Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Take Shelter

Like the recurring nightmares that torment its main character, Curtis (Michael Shannon), Take Shelter is frustratingly slow-moving at times, but it lays down shock waves of dread that keep rippling outward long after it ends.

At first, Curtis hides his terrifying dreams and waking hallucinations—and, most importantly, the deepening paranoia they both reflect and intensify—from his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain). But when he finally trusts Sam with the truth, he learns the strength of the family bond that is his main motivation for trying to keep it together, and this story’s true subject.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols stages the family’s everyday life as unshowily shot kitchen-sink realism. They’re in the heartland of America, not just geographically—Curtis, Samantha, and their adorable young daughter live in a small town in Ohio—but economically, perched as they are on the uneasy edge of middle-class comfort. An elegant cut early on takes us from the big drill Curtis and his work buddy, Dewart (Shea Wigham) operate on their job site to the sewing machine Samantha is running as she sews to supplement her husband’s income. Meanwhile, references to strained family budgets and close-ups of the mac and cheese, fried pork chops, and potato salad piled onto dinner plates keep reminding us that everyone’s finances are as shaky as Curtis’ state of mind. As Curtis’s brother warns him: “You take your eye off the ball one minute in this economy and you’re screwed.”

Against that backdrop, Curtis’ dreams and hallucinations are that much more dramatic. Set during or just before spectacular, CGI-assisted storms, they are usually bathed in the brilliant, soft light of a bright sun filtered through a thick layer of clouds. The light, those clouds—broad blue-gray brushstrokes above a color-saturated blue-green landscape—and the frequent slashes of lightning or rustle of wind through the leaves are all charged with a sense of potentially catastrophic excitement. Into this surrealistic setting come figures right out of Hitchcock or zombie movies: swirling flocks of black birds and shadowy human forms that pound at locked doors or break car windows, pulling Curtis’s daughter out and away from him forever.

Curtis doesn’t know whether his dreams and waking visions are a sign of the schizophrenia that overtook his mother when she was his age or visions of a coming apocalypse that only he can see. And so, even as he seeks psychological help, he risks bankrupting his family to expand their underground storm shelter into a bunker. We don't know what to believe either, since Nichols keeps both possibilities wide open right down through the ending, which can be read literally or as another of Curtis’s visions.

Trying to figure out whether he’s a prophet or a madman gives us something to do while the pace lags during a slow, often repetitive first hour or so, during which Curtis and his family play variations on the same few themes, often with predictable consequences. But the tension builds as Curtis falls apart, coming to an almost unbearably suspenseful peak in a riveting sequence in the storm shelter.

Shannon signals Curtis’s vulnerability and instability largely through body language. Moving like a prisoner of some unseen force field, he seems stiff and tentative and awkward at the same time that his square jaw and tall body radiate menacing power. Even when his face isn’t lit from below or pooled in shadow like something from a horror film, we’re uncomfortably aware of how close he is to erupting and hurting someone, maybe even the wife and daughter he lives for.

Chastain matches Shannon’s realistic intensity beat for beat as Samantha, who is as loving a mother as the one she played in The Tree of Life but much tougher and more competent—a real woman rather than an idealized childhood memory. (Between this, her tough Mossad agent in The Debt, and her sweet peroxide ditz in The Help, Chastain has already shown more range this year than most actors do in a lifetime’s worth of roles.) When the two go head to head, especially in the storm shelter scene, Take Shelter stops meandering in and out of blind alleys and coalesces into a moving portrait of a loving family under siege.

Written for TimeOff

Thursday, October 20, 2011


In one of his deceptively haimish digressions, businessman/gangster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) tells the unnamed star of Drive (Ryan Gosling) about the movies he used to produce. “One critic called them European,” Rose says. “I thought they were shit.”

That’s a neat little in-joke, since director Nicolas Winding Refn is a Danish critics’ darling (Drive won him the best director prize at Cannes this year). Refn specializes in highly stylized, pulse-pounding arthouse films about hard guys in no-win situations who see extreme violence as their only way out—or, in the case of the title character in Bronson, their sole means of expression. But that line is the only hint of irony I detected in Drive. This movie-movie appears to be dead serious about resurrecting the hard-guy American vigilante films that flourished in the last half of the last century, and updating the tradition with a Refn-sized dose of grossly graphic violence.

Gosling’s driver works in a garage during the day and moonlights as a getaway driver for professional thieves. (He also has another part-time job, but I won’t ruin the surprise by telling you what that is, since it’s revealed in a tasty little bit of misdirection.) Like the taciturn tough guys played by Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood in their prime (Bullitt was Refn’s main model for Drive), he communicates almost entirely through action, his Zen-like default mode of quiet watchfulness punctuated by brief but bloody rampages.

Even his courtship with the girl next door, Irene (Carey Mulligan), consists almost entirely of doing things together without speaking. Gosling is convincing enough as a lover to sell his half of their wordless montages, with the help of Mulligan’s melting eyes. But the expressionless stare he adopts to play tough and the slow-blooming smile he reveals one or two times too many read to me as damaged sensitivity in retreat, not smoldering anger or coiled intensity or whatever they’re meant to imply.

But not even not quite buying Gosling as a ninja-style master of evasion and hand-to-hand combat spoiled the movie for me, since there’s so much else to enjoy. Bryan Cranston and Christina Hendricks do a lot with a little in underwritten roles, and Kaden Leos is charming as Irene’s son. And Brooks makes an excellent villain, kvetching and kvelling like somebody’s loveable grandpa while plotting nefarious stuff. Just watching him kill a man with a fork is pretty much worth the price of admission. As A.O. Scott put it, “In his self-authored comic roles, Mr. Brooks often exudes a passive-aggressive hostility, a latent capacity for violence held in check by neurosis and cowardice. He lets you assume the same in Drive until the moment he stabs someone in the eye with a fork. It’s a shocking and oddly glorious moment — something a lot of us, without quite knowing it or being able to explain just why, have been waiting 30 years to see.”

