Film: “99 Homes”

October 30, 2015

Michael Shannon, Andrew Garfield and Noah Lomax in “99 Homes”

A well-made western is fun as well as satisfying because the formula is one we’re familiar with, and we want that kind of movie experience. Directed by Ramin Bahrani, from a script he co-wrote with Amir Naderi, 99 Homes is not a western; it takes place in contemporary Florida. Instead of embattled, poor farmers (the good guys) being attacked by rich cattle barons (the bad guys), we have struggling families being evicted from their homes by bankers who will resell them for a profit. But the worst of them, Rick Carver, played by Michael Shannon (black hat), gets rich by robbing from the evicted families and the bankers. He’s a PC kind of crook; he’ll take anybody’s money.

We first meet good guy Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) as he is being evicted from his home, along with his mother (Laura Dern) and his 12-year-old son (Noah Lomax). After the final papers are served, Carver and his team arrive. They move all the personal possessions in the house to the front lawn so that Dennis and his family can transport everything to a motel that, coincidentally, contains dozens more of Carver’s evictees. It doesn’t take long for Dennis to see he’s in a no-win situation. He needs cash to feed his family, and he steps right up to Carver for a job as a construction worker. Carver senses real ambition and strength in Dennis, and soon is giving him more work. It’s clear that Carver sees the makings of a personal “go-to guy” in him, a right hand man that he can groom into being as ruthless as himself, although not one he would ever turn his back on.

Along the way to a rousing conclusion, the film deals out a pretty cynical view of Florida real estate law. More than once a character says the “system is rigged” so that crafty operators like Carver can exploit struggling families who can’t make the mortgage payments in a suddenly dead job market. We see how a basically decent guy like Dennis can be corrupted, especially if he has skills that can be used by profiteers. Dennis is a fast learner, and suspense is built on whether he will ever be able to redeem himself.

C’mon, you know that he will. That’s what heroes are supposed to do. Still, Bahrani knows how to deliver maximum drama from the well-contrived setup. Especially effective is Laura Dern, who, in a crucial scene, registers revulsion at her son’s assisting in the evictions, as well as fear for her family’s safety after Dennis is physically attacked by a man who lost his home (this actor, Jeff Pope, would frighten anyone into fleeing the state). Garfield, too, registers strongly in a difficult role. Dennis’ conversion from heartless eviction facilitator to just a decent guy rediscovering his true nature is unstrained and suitably inspiring.

But, as anyone who’s read the reviews knows, the film belongs to Michael Shannon, who has his best role in years. The film opens with an eviction, which Shannon calmly but commandingly directs like a maestro at the podium; he sets a rhythm that drives the entire film. And that rhythm is fast and propulsive. Bahrani excels in moving his actors the way real people move in life, even in the most heated action, a skill that was well used by the late, usually underrated Tony Scott.

Fast and entertaining as the story is, however, Carver’s character is incomplete. Unlike Gordon Gekko, whose need for money and power was almost sexual (and, to a lot of women, very sexy) in Michael Douglas’ portrayal, Carver seems only obsessed and under strain. His greed is less of appetite than anxiety and, perhaps, denial. Why, you wonder, does he give Dennis so much responsibility, so quickly, without thinking of the risk? The question is highlighted in the one scene that doesn’t work, when the two men have a drunken heart-to-heart by the pool after a party hosted by Carver. First off, Shannon can’t do overaged frat-boy partying to save his life; it comes out like gastric pain. But worse, the phony bonding with Dennis lets a suggestion of homo-eroticism sneak in, and just as quickly vanish. Naturally, the formula can’t tolerate this, and even a hint of the hero’s possible reciprocation would be fatal. So the question of Carver’s unexplained attachment to Dennis is left unanswered. At any rate, the formula takes over again quickly, leading to the obligatory triumph of good over evil, most fittingly with an exciting climactic gunfight.

