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Thursday
Dec242015

Top 10, 2015

 1.  Spotlight

Writer/director Thomas McCarthy, who made the wonderful The Station Agent, sustained the prpoer temperature throughout the length of this newspaper procedural about a team of Boston Globe investigative journalists breaking the story of systemic coverup of child abuse in the Catholic Church. Cool, as befits the dogged legwork of reporting. Hot, in a contrapuntal scene where, in anger, Mark Ruffalo loses his professional veneer. But Michael Keaton, as the head of the Spotlight team, know that keeping one's head is just what's needed, not only to avoid a witch hunt, but also so as to patiently marshall the evidence needed to bring down the entire system. Thus, the film aims to absorb rather than rivet. It's a story of breaking ranks with one's own "village" for the sake of the truth, and a reminder that censorship needn't come from the state: sometimes it can come in the form of a wink from those near and dear, a slap on the back, a hurt expression, that says, don't stir the waters. It's also an illustration of the idea that a proper investigative journalists should, in a sense, have no friends.
 

2. Brooklyn

Warm and alive, this film is a simple story of a young Irishwoman (Saoirse Ronan) who leaves her home and her country to cross the Western ocean to Brooklyn in the early 1950s, but its modesty is in inverse proportion to its emotional impact. Writer Nick Hornby (adapting the novel by Colm Tóibín) and director John Crowley are affectionate towards--and gently amused by-- their characters. The camera is watchful of Ronan, rooting for her. In turn, her alert eyes are steady but shy, a window on her fears, heartbreak and homesickness. By the end, they repose with growing reserves of quiet strength. My favorite moment is set at the church's Christmas dinner for the aging, indigent Irishmen who dug New York's tunnels, where a man stands and sings a beautiful song in Gaelic, a song of home. 

 

3. Love and Mercy

Brian Wilson has said he was a different person after his girlfriend (played in this film by Elizabeth Banks) rescued him from the clutches of the abusive, irresponsible Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giametti). Bill Pohldad's inventive biopic makes his metaphor literal, boasting Paul Dano playing the Wilson of "before," John Cusack playing Wilson "after." Fascinating artist-at-work sections include a shot that pans slowly around and around the studio in homage to Godard's Stones-at-work film "Sympathy for the Devil/One Plus One." Ensconcing himself, Wilson began to "play the studio" and created "Pet Sounds" while his world crashed around him, from some combination of paranoid schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, abuse of psychedelics, and the pain of being a conductor of the universe.  

4. Creed

Opening 40 years to the day after the first "Rocky," this is a rousing, satisfying reboot, directed by Ryan Coogler ("Fruitvale Station), who co-wrote with Aaron Covington. It combines the young and vital with the traditional. On the soundtrack, hip-hop jostles with Ludwig Göransson's score, which itself dances around the iconic Bill Conti theme. If this really is goodbye to Rocky, it's a fine sendoff, bringing back this guy the way as we would like to remember him: sweet, honest, loyal, good-humored Rocky, Adrian's gallant goof. Michael B. Jordan is utterly committed. 

5. Heart of a Dog

To watch Laurie Anderson's droll, homemade, eerie documentary is to be inside of her head for 75 minutes. She has a way of looking at the world that's all her own. Her documentary takes us on a journey through the "bardo" (in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the 49-day interval between death and rebirth, during which the mind dissolves) with the late Lolabelle, a very fine rat terrier who could paint, play piano, and sculpt.  The film is also about Big Brother and living with fear, but you could say its true subject is the soul. We see bodies only fleetingly; Anderson herself is here mainly as a disembodied voice. Her late husband, Lou Reed, is present, but almost as a ghost, the film's secret spirit. But then, she quotes David Foster Wallace to the effect that "every love story is a ghost story." It's about release as a form of giving. “Death is so often about regret, or guilt...But finally I saw it, the connection between love and death, and that the purpose of death is the release of love.” After Lolabelle dies, Anderson's meditation teacher instructs her thusly: whenever you think of Lolabelle, give something away. She replies, but then I won't have anything left. So? replies her teacher. 

6.  Hitchcock/Truffaut

"Hitchcock/Truffaut" is a book-length interview of 1966, culled from nearly 30 hours of taped conversation, wherein the young polemicist, Truffaut, took a deep dive with his master, Hitchcock. Sitting down with the bemused auteur, as well as translator Helen Scott, Truffaut cast his keen, critical eye across the entire body of work up to that time, based on the Cahier generation's theory that the work of mere "commercial entertainers" should be evaluated as art. This documentary on those sessions plays a bit like an extended version of one of the revealing video essays director Kent Jones makes for the Criterion collection, only in place of his own voice we get directors like Martin Scorsese, Arnaud Desplechin, Paul Schrader, Olivier Asssayas, Richard Linklater, Peter Bogdanovich, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Wes Anderson, all joining the conversation around this cornerstone text. 