Drive is generally a little light on that kind of texture or emotional resonance, but from the terrific opening scene, it’s very good at transmitting information efficiently and maintaining tension and suspense. That first scene culminates in a cat-and-mouse car chase, which our guy wins as much by knowing when and where to stop as he does by being driving fast and furiously. He never speaks a word in that sequence either, but by the time it’s over we know just how smart he is and how cool he stays under pressure.

Then there’s the style Refn soaks the script in. Some is pure noir, like the rays of light that occasionally slice through darkness to create vivid black-and-white patterns, the faces half-drowned in shadow, and the chocolate-brown night-time scenes and deserted back streets that show LA as anything but a sunny paradise. Other choices—the romantically morose, synth-heavy pop music pounding away in the background; the slow, stately pans and slow motion that turn violent crescendos operatic; the fondness for overhead shots—evoke the work of Michael Mann.

That’s an awfully high bar to try to reach, and Drive doesn’t hit it, since Hossein Amini’s self-consciously stripped-down script lacks the emotional depth that makes Mann’s best antihero tragedies so great. But if you’re looking to get lost for a couple hours in a smartly plotted, beautifully acted popcorn movie, Drive can take you there, and that’s no small accomplishment.

Written for TimeOff

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Descendants

The Descendants was the closing film for the New York Film Festival yesterday. It opens in U.S. theaters on November 18.

Part Coen Brothers and part James L. Brooks, Alexander Payne makes comedies about serious stuff like the abortion wars and midlife crises. His characters may verge on caricature and his scripts on contrivance, but nuanced acting and lingering close-ups make their emotions feel vividly, even painfully real.

His best film since Election, aside from the segment he directed in Paris, je t’aime, The Descendants is based on a novel written by a young woman (Kaui Hart Hemmings), which may explain why the two girls in the story feel so well-rounded. But then, Payne has always gravitated toward interestingly prickly female characters, from the glue-sniffing title character of Citizen Ruth to Election’s endlessly ambitious Tracy Flick and the impetuous biker played by Sandra Oh in Sideways.

The main women in this story are Matt King’s wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) and the couple’s two daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley), both of whom are acting out like crazy as the story begins.

Elizabeth never speaks a word (we see her first as a gigantic face filling the screen with delight as she rides in a speeding motorboat, then as a comatose husk of a body in a hospital bed), but we get a pretty good sense of her through the things other people say about her—and to her as she lies there, a pale slate for other people to scrawl their emotions on.

Her injury leaves her workaholic husband to care for the daughters to whom he has always been an absent presence. Matt, Alex, and Scottie have to come to terms with Elizabeth’s condition. They also have to learn how to be a family in a whole new way, since Matt has been just the “backup parent” up to now, as he says in a voiceover that dominates the first part of the film but fades away in the second, as he finds people other than himself to talk to.

As if that weren’t enough, everything Matt thought he knew about his marriage is upended when Alex tells him that Elizabeth had been having an affair before the accident that knocked her out.

Hawaiian culture is as strong a presence in this film as Omaha was in Citizen Ruth or California’s wine country was in Sideways. We don’t see much of the state, but what we do see is heavy on aging beach bums (“In Hawaii,” Matt tells us, “some of the most powerful people look like bums and stuntmen.”) and light on picturesque volcanoes and beaches. More than halfway through the film, Matt asks a cousin who’s driving him and his girls from the airport on Kauai to make a detour to the family holdings. (Another subplot has Matt guiding a huge clan of cousins to a decision about how to dispose of 25,000 gorgeous acres of Kauai that belong to the family, since their great-great-grandmother was a Hawaiian princess.) “Let’s see the land,” he says, and he might be talking to us, since the magnificent vista we’re about to be treated to is the first we’ve seen since the movie started.

Matt is supposed to be an ordinary shlub but, as good as Clooney is here, he can’t quite pull off ordinary. He does manage to look tired and unglamorous, his shoulders tensely awkward and his waistband too high. When Matt finds out about the affair, he takes off running with none of Clooney’s natural grace, his elbows flailing and his feet slapping the ground noisily.

But the real power of Clooney’s performance rests in his eyes, which always let us know just what Matt is feeling, whether he’s warily greeting a cousin, confronting his wife’s lover in a near-paralyzing rage, watching his daughters in frustrated silence, or gazing into space, stunned at the news of another betrayal.

Matt is not the only character whose soul is bared. All but the most minor characters have at least one emotional scene where they get to reveal their true face, often triggered by news of Elizabeth’s dire condition. (Grief is always closely linked to anger in The Descendants, and people generally cope with a blow by attacking somebody else.) But the excellent cast—particularly Clooney, Woodley, and Robert Forster as Elizabeth’s fiercely devoted father—keeps the rolling epiphanies from feeling rote.

Written for The House Next Door

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Artist

The Artist screens tomorrow at the New York Film Festival. It opens in U.S. theaters on November 23.

The Artist is a feather-light gimmick spun into a feature-length film. Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius’s tribute to silent movies starts with a movie buff’s tongue-in-cheek premise: What if we made a silent movie about the silent film era, where the stars all act the same way in their real lives as they do in their film-within-a-film movies?

The film begins at the end of Hollywood’s silent film era, as star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and aspiring starlet Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) meet cute and fall for each other. The rest of the movie chronicles their long journey to a happy ending while their careers careen in opposite directions as he laughs off the talkies as a fad, fading into impoverished obscurity, while she embraces the new technology and becomes one of its biggest stars.