But one final word about the formula. Actually two words: cop-out. With westerns gone, the formula survives, as here, in courtroom battles. The story is really about how the law abuses the little guy, and the hero – usually a lawyer, with Dennis being an exception – triumphs against the odds in a “rigged” system. But somehow, the triumph never even puts a dent in that system, which purrs along mercilessly. The courtroom scenes in the film are so front-loaded to reward exploiters like Carver that you know the hero can expect no help from the law. That is why the formula needs the all-powerful “smoking gun” that somehow eludes the bad guy until the hero whips it out. As with John Travolta’s obsessed attorney in A Class Action, Dennis provides the “smoking gun” that brings down Carver. But the device only works because it reveals an actual crime, which is something the system can’t ignore. “Rigged” or not, it seems the system still responds when the hero gives it no other choice. The real moral shown by Carver’s downfall is not that the system was rigged, but that it wasn’t rigged enough.

IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT:    “Story in Film” is merging into my new website, New blogs will appear here, for the time being, but the new site will have many more features. Check out my report on this year’s New York Film Festival. And, as always, please send comments.


Film: “The End of the Tour”

September 10, 2015

Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg in “The End of the Tour”

The makers of this well-acted and moderately absorbing docudrama know how to hold the interest of the viewer, even if they avoid resolving the questions they raise. But those questions themselves are intriguing, and so rarely dealt with in a movie.

Director James Ponsoldt and screenwriter Donald Margulies both saw the inherent appeal: just how will two published writers relate to each other, especially if only one of them is famous and successful? The very  question suggests a story that, as a writer, I find compelling. In this case, the story is a true one: David Lipsky, a staff reporter for Rolling Stone, who has published his own novel – to a meh reception – gets his editor to subsidize his following David Foster Wallace on the promotional tour for his novel Infinite Jest, which has dozens of critics falling all over themselves to praise.

The tour takes place in 1996, but we know Wallace will commit suicide in 2008. The film is Lipsky’s chronicle of the tour; also a rather off-key kind of memorial. Lipsky, played by Jesse Eisenberg, fits neatly into the “arrogant young novelist” mold, a guy who sees every situation as a contest for control. And Wallace, played by Jason Segel, is not really different in that regard. Although he agreed to the interview, he seems aware at the outset that Lipsky will try to transform every detail of his life into what “the public” expects him to be.

This is the kind of story where two people keep needling each other with hidden subtexts, and we watch in anticipation of a victory of some kind for one of them. In terms of keeping us watching, the film succeeds by generating this kind of dramatic suspense. One clever ploy by Wallace – who is both frightened and irritated by Lipsky – is to volley the interviewer’s questions right back at him, as in “So why is it that you’re not married, David?” As well-rehearsed as he is, Lipsky is always surprised when it happens. His stammering responses are, in fact, the funniest parts of the film.

But whether the dramatic resolution is satisfying is a different question entirely. After all, I knew the outcome: Lipsky would finish the tour with Wallace, but the story would not be published and the two would not have much contact any more. As a result, I knew that I couldn’t expect much in the way of surprises – like Wallace trying to kill Lipsky with a pitchfork, for instance – so my satisfaction with the film would depend on its insights into Wallace’s character, specifically as to the reason(s) for his suicide some twelve years later.

On that question, the results are mixed. The most significant insight – an irony, really – is that Wallace spent years struggling to become a famous writer, but that, when he finally achieved this goal, he couldn’t bear to live with it. This was because he was terrified of not being viewed by the public as the “unique” genius he believed himself to be. He saw how the public needs everyone to fit into a pre-determined identity, which in his case was the self-destructive, death-obsessed misfit. With a heroin addiction. And that no matter what he said, or wrote, he would never be able to stop these lies from being told about him.