7.  Tangerine

Sean Baker's salty picture drops us into the world of transsexual prostitutes Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez). They're on a Christmas Eve hunt through the Hollywood demimonde, its backstreets and backrooms, looking for Sin-Dee's transgressing boyfriend, who is also her pimp. We accept these characters to such an extent that when we happen to see them through outsider's eyes--as when Alexandra and a john stumble into the frame of bemused cops--it's slightly startling. We laugh at the absurdity of the tawdry situations, yet uneasily. These are some of society's most marginalized members, their world more threatened than most by violence. Still, there's tenderness and compassion here, and even dignity.

8.  My Golden Days

Arnaud Desplechin's kaleidoscopic film is about how we construct the stories of our lives from fragments. "I remember so little," says a man (Mathieu Amalric) as he relates his life story, including his 80s adolescence and romances, to an immigration agent. One person he can never forget, though, is Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet), his first love, the young woman who was the "Catherine" of his life, if I may impose a reference to "Jules and Jim." Just as Jeanne Moreau's visage plays across every cinephile's internal, eternal screen, "beautiful and yet opaque," to quote Roger Ebert, so do traces of Esther haunt and enrich the palimpsest of his memory. Every love story is a ghost story, indeed.

 9.  Bridge of Spies  

A consummate visual storyteller who leaves breathing room for purely formal pleasures, a serene stylist, Spielberg is one of the last of the classicists. This year he brought us this classical Cold War espionage thriller. As was the case with the Golden Age Hollywood stars, a Tom Hanks performance is the product of the character versus the star's persona. In Hanks's case it is a persona that, by now, embodies American intelligence and decency, humor and integrity. (When we violate our own best selves, the movie seems to day, we don't need outsiders to do it for us.) The great English stage actor Mark Rylance plays Colonel Abel, a Soviet operative who lived, painted and spied in Brooklyn Heights. In short, this movie is the work of a group of people who are very good at what they do vis-a-vis the cinematic arts, doing it at the top of their game. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski paints in diffuse light, his palette wintry as befits a Cold War story. His Berlin is almost bluish-white. Editor Michael Kahn has cut every Spielberg films since "Close Encounters" in 1977. The screenplay by Matt Charman received a "punch-up" (in Charman's own words) by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, whose Kafkaesque worldview Spielberg was right to suppose would suit the material. 

10. Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll

Featured at the Chicago International Movies & Music Festival, this film's subject is the rich musical culture that developed in Cambodia after independence from France in 1953, featuring everything from pop balladry to Latin rhythms, many of the leading exponents of which would go on to be liquidated by the Khmer Rouge. It's haunting to gaze upon the portraits of these singers and musicians, a beauty like Ros Serey Sothea, a bad boy like Yol Aularong. There was Sinn Sisamouth, the "Sinatra of Cambodia." There was the teenage garage band Baksey Cham Krong, formed in 1959: Cambodia’s first guitar group, whose leader, Mol Kagnol, provided some of the photographs in this movie. (He tells us the band got their stage moves from Cliff Richard and the Shadows in “The Young Ones”; the Cambodians were also much enamored of Johnny Hallyday, the "French Elvis"). Later, Cambodian music was influenced by the music coming out of the radios of young U.S. soldiers, raw soul like Wilson Pickett, the rhythms and lilting guitar of Santana. There was even a heavy rock band (Drakkar). It is extraordinary that the footage of these bands, much of it in rich color, exists. King Sihanouk himself, an arts lover, shot much of it. No one knows exactly when or how this generation of musicians died, only that they were almost certainly murdered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The director, John Pirozzi, has said, “The music is the one thing that has allowed the Cambodian people to access a time when their life wasn’t about war and genocide." Karolyn and I got to travel in Cambodia this year, and we can attest to the kindness and beauty of the country's people.  

Special Honorable Mentions

Christmas, Again  The first movie I reviewed for the Chicago Reader, destined to become a personal holiday favorite. 