The two mug like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, exaggerating the already extreme expressions and gestures employed by most of the stars of the teens and early '20s. George flashes his blindingly white grin on the red carpet like Dudley Do-right, and Peppy’s signature move—onscreen and off—is a two-fingered whistle followed by a blown kiss. But then everyone in this world overacts, even the studio head (John Goodman) who bellows things like “the public is never wrong!” and the audience members who radiate oversized emotion at a screening, some clapping their hands to their cheeks in amazement.

The best thing about The Artist is its look. Crisply lit black and white photography, and anti-panoramic 4x3 aspect ratio, periodic iris cuts, and the clearly phony painted backdrops in some of the film-within-a-film scenes evoke early American films nicely. So do the distinctive faces and forms of supporting players like James Cromwell as George’s faithful manservant, Ken Davitian as a pawnshop owner, and Goodman’s blustering studio chief.

Dujardin, whose mustache, piano-key smile, and heroic poses make him look like a cross between Gene Kelly and John Gilbert, also channels Douglas Fairbanks and Fred Astaire, among others. Peppy is the quintessential perky, spunky, beautiful but sexless early American movie heroine, while the icy wife who ditches George on his way down (Penelope Ann Miller) conjures up the grim, lace-collared, straw-man matriarchs played by the likes of Esther Dale when the jazz babies were sending up Victorian values. Even the adoring Jack Russell terrier that sticks like a burr to George is a doppelganger for the dog who played Asta in the Thin Man movies.

The Artist is as much about what we know (or think we know) about how those movies were made as it is about the movies themselves. We laugh knowingly when a series of credits illustrates Peppy’s rise, starting with one that misspells her name at the bottom of a long roll, and the story of George’s John Gilbert-like descent bangs out a comfortingly familiar chord.

But there’s something a little disingenuous about the whole thing, which feels like a spoof masquerading as a tribute. Singin’ in the Rain covers similar ground, looking at how careers rose or fell when Hollywood discovered sound, but it’s upfront about its attitude toward the mugging that was rampant in the silent era, portraying it as loveable but laughable. In The Artist, Peppy voices that sentiment (in title cards) and then apologizes for it, saying she didn’t really mean it, but why not? Watch a truly great actor in one of the truly great films of the silent era – John Barrymore in Don Juan, Buster Keaton in just about anything – and you’ll see no mugging or posturing or winking or two-fingered whistles, just comedy, tragedy, and raw human emotion.

The Artist could have used a few more little bits of business like the one where Peppy fondles George’s jacket, putting her arm through one sleeve and then around her own waist to pretend that he’s holding her. It also could have used a lot fewer scenes that tell us things we already know in not-clever-enough ways, like the recurring bit where George’s wife defaces pictures of him, adding florid mustaches and goofy glasses. Instead, it relies too much on the charm of its leads, making their exaggerated gestures feel a bit desperate at times.

This might have made a lovely 15- or 20-minute short, if anyone out there would fund such a thing. But at 100 minutes, it’s a joke stretched too thin.

Written for The House Next Door

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Ides of March

Toward the end of The Ides of March, Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), a presidential candidate maneuvering to win the Democratic primary, gains the crucial support of a powerful senator by promising to appoint him secretary of state if elected. It’s an important compromise that Morris earlier vowed not to make, since the senator “wants to cut the top 10 floors off the United Nations.”

Political protests are toppling governments around the world. In our own country, people on both the right (the Tea Party) and the left (Occupy Wall Street) are becoming increasing vocal about their disgust at the corporations and other unfielded players who call so many of the shots in our political system, controlling politicians mainly through financial contributions but also by delivering blocs of special-interest voters. The time seems ripe for a mainstream movie with the guts and the smarts to dramatize the pressures that make candidates speak in slogans and backtrack on important decisions, sometimes even betraying their own core principles. I had hoped that The Ides of March would be that movie—certainly Clooney, his frequent creative partner Grant Heslov, and the excellent case of this film would have been up to the challenge—but it turns out to be something much blander and less interesting.

The Ides of March is not about its leading candidate or the choices he makes. Morris is never even seen or heard from in Farragut North, the book on which Clooney and Heslov based their screenplay. He has a couple of brief but important scenes in the film, but for the most part he’s in the background if at all, a face on a heroic campaign poster, a body in a makeup chair, or an orator briefly glimpsed on a monitor or half-heard from backstage while making another in a series of plainspoken, left-of-center speeches.

In fact, this movie isn’t even about the political process. It’s just another coming-of-age story about an ambitious young man—in this case, media-handler prodigy Stephen Myer (Ryan Gosling, who goes from starry-eyed to dead-eyed without showing us much in between)—who gets a job in a cynical system that he fully intends to reform but gets corrupted by instead.

Stephen’s road to ruin passes through some pretty dirty double dealing, both by him and by his campaign-management colleagues. Rather than finding the fun in their one-upmanship, the way Duplicity did with corporate espionage, or locating an interesting middle ground between outrage and pathos, like Up in the Air or The Informant!, The Ides of March goes for a moralistic gravity that makes the film feel as naïve as crack reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) accuses Stephen of being before his change of heart.

The film’s relatively humorless authorial hand weighs even heavier when a pretty young intern (the always vivid and sympathetic Evan Rachel Wood) winds up in mortal danger after developing clandestine relationships with both Stephen and another key player. There are some good lines (after planting a rumor with the gullible media about Morris’ opponent, Stephen tells an assistant: “I don’t care if it’s true. I just want to see him spend a day denying it”), but at least as many feel scripted and glib. “Mark Morris is a politician…. He will let you down, sooner or later,” says Ida in a speech that might as well come packaged with a blinking neon sign that spells out “foreshadowing.”

Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman turn in rock-solid bookend performances as the former allies turned rivals who head up the competing campaigns. The film kicks into high gear whenever either or both of these grizzled pros is on screen, with Hoffman in particular giving it a much-needed jolt of rumpled realism.

