Film: “Wild Tales”

May 18, 2015

This Argentinian film was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Film last year, and I recommend it, with reservations.

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Erica Rivas in “Wild Tales”

 The writer-director, Damian Szifron, has a jaundiced view of humanity, but is inclined to see the humor in how we pathetic creatures relate to each other. Of the six stories he tells, only one, the last, even hints that something else besides meanness and venality reside within the human breast. And even in that story, total disaster is just barely averted.

All of the tales are told from a comfortably successful middle-class perspective. The six stories are, in brief summary: the passengers in a plane discover a disturbing common element in their background; a waitress has dark memories from her past awakened by a customer; two drivers have a road-rage blow-up, like a Laurel and Hardy nightmare; a demolitions expert’s car is towed; a businessman discovers that his son is a hit-and-run driver; and, finally, a wedding celebration is totally demolished in a jealous rage.

While entertaining, I have to say the film falls short of the mark. The writing is clever, subtle and occasionally, brilliant. Szifron structures each tale skillfully, and has a good ear for dialogue, which is not lost in the subtitles. But, as the legend best put it, in comparison to death, which is easy, comedy is hard. And satire is doubly so, because the characters are not going to be particularly likeable. There’s simply no substitute for laughs, and I sat there, squirming, because they didn’t come.

I don’t think it’s the actors’ fault. The performances seemed skillful enough, but, with two exceptions, they weren’t comic performances. All too often we see close-ups of characters who look vaguely distressed, and even angry about their situation, but which seem too mild for the absurd chaos that suddenly confronts them. This was especially hurtful in the hit-and-run story, because it was the sharpest satire. The idea that the law is easily manipulated to let the guilty off, and punish the innocent, is certainly not new. And Szifron’s treatment doesn’t hold back; its as nasty as anything Billy Wilder would have dreamed up. But the acting, both in facial expression and gesture, never threatens to explode into the exaggerated, lashed-out desperation – the wildness, if you will – that pulls out the laughter from us.

Compare this with the performances in the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading, a film that always makes me laugh. The two films are about the same in terms of the extremity of the situations and the stupidity and desperation of the characters. But Burn wins in laughs because the actors play it “straight”, which, in comedy terms, means they show us the most extreme human behavior in that situation.

This isn’t easy to do. But the Coens knew their clever script wasn’t enough, and they got their talented cast to go all out because farce is funniest when played for total panic; being too “real” is a loser. So even a stupid script, as in Neighbors, can get laughs when its director, Nicholas Stoller, kicks the performances up to that level, and doesn’t lose it by getting too fancy.

But I thought two actresses broke out of the pack because they added enough in terms of expression, or just plain comic shtick, to bring out the fun. Maybe they sensed that the director was just not getting their best stuff so they had to squeeze it in somehow. In the wedding story, Erica Rivas, as the bride, makes her dizzying shifts in mood totally believable, and funnier for it. Also, Rita Cortese, as a cook with a knowing touch with rat poison, is quietly hilarious.

Writer Szifron set a very high bar for his director – himself – but didn’t quite clear it. Based on the film’s reception, I know that’s a minority opinion. But there you have it.

3 at Tribeca

May 3, 2015

Here’s my take on three at Tribeca 2015.

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Richard Gere in “Frannie”

The sole entertainment value in Franny – a considerable one – is watching Richard Gere go to town in a bravura performance in the title role as a charismatic, sexy, charming multi-millionaire who desperately uses his money to atone for guilt in the deaths of his best friends, a couple, played by Dylan Baker and Cheryl Hines, who companioned him in his pleasure-loving lifestyle. The film begins with his reconciliation with their adult daughter, Olivia, played by Dakota Fanning. Now married and pregnant with her first child, she is returning to Philadelphia five years after her parents’ fatal accident. Partly in guilt because she feels she abandoned Franny, who was also badly injured, she also remembers the warmth of their previous relationship.

Gere never lets up in showing how this character dominates everyone around him. He is a man-child who feels entitled to their submission because he only wants to do good, and, more importantly, because nobody has ever denied him anything.  Franny not only gives Olivia’s husband a job, as a doctor in the hospital he built, but he gives the couple a gift of the house Olivia was raised in.

Franny’s biggest obstacle is the growing resentment of Olivia’s husband, Luke, played by newcomer Theo James with appeal and vitality. He chaffs at the demands of his benefactor, who is startled that someone actually refuses his favors. Matters come to a head, dramatically speaking, when Franny cannot get the drugs he’s come to depend on after the accident.

Gere must be given credit for keeping this leaky boat from sinking under its implausibilities. But the script gives poor Dakota Fanning no help in making her character credible. We can believe in Franny’s devotion to her, but Olivia’s motives are less clear. What, exactly, drives her to return to Philadelphia after starting a career and a marriage? Were there unresolved sexual feelings for the man she’d idolized since childhood? Surprisingly, the story just skips over this complex situation on its way to a contrived feel-good ending.

The bigger problem, however, is Franny himself. He never married, has no family and has a fortune that, apparently, derives neither from inheritance nor talent. Whether the legions of supporters who follow him around really like him, or just his money, is never seriously considered. As a result, Franny, for all of Gere’s dynamic energy, is just a shadow of a character.

There’s considerable skill evident in telling the story, however. Writer-director Andrew Renzi gives pace and fluidity to the action, and, with the exception of Fanning’s hopeless role, gets strong performances. To its credit, it’s always pretty to look at even while we wait for the story to make sense. I kept waiting for Franny to come alive for me as a person, to no avail. But the film only lost me for good when Franny was too stupid to know that you don’t go to a pharmacy to score painkillers in Philadelphia, you go to a cop.