At least that’s my take on it. But then, as a film critic, the issue is only important insofar as it bears on the experience of seeing The End of the Tour. That said, while the aforementioned irony about Wallace was illuminating, the film blurs its focus whenever it spends time on the somewhat less fascinating figure of Lipsky. But we shouldn’t be surprised about that. It’s pretty obvious that Jesse Eisenberg was cast to give his now-patented performance of the cringe-inducing creep, and he delivers. It’s almost as if producers know that there’s a core audience that will pay admission to see him be a dickhead  for two hours.

What it also reveals, inadvertently, is the cynical nature of the whole project. Jason Segel is both awesome and invisible as Wallace. Awesome because he convinces as a tortured, immensely gifted man who desperately clings to a personal code of honor; but also invisible because Wallace seems to want to encrypt that code, to make it impenetrable. His suicide – like his writing – seems intended to unsettle and confuse the hostile forces attacking him. Namely, everyone else.

In other words, Wallace remains an enigma. The filmmakers know they can’t “explain” him, and they don’t try. But what about that other guy, the “straight man” of the team? Well, while Lipsky eventually became successful as a writer, and has published a book about the tour, we only get to know him as a nosy reporter with grand ambitions. What we see is him getting to act out a failed writer’s fantasy: to interpret and judge the very life of the superior artist, who has voluntarily placed himself in that position. And to get paid for it too.

Film: “Tom at the Farm”

August 24, 2015

Xavier Dolan in “Tom at the Farm”

I find it interesting to compare this film, by 26-year old French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan, who co-wrote, directed and starred in it, with The Gift, which I reviewed last week. The Gift is a clever connect-the-dots psychological thriller about a revenge scheme for a past crime. The characters react to events in simple, unambiguous terms. They have secrets, but there are no hidden conflicts that slow the action, or that pile murk onto the characters’ motivation. It’s just good shallow melodrama, and satisfying on those terms.

I preface this review with that observation because Tom at the Farm, for all of its skill, nuanced performances and intriguing relationships, fails to satisfy because it lacks clarity and simplicity, or just the things the other film excelled in. But I think Dolan is still an adventurous and original filmmaker, as I noted in my review of Mommy (2/3/2015), which was made the year before this film.

The story concerns Tom (Dolan), a young man from Montreal whose male lover, Guillaume, had died in an accident. He has come to the farm where Guillaume grew up for the funeral. There he meets Guillaume’s mother, Agathe, (Lise Roy) who did not know of her son’s homosexuality, and his older brother, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal). Francis, a hulking and violent man of 30, threatens Tom if he reveals his true relationship with Guillaume. He has lied to his mother about his brother’s sexuality for years, to the point of inventing a girlfriend for him named Sara. In fact, Agathe is furious that Sara did not come for the funeral.

The rest of the film concerns the relationship of these three people. A fourth character (played by Evelyne Brochu), a girl summoned by Tom to pretend to be Sara, also enters the film, but briefly.Twisty and sexually charged, the story maintains interest, but at a sloggy pace, until its melodramatic conclusion. I just never bought into it. Francis is clearly a repressed homosexual, in violent denial. Tom’s own ambivalence –  he is frightened of Francis, but is also powerfully attracted to him – is another dominant theme. But we’re way ahead of Dolan in “catching on” to this, and several “surprise” revelations, late in the story, are just literary touches that lack organic integrity.

As with Mommy, the film reveals Dolan’s fascination with people thrown together into makeshift families. There’s certainly rich dramatic material there. But Tom at the Farm never engages his strengths. Although shorter than Mommy, it plays longer. However, I certainly expect this fascinating young talent to catch fire again.

Film: “The Gift”

August 19, 2015

Jason Bateman and Joel Edgerton in “The Gift”

When I read about the plot of this film, I was intrigued because it sounded like a remake of one of my favorite films of recent years, Chuck and Buck, written by and starring Mike White. It turns out there is a resemblance in the setup: a young married couple is visited by a creepy guy who went to school with the husband years before, and complications ensue. Actually, there’s not much resemblance, although, like White, writer-director Joel Edgerton cast himself in the role of the creepy guy. But the earlier film is a charming comic fable, while The Gift is a goose-bump shocker that slowly uncovers a crime from the past. And, despite flaws, the premise works. I was creeped out for sure, but also entertained and satisfied.

