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Feb212014

Oscar roundup: "The Wolf of Wall Street," "Her," "Nebraska," "American Hustle," "Dallas Buyers Club"

To think about movies in terms of the Oscars is to distort our thinking, and not only about the movies themselves.  Still, as much as the Academy Awards is an excuse for celebrities to slap each other on the back, it also must be seen as a time to celebrate the artists who are great at what they do, in all the arts that make up that art we love, cinema.  It's as much a part of the pageantry and history, the dream and illusion of the movies as Hollywood itself.  Every great director has coveted a little golden statue (and many of the very best, from Chaplin to Welles to Hitchcock to Lynch, never won one). 

That said, here's my take on some on some of the Best Picture contenders.  (I made a comment or two on "Gravity" and "12 Years a Slave" here.) (What about "Captain Phillips" and "Philomena," you ask?  I simply haven't had a chance to see them yet.)  

The Wolf of Wall Street

Louis Rukeyser never hinted at this sort of thing.  Could this be Scorsese's “Fire Walk With Me,” a Dionysian unleashing of the id that may be his purest self-expression even as it threatens to careen off the rails?  (And this at a time when David O. Russell was threatening to out-Scorsese Scorsese with “American Hustle.”)  This is exhilarating, ultimately empty cinema: it’s like the cinemamatic equivalent of a hit of the cocaine that everyone here hoovers up so greedily.  It’s another depraved, juicy role for Leonardo DiCaprio for Scorsese.  Leo sinks his teeth into it, giving a performance of remarkable physical comedy.  He plays a real-life character, an amoral trader who rose from penny-stocks to become a king of shady financial instruments.  A clever cop (Kyle Chandler) brings him down.  Jonah Hill is hilarious as a cracked-out greedhead with a big prosthetic knob.  I suppose for people not already accustomed to viewing Wall Street as a more or less criminal milieu, every bit as "gangster" as the worlds of "Casino” and “Goodfellas,” this film might shock.  It didn't show me anything about the money milieu I didn't already suspect.  Like those pictures, this is darkly funny: it always seems a bit dangerous to laugh.  Once again Scorsese delights in delineating the trajectory of a criminal enterprise in a rush of cuts and comic psychos, here borne along by great gusts of “f-bombs” from screenwriter Terence Winter.  Any fan of cinema will get a rush from the energy of the pure cinema here.  Arms outstretched to the roar of the floor, Leo is king of the world amidst Scorsese’s moving camera and Thelma Schoonmaker rhthymic cutting, with Devo’s “Uncontrollable Urge” on the soundtrack: yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah YEAH!!!”  (That soundtrack is as electic as all get-out, thanks to music supervisors Randall Poster and Robbie Robertson, featuring everything from Elmore James to Cannonball Adderley to Billy Joel to Joe Cuba to Ahmad Jamal Trio to Howlin’ Wolf to Naughty by Nature).  The guys in this movie are clownish versions of the Wall Street titans who brought death to our hometowns.  Fascinating, subersive, as empty as the people it's about, "The Wolf of Wall Street" may go down as Scorsese’s last word on the subject of money.    

Her

“I think, therefore I am,” was one of Descartes's good ones.  His zinger resounds down the centuries all the way to this movie, a sweet, lyrical “Spike Jonze love story.”  (The subtitle mentions the auteur, I suppose so we don't think we're going to get Richard Curtis.)  It's a colorful canvas.  In the near future a sweet, geeky man, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his phone, "Samantha" (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).  This does seem to be the way we’re heading.  Samantha is a creative entity: she draws, she composes music, she changes based on her "life" experiences.  It's a story told largely in close-ups; Phoenix's expressive face carries the movie.  Theodore's best buddy, Amy, is played by Amy Adams, as sexless here as she was sexed up in "American Hustle."  “Falling in love is a crazy thing to do,” she says.  “It’s kind of like a socially acceptable insanity.”  Carried away by his love for Samantha, Theodore dances, sings, takes long walks in the snowy wooded mountains.  Olivia Wilde is heartbreaking in an early scene as Theodore's blind date, her desperation barely hidden beneath a too-cheery surface.  Jonze has said that his film is not really about technology.  It's about the pain of change, of growing apart.  How sad it is, to lose someone through growing up.  The movie is wise about Theodore's complex feelings for his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara).  She is the person from whom he grew away.  What he comes to understand is, that’s just another way of saying she was the person he grew up with