Cool Apocalypse Dedicated to Harold Ramis and Alain Resnais, this first feature by Chicago critic, author and film history teacher (and, full disclosure, my friend) Michael Glover Smith is a modest, sweet, effervescent comedy/drama about twenty-somethings in Chicago, featuring well-observed characters by writer/director Smith and a talented cast. A local, micro-budget project, the movie is about the romance of the city and of cinema. Its heart beats for the French New Wave, played to Chicago rhythms like the lulling clack-and-sway of the El.

Adieu Au Langage (Goodbye to Language) 

Godard in 3-D at the Siskel was the most eagerly-anticipated cinematic event of the year for me. I recall my nights of watching "Histoire(s) du cinema," cuddled up in the darkness with my laptop, like a boy reading a book with a flashlight under the covers, as Godard whispered in my ear and images of the 20th century flickered and resolved into one another. He seemed to be reaching for the kind of dialectic which 3D technology now allows him to realize, giving us a naked man in one lens of our 3D glasses and a naked woman in the other, before kind of sliding or collapsing them together for a synthesis that might make your eyeballs detach and roll around in your head. As Kent Jones put it in Film Comment, "Godard is the only actual film poet." See this stirring, complex, densely allusive homemade film with "Heart of a Dog," for a double feature about, among many other things, living with fear, beauty, and dogs. 

Honorable Mentions: When We Were Young; What We Do in the Shadows; Clouds of Sils Maria; Hard to Be a God; Goodnight, Mommy; Ex Machina;

It Follows In the enjoyably eerie “It Follows,” teen sex is the worst game of tag ever. You are cursed to be stalked by “It,” a zombie-like apparition only you can see. Mike Gioulakis's widescreen cinematography observes dreamily. The rhythm of David Robert Mitchell's atmospheric direction is almost Egoyan-like, a horror picture as conceived by Gus Van Sant. Set in a lower middle-class suburb of Detroit, the film has a palpable feeling of abandonment. There's something wistful about its dark, abandoned buildings, its teenagers left to fend for themselves.

Phoenix A heartbreaker from Germany, based on a novel by Hubert Monteilhet, it's driven by a secret the audience knows but the heel of the piece (Ronald Zehrfeld) does not. He meets a woman in a nightclub in postwar Berlin. My wife is dead, he tells her (it's understood that she died in the camps), but you could impersonate her, risen from the ashes, and together we will claim her inheritance. Like Scottie in Hitchcock's "Vertigo," however, Johnny does not realize that the woman he is shaping and the "dead" woman are one and the same person, given a new face by a reconstructive surgeon. Michael Phillips wrote a fine piece on the film's memorable use of Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash's "Speak Low." 

Mad Max: Fury Road Writer/director George Miller's kinetic, visceral film takes us to the end of the world for a story of redemption amidst a season in hell. In this blasted-out desert-world, vital resources--water, gasoline, healthy young women--are hoarded by tribes of atavistic/futuristic road warriors, burning through the desert in their monster trucks. Society may have gone back to year zero, but that doesn't mean they're not having fun. These cavemen ride tricked-out death-mobiles, one of which is even kitted out with a flame-throwing electric guitar. This reboot of the "Mad Max" franchise has wild humor and cult/camp energy. Wild chases have thrilled audiences since the very dawn of cinema: here they're taken to a virtuosic level, an exhilarating feat of sustained plate-spinning. New to the series was the heart and feminist power brought by Charlize Theron as Furiosa.

The End of the Tour Suffused with elegiac melancholy, the theme of James Ponsoldt's film is the loneliness that suffuses life. Its central mystery, as seen through the eyes of a young, middlingly successful writer, David Lipsky (as played by Jesse Eisenberg, Lipsky is awkward, wheedling, jealous, ambitious): how can a man write a novel hailed as his generation's most mighty and innovative, Infinite Jest, and still be so unhappy? It's about a certain kind of American dream, and a certain kind of American depression. As presented in the film, David Foster Wallace (played in an honest turn by Jason Segel) was an open guy for whom books were a means to connect to other people, to stave off life's loneliness, but who couldn't find peace for his fine, unquiet mind.

The Duke of Burgundy Feverish film evokes the swooning, in-heat mood of an adolescent stumbling upon a secret volume of erotic lore. At the same time it is a rich, deeply adult achievement. Peter Strickland creates a visual poetry of fall foliage, the backdrop for a story of two kinky lepidopterists, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna), who study in a soft-core country mansion, occasionally lecturing to a ballroom of assembled buttoned-up women. The "dominant," Cynthia, may be only acting, but because she loves Evelyn, she wants to act well to please her, which means raising the stakes of their S&M games...and the risks. We can see the worry in her eyes, the hunger for danger in Evelyn's. Gorgeous music by Cat's Eyes.  