It begins with Simon (Jason Bateman) and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) arriving in Los Angeles, where they have bought a home near Simon’s new job. Simon had grown up there, and has scored a top position because of his expertise in cyber security. The move is also a fresh start for the couple, who hope to start a family after Robyn’s miscarriage the year before. The positive mood is sustained, or so it seems, when Simon is recognized by Gordo, a schoolmate from high school, who seems delighted to see him again. He heartily welcomes Simon’s return, and is soon stopping by with gifts for the couple in their new home.


Rebecca Hall as Robyn

Gordo’s overly friendly actions soon become suspicious, however, especially his “stopping by” just when Robyn is alone and Simon is away at work. Although Simon is mildly annoyed, Robyn seems sympathetic because Gordo is clearly a sad misfit with miserable social skills.

This setup is a little slow since we’re expecting Gordo to reveal sinister motives, and likely psychotic tendencies, as we’ve seen in so many other films. But then there is a sudden shift in tone, and the film bends into a different, and unexpected, psychological thriller. This shift occurs in one scene – the most crucial in the film – when the couple accept Gordo’s invitation to dinner. Gordo gets a phone call and, without further explanation, says he has to leave briefly because of an “emergency” at his job. But once the couple is alone, Simon reveals just how much he distrusts Gordo, and that he is convinced he has designs on Robyn. Simon’s sudden hostility is fierce and defensive, and it has the effect of preparing the audience for the revelations to come: just what did happen between these two “friends” that Simon is trying to hide.

There are at least two surprise twists that get the blood racing before the powerful conclusion. But, as my readers should expect, some glaring plot gaps should not be ignored: a major character is drugged, and falls unconscious, but there’s not a clue as to when or how the drugging occurred; a lie is spread that ruins a person’s life, but no legal recourse is ever mentioned; and, most glaringly, how is it that a professional security expert takes absolutely no measures to protect his own home? Finally – and I’m no spoiler here – the deserved retribution is simply not as devastating as it used to be because of recent medical advances.

Another quibble: although Bateman is superb in the crucial scene mentioned earlier, the fact is that he is basically miscast. The second half of the film calls for reserves of rage and menace that are simply outside of his range. If he was looking for the kind of career altering triumph, like what Steve Carell did in Foxcatcher, it doesn’t work.

Edgerton is fine, however, even though the role is underwritten and sketchy. But Rebecca Hall is in the most three-dimensional role, and she is the reason the film works so well. Her transformation from passive yuppie-type innocent to disillusioned and resentful wife is totally convincing, and gives the story emotional heft.

Film: “Irrational Man”

July 24, 2015

Emma Stone and Joachim Phoenix in “Irrational Man”

I don’t think this will be the last film 79- year old Woody Allen will make, but if its is, he’s chosen to go out pitiless and ugly, as Robert Bresson did in L’Argent. A grim affair, the only thing I found amusing about it was seeing how many times he placed the actors in scenic Newport locations, even for one or two lines of dialogue, in order to get all of those cost-saving perks from the city.

His script editor – himself – is as strict as ever. Not one screen moment, not a word, extends a scene past its dramatic function. We follow characters whose lives are meant to embody the living concepts in his by-now familiar philosophy, but it still holds us because he casts his actors so perfectly. They can blithely discuss the meaning of the universe while ordering from a restaurant menu, but they are so particularized that we never hear the author’s voice, only their own.