Nebraska

In Alexander Payne’s latest film, his fourth set in Nebraska, silos line the skyline of cinematographer Phedon Papmichael's black and white landscapes, sad and beautiful.  Payne puts people on screen we don’t usually see in the movies.  They huddle in flannel.  They may never have seen color.    (Their only sin, to paraphrase Dylan, is their lifelessness.)  Life has been such for these men that there’s really nothing much to say.  Bruce Dern plays Will Forte’s elderly dad, Woody.  He’s non-verbal, a dazed, shambolic alcoholic.  A wispy halo of white hair springs from his hard pate, a pate as hard as the land itself.  This is a showcase role for Bruce Dern, who must use his eyes, the set of his mouth, a stumbling gait to suggest a lifetime of pain tamped down, with only the quick pleasure of a sexual grapple to redeem it.  There's a raw defiance there, too.  The scene Karolyn and I won’t forget: when June Squibb, playing Woody's hilariously tart wife, who’s been riding him mercilessly for the entire film, visits him in the hospital and tenderly smoothes down that flyaway hair as he lies unconscious, “making him a gentleman,” as Karolyn so movingly put it.  What does Payne think of these people?  I think he regards them in much the same way as Will Forte's character does.  He grew up around them, but as much as he'd like to understand men like his father, he knows they will always remain a mystery.  He doesn't laugh at them either, exactly (although they can be very funny).  He has come to a place in his life where he accepts them as they are.      

American Hustle

You just want to say it's a cracking entertainment and leave it at that, as though that were a small thing.  It's based on a real-life political scandal, and it's evocatively rooted in a specific time and place, the 1970s in New York/New Jersey.  It's a real movie, with outrageous costumes, funny hair, great music and energy, delicious performances, and copious "side boob" (although David O. Russell's camera doesn't leer at his friends Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams: it's almost as though he doesn't want to see these women as sexy, but like sisters playing dress-up.)  The movie is not as empty as its critics would have it.  It's sincere.  And it's not without thematic resonance (everybody does the American hustle, after all).  Still, some of the material has a warmed-over feeling, as if Russell still doesn't quite have a style of his own.  What stays with you are moments: Bradley Cooper, high on himself (among other things), overcompensating for being a sheltered mama's boy, sitting on a couch giddily mocking the recently departed Louis C.K., as his hapless boss.  Jennifer Lawrence is very funny as the wild card: when she sidles up to the bar next to the gangsters in her slinky gown, she's brassy, gutsy, insecure, awkward, reckless, naive, so many things all at once.  Christian Bale is the potbellied, oddly decent con-man who can't help caring about her.  (Karolyn and I saw this picture after just having seen Bale in "Out of the Furnace," playing a guy who might as well have been from a different planet than this guy.)  Russell is on a roll with this and "Silver Linings Playbook" and "The Fighter." The most moving moment is when Bale's character confides that the greatest regret of his life is losing the friendship of his friend, the mayor of New Jersey (Jeremy Renner), whom he more or less reluctantly conned.  He really means it.

 