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Tim Morton in “Men Go To Battle”

 Men Go To Battle owes most of its conviction to solid, subtle performances from its actors rather than expensive production values. This is truly the Civil War on micro-budget. Director Zachary Treitz, who co-wrote it with Kate Lyn Shiel, won best narrative director of the festival, which I fully appreciate.

Francis and Henry Mellon are two brothers working a small, hardscrabble farm in rural Kentucky. We see early on that Henry is quiet, and maybe not too bright. Francis, on the other hand, is a loud, boorish braggart, but probably not as smart as his brother. But Francis is the prime mover in their lives; Henry just goes along. Times are tough, and Francis looks to sell some land, but Henry demurs. He shows no interest in changing things.

By the end of the film, their lives are totally different. Henry meets a young girl, Betsy (Rachel Korine), shows interest in her, but then walks away. He goes off to fight for the Union, but it’s not clear why. Anyway, he is stunned unconscious during a firefight, and wakes up to a field of the dead. He starts home, not even taking his rifle. He stays a night with a young woman and her children, she being alone while her husband is at war. Then he goes looking for Francis. He finds him at a dance, and is introduced to his brother’s bride, who was the girl Henry had flirted with before. Francis had sold some land, which put him into position to negotiate for a bride. Finally, after staying the night with them at the farm, Henry takes a few things, including some cash, and leaves before they wake up.

While this outline is sketchy – and I did find the continuity and details confusing at times – there is a lot of substantive context in this simple story. The characters all live within the values of their time. No political issue is ever raised; it’s just not important to anyone. All women are property, they know it and hope for the best. Nothing is as important as family, and brothers are expected to support each other. That’s why you don’t complain when your brother is cruel to you and cheats you. The only thing you can do is leave.

The arc of the story is Henry’s growth towards independence. But along the way, we witness a lifestyle that was the chosen path for most of this country. This modest film illuminates an era because it shows how traditional values can be embedded, deeply, into the character of a nation. It succeeds because its people are particularized. Their goals are shaped, and shared, by others in their community. The Civil War is just an event, like a lingering weather pattern.

In the beginning, Francis is just a buffoon. The shrewd Francis at the end seems a different character entirely, and I didn’t quite buy it.  A standout scene – which other critics pointed out – is Henry’s chat with Betsy at the dance. It is inspired.

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Josh Caras and Ian Christopher Noel in “Jackrabbit”

Unlike the other two films, Jackrabbit was not shown in competition. It is another variation on that hoary staple of B films, the post-apocalyptic society, where overlords oppress and isolate the people.

The location is Sector VI, somewhere in the western part of the country, where a corporation, Vopo Technologies, provides for all needs for the population, who perform its labor. The younger ones have no memory of the “catastrophe”(which is never explained) that left the country without power, into a kind of Mad Max primitivism. But Sector VI does have electric power, and the overlords control all communication, claiming that the sector would be overrun if outsiders even knew it existed. The film follows the “underground” rebels, all too young to remember life before the collapse of society.

It opens with the theft of a hard drive by Eric, one of a small group determined to discover the secret behind VoPo’s dominance. He eludes his pursuers, then runs home. We next see his mother finding him drowned in the bathtub, the hard drive clutched to his chest.

The adventure that follows is the attempt of two of his friends, Simon (Josh Caras) and Max (Ian Christopher Noel), to decipher the hard drive, and to discover if there are others in the resistance. They know there is a secret group of rebels who may or may not be in Sector VI, but who want to enlist them in the struggle. Along the way, they meet other inhabitants of the sector, most of whom are dependent on drugs provided by Vopo to maintain order and mass obedience. Max and Simon decide to escape the sector to try to join up with the rebels. But at the last minute, a secret is revealed about one of them that leads to a different outcome.

Director Carlton Ranney, who co-wrote with Destin Douglas, shows ingenuity in the filming of actual locations that graphically suggest a post-Apocalypse America. Nevertheless, I can’t say that the story involved me. The actors kept speaking dense cyber-babble that was meant to expose Vopo’s conspiracy, but I really couldn’t follow most of it, and soon I stopped caring. None of these young people seemed to have passion for anything not on a computer screen; not sex, food or beauty of any kind, and the rebellion didn’t seem to have a point. When Vopo’s chief exec says the sector must be isolated to protect itself from outsiders, it actually made sense.

Another problem, at least for me, is that the filmmakers intentionally left out crucial details, like the reason for the catastrophe, and what Vopo was trying to hide. They did this, I think, because Jackrabbit was always intended as the first of a series of films, with secrets to be revealed in sequels, a la The Matrix. But nothing in the first chapter makes me want to go back there.

Finally, a word about The Room. Those who fondly remember Mystery Science Theater 3000, like myself, may wonder what happened to its creators. Well, they’ve not been idle. The entire rocket crew, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, have created Rifftrax, live shows where they make wisecracks about a film that meets their standards for awfulness. At the screening of The Room, a Tribeca special event, we had a grand time as the three sharp funnymen tore into one of the worst films of all time. It’s a cheap, one-set soap opera, written, directed and starring Tommy Wiseau, that would make Douglas Sirk turn in his grave. Set in San Francisco, the acting is aggressively amateurish, especially by Wiseau, and is hilarious precisely because it maintains a tone of high seriousness throughout. It’s so bad that I actually thought Wiseau was in on the live-event idea from the beginning because I didn’t think anybody could actually believe people would not laugh at it. Well, I was wrong. It seems Wiseau completed it in 2003, and presumably felt it would launch his career as an auteur destined for the pantheon. Not quite, but it’s a comedy crowd favorite, and there were many returnees in the audience that night.