His theme is familiar, but presented starkly, without the comic trappings he’s used before. But his conclusion is the same: the existence of genuine goodness in this world is as mysterious and unexplained as the existence of evil. At any time, choosing one over the other may be no more than a random act. There is an additional warning, however: it is dangerous to hold back from life because you’re waiting for the exact opportunity to discover your true nature, which will guide you for the future. The danger is, of course, that your “true nature” may be something you – and  the rest of the world – will wish had stayed hidden.

But the bigger story, for me, is the astonishing Emma Stone. As a college student infatuated with her philosophy professor, played  by Joachim Phoenix, she makes her character’s agonizing conversion to disillusionment, and eventual horror, the strongest element in the film. She seems to instinctively avoid falseness and vanity in her performance, which is remarkable in someone so young. Allen could not have chosen someone more sympathetic to his vision.

Film: “A Hard Day”

July 21, 2015

Lee Sun-Kyun as Det. Ko Gun-su in “A Hard Day”

Several interesting new films had local openings recently. I chose this South Korean thriller and had a good time. Directed and co-written (with Lee Hae-jun) by Kim Seong-hun, it was a Directors’ Fortnight selection at Cannes 2014. Like many Southeast Asian crime films, the heroes can be cops or crooks, almost interchangeably. This one gives a new slant: the hero is a crooked cop.

I should adjust that; only mildly crooked. Divorced and raising a young daughter, Homicide Det. Ko Gun-su “indulges”, like others in his squad, with occasional payoffs and padded perks, but stays true to catching the bad guys. But, from the film’s cynical perspective, that’s not enough to protect him. The film’s clever setup has him running over a man while driving from his mother’s funeral to the burial. Rather implausibly, he stuffs the dead “victim” in the trunk and gets to the parlor late, with apologies. In this first section of the film, about forty minutes long, maximum suspense is achieved when he conceives of a novel way to dispose of the body before the funeral parlor closes, although his shame at the disrespect to his deceased mother is most painful for him. This section also has the most wit and ingenuity, especially in the way he uses his daughter’s toys in his plan.

The rest of the film concerns the unexpected consequences of the car accident. It seems that the dead man lying in the road had actually been shot beforehand, and was a top criminal that Gun-su’s squad was investigating. Gun-su is blackmailed by a witness to the accident, whose identity is revealed slowly. There are plenty of twists along the way to a violent conclusion, and Seong-hun keeps the action hot and fast. Still, except for one jump-out-of your-seat shock, there are no real surprises.

One thing I always find interesting about the crime films from Southeast Asia is the use of close-ups. They rely much more on close-ups of the actors’ faces in the action sequences, while American films pull back to showcase all the movement within the frame. The latter certainly costs more. So why do it? Possibly because audiences for American films expect more, and more expensive, destruction of property to go along with the body count. Maybe, more buck for the bang?

Film: “Love and Mercy”

July 7, 2015

Paul Dano as Brian Wilson in “Love and Mercy”

This is a biopic of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, directed by Bill Pohlad, and written by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner. While it is intensely involving and convincing, it is more unsettling than fun to watch. In fact, it is likely that the more you love their music, the more depressed you’ll be after seeing it.

It’s ironic but I can’t say that the story the filmmakers chose to tell could have been told better. While the flip-flop of moving back and forth between the younger and older Wilson was awkward and annoying, the fact is that each story, if told separately, would not have been more satisfying anyway. True, Paul Dano (younger) and John Cusack (middle-aged Wilson) don’t really look alike, and neither looks very much like Wilson himself, who appears in the closing credits singing the title song. And yet each actor strongly personifies a brilliant, tortured character, and there is nothing lost dramatically by both actors playing the same role.

We know the facts, generally, and they aren’t pretty. As an adolescent, Brian channeled his  insecurity and self-loathing into a furious quest to transform pop music into a genuine art form, one that could be as personal and revealing as abstract expressionism. And also make him and his family a ton of money.