 

Needs a revisit (with book in hand): After Godard's Goodbye to Language, no cinematic event excited me more in 2015 than the prospect of P.T. Anderson adapting Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice. Still, after a strong start hewing excitingly close to the novel's language, while at the same time playing with the words by placing Pynchon's narration in the mouth of  Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), I must reluctantly report that I found Inherent Vice a disappointment. The idea, perhaps, was to do an Altmanesque take on the Pynchon material, with Joaquin Phoenix's mumbly take on Doc Sportello an homage to Elliot Gould's Sam Spade in Altman's "The Long Goodbye." However, the film became tiresome. Back home, I pulled my copy of "Inherent Vice" down off the shelf and leafed through it. Pynchon is far funnier. As it turned out, the Anderson projects that most mesmerized me most in 2015 turned out to be "Junjun" and his video for Joanna Newsom's "Divers." (That last, I can't stop watching.) Still, any connoisseur of the cinematic arts is happy to give P.T. Anderson a second viewing, and I look forward to it. There was that extraordinary extended scene between Shasta (Katherine Waterston) and Doc Sportello, beginning with a baring of the heart (and the breasts), and ending with abrupt sex as a tear slides down Shasta's face. And that moment when, telling a story, a woman cheerfully orients a listener by noting the tale took place right around the time she'd just performed oral sex on anther woman. And music by Jonny Greenwood, and a terrific soundtrack... 

Coulda-been-contenders I look forward to catching up with sometime in 2016: "The Assassin," "Seymour: An Introduction," "Blackhat," "Crimson Peak," "45 Years," "Anomalisa," "The Martian," "Room," "The Hateful Eight," "Chi-Raq," "Mistress America," "The Revenant," "Carol," "Amy," "The Lobster," "Sicario," "Inside Out," "The Mend," "Queen of Earth," "The Diary of a Teenage Girl," “Best of Enemies,” “Cartel Land,” “Dope,” “In Jackson Heights,” “The Look of Silence,” “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation,” “Results,” “The Second Mother,” “ ’71,” “Taxi,” “Trainwreck,” "Magic Mike XXL," "Beasts of No Nation," "Buzzard," "Heaven Knows What," "Timbuktu," "Call Me Lucky," "The Big Short," "Entertainment," "Son of Saul," "James White," "Baahubail: The Beginning," "What Happened, Miss Simone?," "About Elly," "Straight Outta Compton," "Eden," "99 Homes," "La Sapienza," "Listen To Me Marlon," "The New Girlfriend," "The Ocean of Helena Lee," "Slow West," "Youth," "Where to Invade Next," "Mississippi Grind," "Experimenter," "Unfriended," "He Named Me Malala," "Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem," "Horse Money," "Joy," "Map to the Stars," "Steve Jobs," "Grandma," "Nasty Baby," "Welcome to Me," "The Forbidden Room," "Freeheld," "I Smile Back," "Truth," "White God," "Queen and Country," "Court," "Mommy," "Results," "Fish and Cat," "Eden"

 

Friday
Dec182015

Christmas, Again (for the Chicago Reader)

I couldn't be more proud to have published my first capsule review in the Chicago Reader.  Considering the esteem in which I hold the Reader's superb writers and editors, seeing my name in its pages humbles me.  It gladdens me, as well, that my first review for the Reader could be of a film, "Christmas, Again," that is, I think, something special.   

You may find my review here.

Wednesday
Nov252015

Cool Apocalypse

 

Despite its title, "Cool Apocalypse" contains no zombies, hip or otherwise. Dedicated to Harold Ramis and Alain Resnais, it is instead a modest, sweet, effervescent little (micro-budget of $5,000, reportedly) comedy/drama about twenty-somethings in Chicago, full of well-observed touches and character work by writer/director Michael Glover Smith and a talented young cast. A local project, it is affectionate about its city and cinema itself. It’s got a heart that beats for the romance of the French New Wave, but set to Chicago rhythms, such as the lulling clack-and-sway of the El.

There is a moment at the dinner table when Smith cuts to a close-up of Tess (Chelsea David) sort of posing cinematically with a cigarette that put me in mind of Truffaut cutting in to Jeanne Moreau.