Dallas Buyers Club

We'd had hints of how good Matthew McConaughey was becoming (and what a surprise!), but we didn't know he had this in him.  He’s perfectly cast, playing a real person, Ron Woodroof, a homophobic cowboy in the near past (1985), who is blindsided when he learns he has contracted AIDS from too much partyin' and lovin'.  This was in the wake of Rock Hudson's death, a time I remember well, when awareness of AIDS was just breaking in the wider culture, when it could still be the subject of nervous death's-head jokes amongst us adolescent boys.  When Big Pharma and the FDA ban the meds Ron needs to stay alive, he smuggles them in, opening a "club" where, for a fee, members get the drugs.  (He's about "doing well" much more than he's about "doing good," initially.)  Jared Leto is unforgettable as Rayon, a transvestite who would have fit right in as a Warhol "superstar," yet couldn't be more out of place in mid-80s Dallas.  He's a survivor, though.  No one could be less likely to accept Rayon than Ron, yet he comes to love him with a tough love.  This is never discussed but is instead shown, in that great supermarket scene where Ron twists his redneck buddy's arm, forcing him to shake the despised Rayon's hand.  The director, Jean-Marc Valée, proves here how very good he is with actors, guiding both McConaughey and Leto to Academy Award nominations.  And it's not just the physical transformations, as a stunt, we should note here.  It's the uncanny way that McConaughey inhabits not just Ron but the 80s as a time, even down to the way he wears his glasses, somehow.  It's a raw, furious, wary performance, and he never hits a false note.  As for Leto, he does not make Rayon a "tragic" figure.  The tragedy is in the raw fact, which Leto makes you feel in your gut, that the very essence of who Rayon is, is a survivor: he does not want to die.  And that is tragedy enough.  You could say we needed this movie years earlier, but maybe that just goes to show how far we have already come from a time when people had to be ashamed to be themselves, had to die scared and more or less alone.  After the distortions of awards season have come and gone, this picture will continue to haunt its viewers.  In the unforgiving fact of these alarming bodies, we see the true story of AIDS inscribed.  Of the contenders I've seen, this is the best picture.  

Monday
Jan132014

Inside Llewyn Davis

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is at once the new Coen Brothers picture and a movie about the early-60s folk music scene in Greenwich Village, which means that here we have a film that interests me both for its subject and its directors.  It’s a curious film that I’m not sure will entirely satisfy fans of either.  Quietly haunting, sometimes hilarious, the movie observes distantly, obliquely, just like the titular Llewyn (Oscar Isaac). It has a sly way of working on you, which has everything to do with the Coens’s by-now serene style.     

Llewyn is an insolent, hard-knocked, big-mouthed, self-absorbed young folksinger, chasing his dream, the kind of fellow who gets his ass kicked in the alley of a folk club for heckling other performers.  Always broke, he lives off the good graces of others, including his fed-up girlfriend Jean, a folksinger herself.  Played with withering contempt from under her bangs by Carey Mulligan, Jean informs Llewyn that everything he touches “turns to shit.”  It's a funny turn.          

Llewyn is modeled--very, very loosely--on Dave Van Ronk, the “musical mayor of MacDougal Street,” that legendary New York street lined with coffeehouses like the Gaslight.  Van Ronk was a hero of the very young Dylan.  Indeed, Llewyn inhabits a chilly Village that’s just as we imagine it must have been on the eve of Dylan blowing in to electrify everything.  It’s all just a backdrop for the Coens’s constant theme: the dance of fate and chaos.  Signifiers and allusions float past in the wintry palette by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, like the street names that briefly focus as the subway rollicks towards the Village (from a cat’s point of view, no less). 

That cat is one of the movie’s key characters, actually.  He belongs to a sweetly square professor and his wife (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), who are always happy to host their “folksinger friend from the Village,” imagining him to be quite a soulful fellow.  It's a sort of mutual exploitation.  Having crashed at their apartment the night before, Llewyn watches as the cat darts out the door.  He’ll be trying to keep the cat in his grasp for the rest of the movie, but nothing is really ever quite within Llewyn’s grasp.        

The joke of the movie is that there doesn’t really seem to be that much going on “inside” Llewyn Davis.  That’s until he opens his mouth to sing, that is.  Suddenly a guy who seemed shallow has soul for ages, and he’s singing of legends and lore, of loss and love and sacrifice.  (We learn that he used to be in a duo until his partner jumped off a bridge, and maybe it's when he sings that you can see what that really meant to him).  For as long as it takes him to sing “Hang Me, O Hang Me,” Llewyn is that guy facing the gallows.  Oscar Isaac performed the songs himself, sullen, cigarette hanging from his mouth.  These are the moments when a rather ghostly movie has some blood and guts. 

There’s also a guileless young soldier (amusingly played by Stark Sands), a folksinger himself, just passing through.  Because Llewyn happens to be chasing the cat, he catches a glimpse of the soldier again, walking away into the distance.  The effect is odd: it's as if we’ve glimpsed a story-strand after it’s moved off the “stage” of the movie. 