John Cusack as Brian Wilson in “Love and Mercy”

There seems to be no reason why his life would not serve as the subject for an entertaining biopic of a famous musician. Well, yes, there is one. While musical biopics from Yankee Doodle Dandy to Jersey Boys have benefitted from a standard formula – basically extract and sanitize – Brian Wilson’s life resists that treatment. To be frank, the person we see on-screen doesn’t seem to have had a single happy moment in his life. Even at the recording studio, where he basically tyrannized the musicians into reproducing the “sounds” that invaded his mind, his success wasn’t restorative. Even the earliest, most popular Beach Boys songs were the product of his isolation; the later ones – so brilliantly original and experimental – were even more dependent upon introspection.

But the filmmakers were tempted – unwisely I think – because the story of Wilson’s escape from his dominating therapist – a truly frightening Paul Giamatti – and his eventual marriage to the woman who fought to free him, at least follows the arc of the proven formula, which always ends in triumph. Unfortunately, the film never gets to show that. After two hours, we only get end titles that tell us of Wilson’s court victory and his happy marriage. But none of that overcomes the memory of Cusack’s Wilson as a creepy wreck, or the implausibility of the gorgeous Elizabeth Banks falling in love with him. The repeated explanation that she had been “hurt” in a former relationship doesn’t jibe with the sophisticated Cadillac saleswoman we see.

In short the story is a downer. Sure, Wilson is alive and, supposedly, “cured”, but he has long since abandoned any commitment to exploring the possibilities of music, which is, after all, why he is an important artist. Contrast this with Shine, for which Geoffrey Rush won a best actor Oscar. His character, David Helfgott, was also a musical genius – a classical pianist – with extreme social dysfunctionality. But, sanitized and saccharine as it was, the film’s development to a rousing, triumphant climax was true-to-form, and audiences responded.

I should mention that there are fine performances throughout. A standout scene has Giamatti talking to a visibly repelled Banks as she gets into her car. His obliviousness to her discomfort is both subtle and scary.

Film: “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence”

June 28, 2015

unidentified actors in “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence”

This film won the Golden Lion (Best Film) at last year’s Venice Film festival. It is the last film of a trilogy by Swedish director-writer Roy Andersson, but the only one I’ve seen. But reviews seem to regard it as stand-alone, with little from the first two films that are needed for its full appreciation. Be prepared for a weird yet ultimately rewarding experience, a film that is at times maddeningly opaque, and yet one that summons associations with countless precursors in its existential despair. However, its pleasures are somewhat dimmed by pretentiousness.

Set in a contemporary Sweden of stifling drabness, it is composed of 39 vignettes, with only one (King Charles XII) lasting more than 3 or 4 minutes. The camera never moves. It stays fixed on a scene, usually indoors, where the actors stiffly move about and address each other in rather formal language. Nobody is happy about anything. When infants are shown, they seem cared for, but ignored. A young girl stands on a balcony, alone, blowing bubbles. Otherwise, the actors are often slovenly, unprettified adults whose strongest emotion is a rather listless annoyance with life in general.

The only recurring characters are Sam and Jonathan, a pair of weary, middle-aged salesmen who sell party “gag” items, which they carry in a suitcase. They approach potential customers with either a glum hostility (Sam) or a pleading sadness (Jonathan), and are uniformly rebuffed. Their only actual customer is a shop-owner who never paid them, and probably never will. As a result, their landlord is threatening to evict them for rent arrears.

After awhile, the schema is clear: all relationships are based on dominance/submission. Among them, Lotte, a crippled tavern owner, gets young men to kiss her for free drinks; an Amazonian flamenco teacher openly fondles a handsome student; a modern-day tavern is suddenly time-warped into the 18th century when King Charles XII and his staff, on horseback, invade it and commandeer free service on their way to the battle of Poltava. Most prominently, Jonathan is continuously insulted and verbally abused by Sam.

