yet, it’s tremendously groundbreaking in the way it portrays women who, once they’ve tasted freedom from the shackles of their former lives, finally start to feel alive. It’s somewhat surprising to see a movie like Thelma & Louise come from a director such as Ridley Scott, even though he did give us such a strong female character in Alien (Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley). But this is a different, deeper approach to exploring the lives of women on the screen, and the film is bolstered by many loose scenes of the two ladies talking, laughing, or in some cases, just looking at each other and communicating whole worlds of expression. That dynamic is what makes Thelma & Louise an important film, even if the parts of the movie are better than the whole. The affection that we as an audience feel for them is also very deep and true, and, like Bonnie and Clyde before it, the film thus succeeds in getting its audience to root for the “bad guys.” 

So much of what happens to Thelma and Louise is filtered through a lens of experience that is all too believable: Women are not just bossed around by men, they’re controlled by them in a much deeper way that creates in some women a need for the prisons that men create. They become victims of Stockholm Syndrome, if you will. We see it in the early scenes of Thelma & Louise, especially with Geena Davis’s character, whose husband neglects her, mocks her, and belittles her, and demands domestic labor of her, all the while carrying on affairs. 

As the movie progresses, the two women transform from their dowdy, frumpishly dressed former-selves, so weary of the world, into more confident, sexually aware (but not self-exploitive) and powerful women. Susan Sarandon never looks more radiant than with her hair framing her face or blowing in the wind as she pounds away at the dusty highways of the American West. And Geena Davis's Thelma, who is so inept at first and so afraid to do anything that might exercise her own agency, becomes incredibly self-assured. These transformations are indeed fascinating, and they make the film’s legendary ending all the more poignant and, strangely, satisfying. 

Thelma & Louise actually has more in common with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It is after all a buddy movie that tries very hard to transmute its tragic elements into comedy. (In the case of Thelma & Louise, this works intermittently, more consistently in the last half of the movie.) With Harvey Keitel as an Arkansas cop investigating the murder and subsequent flight of the two suspects; Brad Pitt as a sweet-talking hitchhiker; also Michael Madsen, Christopher McDonald, Stephen Tobolowsky, Timothy Carhart, Jason Beghe, and Marco St. John. Written by Calli Khouri; music by Hans Zimmer; cinematography by Adrian Biddle.