This is a very early bohemia.  There is a funny scene in which Llewyn’s “straight” sister (Jeanine Serralles) reproaches him for his cursing by saying, “I’m not one of your Greenwich Village friends.”  Actually it’s funny how clean-cut, even collegiate, the café denizens look by today’s standards.  The earnestness of the performance, too, is from another era, like that of duo “Jean and Jim” (Mulligan and a bright-eyed Justin Timberlake).  Though the mighty T. Bone Burnett supervised the music, as he did on “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, I’m not sure I need the soundtrack separated from the visuals (not when the original recordings are still out there).  Still, it’s fun to hear Timberlake sing folk.  I got a kick out of the scene where Llewyn and Jim go into the studio to cut a corny novelty number (“Please Mr. Kennedy”), complete with hilarious basso interjections by Adam Driver in a cowboy hat. 

Hoping to make it to Chicago to audition for “Grossman” (Albert Grossman, of course, was Dylan’s manager), Llewyn hops in a car driven by the brooding Johnny Five (Garret Hedland), one of those odd characters who populate Coen movies.  Slumped in the back is a massive smack-addicted jazz musician (John Goodman), like a dinosaur of early-60s bohemia.  

 

When Llewyn finally gets to audition for Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), his song stirs such a deep, quiet well that it made me tear up.  For at least those few minutes he’s as great as anyone ever has been.  So it’s quietly heartbreaking when Grossman greets the performance with, well, there’s no commercial potential. 

The ending is a mirror of the beginning.  Only this time when history repeats itself, the cat does not escape.  In a blow-by-blow replay, Llewyn finds himself once again in an alley getting his ass kicked by a shadowy figure.  Except this time, a young Bob Dylan is singing inside the club as it happens.  It’s almost as though we’re seeing Llewyn getting beaten up by history itself.  (Llewyn glimpsed Dylan onstage as he moved towards the back of the club, curious, with no way of knowing he's witnessing the birth of history.)  And so this curious film leaves us there with Llewyn, lying in an alley somewhere near the intersection of Bleecker and MacDougal, caught forever at the crossroads where fate and chance dance. 

Rating: ***1/2

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)

Friday
Dec132013

Ten Movies I Liked, 2013

10 Films I liked, 2013

I can’t call this a survey of the 10 best films of the year, because I haven’t seen the totality of the year’s work.  (Pesky day job!)  Rather, here are 10 films I enjoyed.  It was a year when the basic experience of the movies, the emotional and empathic experience, seemed to remain undiminished: their capacity to make us think, to make us feel.  To freak us out, to get us hot.  To make us laugh.  To show us people faced with moral decisions and make us think about what we'd do if we were in their shoes.  To put us in other people’s shoes in the first place. 

1.           Before Midnight   “How long has it been since we walked around bullshitting?” Jesse asks Celine as they stroll along on a sun-kissed Greek island.  It’s been about nine years, actually, since “Before Sunset.” That film unfolded in “real time,” but then, time is one of the sjubects of these movies.  It’s become a series, though it wasn’t planned that way, a collaboration between Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater.  1995’s “Before Sunrise” was about an enchanted evening when time seemed to be suspended.  That night left Jesse and Celine with an impossibly romantic image of the other.  “Before Midnight” is about what happens when that romantic image becomes a real person.  It’s also about middle-age.  (I’m the same age as Jesse and Celine, so these pictures feel personal for me.)  At one point Jesse and Celine sit and watch a sunset.  “Still here,” Delpy says.  “Still here.”  And finally, “Gone.”  Yes, the day will close, and yes, we’re only passing through.  But by the end of this film, after that bravura extended scene in the hotel room where everything seems to teeter on the edge of flying apart--breathtaking, excruciating, hilarious, heartbreaking--Jesse and Celine make the choice that they will see the day out together.  “Before Midnight” is more honest, more suffused with joy and sadness and truth, than anything else I saw this year. 