Together with Julie (Nina Ganet), Claudio (Adam Overberg) and Paul (Kevin Wehby), the four characters comprise a carefully-composed structure based on Heidegger’s thesis, antithesis and synthesis. This is what in my day we used to refer to as "the dialectic." (Not that I thought of that analysis myself: in the Q&A after the screening, director Smith mentioned this had been his organizing principle). One couple (Claudio and Tess) is no longer an item but remains friends; the other (Julie and Paul) is freshly minted that day. The film does not play as theory, though, any more than "Ulysses" does (Paul references the Joyce epic to Julie on their first date by way of explaining his own unpublished opus, which, though I'm a bit hazy on the details, if I recall seems to involve 1,000 pages of manuscript tracing the stream-of-consciousness over the course of an hour of a young woman who gets caught up in one of Chicago's naked bicycle parades. "It's not really story-driven," he explains to her by way of explanation: you get the sense that ambition might slightly outstrip execution, here). As you watch, "Cool Apocalypse" plays as just the events of a day, unfolding with a light touch and jaunty songs by the Arrowsics on the soundtrack.

Tess curates a "describe your style" video blog for a Chicago daily, in which she buttonholes stylish Chicagoans on the street a la Bill Cunningham's NYT feature and the “What Are You Wearing” feature in the Chicago Reader, except she videotapes her interviews. We follow her on the day before she’s to leave for a (paid, even) summer internship in Rome.

As Paul, Wehby evokes Jean-Pierre Leaud in his comic earnestness. He's got some of the cadence of a Southern Woody Allen. (I spotted "Without Feathers" on the bookshelf in the apartment he shares with Claudio, but then Smith gives us time to consult the spines. I was tickled to note that my shelves groan with some of the same titles, “Naked Lunch” is the example that comes to mind).

In a deft use of parallel editing, all four converge in a dinner party that somehow evoked Rohmer's "My Night At Maud's" for me, as well as Linklater's "Before" films. This happens to be all my favorite kind of stuff.

If you've ever been in your 20s living and loving on the North Side of Chicago, as I was in the 90s, and trying to hew a path through life in some creative endeavor rather than go, say, the law school route, you'll be able to relate to much in “Cool Apocalypse.” I recognized with a lump in my stomach the rather austere vegetarian fare on offer at dinner--a "vegetarian beef stew" that put me in mind of the “tofurkey” my ex and I once choked down for Thanksgiving during my unlamented vegan days. The filmmakers also get right the way we're not always especially likable at that age: at once snarky and almost comically earnest, maybe a little pretentious, the way we haven't yet learned that relationships can't always survive what you take to be your witty, rapier-like honesty.

There's a moment when Claudio is falling asleep, drunk, on Tess' shoulder, the trace of a smile playing about the edge of his lips. The bitterness of a drunken joke gone awry at dinner has faded—an ill-advised trick played on Tess by Claudio that is also, somehow, an expression of affection, in its wrongheaded way--and the past dredged up; recriminations have given way to forgiveness. He now asks her to tell him a bedtimes tory. She tells him about a dream she had, and that is all I will say about that, except that as she tells the story in tight close-up, Chelsea David's performance was so expressive that she put me in mind, no joke, of Marcel Dalio's visage after he unveils his music box in "Rules of the Game," the way so many feelings chase each other across her face, contradictory feelings: about Claudio, about her upcoming adventure in Rome, about the past and the future. This scene shows Smith’s talent for working with actors, and suggests more than words could about the relationship between Tess and Claudio: two people who cannot be boyfriend/girlfriend, but between whom, we sense, a residual closeness and tenderness will linger. Or perhaps not: that’s part of your 20s, too, that “not” part.

Vincent Bolger's black and white photography , with a burst or two of iPhone color, is striking. We can see every freckle on Nina Ganet's sunny, hopeful face. Her song-and-dance to “My Walking Stick” by Irving Berlin is, by the way, a moment of joy, as is the scene where Tess asks Claudio to take her for one last ride down LSD before she leaves town. “Lake Shore Drive” by Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah plays on the soundtrack. A bold choice, but it doesn’t feel too on-the-nose: it feels right. Tess' hand is out the window tracing a perfect little arc through time and into the future, and it’s one of those moments when everything in the world is just right.

"Cool Apocalypse" is kind of magical.

(Full disclosure: I have recently had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of writer/director Michael Glover Smith, a consummate Chicago cinephile. I learn a lot every time I read his work. His book, "Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry," co-written with Adam Selzer, is highly recommended. See my review in the sidebar over there on the right side of this page.