5 at “New Directors” 2015

April 5, 2015
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Pacifico Pieruccioni in “The Creation of Meaning”

I’ve chosen 5 films at this year’s “New Directors/New Films” festival – a joint production of MOMA and Lincoln Center Film Society – and I’ve found it as stimulating as ever. Here’s my rundown, in order of viewing.

The Creation of Meaning is a title that tells you what the filmmaker wants to do, but nothing about the film you can expect to see. Returning to his native Italy, after living in Canada for several years, Director-writer Simone Rapisarda Casanova chose an elderly shepherd, Pacifico, as the subject for his film, and had him agree to “perform” – as himself – in a chronicle of Italy’s woeful economy and the lingering painful memories of World War II. Filmed in the Apennine mountains in Tuscany, it presents a challenging view of cultural resistance to progress. More of a mosaic than a narrative, it has Pacifico and other “villagers” describing the deaths and sufferings in the village during the war, much of which had been told to them by survivors who have long since died. While the actors are non-professionals, they are supplied dialogue and given “memories” to describe that may, or may not, be from their own experience.

In writing about the film, I have tried to assume the viewpoint of someone who is unaware of Casanova’s method of working. Many admirers of the film described how he became interested in the people he met while filming it, which influenced his script. But I am still not clear about what Casanova wants the audience to accept as “true”, and what is only from his imagination.

Still, there are some effective scenes, including a lengthy one where Pacifico shows a gun expert his collection of cartridge shells that he has found over the years, and the final scene, where he talks to the man who bought his house, a German, about how Italians and Germans have largely overcome their bitterness due to mutual commercial interests. The latter scene entertains because the German’s toddler child is present throughout, doing what adorable toddlers always do. Of course this cannot help but distract us – charmingly – from what the adults are saying, but it provides an amusing interlude in an often confusing narrative.

While interesting and often beautiful – the scenes of the Tuscan mountains and countryside are lovely – the overall effect of Casanova’s technique is more unsettling than dramatically satisfying. He seems resigned, yet resentful in a way, to the fact that people so easily forget the past, a tendency that is fully exploited by their political leaders. This is a familiar subject in films; I respect Casanova’s original way of presenting it, but, like the awesome mountain mists of Tuscany, the film fades before our eyes.

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Revolt of the underclass in “White God”

White God has gotten a lot of pre-screening buzz, and it was shown only a week before a limited opening. Guaranteed to inspire controversy, it seems a perfect fit for ND/NF. Writer-director Komel Mundruczo has made a corrosive satire of life class/race oppression in modern Hungary. In this case, the victims are “mixed breed” street dogs, or “mutts”, who are routinely caught and placed in shelters where, unless they are selected as pets, they will all be “euthanized”. The story concerns a13-year old girl, Lili, whose parents are divorced, and her dog, Hagen, a mixed-breed who follows her obsessively. Problems ensue when Lili and Hagen are left with Lili’s father, who agrees to care for her while the girl’s mother is away. Lili’s father fiercely objects to the dog as “low-class” and filthy, as does a woman neighbor, who contacts the police. It seems that all owners of mixed breeds are required to pay a tax, but Lili’s father refuses. Outraged, he strands the dog by the highway, leaving Lili in hysterics. Hagen’s subsequent adventures in the city are a harrowing display of abuse by an assortment of lowlifes, culminating in a terrifying dogfight in an illegal gambling den. Once again stranded, Hagen is caught and brought to the shelter, where he faces almost certain death.

The final and most violent section of the film shows Hagen breaking out of the shelter – after mauling a guard – and leading hundreds of other dogs on a rampage of revenge through the streets of Budapest. Although random citizens are also attacked, the dogs follow Hagen to seek out and kill all of the people, both men and women, who had abused him. The film most departs from realism here, since the dogs improbably resemble an “organized army” following its general, as is noted in a news bulletin. The film forcefully compares society’s treatment of animals with how it treats people it also considers “low-class” and a “menace”, and shows how race and class are its cause. While this comparison is somewhat superficial – no one mentions that packs of dogs roaming the street may be a real health and safety hazard, for instance – we recognize that the cruelty in society’s treatment of them is similar. But, whatever you think of the analogy, the film’s cinematic power is felt in its amazing scenes of the dogs being used as hundreds of precisely choreographed extras, suggesting a mob of people toppling a corrupt government. The filmmakers maintain that real street dogs were trained and filmed throughout, with no CGI “assistance” at all. This is especially amazing in the final shot, cannily ending the film with emotional uplift. I’m still shaking my head over how they were able to do it.

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Avu Shnaidman and Sarit Larry in “The Kindergarten Teacher”

The kindergarten Teacher is one of those rare films that operate on many levels, but never loses its footing. Director-writer Nadav Lapid told the audience at the screening that the inspiration for the film came from his re-discovery of poems that he wrote when he was seven years old. The film focuses on the relationship between Nira, the teacher of the title, with a five-year old boy in her class who creates poetry. The boy, Yoav, retreats into his private world at moments of stress, pacing back and forth while reciting complete poems, beginning-to-end without interruption. His nanny, an actress, writes them down and sometimes recites them, without attribution, at auditions, which Nira finds reprehensible. She believes that Yoav’s genius, comparable to Mozart’s, is a gift to all mankind. Although happily married, with two healthy young adult children, she is troubled by a world where people persist in treating each other with cruelty, in Israel and everywhere else. An unpublished poet herself, she  makes it her personal mission to promote Yoav’s poetry.