2.         56 Up              In 1964 a handful of British seven-year-olds from different backgrounds were asked, on camera, their views on life.  Originally this program’s point was to see if the seismic shifts of the 1960s meant changes for Britain’s class system as well.   We check back in with them every seven years, so that so that when we see the latest “Up” movies we’re also looking at ourselves, in a way.   Those kids we saw dancing happily to the new beat music at the end of “7 Up” are now 56. The Up Series is about the moments that make up a life.  It’s about love and the passage of time.  At the end of this film, however, I came away feeling like there has been a secret theme to this series all along: happiness.  It gladdened me to see that, for the most part, our “Uppers” have had a strong foundation when the winds of changes shift.

3.           20 Feet From Stardom    A documentary about backup singers, this is also about dreams.   It’s the story of the role of black women in rock & roll.  There is much electrifying performance footage: Lynn Mabry with Talking Heads, Claudia Linnear behind Joe Cocker and George Harrison, Darlene Love doing a supercharged “Fine, Fine Boy” with a deliriously happy Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.  We see Merry Clayton, who recorded that apocalyptic vocal on the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” make her (ultimately unsuccessful) bid for the front of the stage, performing a powerful version of Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” The filmmakers linger on Lisa Fischer (who’s taken that “Gimme Shelter” solo onstage with the Stones since 1989).  They enjoy basking in her otherworldly scat singing and her radiant smile just as much as we do. 

4.           Gravity               This year’s purely cinematic experience, a story that could only be expressed fully in the medium of cinema: not as a novel, not on the small screen nor stage.  Alfonso Cuaron’s elemental tale of survival put us in a spacesuit with America’s sweetheart, Sandra Bullock (in a fine performance), and cast us adrift in the cosmos.  We felt everything she felt, as she first accepted that she would die, and then chose to fight to live.  The thrilling images were vast, vertiginous; the sounds could be as intimate as a heartbeat.   

5.           12 Years a Slave Here is another tale of survival.  Solomon Northup (Chiwitel Ejiofor), a free, educated black man, a violinist, was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841.  He ended up deep in Georgia on the plantation run by a dissipated, sadistic man called Epps (Michael Fassbender), his fate to be some kind of crucible for Epps’ feverish shouldering of the “White Man’s Burden.”  In order for a period movie to work, the very atmosphere has to be right, from costumes and set design all the way down to supporting performances and the language, here written by John Ridley, adapting Northup’s 1855 memoir.  Here everything is right, so that raw white supremacy feels as natural and American as breathing.  The director, Steve McQueen, and his cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt, create images rich in texture.  Alfre Woodard has only one scene, but it’s chilling.  Fanning herself on the porch, her smile never fades as she utters a chilling line: the curse of the pharaohs got nothin’ on what’s going to happen to these slavers.  And after a time we’ve seen so much brutality that we’re calling out for “Django”: for an avenger, for a cathartic bloodbath.  But this film shows the reality: the heroism was just to survive, and that left you feeling like no hero at all.  Actually, the picture it most put me in mind of is Pasolini’s almost unbearable “Salo,” about a group of fascists holed up in a castle in the terminal days of WWII, acting out sado-masochistic fantasies on the young men and women of the village.  Chiwetel Ejiofor’s expressive performance translates Northup’s inner life into visual terms.  Our friend Dwight Henry has a small role.  (Karolyn and I had the pleasure of meeting the great man at his Buttermilk Drop Bakery in New Orleans earlier this year). 

6.  Much Ado About Nothing Back when Joss Whedon’s TV shows “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel” were on the air, I used to read about how his troupe would come round to the house and drink wine and perform Shakespeare for their own amusement.  His black & white staging of Shakespeare’s fin-du-siecle (1599) screwball comedy has much of that feel, and it’s all the better for it.  The actors are playing in the dress-up box a bit here, while also inhabiting the characters fully.  Whedon's happy lovers capture the spirit of Shakespeare’s fanfare, set to music by Whedon: “Then sigh not so, but let them go, and be you blithe and bonny, converting all your sounds of woe/into hey nonny, nonny."