While Andersson can tantalize and amuse, in a mordant style, no unifying theme emerges until, late in the film, the action stops cold, and the subtitle “homo sapiens” appears. Two unforgettable scenes follow: the first, set in an animal research laboratory, will be remembered in nightmares. The second, less shocking but still disturbing, depicts the mass killing of African natives.

At that point, we return to Jonathan. He is awake in his room, trembling in horror. He tells Sam that something has happened for which forgiveness is necessary, but he can’t say from whom, or for what crime. No further explanation is made. The film ends at a bus stop, where several people discuss the importance of knowing what day of the week it is.

That ending is the clearest reference to Samuel Beckett, but his spirit, and gloom, seem to permeate the entire film. Some of the episodes are obvious (a heart attack trying to open a bottle of wine) or just throwaway (a young couple making out on the grass). Only one – the flamenco class – made me laugh outright. The cast has professional poise, which is about right for a moderately entertaining, if didactic, pageant. But if I’m not quite enthusiastic about the film, I appreciate its formal elegance and unflinching irony.

Film: “Results”

June 9, 2015

Kevin Corrigan and Cobie Smulders in “Results”

The romantic triangle form has served film comedy for a long time, and there are some notable ones, such as The Philadelphia Story or, a personal favorite, James Brooks’ Broadcast News. This film, written and directed by Andrew Bujalski, is one in what’s identified as the “mumblecore” genre. While it has pleasures to offer, it’s still (sorry) kind of a letdown.

The chief pleasure is Kevin Corrigan, who just may be the comic genius the NYTimes critic has already dubbed him. He plays Danny, a pudgy, shlubby transplanted New Yorker in Austin who shows up at a local gym to get “in shape”, which means, he explains, being able to “take a punch”. The gym owner is Trevor, a demonically ambitious transplant from Australia played by Guy Pearce. The female part of the triangle, Kat, is the top trainer at the gym, who is assigned Danny as a client. Danny seems to have more money than he knows what to do with, and most of it goes towards things – like pizza, wide-screen TV and weed – that have nothing to do with “getting in shape”. As played by Cobie Smulders, Kat is, at first, even more zealous about physical fitness and getting the best “results” for her clients than Trevor.

But then, she never had a client like Danny. Corrigan pretty much owns the first hour of the film, and each tantalizing revelation of the depth of Danny’s ineptitude makes for some delightful comedy, especially his interplay with Kat, who, quite to her amazement, becomes as attracted to him as he is to her.

I wish I could say the comic fizz kept bubbling but, after a sudden shift in story and tone, what had been a refreshing cocktail becomes a flat Foster’s. Specifically, Bujalski decides to take Danny out of the triangle altogether, devoting the rest of the film to Trevor and Kat. Part of the problem is Pearce, who is simply no megawatt charmer like Redford or Clooney, or his fellow Australian Paul Hogan. Phenomenally muscled, he seems far less strained and pained lifting weights than by having to kiss his co-star. Smulders, on the other hand, is someone to watch. Bringing to mind the young Catherine Keener, in her indie-queen days, she is fresh, game and sexy. Her character’s late conversion is not credible, but that’s probably beyond what any other actress could do.

But the real story here is Kevin Corrigan, and he’s the reason I recommend the film. Danny’s obliviousness is so total, it’s almost sinister. He’s not proud of his faults, but he’s blind to the one that gets him into the most trouble: misunderstanding other people. Corrigan’s line delivery and expression are beyond quirky, falling into downright weird. Think Jack Black crossed with Peter Sellers at his looniest. And Bujalski knows that part of the fun is how uncomfortably the other characters struggle so as not to offend this rich, but impossible misfit.

A final word: this is the most un-Texas Texas film I’ve ever seen. Nobody has a western accent, there’s no horses and the only person who says he has a gun (not shown) is from New York. The characters are positively dripping with SoCal insouciance, and leave puddles. Stupefying!