From early on, we can sense that Nira is an obsessive personality, which has begun to distort her relationship with Yoav. Sarit Larry’s remarkable performance conveys the intensity of this obsession, and our unease only deepens because of Nira’s extreme intelligence and ability to manipulate others. But Lapid deviates, subtly, from traditional melodrama. Underlying the suspense, as based on our concern for Yoav’s safety, is Lapid’s compassion for his disturbed heroine. We see that her conversations with the boy – her often eloquent questioning about what he understands of the adult world around him – are meant to inspire him to save the world, which needs his poetry now more than ever. I don’t know that  an audience, unaware of Lapid’s childhood, can get the irony here. Lapid abandoned poetry early in life, but he chose to make films instead. The idea of a child saving the world with poetry is ludicrous, and nothing in the film suggests otherwise. But a filmmaker? Does Lapid believe that becoming a filmmaker is just as futile? I suspect he retains a certain idealistic conception of the power of art, and that this is something he shares with the delusional kindergarten teacher in the story.

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Elias Schwarz and Lukas Schwarz in “Goodnight, Mommy”

Goodnight, Mommy is one of those films that has a kicker at the end so that you replay the whole film in your mind to see what clues you missed. I never expected it, but one person in my party wasn’t fooled. Even so, it’s not the best example of that kind of film that I’ve seen. An Austrian film, it opens with a pair of twin boys, Elias and Lukas, age 10, playing hide and seek in the tall grass. They go back to their house, a modern ranch-design in the countryside by a lake, and are greeted, icily, by their mother, whose face is swathed in bandages from surgery. We find out there had been a terrible accident, which is never explained. During the course of the story, we witness the mother’s increasing cruelty to both boys, especially to Lukas. The boys become resentful that she is trying to keep them apart, and they plot against her. They believe she is not really their mother at all, and will keep her a prisoner until she reveals what happened to “mommy”.

That’s the mechanics of the thing in its entirety. The formula has been reliable in the past (think The Sixth Sense), but the devil is in the details. The surprise only works if we believe in the reality of what we are being presented first; the revealed “truth” will not make sense otherwise. But I thought the boys’ mother was never a credible character on any level. I saw nothing that indicated there had ever been a stable family relationship even before the mysterious accident. I could just have easily believed she was a “body snatcher” pod from another planet. That said, the writer- co-directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz obviously know their way around genre movies, and there is some wry humor on view. The psychological substructure of twins allows for some fascinating analysis, and presents rich material for the horror genre. But for me, this story didn’t work.

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Gregg Turkington in “Entertainment”

 Entertainment, which closed the series, is the hardest to write about. Director Rick Alverson co-wrote it with Tim Heidecker. The star, Gregg Turkington, is a real comedian who uses the name Neil Hamburger, and the film is a kind of nightmare-comedy about his life on tour. Like Andy Kaufman or “Professor” Irwin Corey, he appears before an audience as a complete persona, a genuinely odd person who just happens to make his living as an entertainer. Odd, maybe, but more likely plain nuts. In a rumpled suit, glasses and greasy, uncombed hair, he screams his weird but often funny material into a microphone, and then waits, grimly, for laughter. He appears to be suffering throughout, and a heckler turns him hostile to the point of hysteria.

The film opens with him performing before a “captive” audience; prisoners in a New Mexico state pen. His act is preceded by a clown, a young man with red nose who does an energetic chicken dance. The two often perform at the same shows, but barely talk to each other. Gregg’s turn gets polite, if bewildered, appreciation from the prisoners, but that’s about as good as it ever gets. His usual venue is a bar in a one cactus town in the Southwest. Those patrons are either bug-eyed drunk or hostile, but usually both. He meets an assortment of people on his journeys that are only slightly less odd than himself: his cousin, played by John C. Reilly, who treats him to a lunch where he sings a Christian hymn; a young man, played by Michael Cera, who wants him to keep him company in a public toilet while waiting for triple-A repairs; a pregnant woman whose baby he delivers, stillborn, also in a public toilet (the film’s most frequent set); and a woman heckler who physically assaults him. The film ends pretty much as it started, with Gregg ready to go to another gig, as if it were a station of the cross.

Alverson uses the wide screen well. The flat, barren landscape of the southwest seems an apt counterpoint to Eric’s constant loneliness and isolation. The filmmaker’s best choice, however, was the casting of Gregg in itself. He is a fascinating, charismatic performer and we keep watching to learn more about him. It is the only suspense in a dramatically static movie. We only know he has a daughter he calls every night, but who never answers or returns his calls. When asked, he says that he has no other goal tin life than to continue performing as long as he can, but he is so thoroughly miserable doing this that we think there must be something in his background to account for such masochism.

Alas, we never find out. Perhaps Alverson thinks this makes the film more “enigmatic”, so as to inspire heated late-night discussions. But another explanation – one which grants him more integrity, if not the best judgment – is that he wants to have the film audience react with the same frustrated hostility that Gregg provokes in the drunken morons who see his act.

Peter Handke and Wim Wenders at MOMA

March 9, 2015
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Peter Handke and Wim Wenders

Among the world’s most prominent independent filmmakers, Wim Wenders has finally been honored with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. I attended two of the ten films, both of which were written by Peter Handke. They were present at the screenings, and were interviewed afterwards. The first film, The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, was an adaptation of Handke’s novel, which gained him an international reputation. Peter Handke was pretty hot in the early 70s. I had read his plays, but the novel made the deepest impression; I read it three times. I saw the film when it opened and remember finding it riveting and disturbing.