7.  A Band Called Death  You should see this film if you’re excited about rock ‘n’ roll, or even if you’re not: it’s a really good story about three African-American brothers in early-70s Detroit who formed a band that the band’s leader, the late David Hackney, insisted on calling Death (though we learn that the name was conceived as anything but a nihilistic concept—in fact it was a spiritual thing that came to him as he reflected over his father's death—of  course everyone took it that way). The brothers played punk years before punk, and at a time when audiences had certain preconceived notions about rock 'n' roll as music white people played (not that that's changed too much).  Death was forgotten until Drag City re-released their 1975 album a few years ago.  The two surviving Hackney brothers remember their brother David as a visionary who insisted on being true to his vision, even though the audience wasn’t ready.  Now, four decades on, they’re out there playing the music again to excited audiences.

8.  Stories We Tell  All families have stories.  All families have secrets.  Sarah Polley, a director I admire (“Away From Her,” “Take This Waltz”), made this film when she discovered that her father (the actor Michael Polley), who raised her after her mother died, is not her biological father.  While it’s a film about looking for the truth, what you have to keep in mind is that this is a family of actors and professional storytellers.  In a sense it’s their job to make us believe things that aren’t true.  Polley remains an artist, not some dull, objective receptacle of “truth,” and she doesn’t pretend otherwise.  Her instinct is to tell stories, to play, to play even with film texture.  (She creates “home movie” footage so skillfully that it’s jarring when she eventually pulls back the camera to reveal herself orchestrating the entire scene.)  This movie is also about how for each generation our parents remain essentially mysterious.  It’s about imagery as a form of memory.  And it's a portrait of Polley’s mother, a life-force who died too soon.

9.           This Is The End   Helming the director’s seat for the first time, Seth Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg got a bunch of real-life friends (James Franco, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Emma Watson etc.) to play twisted versions of themselves.  It’s about how horribly these people would behave if the Rapture were actually upon us.  (None of them was shot up into heaven of course).  They have a lot of fun making fun of their own personas.  It’s a bit insular, presupposing that you know these people and their work.  While the special effects are funny, the laughs mostly flow from human-scale foibles like pretensions and vanity.  You can almost hear Rogen and Goldberg sitting around saying, “Wouldn’t it be funny if…?”  And for the most part, it is. 

10.         The World’s End

Another movie where a bunch of mates sitting around saying “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” got their vision up onto the screen.  It’s about the end of the world as well, and about my generation, sort of.  It’s by the team who made “Shaun of the Dead”: Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who co-write and star, and Edgar Wright, who directs.  These guys are the same generation as me.  The story is about a group of estranged old friends, settled into a middle-aged rut, who reunite to finish the pub crawl the never finished 20 years ago, when they were young and invincible.  Pegg plays the selfish, charismatic rebel (the “cock”) who used to cheerfully get them all in trouble back in the day.  The filmmakers establish characters and a story and an everyday world, so that by the time the jolts come, they really jolt.  (You know this crew wouldn’t stick to a straight story).  I like the idea that the Starbuck-ization of English country pubs is the advance warning of an alien invasion.  Actually, the idea that human beings are being steadily replaced by robots would explain a lot.  While this movie eventually becomes repetitive, it's mostly a pleasure.  Features an early-90s Britpop soundtrack, the music of the characters’ youth.  (And ours, some of us).

I should also mention Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Die Welt, Despicable Me 2 (for most Minions madness), The Harvest, Blue Jasmine

Monday
Nov182013

The Harvest

Karolyn and I popped over to the 49th Chicago International Film Festival and caught the world premiere of “The Harvest,” the latest work from two Chicago guys, actor Michael Shannon and director John McNaughton.  It’s a psychological story.  By that I mean it's about the relationships between the characters, but the funny thing is, you won't get the true meaning of the glances and words, the actions and shifting loyalties, except in hindsight or on a second viewing.  Writing about this one depends more than usual on not giving too much away.  Suffice it to say that the writer, Stephen Lancellotti, who attended our screening, has created a story with (urban) mythic resonance.  It's all pretty implausible, probably, but if we learned anything from Hitchcock it's that we probably shouldn't worry too much about plausibility, at least in the movies.  (And you won't if you had fun with McNaughton's last picture, 1998's "Wild Things," which I did.)        