But then Stephen gives the camera another long tragic stare or Morris delivers another liberal-wet-dream speech, making a clear, cogent, uncompromising and unapologetic case for secular humanism or abortion or higher taxes on the rich, and we’re reminded that The Ides of March is nothing more than a comfortingly familiar fable for fans of CNN. After all, no one who talked the way Morris does could remain a serious presidential candidate in this country for long.

Written for TimeOff

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Policeman will play at the New York Film Festival on October 15 and 16. It is not scheduled to open in U.S. theaters.

Why does everything always have to be about the Palestinians? Natanel (Michael Aloni) asks Shira (Yaara Pelzig) as she reads the first draft of a manifesto she’s writing for their tiny group of anti-capitalist rebels. Can’t we just make this about what’s happening within our country—the social equities, the wealth gap, the relentless violence?

Natanel gets his wish in Policeman, an Israeli film that was one of NYFF sleeper hits among the press and industry types who saw it last week. Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians is just one small part of the backdrop here. The showdown is between two insular tribes with a shared love of violence: the young protesters and a clique of not much older cops, whose fatal collision has the somber inevitability of a Greek tragedy.

Writer/director Nadav Lapid starts with the cops, all members of an elite counter-terrorism unit. An insular pod of hard-driving, hard-bodied, testosterone junkies, they’re the kind of guys for whom a new arrival at a backyard barbecue sparks a noisy orgy of back-thumping and chest-bumping.

After marinating in their culture long enough to get to know their leader, Yaron (Yiftach Klein), pretty well, we switch to the protesters. Natanel and Shira are humorless, near-expressionless true believers, but their sidekick Oded (Michael Moshonov) is more like a faithful puppy than a comrade. Impressionable and emotionally volatile, he seems to be loyal to the cause mainly because he’s hopelessly in love with Shira.

We linger a while with this group, too. In a Q&A after the press screening, Lapid explained the logic behind his unusual and effective way of showing the two groups consecutively rather than cutting between them from the start. He dispensed with the parallel cuts, he said, because he didn’t want the focus to be on when or how the two groups would meet. “The question for me was, who are these people? Who are these groups? I tried to describe their existential essence.”

Natanel is officially in charge of the protesters, but it soon becomes clear that Shira is the group’s emotional fulcrum, the one who naturally winds up in charge, as Yaron does with his buddies. She and Yaron each get one lingering extreme close-up that underscores the parallels between the two as they stare into the camera, all willpower and seemingly unshakeable self-confidence.

The two groups meet after the “killer babies,” as the bride contemptuously calls the young protesters, take three hostages at a society wedding. They take hostages to attract media attention to their manifesto, but they chose these particular ones for a reason: they see them as guilty of a long string of capitalist crimes that include privatizing the nation’s salt mines and cruelly exploiting their workers.

Lapid grants every character his or her dignity, and he makes most easy to empathize with even if they’re not particularly sympathetic. Touching ties between fathers and children help humanize the people involved, motivating heroic acts from both hostages and hostage-takers in the final showdown. But there are no feel-good happy endings in Policeman. These characters are boxed into rigid roles, and though their actions can make things marginally better or (more often) worse, there may be no way out of the mess they wind up in.

Hmm, maybe this is a metaphor for the Israelis and the Palestinians after all.

Written for The L Magazine

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Substance Over Style: 2011 Trenton International Film Festival

The 2011 Trenton International Film Festival will run from October 14 through 16 at the Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton.

"The theme running through this year's selection is the complexity of human relations—in communities, in larger societies, and between individuals and people of differing religious and political beliefs,” says Trenton Film Society Executive Director Cynthia Vandenberg of the 2011 Trenton International Film Festival. “In each of the films we see how people can transcend the normative behaviors that surround them and how, consequently, they challenge others to do the same."

Watching the films in this year’s festival, you get the sense that the programmers were more interested in substance than style. In the opening of Scheherazade: Tell Me a Story, for instance, the camera drifts around the Cairo apartment where the main character, TV journalist Hebba (Mona Zaki), lives with her husband Karim (Hassan El Raddad), a reporter yearning to become editor-in-chief of his state-owned newspaper. The intention is probably to introduce us to the power couple’s über-consumerist lifestyle, but badly lit spaces and painfully slow pans make it hard to see anything much. And in the opening scene of Kinyarwanda, a dark room looks washed-out as the camera shoots toward the light pushing through the windows, the saturation levels briefly and distractingly correcting themselves whenever someone walks between the camera and the window and temporarily blocks the glare.

The storytelling and acting are often a little rough around the edges too. In Scheherazade, Hedda replaces the political programming on her show with personal tales of everyday women to please Karim, who’s been told he won't get the job he’s angling for if he doesn’t put a lid on his outspoken wife. Most of the stories Hedda airs are interesting, if only in a gossipy sort of way, but the movie feels inorganic and schematic, thanks in part to ham-fisted dialogue. “You veil me, take my money, impose your conditions and your mother’s. If marriage just means having sex, I’ll pass on you!” one of Hebba’s guest yells at her fiancè during a flashback, in a speech that would sound graceless and unnecessary even if we hadn’t just heard him do everything she accuses him of.

The festival’s opening film, Kinyarwanda, is fictional, but it’s based on testimonials from Rwandans who found refuge at a mosque and a madrassa during the 1994 genocide of Tutsis by their Hutu countrymen. Its earnest effort to document the bravery of those who resisted the calls to slaughter and to explain the reconciliation process that followed sometimes feels didactic. Some of the actors are also stiff, including Zaninka Hadidja, who plays young Jeanne, a central character who goes on the run after finding her parents murdered in the home she shared with them.

But if Hadidja does not have sophisticated acting chops, she does have an innate sweetness and strength of character that radiate out from the screen, almost as compelling as a commanding performance. And the stories that unfold in the film’s overlapping multipart narrative, in which a scene glimpsed in one segment may be played out in full in another, are so inherently dramatic that they can’t help but capture your interest.