The story, in brief outline, tells you nothing of its effect on the viewer. A kind of nihilist fable, it follows Bloch, a professional soccer goalie, in a deadpan chronicle of human passivity: Bloch lets the winning goal score…Bloch checks into a cheap hotel…Bloch has pickup sex with a woman…Bloch reads the soccer scores in the paper…Bloch has sex with another young woman, then murders her…Bloch leaves town and hooks up with a former girlfriend…Bloch plays games with her little girl…Bloch reads about the murder and the soccer scores in the paper…Bloch plays the jukebox…Bloch watches a local game, commenting on the action. THE END.

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Arthur Brauss is the goalie

The originality is not in the plot – a number of existentialist writers have told similar stories, including Dostoyevsky and Camus –   but none had, I thought, so emphasized the stupefying banality of the situation. I thought so at the time, and its power has not diminished.

Handke seemed to pull back from the abyss, if only slightly, in the next film, The Wrong Move, which Wenders filmed in 1975. Wenders said at the screening that he didn’t change a single line of dialogue from Handke’s script. It’s a modern retelling of Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister”, a classic bildungsroman. It concerns a young man living with his mother who decides to leave so that he can have the life experience necessary to become a writer. True to its source, it is stiff and meditative, with every character – save a near-mute Nastassja Kinski in her first role – speechifying the most highfalutin drivel to anyone within earshot.

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From left: Hans Christian Blech, Nastassja Kinski, Rudger Vogler (Wilhelm) and Hanna Schygulla

Hardly cinematic, you’d think, but it’s surprisingly entertaining. Handke’s special skill is wryly amusing dialogue in odd juxtapositions. Wilhelm meets people the first time, and they all join him on his journey of self-discovery, as if their role in life was to wait for him to show up. Most improbably, this includes Hanna Schygulla (!), who notices him through a train window and follows him all over Germany, pleading for him to “satisfy her”. And yet, by the end of the journey, Wilhelm’s feeling that he has wasted the entire experience, and made all the “wrong moves”, is also wrong; the film attains a moral perspective by suggesting that the apparently random, passive observation of the real world is necessary for maturity and insight.

Wenders likes to have his actors speak to each other in long, long takes, as in The Wrong Move, when everyone tells of their dreams the night before as they walk along a mountain road. Even in a bad print (belying Wenders’ assurances before the screening), this scene is still spectacular. But Goalie has just been restored, and Robbie Mueller’s cinematography can be seen again in all its glory.

Interestingly, the actor playing the goalie-murderer is more appealing than the aspiring writer, who was rather smug and mopey. But nuanced acting has never been a major concern for Wenders. He casts each film as well as the budget allows, and his instincts are good. The acting in both films was at least OK, but the only actor making a strong impression was Ivan Desny in The Wrong Move, playing an industrialist who gives lodging to the travelers.

There’s a special pleasure in again seeing those films that you admired many years ago, especially when the filmmakers are there to introduce them.

Film: “Queen and Country”

February 22, 2015
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Bill Rohan (Callum Turner, seated rt.) watching the coronation of Elizabeth II on TV with family

More than a quarter century has passed since Hope and Glory(1987), John Boorman’s excellent autobiographical film of his childhood in the London blitz. Now we gratefully receive “Queen and Country”, a sequel of seamless tonal consistency. Although smaller in scale and significance than Hope and Glory, it still benefits from Boorman’s vision of the British character as essentially decent, practical and life-affirming.

It is 1952, and Bill Rohan (Callum Turner) is now 18 and must serve 2 years in the Army, like other British boys, and may even be sent to fight in Korea. The 9-year old we remember from the earlier film is now a tall, pleasant-looking youth with a quietly genial manner. Somehow this results in his being made sergeant. But instead of fighting the enemy, he is assigned to teach typing to new recruits with his friend Percy (Caleb Landry Jones), who is as defiantly rambunctious as Bill is passive. Their lives are made miserable by the unit director, Sergeant Bradley (David Thewlis, priceless), who suffered severe psychological damage in the war. Further complicating things is Private Redmond (Pat Shortt), their subordinate, a slacker-artist of the first order. The story follows Bill and Percy’s bumpy relationship – co-conspirators in their disdain for the army, but rivals in love – until Bill’s return to civilian life with his parents, with a hint of the director’s future film career.

Boorman smoothly controls the dual narrative. Bill lets Percy drag him into pursuing two nurses they met at a concert, even though he is blindingly entranced by a mysterious blond beauty (Tamsin Egerton) who, though she refuses to tell him her name, pulls him along tantalizingly. Bill decides to call her Ophelia, which amuses her. She visits Bill when he is staying with his parents and older sister, Dawn (Vanessa Kirby, gloriously lewd), while on leave, but says she can’t stay to watch Elizabeth II’s coronation on TV, dumbfounding the entire group. But her secret life is soon exposed, devastatingly, leaving Bill emotionally crushed until comforted, and ultimately deflowered, by Sophie (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), the very nurse he had ignored earlier, who had become Percy’s girlfriend instead.

The other narrative line follows the prank theft of an antique clock, a holy relic to their unbearably rigid commander. Bill doesn’t participate, but lets Percy and Redmond pull off the job, which they all take delicious enjoyment in. When the scheme is discovered, however, Bill learns about the often painful demands of friendship.