We meet Katherine (Samantha Morton) when she pulls down her surgeon’s mask.  She’s just saved a boy’s life: he was hit in the chest by a well-hit baseball.  Her own son, prepubescent Andy (Charlie Tahan) is gravely ill.  A frail, bedbound boy, he can barely lift himself from his wheelchair to his bed, whence he watches the cornstalks grow just outside his window.  His mother has charged him with guarding “his” harvest, and so he watches for crows, rapping on the window to ward them off.  She homeschools him and pretty much keeps him cut off from the outside world.  She even discourages him from trying to walk on his own. 

Shannon plays Richard, Katherine’s husband.  He’s kind of a big kid himself: a bit slow maybe, with his big furrowed brow, but not without a mordant humor, his eyes sad, lip softly bit as if biting back an interior life.  Something in his psychological makeup allows him to go along with Katherine, but only up to a certain point: he gives her pushback about her zealous overprotection.  For her part, while she's the steely boss, she can break and be needy by turns.        

Through Andy’s window comes bold, intrepid Maryann (young Natasha Calis, excellent), as if answering the wish for a friend he didn’t know he had.  She lives just through the woods with her grandparents (Leslie Lyles and a moving Peter Fonda).  She’s just moved to town, still raw from her parents' death in a car accident.  She is a girl of action, and pretty soon she’s sneaking him outside to play.    

 

Katherine regards Maryann with a look so icy it’s like being under a mile of frozen ground.  But why?  Maryann’s company is so obviously good for Andy.  Is it jealousy?  Before long Maryann is playing detective.  Of course, nobody will listen to her about what she’s discovered (she's just a kid, after all, although Fonda does get off a good “groovy”), and I won't tell you here, except it's not good.     

A more expressive director than McNaughton might have pushed this material into horror or melodrama or even camp (which is where he took his "Wild Things," come to think of it), but his unexploitative, relatively flat style here allows the story to remain in the realm of the psychological, though shading into horror.  Like the film itself, Morton’s Katherine inhabits some twilight between psychological thriller and horror movie.  She evokes iconic performances like Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Piper Laurie as Carrie’s mom, Kathy Bates in “Misery,” and Faye Dunaway as “Mommie Dearest.”  Isn’t there something a bit sexist by now, you might ask, about this trope: a maternal power whom the rebel (often a man) must fight?  Maybe, but here it’s balanced by brave Maryann’s girl power. 

At the question and answer session, Shannon, generally laconic in temperament, declared that “The Harvest” is about love.  Really about love, he stressed, not like some Ryan Reynolds/Rachel McAdams movie that "I would probably hate.”  (Now, I happen to think Rachel McAdams is a doll, but that's me.)  It’s a love gone horribly awry, but still: i's about a mother's love.  I suspect this is what is what Morton latched onto to play Katherine, to make her pathetic as well as scary.  There are moments when we actually sympathize with her, and it's because of this mad love, as well as the cosmic unfairness of it all (which is maybe what's driven her mad): she has the power to save other children’s lives, but not her own.

Rating: ***

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)

 

Friday
Aug302013

Blue Jasmine

This year’s Woody Allen picture showcases an unlikely ensemble cast led by Cate Blanchett.  She plays a woman who calls herself Jasmine.  When we first meet her, she’s buttonholing an old lady on a plane, running down her life story for her captive audience at the very moment when she’s lost her equilibrium, her home, her life.  She's a bundle of nerves, deep in denial.  We watch her unravel from there.     

To structure his story, Allen weaves past events in and out of the present moment, so that the past informs the present and the present informs the past.  In fact, in its treatment of memory the film seems to be remarkably spot-on.  A night or two ago I fell to flipping through Diane Ackerman’s An Alchemy of Mind, her book on "the marvel and mystery of the mind," and it seemed to speak to what's going on in Jasmine's tortured mind in this movie. 

Telling stories about what happened to us is the way we cement memories, Ackerman writes.  However, the source of a memory can be slippery.  Are you remembering something that really happened, or are you remembering the story you've told yourself?  As Jasmine keeps telling herself (and anyone who will listen) “Blue Moon” was the song that was playing when she and her husband, Hal, met.  She's trying to secure that moment, even as her life falls away around her.         

Jasmine, who has a tremendous amount of class-anxiety, shot to the top of the social strata by marrying Hal (Alec Baldwin), a money manager.  Turns out he was playing a Ponzi scheme with his investors' cash.  As Hal, Baldwin is guileless, likeable: you can see why nobody knew what he was up to (or, in some cases, didn't want to know).  