At the same time, Kinyarwanda never lets you forget that life has a way of getting in your face even in the midst of a genocide. More than once, like when Jeanne’s parents fight over the affair her mother has just learned that her father was having, the murderous talk on the radio and the rampaging mobs outdoors are just a dim background accompaniment to a heated exchange about something else altogether.

That’s not to say that the filmmakers soft-pedal or ignore the horrors that were part of that genocide, but they make them clear without rubbing our noses in them. Instead, they focus on acts of heroism by brave people who risked their own lives to save others and on the resilience of the human spirit.

Kyrgyzstan’s The Light Thief stars writer/director Aktan Arym Kubat as the man everyone calls Mr. Light, an electrician who jerry-rigs connections for village elders and others who can’t afford to pay for electricity. Either an antic drama or a comedy with a heavy heart, it’s an unusual, sometimes uneven mixture of light and dark, silly and serious.

At times, the film seems to be lurching from point to point like the boyishly open Mr. Light and his friends after they’ve been on a bender. If it’s not moving from one loosely connected set piece to another–Bekzat the town capitalist, tries to bend other people to his will; Mr. Light gets electrocuted and survives; the village major dies; Bekzat tries to woo a group of Chinese investors–it’s showing us seemingly random shots of village life, the horses and donkeys as well as the people. It’s interesting, in a purely ethnographic sense, to see how these people work, play, and keep house, but it’s not always clear what a given scene has to do with the main story, which is about the enlightenment and eventual disillusionment of the charmingly naïve Mr. Light.

Uruguay’s A Useful Life stars Jorge Jellinek, who is an actual film critic and looks it. His Jorge, a pale and pudgy mole of a man, is a longtime employee of a grant-supported arthouse whose sheltered routines are shattered when his cinema loses its funding, forcing him to rediscover the modest pleasures and unexpected joys of real life. Filmed in black and white with a droll sense of humor that comes out mostly in the visuals (Jorge gets his first heroic close-up as his head is being shampooed, and that shot is followed by an artily askew one of the shampooer’s upside-down face), A Useful Life could have been a clever film student’s response to the challenge: “Make a film about the most uncinematic subject you can think of.” It’s a deliberately small-scale character study, an island of sly subtlety in a sea of films with far grander intentions.

Written for TimeOff

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

This Is Not a Film

This is Not a Film will play at the New York Film Festival on October 13. It is not scheduled for commercial release in the U.S.

Alternately funny, sad, and infuriating, This Is Not a Film is a shiv smuggled out of a prison and slipped into our hearts.

Iranian director Jafar Panahi made his ironically titled movie with the help of a good friend, documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, after being sentenced to six years in prison for the crime of “preparing an anti-government film.” (Mirtahmasb has since been arrested as well.)

Judging by the digital footage we see here, which was shot while Panahi waited for the results of an ultimately unsuccessful appeal, the prospect of prison was nothing compared to the sense of nerve-shot entrapment brought on by the other half of his sentence. Panahi’s real tragedy is that he has been silenced as an artist in the prime of his creative life, forbidden to make films, write screenplays, leave the country, or give interviews for 20 years.

The pain of that gag order is half of the subject of This is Not a Film. Its conjoined twin is the exhilarating creativity that allowed Panahi to find one last way around his gag rule, creating this remarkable movie and somehow getting it smuggled out of the country on a USB drive baked into a cake.

At first the filmmaker just moves in and out of the frame before a stationary camera while he eats breakfast, cleans up, makes and drinks tea, and talks on the phone. He could be making an updated Jeanne Dielman, with the housewife’s self-imposed imprisonment replaced by the restrictions imposed on a free spirit by an oppressive regime. But Panahi’s soul turns out to be as expansive as Dielman’s is crabbed, so the scope of the film soon swells to include other people and ideas. It even makes room for his daughter’s surprisingly affectionate iguana, Igi, who is often in the foreground or background of Mirtahmasb’s casually elegant compositions, giving us something compelling to look at while Panahi surfs a heavily censored internet or talks to a friend.

Most of This is Not a Film was apparently shot in one day, on the 2010 Muslim New Year. That’s either a happy accident or another example of the filmmakers’ savvy, since the New Year fireworks constantly cracking in the background and the reports of unstable excitement in the streets magnify our sense of the world outside Panahi’s cushy Tehran apartment as a perilous place. Panahi remains under a kind of unofficial house arrest, never once leaving his apartment building, but people keep coming to him. A neighbor tries to drop off her neurotically yappy dog, Micky, with him for a few hours; a delivery boy drops off an order of food; a handsome and personable young man comes by to collect his trash.

And, of course, there’s Mirtahmasb. He arrives after Panahi calls with a cagy invitation, his request worded carefully to avoid getting his friend in trouble with eavesdropping officials, and the two never stop collaborating, discussing lighting, camera angles, and settings and fighting amiably over who gets to call “cut.” They sometimes film each other simultaneously, Panahi with his iPhone and his friend with a semi-professional-looking videocam that belongs to one of Panahi’s children. They don’t always seem to know why they’re filming, but they agree that it is of the essence. “They say when hairdressers get bored they cut each other’s hair,” says Mirtahmasb, after noting that Panahi would have captured some “important moments” if he started filming when he was arrested. “It’s important that the camera stay on.”

Panahi talks a lot on the phone, his seemingly unscripted conversations with friends, family, and his lawyer telling us a lot about his situation, including the fact that his sentence was “100% political and not legal at all,” according to his lawyer. He also keep popping his movies into his DVD player, fast-forwarding to certain scenes and then talking to Mirtahmasb about what he got or failed to get there that he’s looking for now, in their contraband film.