Part of the pleasure in the army hi-jinks story – which I admit is a little too long – is remembering the wonderful British army comedies of the 50s and 60s, like A Coming Out Party. The performances of David Thewlis and Richard E. Grant, as the martinet commander, are funny, yet skillfully shaded. Boorman doesn’t want us to enjoy their eventual humiliation too much; the hurt is made too real for that. Similarly, the lessons from the failed romance, while a film lover’s delight, are not always pain-free. After all, Boorman is remembering his very own pain here, though in a forgivingly dim light.

The performances are fresh and nimble, as they nearly always are in Boorman’s films. Dawn’s earthy but charming sexuality – with hints of taboo lust for her brother – never tips into vulgarity. Bill’s hapless infatuation is wittily shown, with the gorgeous Ophelia bathed in other-worldly colors. While the scene where Bill loses his virginity is gracefully done, it could have used the sly, zesty touch of a Mike Nichols (how I will miss him!) or Almodovar.

Despite its pleasures, this is a slighter film than its epic predecessor. Missing is the sense of an ordeal shared by an entire population, one that changes the very nature of society. The coronation, much less Korea, are not signposts of lasting significance for the British people. What we have, in sum, is a loving scrapbook; buoyant and wise, but stripped of the darker tones of that era. But then it had to end when it did. In only two years, the young Boorman would see his country savagely humiliated in Suez, an event of national redefinition. Yes, better to keep the glow of innocence while you still can.

Film: “Wild”

February 12, 2015
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Reese Witherspoon in “Wild”

It doesn’t live up to its title, unfortunately. “Aimless” would have been more like it. We’ve seen filmmakers adapt autobiographies that tell of personal struggles or heroic exploits.  American Sniper is a recent example. Reese Witherspoon, who produced the film, obviously felt that Cheryl Strayed’s story would provide her with a challenging role. Her challenge – literally – was to show this woman hiking the entire Pacific Crest Trail as a personal mission, and for the audience to be as inspired as she was.

The film is bifurcated in that the present concerns her actually hiking the trail, and the backstory, told in flashbacks, shows her life leading up to that decision. The film opens with her at the start of the trail, in the Mojave desert. She’s kind of a novice, but some of the seasoned hikers, all male, give her pointers that prove valuable. They’re a pretty nice bunch of guys, in general.

But the emotional core of the story is the background, which establishes the cathartic nature of the journey. We glimpse her as a little girl, when her mother, Bobbi, played by Laura Dern, kicks out her abusive husband and struggles to raise Cheryl and her younger brother by herself.

What we learn about Cheryl as she grows up – and this is really the only interesting thing about this film – is that she’s not a very likable person. She seems to want to write, but somehow never does. She gets married to a “nice” guy, but shows no particular interest in him, or in raising a family. We see a person of self-doubt, defensiveness and willful isolation. The only relationship that really involves her is with her mother. There is genuine warmth between them, and Dern is appealing enough to have earned a best supporting actress Oscar nomination, complementing Witherspoon’s best actress nod.

The “motivating” event, supposedly, is Bobbi’s death from cancer. At first, Cheryl turns to heroin and pickup sex, but this only leads to divorce. Perhaps as a way to extinguish her grief, she embarks on a journey that reaches an actual destination, the Canadian border. Symbolically, a real destination is something that was missing from her life until that point.

Actually, I’m reading more into it than what the film shows because what motivates her to make this particular journey is never clear. She doesn’t seem to have any great love for nature, and neither does Bobbi. It seems Bobbi once owned a horse, which had to be killed for some reason, but I can’t connect that with crossing an 1,100 mile wilderness. In short, when the lead character of a film takes on a grueling, life-threatening adventure, the audience had better not be distracted by that question.

In fact – and I admit this is a little nasty – the only reason for Cheryl’s journey that makes any sense to me is so she could write a book about it later. Which she did.

Nick Hornby’s clunky adaptation doesn’t help, but director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) spotlights some colorful unknowns in the cast, even if what they do matters little to the story.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that it’s a badly made film. Given its meandering dramatic line, it plods along rather engagingly, much like its heroine. There was nothing shocking, offensive or ridiculous about it. Too bad. If it was a really bad film, it might have been more fun.

Film: “Mommy”

February 3, 2015
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left to right: Ann Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon and Suzanne Clement

This French language Canadian film, the fifth feature from wunderkind Xavier Dolan, now 26, is both an emotionally affecting experience and an ordeal. For over two and a quarter hours you’re pulled into the lives of three tortured individuals, but the beauty almost makes it worth the pain. It begins with Diane, nicknamed Die (Ann Dorval), a 40-something widow, picking up her 15-year-old son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) from a youth facility. He is being kicked out because he set fire to the place, injuring another boy. Blond, with a misleadingly angelic face, Steve is at war with society in general, but really with anything he imagines will distract Die, or “Mommy”, from total devotion to his needs. What mother and son have in common is disdain for the rules of society, the foulest language you can imagine and a penetrating intelligence which they both use, in their own way, to manipulate others. But Die is at least able to focus on basic needs, finding work as a translator and maintaining a home for Steve and herself. Steve has no such inclination. He will ride his skateboard, play loud music and shoplift when the mood strikes him. After Die tries to set him straight, he blows up and nearly strangles her.

So far, it’s the setup for a familiar dramatic conflict, but with exceptional acting. What drives the rest of the film, however, is quite original. Living next door is a married couple and young daughter. The wife, Kyla (Suzanne Clement), is about Die’s age and looks very much like her. But she is demure and withdrawn, in total contrast to Die’s brazen, lower class demeanor. She says she is a teacher “on sabbatical”, but this is never explained. Yet, after a painful and sometimes violent transition period, the three of them bond into a kind of makeshift family unit, with Kyla home-tutoring Steve while Die gets jobs for expenses. This section is the heart of the film, and it works because Dolan gets performances of such fragile intimacy from his actors that you actually believe in their relationship. A crucial scene is of the three of them dancing while preparing a meal in the kitchen; you sense that beneath the joyful abandon is an awareness that their only chance of survival is a total support for each other. Yet we continue to watch with dread, knowing that Steve’s unyielding demand for Die’s love will destroy their hopes.

