Archive for July, 2015

Film: “Irrational Man”

July 24, 2015
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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.

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Film: “A Hard Day”

July 21, 2015
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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
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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.

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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.


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