Meanwhile he keeps circling back to the activity he asked Mirtahmasb over to film: his reading aloud of a screenplay he’s been forbidden to film. He busies himself with this project like a kid playing house, outlining the set with colored tape on his floor and unself-consciously acting out the rudiments of his plot. And then he stops, visibly agitated and frustrated by the limitations of his self-imposed exercise. “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?” he asks, a question that lingers in our minds as it no doubt does in his.

In his final encounter of the day, Panahi rides his apartment’s elevator down with the trash collector and we have the pleasure of watching the neorealist director, who has always loved working with nonprofessional actors, ease into action. Under his gently persistent questioning, their brief encounter yields humor (Micky’s owner tries to foist the dog off on the young man), social commentary (his subject talks about how hard it is to find jobs, even with an advanced degree), and human interest to spare.

It also supplies a powerfully poignant ending to the film, whose last lines are spoken gently by the trash collector as he heads out into the chaotic courtyard. “Mr. Panahi,” he says, “please don’t come outside. They’ll see you with a camera.”

Written for The House Next Door

Monday, October 10, 2011

My Week with Marilyn

My Week With Marilyn played on October 9 and 12 at the New York Film Festival. It's scheduled for release in U.S. theaters on November 23.

At the Q&A after the press screening of My Week With Marilyn, director Simon Curtis said he fell in love with the two Colin Clark memoirs the script is based on because of the insights they provided into Marilyn Monroe.

A funny thing must have happened on the way to Film Forum. Either those insights just didn’t make it into the screenplay or else Curtis knows a lot less about Hollywood’s Lady of Perpetual Sorrow-slash-sex appeal than I had thought was possible for any reasonably well-educated citizen of the developed world.

The Skin I Live In

The Skin I Live In is playing this Wednesday and Friday at the 49th New York Film Festival. It opens in the U.S. in limited release this Friday.

Like a Spanish Woody Allen, Pedro Almodóvar has directed a movie every year or two since 1978, and if not every one is great, almost all are worth seeing. And like a latter-day Douglas Sirk, Almodóvar loves stories about gorgeous, creamily photographed people who commit soap-operatic acts in picturesque settings. His subversive sense of humor and convoluted plots, which often circle back through time, keep his films from being merely melodramatic, but at their worst they can seem frenetic, all color-saturated surface and no substance.

The Skin I Live In lacks the fire and emotional depth of his best work, which includes the brilliant four-film streak that started with All About My Mother in 1999 and ended with Volver in 2006. But it digs deep into the aging wunderkind’s bag of tricks to keep us entertained while slipping in a few pointed observations about how our bodies define us and what people—particularly women—will endure to survive.

The sometimes overly complicated plot begins with a mysterious captive, the almost inhumanly beautiful Vera (Elena Anaya) who lives in a large room in the luxurious but sterile home of Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas). Projected on a huge monitor so Dr. Ledgard and his rabidly protective housekeeper (Marisa Paredes) can watch her 24/7, Vera is clearly the subject of some kind of experiment by the doctor, who is developing a genetically engineered form of artificial skin, but his obsession with her seems more than medical, despite the purely clinical way in which he insists on treating her.

To reveal just what the doctor has done to Vera and why, Almodóvar tells us a series of overlapping tales that would feel right at home on a telenovela, with their news of horrific disfigurement, kidnapping and torture, experimental surgery performed without the consent of the patient, unacknowledged children, fraticide, suicide, and rape, both real and imagined.

The eye in the center of this hurricane, Vera remains studiously impassive in the present, but as flashbacks explain how she got that way, her porcelain surface takes on new depth. Whether she’s submitting to a rape in order to stay alive, playing on the doctor’s growing lust/love in order to break free of the prison of her room, or simply submitting to the hungry gaze that always follows her, she becomes the personification of womanhood in a paternalistic world.

Written for The House Next Door

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Sleeping Sickness

Ulrich Köhler's Sleeping Sickness plays this Wednesday evening at the 49th New York Film Festival. It is currently without distribution.

Sleeping Sickness feels more like sketches for a painting than a finished work of art.

In the first half, a German doctor, Ebbo Velten (Pierre Bokma), and his wife (Jenny Shily) are preparing to leave Cameroon, where they were stationed for years while he worked for Doctors Without Borders. They’re going back to Germany, but they’ve been in Africa so long they’re not sure it will still feel like home.

In the second, a French aid worker dispatched by the World Health Organization travels to the village where the doctor is holed up three years later. It seems he stayed behind after all, without his wife or their grown daughter, taking on an African family and launching a program to treat sleeping sickness. The Frenchman, Alex Nzila (Jean-Cristophe Folly), is there to observe and report on that program—an anemic enterprise centered in a scruffy open ward that houses more chickens than patients.

Writer/director Ulrich Köhler spent a chunk of his childhood in Zaire while his parents did aid work, his father as a doctor. His film is dotted with emotionally authentic moments, like the one where Velten’s wife lavishly (and slightly paternalistically) praises a dish made by her African cook, who smiles brightly while the wife is in the room, her expression turning far more complicated the moment the white woman leaves.

But the second half of the movie loses focus, giving us an episodic series of snapshots of Nzila’s Heart of Darkness-lite journey that occasionally becomes borderline surreal without ever quite feeling profound. In once scene, he wakes up in what appears to be a hospital with an IV in his arm. We have no idea where he is or why, and neither does he. It could be a deft metaphor for his trip to Cameroon but it doesn’t seem to go anywhere, so it winds up as a random snippet of experience, vivid enough in its own right but not really meaningful. It’s as if the filmmakers were sliding into African time along with Dr. Velten, inhabiting the moment so thoroughly they’ve half-forgotten what they were doing there.