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Our expectations are fulfilled, and then some. The climax shows Die and Kyla picking up Steve from the hospital after a self-destructive act. Die says she has to pee, but she pulls into a parking lot near a fortress-like building, which is strange. Steve, still dazed from medication, fails to see what’s coming. The next scene, brilliantly edited, whips the camera back and forth to each of them, at distant locations in the parking lot. Both women have breakdowns while Steve struggles with the attendants, who need to use a taser to immobilize him.

Rarely will you see actors pushed to such emotional extremes and yet, not once, do you sense an “actorish” moment. But it only succeeds because the depth of their relationship is the story; we know how much it pains Die and Kyle to do what they did, but we also accept that they had no choice.

As with some other quality films I’ve seen recently, the screenplay is overstuffed and unresolved. A fantasy of Steve having a normal life – including marriage and a child – is unnecessary, and a scene in a karaoke bar is poorly done. The circumstances of Kyla’s depression are never explained, but Clement’s subtly shaded performance overcomes this lapse.

A final word: There’s been criticism of Dolan’s use of a 1:1 ratio screen size as a distracting affectation. I think it intensifies the action, lending power to the more emotional scenes. But whatever you think of it, it’s odd that one of the most honored films of the year, Birdman, gets only praise for a different gimmick: following the film’s action with only two actual cuts for its entire two-hour running time. The camera swoops around talented actors playing clichéd characters in dozens of New York locations for no purpose whatsoever. And Inarritu gets the Golden Globe screenplay award! Go figure.

Film” “Force Majeure”

January 22, 2015

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A prosperous Swedish family – husband, wife, young daughter and son – are on a 5-day vacation at a French ski resort. They are having lunch at an outdoor cafe when they hear a rumbling, and see a wall of snow slowly descending the mountain. It is awesome, and the husband, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), films it with his smartphone. But it grows larger, and is soon a roaring wave that threatens to drown them all. Tomas quickly grabs the phone and runs, leaving wife and children behind him. Fortunately, there was no avalanche – it died at a safe distance – but the husband’s cowardly act cracks a fault line in the marriage, and is the basis of this slyly comic, but unsettling film, the fourth feature by Swedish director Ruben Ostlund.

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l to r: Kristofer Hivju (Mats), Johannes Kuhnke (Tomas), Fanni Metelius (Fanni), Lisa Loven Kongsli (Ebba)

Ebba, the wife (Lisa Loven Kongsli), hides her resentment at first, but soon advances it, relentlessly. She uses it to humiliate him with another couple, and then does it again at dinner with his friend Mats, who is divorced and vacationing with Fanni, a girl half his age. At first Tomas denies it, saying Ebba “misperceived” what happened. Mats, uncomfortably, tries to defend him. Then, in an excruciating scene, Ebba slam-dunks it by playing the video that Tomas shot on his phone. The image of both couples peering down into a tiny screen is one of the funniest in the film.

Ebba’s victory proves hollow, however. Tomas sinks rapidly into self-pitying, and the children are terrified that the family will break up. Without recourse, Ebba resolves to save the marriage. Finally, on the last day’s ski run, the crisis is resolved in a harrowing scene.

This is the first of Ostlund’s films that I’ve seen. While the story does grip, the characters are off-putting, to say the least. The contest of wills is played out icily, without passion. There is no violence or screaming; sobbing only prevails. The spectacular winter scenery seems to trivialize the discomforts of these pathetic humans, as I think was Ostlund’s intent. He’s been likened to some of the masters – Bunuel and Michael Haneke in particular – and this is not invalid. But Bunuel, even when skewering the upper classes in late works like The Discreet Charm of the bourgeoisie, kept it comically surreal, making the movie more fun, if less disturbing. Haneke is closer, but Ostlund can’t begin to match the brilliance of his dialogue or skill with actors.

But his skill in undeniable. What appears to be a flying saucer hovering over the night snowscape is revealed as a children’s toy. Also memorable is the tableau of the children and Ebba, in despair, covering a weeping and prostrate Tomas with their own bodies. And yet, you are always reminded that the characters may only be demonstrating emotions to each other, without true feeling, much as the actors who are playing them.

I admit that I was absorbed, but also confused by the film. Does Ostlund’s contempt for his characters extend to us, the viewers? Does he delight in manipulating us, but have no moral center? If true, and he’s just a smug bully, he’s not doing it for our lunch money. He just wants to tease, point and laugh. But he gets a pass – this once – because he is clever and original. Just be wary.

Film: “The Babadook”

January 14, 2015
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Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman

Two Spoilers: 1. The cute little dog gets killed.    2. First one cockroach, then……UGH!!

Having gotten those out of the way, let me say that they are the only times I felt this invigorating film threw in the overused clichés of this genre. Australian Writer-director Jennifer Kent has a sure sense of pacing and camera movement, and has gotten terrific performances from Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, as a widow and her six-year old son living a domestic nightmare.