Rating: ***1/2

Key to ratings:


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

Wednesday
Nov182015

Heart of a Dog

"Heart of a Dog," a meditative dream of a documentary by Laurie Anderson, takes on, in a very playful way, the biggest themes of all. It's about fear and paranoia and love, how to live and how to die, and the connection between love and death. It's very personal and very gorgeous, unspooling like a ribbon of time and memory. To watch it is to be inside a mind at play, or perhaps a dreaming mind. Despite the way all this sounds, it's a joy: quite unsentimental and really very droll, sometimes eerie.

Anderson has a way of looking at the world that's all her own, and I was pleased to be a part of her world for these 75 minutes. Performance artist, experimental musician, Anderson is foremost a storyteller, so I will let you discover the vivid stories she tells in this movie in her own voice. Hers is an honest midwestern voice (she's from Glen Ellyn), a voice I connected with in my teenage years, dreaming along to albums like Big Science and Home of the Brave. A wise voice, warm. 

 

We see Anderson's West Village neighborhood from her departed dog's point of view. This is Lolabelle, a very fine rat terrier, who could paint, play piano, and sculpt. Lolabelle-cam sniffs up and down the sidewalk, and we meet pooches at doggy-level, including a bulldog who snuffles the lens. We stick our muzzles into neighbors of Laurie and Lou (Reed, that is, her departed husband). We scurry into shops. To a dog, every day is the best day ever. Every walk is the best walk ever. We humans are much more complex. So complex, in fact, that we can't even learn this most facile way of living.

Big Brother has long been a theme of Anderson's work. Around the same time she premiered this film, she presented a sculpture/video installation in New York City called "Habeas Corpus," about Mohammed el Gharani, one of the youngest detainees at Guantanamo Bay, featuring music by Syrian singer Omar Souleyman. In "Heart of a Dog" she contrasts the ties that bind in her neighborhood with the NSA's new Data Center. Sprawling in the Utah desert, it is the world's most vast temple to the post-9/11 surveillance state. Massive data collection, a lot of it in "the cloud." So many voices and stories. What if our stories mix together?, Anderson wonders. Words flit by on the screen. Traces of data in the air, like heat lightning.

 

Lolabelle and Laurie go hiking in the mountains in Northern California. After she almost gets spirited away by hawks, the terrier realizes for the first time that danger can come from the sky, her beautiful sky. There is a new look in her eyes, the same one Anderson sees in the eyes of her neighbors, post-9/11. Will they ever look at the sky the same way again? Will we begin to fear our neighbors, spy on them? Cameras begin to appear all over her neighborhood. 
 
 When Lolabelle goes blind, it inaugurates one of the pup's most fertile creative periods. She even plays the piano in concert. Then we get an unblinking look at her death, at home. Anderson has read deeply in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and its concept of the "bardo," a 49-day interval between death and rebirth, during which the mind dissolves, animates the film. After Lolabelle dies, Anderson beings to keep a double diary: what's going on in the real world, and what's going on in Lolabelle's journey through the bardo. I suppose what "Heart of a Dog" is about, in some ways, is the soul. We see bodies only fleetingly; Anderson herself is here mainly as a disembodied voice. Lou is here almost as a ghost: the film's secret spirit. As Anderson's mother lay dying, the last conversation she had was with the animals who had gathered on her ceiling.

Close your eyes. Now open them. 

Anderson made the film with her iPhone and other small cameras. Viewers who are conversant with, say, Godard's essay films, or the work of Agnes Varda, may be somewhat prepared for the homemade mode Anderson uses in "Heart of a Dog." It is the same kind of dense tapestry, interweaving home movies, philosophy, wordplay, language criticism, acted interludes, animation, a hypnotic, starkly beautiful score composed by Anderson and drawn from her lengthy career, and paintings such as Goya's "The Dog," which I myself have stood in the Prado and peered into, with its head of a lonely little dog looking out into an ochre void.

The seasons pass, seen often through an odd layer like a rain-streaked windshield. We see spindly, black tree branches overhead, and power lines against a vast sky, now blue, now gray. She tells us she was a sky worshipper as a child: that great Midwestern sky. Snow falls softly in the woods. Now we are at a day at the beach. Lolabelle is running along the tide, the only place she would ever run after she went blind. We get just a glimpse of Lou, sitting on the sand as the camera swings past him, then reels out into the sky as the tide comes rushing in over the tops of our heads. (Anderson has turned the camera upside down.) Over the end credits, she plays Lou's warm "Turning Time Around," one of my favorites, and it speaks right into our hearts, and Anderson's as well.