Written for The L Magazine

Friday, October 7, 2011


After going rigid with rage in this year’s Tree of Life, Brad Pitt is all fluid energy in Moneyball, marshalling his considerable gifts to rampage through the Oakland A’s clubhouse like an alpha dog off its leash. It’s an intense performance—you’re as conscious of the intelligence behind his level, measuring gaze as you are of his sheer size and strength—but its delivered with the looseness and grace of a man who knows who he is and where he wants to go.

It’s a good enough performance to make the movie worth seeing, but even Pitt’s effervescence can’t quite oxygenate Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s script, which sputters to life for the subplots but keeps stalling when it returns to the main story.

Beane’s barely-there home life is sketched out nicely in a handful of scenes, including just one resonant snapshot of his California-girl ex (Robin Wright) and her insufferably mellow new husband (Spike Jonze, in a very funny uncredited cameo). Keris Dorsey also makes a strong impression in a short time as his touchingly reserved daughter, and her jauntily wistful rendition of Lenka’s The Show gives the film its emotional resolution.

But the meat of the story is left a little too raw. Moneyball is about Beane’s transformation of an underfunded, struggling baseball team into a near-winner (in 2002, the year in which the film is set, the A’s tied the record for consecutive wins), which he achieved with the help of a Yale-educated numbers wonk who had embraced a new way of evaluating players through computer analysis of statistics. The Michael Lewis book on which the film is based reportedly explains just how they did that, but the movie leaves it frustratingly vague, the camera often panning over columns of numbers that are left unexplained.

We see the team turn around after Beane trades away a few players and starts holding two-on-one sessions with the players and his numbers guru, Peter Brand, helping his athletes recognize and play on the strengths he and Pete see in them. We hear the philosophy behind his and Pete’s use of statistics, which they see as a way to replace the old-school, from-the-gut method of evaluating players that inevitably overvalued some and undervalued others. By cherry-picking undervalued players, they assemble a winning and relatively cheap team Pete calls “an island of misfit toys.” And we get a glimpse of how it worked when Beane recruits players because of how often they get on base, regardless of their batting averages or other statistics. A walk is as good as a hit, he later tells one of them: What counts is that you get to first base, not how it happens.

That’s an intriguing premise, but imagine how much more interesting the film would have been if it had explained more about how the players were being evaluated and then shown how those criteria translated into wins on the field. And where they failed, since, as Beane himself keeps pointing out, the A's didn’t get any farther in the playoffs right after he changed his recruiting strategy than they had in the two years before.

Instead, we just watch our motley collection of underdogs do badly and then do better, in classic sports-underdog fashion, without quite understanding why, though we are saved from choking on formula by the team’s failure to capture the coveted pennant—and by Beane’s decision to turn down a chance to cash in on his (limited) success.

There’s nothing visually inspired about this film, which features way too many scenes of Beane driving around alone in his car, a motif so uncinematic that I bet it came from the book, which presumably clued its readers in on what Beane was thinking behind the wheel. Without the benefit of X-ray vision, though, not even Brad Pitt’s chiseled profile can hold your interest forever.

Even the baseball scenes rely on the game’s inherent drama rather than interesting camera angles or lighting for their interest. When a ball in one key game is shown arcing through the darkness from on high at night, heading toward the camera as it falls, it seems to have arrived from another movie altogether.

But there’s some nice, snappy dialogue, and someone—maybe Sorkin, since that’s one of his signature themes—does an excellent job of portraying the peculiar form of love that can develop between workaholics who bond over work. Jonah Hill plays Pete as the perfect lapdog acolyte to Pitt’s big-dog leader, spitting out numbers and names on demand with a brilliant nerd’s awkward mixture of diffidence and confidence.

In the end, their little team of two is the only one that counts in this sports story. Moneyball makes you feel the excitement of their gamble and the thrill of their victory, even if it never quite explains how they did it.

Written for TimeOFF

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

4:44: Last Day on Earth

Abel Ferrara's 4:44 Last Day on Earth, an IFC Films release, screens tonight and Saturday night at the 49th New York Film Festival.

As 4:44: Last Day on Earth putters to an end, Skye (Shanyn Leigh, director Abel Ferrara’s girlfriend) tells Cisco (Willem Dafoe in patented tragic-hipster mode) not to worry because they’ll be spending eternity together. It’s presumably supposed to be tragic or transcendent or something, but all I could think was: Good luck with that.

Ferrara’s overheated hipster-boy tales work pretty well when his lead actor is memorable and quirky enough to spin the maudlin material into fool’s gold, the way Harvey Keitel did in Bad Lieutenant. Better yet is a star with a sense of humor, who can counterbalance Ferrara’s shallow depth and leaden self-pity with a lightness of spirit, maybe even a little fancy footwork, like the seemingly impromptu little dances Chris Walken tossed into King of New York. And best of all is when the supporting cast, including the obligatory babes, can command our attention even with their clothes on.

But pair Ferrara with an equally self-regarding star like Dafoe and a charisma-free leading lady like Leigh, who alternates between doughy impassivity and hysteria, and you’re in for a long 82 minutes.

As usual in Ferrara’s movies, a fashionably sinewy man sins and a pulchritudinous woman pays the price. And as usual, we learn a little more than we want to know about the director’s penchant for big butts and dirty dancing.

Cisco and Skye are a May-October couple facing the end of the world (“Al Gore was right,” as a newscaster on their big flat-screen TV puts it) in a fashionably artsy downtown loft. She never sets foot outside their door for the whole length of the film, which delineates the last day for planet Earth. He goes out only once, to score some dope she confiscates when he brings it home. And oh my God, when he’s out there he runs into Paz de la Huerta, decked out in a party dress and platform heels and acting out on some picturesquely seedy downtown street. Just what we needed.

Aside from that abortive drug run, Cisco spends his time fretting, watching the news, and Skyping his friends and family in the apartment while Skye paints it black, splattering paint Pollock-style onto a mediocre-looking canvas that gets an awful lot of reverent camera time. She changes her clothes a lot. He goes out on their rooftop terrace and yells some.