Film: “Saint Laurent”

May 29, 2015

Gaspard Ulliel in “Saint Laurent”

Although overlong, this French biopic of fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent is superior entertainment. I would likely see it again – or rather up to the last third which, while skillfully made, significantly drops off in moviegoing pleasure. But this is partly due to the downturn in the subject’s life due to the cumulative effects of wild partying, sex and drugs finally catching up with him. Interestingly, another film of his life (which I have not seen) was released in the same year. It had the cooperation of the salon and of Saint Laurent’s lover and lifetime companion, Pierre Berge, which this film did not, but it was not as popular as this one.

The story time-jumps rather confusingly, but essentially covers the years from 1967 to 1976, climaxing with Saint Laurent’s triumphant “comeback” Moroccan-themed show of that year. Director Bertrand Borello confuses matters further by haphazardly inserting scenes taking place some 13 years later, in 1989, and casting another actor, Helmut Berger, for the elderly Saint Laurent. Berger is convincing in the role, but his scenes have no dramatic energy and tell us nothing particularly interesting.

But the first hour and a half sizzles. Obviously Borello is more inspired by the younger, more familiar Saint Laurent, who is played brilliantly by Gaspard Ulliel. If Ulliel was not already well-known as an actor, I would have sworn he was cloned directly from YSL’s DNA; a breathtaking resemblance. Also prominently featured are Jeremie Renier as Pierre Berge, and Louis Garrel as Jacques, the lover who nearly destroyed their relationship. The rest of the huge cast is uniformly excellent.

I haven’t seen any of Borello’s other films, but he demonstrates a bold imagination, and he takes some surprising risks. He painstakingly prolongs shots of beautiful people dancing to loud pop music in beautiful clothes but, against all the rules, I actually liked it. He packs his frames with gorgeous models in Saint Laurent’s creations, once again to excess, but I was never restless. He also lavishes much screen time on nudity and sex, all of it male but, again, it doesn’t seem gratuitous because Ulliel makes Saint Laurent such a seductive, mysterious presence, yet always vulnerable and human.

Wait. I guess you’d have to say some of it is gratuitous. Whatever.

One scene is typical: the camera picks up Jacques, who will become Saint Laurent’s lover, at a crowded dance club. The camera slowly pans back and forth between them while they only look at each other from across the dance floor, which is packed with revelers dancing in, and probably from, ecstasy. Yet it doesn’t seem ridiculous or affected, probably because the shot conveys the very obsessiveness we’ve already come to associate with Saint Laurent. He is hopelessly obsessed with beauty; he can never get enough, and it forms the basis of his tragedy and his genius.


Gaspard Ulliel and Valerie Bruni Tedeschi in “Saint Laurent”

So the subjects are beauty, fashion, sex, drugs and music, all mixed together and ravishingly filmed. As you might expect, the dialog is unimportant, and it’s treated that way. But, interestingly, the two scenes where dialogue does count are the most memorable in the film. In the first, Saint Laurent’s lover and lifetime companion, Pierre Berge, is in a business meeting with Saint Laurent’s two American investor-licensees. The only woman present is the French-English interpreter. We see the extent of Pierre’s involvement with his lover’s business interests; it is thorough and unwavering. The back-and-forth with the licensees, especially the younger American played by Brady Corbet (riveting in a brief role), is oddly absorbing. We don’t need to understand the details to maintain interest; the intense verbal combat has an almost abstract elegance.

Even better is a scene in the salon. A pretty woman, just entering middle age, is grateful, and a little nervous, that Saint Laurent is personally attending to her fitting. But she does not think the outfit flatters her, and she tells him that, hesitantly. Then, with quiet, sensitive command, Saint Laurent deals with the problem. He advises her on the placement of jewelry, her walk and even her hair. With each adjustment, the woman (Valerie Bruni Tedeschi, simply wonderful) becomes more confident and alluring. The dramatic point is brilliantly made. Anyone can design beautiful clothing. But only haute couture can style the clothing to become inseparable from the beauty of the woman wearing it.

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