 

After the film, Karolyn commented that she'd like to hear Anderson read "The Giving Tree." It's a book I confess I've never been able to get through without crying. It wasn't until I thought about it that I realized how appropriate Karolyn's idea was. In the book, the tree, of course, gave everything, and giving, finally, is what "Heart of a Dog" is truly about. After Lolabelle dies, Anderson's meditation teacher instructs her thusly: when you think of Lolabelle, always give something away. She replies, but then I won't have anything left.

So? replies her teacher.

Rating: ****

Key to ratings:


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

Tuesday
Nov102015

Bridge of Spies

A film in many ways about patience, Bridge of Spies is itself a patient movie, its tone measured. That said, this long film, clocking in at just a few minutes shy of two-and-a-half hours (which actually seems to be the mark Steven Spielberg aims for, at least for his movies for grownups), almost never feels its length, moving lightly, briskly on its feet across its running time. The movie is stately, but never ponderous. Even in his serious-entertainment mode, Spielberg never lets the emphasis stray too far from the entertainment. It's a commercial product that's also a work of art. 

Along with Clint Eastwood, Spielberg is perhaps the last of the classicists, and Bridge is, in form, a classic Cold War espionage thriller. Like Eastwood, Spielberg is a consummate, efficient visual storyteller; like Eastwood, he leaves breathing room for experiment and purely formal pleasures. The style of both men is, by now, serene. Unabashedly old-fashioned moviemakers, both risk being thought corny in modern terms. As the Nation's Stuart Klawans has pointed out, Spielberg's overarching theme might be "heartfelt...admiration for modest, ordinary people who do their jobs well."  

There is much here for connoisseurs of cinema to enjoy. The movie is the work of people who are the best at what they do in the cinematic arts, doing it well. I never tire of the way Spielberg's frequent cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, paints in diffuse light. Kaminski's palette is cold, even wintry, as befits a Cold War story. His Berlin is so cold it's almost bluish-white. The film was cut by Michael Kahn, who has edited basically every one of Spielberg's films since Close Encounters in 1977. The subtly suspenseful music is by Thomas Newman, who also composes for James Bond films. The screenplay was written by Matt Charman and given a "punch-up," in Charman's words, by co-writers Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. The Coen Brothers' Kafkaesque world view is particularly well-suited to negotiation scenes in East Berlin and search for the elusive Vogel (Sebastian Koch).

There is a moment in what I think of as the "What is this?" scene that embodies everything I like about Bridge of Spies. The time is circa 1957. Someone has fired a gun into the living room of James Donovan, an apolitical, stalwart, wily insurance company lawyer portrayed by Tom Hanks, because he has stepped up to represent an accused Soviet spy, Colonel Rudolf Abel. It would, I suppose, be the equivalent of representing an accused intelligence agent for Isis or Al-Qaeda today (with some important differences: the Cold War was mainly a lot of mutually beneficent hot bluster, on both sides.) There is a climate of fear, an atmosphere in which citizens fear imminent destruction of all the hold dear by Soviet invasion. Citizens were all too ready to cede certain rights for certain people. Donovan is not having it. Just by virtue of quietly insisting on doing things by the rules, he becomes heroic. 

 

The police are on the scene, but one officer isn't shy about voicing his unhappiness about being on this detail. Still, when Donovan addresses him, he does so respectfully: excuse me, officer? You can almost feel the respect for the uniform and the institution in the way Hanks says it. Only when he gets a response along the lines of, why should we protect your house when you're defending this scumbag (I paraphrase)?, when he sees that this man is going to let his personal views get in the way of his oath to uphold the law, does Donovan register a pained, "What is this?" In the way Hanks says the words, you can feel how Donovan is surprised and offended on at least two levels: that he has to argue with this officer of the law man over American principles such as due process and the right of everyone to a fair trial, and also because it's a violation of professional police work. 

Donovan expects the rules to be upheld. Where they are not, he insists on it. He is angry when that are violated. When we violate our own best selves, we don't need outsiders to do it for us. Hanks is ideally cast in the role of Donovan. He's an old-style Hollywood star both in terms of consummate acting chops and in the way a Hanks performance is always a dialectical product of the character versus his persona, a persona that embodies American intelligence and decency, humor and integrity. Hanks somehow entrusts those qualities for us, the audience, and this is a quality he shares with the very best American artists, such as Bruce Springsteen.