Amelia is a widow whose husband was killed in a crash when driving her to the hospital to give birth to their son. The boy, Samuel, is highly intelligent, but suffers horrible nightmares. He become obsessed with defending himself and his mother against monsters invading the home. Amelia is constantly called to his school because he frightens the other children. But the situation becomes even more critical when she reads him a children’s story about Mr Babadook, a top-hatted ghoul who promises to kill whoever reads about him. The book itself seems to be haunted, and miraculously reappears even after she burns it.

I don’t have to tell you that Mr. Babadook will appear as a genuine presence of horror film proportions, and that a goodly number of shrieks will escape you before the battle between good and evil is over. But who actually wins that battle? I found the ending fully satisfying, but I can see why some may be disappointed. I think, after seeing this film and the underrated Triangle, that Australian and British horror tend to favor demons that are of psychological, as opposed to purely supernatural, origin, which may explain why those films end ambiguously. But whether the scare givers are Aliens (Dark Skies) or ghosts (Mama), American taste runs more to simpler explanations, resulting in evil that is comfortably external. Which is why, of course, we know that when they are dead, they will never, but NEVER, come back (wait for laughter).

I just want to mention that Essie Davis – because she is so good in this – runs the risk of becoming a horror queen, which may limit her career choices. I wish her many good roles, but richer ones too.

Film: “Foxcatcher”

December 22, 2014

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Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller, may be a docudrama about a famous murder case, but it is also – thrillingly! – a film about sports. That the two films never quite unify into a single artistic statement should not diminish its achievement. I’ve never seen a film that so powerfully conveys the appeal and intimacy between men in a competitive contact sport.

Channing Tatum plays Mark Schultz, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist in wrestling, an honor shared with his older, somewhat smaller brother, Dave, played by Mark Ruffalo. Their parents were divorced when Mark was just two, and the brothers had no attachments except each other; their mutual passion for wrestling leading, eventually, to their becoming champions. The story begins in 1987, when Mark is contacted by John Du Pont, of the chemical dynasty, who wants to subsidize Mark’s training for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. As portrayed by Steve Carell in an amazing, career-changing performance, Du Pont is an emotionally frigid, controlling egotist who has obsessively devoted his life to two passions, wrestling and ornithology. An amateur wrestler himself, he collects young wrestlers for “Team Foxcatcher”, after the family estate, with himself as self-styled coach and “mentor”. Du Pont eventually persuades a reluctant Dave to join his brother at Foxcatcher to coach the team, bringing his wife and two children with him.

Strong dramatic momentum is achieved in the triad relationship of the two brothers and Du Pont, who deliberately encourages mistrust and resentment between them. Mark is especially vulnerable, as he has seen his brother raise a family and settle into a normal life, while he is uncomfortable with any social contact outside of training and competition. Even those unfamiliar with the case will not be surprised by the conflict’s violent resolution. The impact is blunted, however, because Du Pont is such a withdrawn and isolated figure that you’re never quite sure of his motives. He is so obviously unbalanced that his crime seems almost arbitrary, based on a moment’s misguided resentment. In that sense, the story seems merely a clinical study of a diseased mind, and is devoid of tragic dimension.

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No, my enthusiasm is more for the wrestling, which is what I suspect drew Miller to the story in the first place. It’s one of those rare instances where the background scenes are what the viewer leaves with, while the main story, while absorbing, is more conventional. I sense that Miller was so inspired by the sheer physical beauty of the sport that he wanted to convey its excitement as pure cinema. Brilliantly photographed, by Greig Fraser, the matches become a primal struggle between combatants. Each assesses his opponent’s mental powers as much as his strength. Training demands a continual refinement of technique, so that, with one swift grasp of his opponent, he can defeat him in seconds. The close-ups are so powerful because the head is the real target of the contest. First the takedown, then forcing the head and shoulders squarely against the gym floor. Really, very few sports films, even the classics of boxing like Raging Bull or The Set-Up, are able to show the concentration and mental agility that is so crucial to victory. And the anguish of the loser who, when struggling to break a hold, is slowly immobilized.

If not groundbreaking like the wrestling scenes, the story leading to the murder is always watchable, and often compelling. The performances are perfection itself, and Miller has shown more confidence with each film. Tatum, remarkably limber for his bulk, takes us deep within the man’s emotional insecurity, which even Olympic gold can’t dispel. Ruffalo is equally fine, and totally convincing on the mat, although his role is less developed. Carell is so good that, if you’d never heard of him before, you’d think he was a great actor but have doubts about whether he could do comedy.

Two straight dramatic scenes stand out. In the first, Carell and the Foxcatcher team are celebrating a championship victory. He leads a congratulatory toast to the group. Suddenly he stops and, reeling dizzily, falls to the floor. The team rises in alarm, and converges around him. But it’s just a prank. He grabs one of the men by the leg, tackling him, and the group responds with delight and relief. It’s a wonderful scene. We see that Du Pont is not just a figurehead leader, that he has brief moments when he can actually enjoy people on a human level.

Perhaps, but not if they’re female. I don’t remember any movie about a group of young men where the female sex, or sex itself, is so conspicuous by its absence. Siena Miller, playing Dave’s wife, is barely allowed even a moment, and the only other female part is Du Pont’s invalid mother. But Miller plots her role brilliantly. Vanessa Redgrave – beautiful, majestically ancient – has just one speaking scene, in which she tells her son that wrestling is a “low sport”. But then comes the payoff scene. Du Pont is coaching the team in the gym, when the door opens and his mother is wheeled in to watch him silently. Continuing without even a blink, the defiant son demonstrates a hold. While nothing goes wrong, we sense that he knows a forbidden border has been crossed. Then, in a tiny gesture, she signals to be wheeled out and, in doing so, has banished him.


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