Jasmine touches down in San Francisco, intending to drop her bags on the doorstep of her sister Ginger.  Ginger is a happy, sweet working-class girl who Jasmine secretly feels is "not too bright."  She's played by Sally Hawkins, a delight.  Hawkins modulates the effusive spirit that marked her unforgettable turn as the unsinkable Poppy in Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky” (unforgettable to me, annoying to others), and convincingly transmutes her thick London accent.  She is such a smart performer, and, I think, quite fetching. 

Both sisters were adopted.  They couldn't be more dissimilar physically, temperamentally.  Jasmine is blonde, blue-eyed, tall, with classical cheekbones.  Ginger looks a bit daffy with her big front teeth.  They're a bit like duckling and swan.   

San Francisco is a character in this picture, just as Barcelona, Paris, Rome, and London have been over the last decade.  (Woody the NYC man continues to roam.)  To signal the status attained by Dwight (Peter Skaarsgard), an aspiring congressman whose aw-shucks demeanor hides a social climber every bit as pitiless as Jasmine, Allen pans across the bay to the stunning view of the Golden Gate bridge from Dwight's porch.   

(At one point Jasmine walks all the way from the piers to Oakland and back.  Karolyn, who knows San Francisco, looked a bit askance at that, even given what a sweaty mess Jasmine is at the end of her journey.)    

As played by Bobby Cannavale, Ginger's boyfriend Chili is a physical, vibrant presence, so much so that the evocation of Brando doesn't feel like a stretch.  (Some are calling “Blue Jasmine” Allen's answer to “A Streetcar Named Desire.”)  He's tasteless, vulgar, strong; his body carries the implied capacity for a rough tumble of some stripe.  He's the type of guy ladies are calling a “douche” these days, I'm given to understand.  Still, he’s good-hearted and good-humored, and his love for Ginger is pure. 

Ginger’s ex, another big lug, is sympathetically played by none other than 80s shock comic Andrew Dice Clay.  (In the narrative Jasmine tells, he beat Ginger.)

Though “Blue Jasmine” is more light tragedy than comedy in tone, its comic moments flow from class differences.  Jasmine can barely stand Ginger's loud kids, or Chili's crew who come over to watch the fight.  The funniest scene in the movie is the ill-advised "double date" where Jasmine is introduced to Chili and his dorky pal Eddie (Max Casella), who instantly comes down with a crush on Jasmine.       

But even if Ginger and Chili's sartorial choices are played for laughs (and their look really is something to see), “Blue Jasmine” is notable for Allen’s warm look at working-class culture.  Ginger’s home, a walk-up apartment, is warm and cozy.  (I fell to musing about how space itself denotes class.  Ginger lives in close quarters, whereas Hal and Jasmine's opulent apartment, shown in flashback, is vast, roomy.)  Ginger and Chili are happily, playfully physical with each other.  Ginger's dalliance with Al (Louis C.K.), a guy she meets at a party, happens only because Jasmine constantly tells her that Chili is low class, a "loser."  

Cate Blanchett is one of the greats, of course: she's willing to make herself really ugly here.   I won't forget her withering, indeed murderous, glares from beneath lowered brow.  I was going to say Jasmine is deeply unlikeable, but maybe she's more pathetic.  Though she wants to "make something" of herself, maybe become an interior decorator, she's too strung out and insecure.  She can't just take pleasure in living, like Ginger does.  Of the prospect of a job working as a receptionist for a dentist (Michael Stuhlberg), she proclaims, “It’s so menial.”    

There is very little score in "Blue Jasmine," as usual with Allen.  His camera is observational, quiet, almost serene.  Its stillness somehow intensifies the performances, and gives some moments an almost dreamlike feel.

"Blue Jasmine" is not as rich as, say, "Hannah & Her Sisters" or "Crimes and Misdemeanors."  Neither is it a whimsical pleasure, a fantasy like "Midnight in Paris" and "When In Rome."  Still, it will probably turn out to one of Woody’s more memorable late films.  I haven't stopped thinking about it.  

Rating: ***

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)