 

The great English stage actor Mark Rylance plays Colonel Abel, a Soviet operative who really did live, paint and spy in Brooklyn Heights. (Rylance is hot off of playing Thomas Cromwell in the BBC miniseries version of Wolf Hall, which I can't wait to see.) He gives us a quiet man with haunted eyes and a deep core of inner strength and an almost Buddha-like level of patience. His sense of humor is so dry you could almost miss it, but it tickles Donovan. Abel is a man of integrity, gentle. He is guilty, not that this is relevant to Donovan. Given his druthers in life, one gets the impression that Abel would probably have preferred to live out his life quietly painting.

  

There is something else Spielberg and Eastwood have in common: despite their reputations for myth-making or flag-waving, for giving us heroes burnished in their rosy, glowing images of history, they both actually give us something more interesting. They give us patriotism as a river that flows both ways. This is not a vision where America is on the side of the angels, always, nor its foes on the side of Satan. Rather, both sides are made up of everyday people, more or less cynical, more or less idealistic, acting in what they perceive to be in their country's interests.  

(There were, of course, some important differences between the way the U.S. and the Soviets did things, and in fact the film is, in part, about those differences, a reminder about the importance of those differences, which is why its hero can be a lawyer: we don't do show trials. Although, even there, Bridge carries intimations of the Rosenbergs.)

As Donovan says in court by way of defending Abel, if he is a soldier for the other side, he is a good soldier for his side. He is loyal to his land. Similarly, think of Eastwood's Sands of Iwo Jima, about Japanese soldiers in World War II. 
                                                        
In fact, while I certainly wouldn't make the case for Spielberg as any sort of radical, his work subtly gives you pause to turn things over in your mind. He gives us a shot of school-kids taking the Pledge of Allegiance and its slyly subversive, showing that the pledge is just our method of indoctrination. 
   

 

In form, Bridge makes sure to parallel the spying activity of the US and the Soviet Union. For Colonel Abel's spying, we meet a young team of pilots recruited to pilot surveillance missions in new, "ultra high-altitude" U-2 spy planes. In 1960 the Soviets shoot down a U-2 plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) while he's flying just such a surveillance mission over the Soviet Union, taking photographs from the skies. 

Donovan had expected the eventuality that one of our spies would someday be captured. This had, in fact, been one of his arguments in his (successful) bid to keep Abel from the electric chair: one day we might need to make a trade. He is tapped by none other than Allen Dulles, head of the CIA (Peter McRobbie), to negotiate the trade: our spy for theirs. Powers for Abel. The droll scene between Dulles and Donovan may put you in mind of a scene in another Cold War picture, North by Northwest, with Cary Grant and Leo G. Carroll: FBI, CIA... we're all in the same alphabet soup. 

Nobody had expected another element in the mix, though: an American economics student studying abroad, Frederick Pryor (Will Rogers), has gotten himself picked up by the Stasi after furtively breaching a gap in the Wall as it's going up, sneaking over to the east to fetch his girlfriend (Nadja Bobyleva) back to the west. He finds himself jailed, caught up in a pissing match between East Germany and its big brother, the Soviets. (The U.S. did not even acknowledge East Germany as a country, and they feel disrespected by both sides.) Donovan's handlers, such as Agent Blasco (Domenick Lombardozzi), would gladly throw Pryor under the bus, but Donovan is firm: no deal without Pryor.
                                                                          
The scenes in East Berlin show Hanks moving past busts of Marx, paintings of Lenin, and the hammer and sickle on the wall, and it reminded me of Karolyn and my recent journeys in Vietnam. We see that while the symbols may be different or scary to us, and that heroes and villains have been reversed, that people are people. Day-to-day is still more or less normal, as hardscrabble as anywhere else. In fact, we see that ordinary people don't take communist ideology seriously anymore than they do in modern Vietnam. Still, after seeing their propaganda, which people probably naturally believe on some level, it's easier to see your own as such.
 
The scenes of the Berlin Wall going up are evocative. One gets the feeling of seeing history forged, and even the socialists among us (especially us) will be given pause to reflect on why that wall had to come down. Whisking over the wall on a train, we see a group of people shot trying to escape, to get over that wall. 
 
I should add that Amy Ryan, one of my favorite actresses, is on hand as Mrs. Donovan. Karolyn loved her dresses (the movie is set in "her" era, fashion-wise), and we were both pleased with all the hats.
 
The prisoner exchange scene was filmed on the real-life Glienicke Bridge, which spans Berlin in the east and Postdam in the west, where the spy exchange really did take place, in 1962.
 
Bridge of Spies is a fine addition to Spielberg's humane, adult cinema of "ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances." I won't forget the moment when Abel turns to Donovan and says to this man who has become a kind of friend, I can wait. He is patient.
 

Rating: ****

Key to ratings:


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