Together, they dance, have sex, fight a little, meditate, order takeout, and let the delivery man Skype his family in Vietnam on their computer, an unsubtitled exchange that provides the film’s only genuinely moving moment.

Meanwhile we hear from such cutting-edge luminaries as Charlie Rose, Al Gore, the Dalai Lama, and Joseph Campbell. Okay, now I’m just being snarky. I’m sorry. These people just bring out the worst in me.

Written for The L Magazine

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Separation

A Separation played at the 49th New York Film Festival on October 1 and 2. It's due to be released in U.S. theaters on December 30.

A Separation seems to invent itself as it goes along. It doesn’t mirror or mock or play minor variations on some timeworn genre or theme. It just pulls you in, instantly and inexorably, to its perfectly life-sized world. If it feels familiar, it’s because it feels as poignant, precarious, and endlessly complicated as life itself.

We first meet Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi) in what appears to be a divorce court hearing. The camera assumes the unseen judge’s point of view, so the couple talks directly to it, making their impassioned arguments to each other or to us. Meanwhile, the judge’s disembodied pronouncements provide the first of several male voices of authority, embodying Iran’s paternalistic, often repressive social structure and justice system.

Simin wants to leave Iran with the couple’s 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s daughter Sarina). “As a mother, I’d rather she not grow up under these circumstances,” she says. “What circumstances?” the judge asks, the first of many questions the film pointedly leaves unanswered. Nader won’t join her because his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who lives with them, has an advanced case of Alzheimer’s and he refuses to abandon him. He doesn’t try to stop Simin from leaving, a decision that clearly hurts her deeply though it seems to be motivated by his principled respect for her autonomy. But he won’t let Termeh go and Simin can’t take her out of the country without his permission. So they’re stuck in a standoff, one convinced she must leave for her daughter’s sake and the other convinced he must stay for his father’s.

The fact that we learn all this in the first five minutes or so of the movie, and that those five minutes play out with such fluid and compelling drama that you never once feel the heavy hand of an author doling out expository information, should give you some idea of how elegantly and intelligently this tale is told. In a somewhat clumsily translated Q&A following the press screening, director Farhadi said it is very important to him that his films be shown in his homeland, so he has developed a few ways of making sure that happens. “One way is, I don’t speak loudly in my films,” he said. “Another way is that I don’t force my judgments on the audience. And there are other ways that, if I tell you about them, I won’t be able to show my films [there] any more.”

I’m sure there are veiled references to conditions in Iran in A Separation that I missed, but there was still plenty to chew on. When Nader hires a very devout woman (Sareh Bayat) to look after his father after Simin moves out, a new dimension of class differences is introduced. And when that arrangement comes to an abrupt and disastrous end, the fault lines created by class, wealth, and gender inequalities crack under the stress, creating chasms deep enough to swallow whole relationships.

Farhadi, who worked in theater for years before becoming a director (the first movie he directed was 2003’s Dancing in the Dust), said he always rehearses with his actors for 6 or 8 weeks before shooting, letting them use that time to discover their characters for themselves. “I want whatever happened in me to cause the creation of that character to happen in the actor,” he said. Whatever he’s doing, it clearly works: The cast is universally excellent, inhabiting their characters so fully that it’s easy to forget they’re acting. All the characters work hard to hide things from each other, but they can’t hide much from us, thanks to the strategically placed camera and the emotional transparency of the actors.

At the same time, Farhadi is playing a cat-and-mouse game with us, often ending a scene just before a key event occurs or keeping us behind closed doors with some of the characters while unseen others do something crucial on the other side. Some of that information is withheld only temporarily, but we’re left to guess at a number of things. “This is a detective story, but the detectives are the audience,” he said, and some of the questions the movie raises are not easily answered.

Nader is constantly schooling his daughter, drilling her on math and Arabic and other academic subjects, but the most important lessons she learns are the ones we absorb along with her. When is a lie the morally correct choice? How much of your own safety and comfort should you risk to stand up for the truth, and how much are you entitled to risk of other people’s? How do you decide whether to stay or to go if either choice will mean abandoning someone you love?

Unpredictable twists, a gathering sense of dread, and the tender humanism that infuse it all make Farhadi’s film absorbing, but it’s fundamental ethical and moral questions like these that make it great.

Written for The House Next Door

The Guard

Considering the deep, generally unslaked thirst so many people I know have for movies that are just plain fun to watch—entertaining and absorbing without being too deep-dish or depressing—I’m surprised this delightful little black comedy hasn’t gotten more buzz. Fortunately, there’s still a little time to catch it before it slips out of the local theater—and if that doesn’t work, you can always look for it on Netflix, or whatever other service you’re using these days.

Writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s brother, Martin McDonagh, wrote and directed the similarly exhilarating In Bruges, which also costarred the magnificent Brendan Gleeson. The Guard isn’t as quirkily splendid as that brilliant little bit of business—this one is just a change nicely played on a well-worn theme—but it’s rooted in the same rich Irish loam.

In classic Dirty Harry style, Gleeson’s rogue cop (Sergeant Gerry Boyle of the Irish guard) breaks every rule in sight, teeters on the edge of suspension, and gets matched with another outsider (Don Cheadle’s Wendell Everett, a straitlaced FBI agent) in an odd-couple pairing that winds up as a true partnership as our flawed hero cracks the big case. But The Guard goes light on chase scenes and explosions and heavy on the wordplay and character development, creating a rich Irish stew that tempers deep sentimentality with smart skepticism and self-mocking wit.

The story is set in Connemara, but this is no tourist-board view of Galway. The action generally takes place at night or inside dark rooms, mostly shot in a strenuously anti-glamorous high-contrast, super-saturated style, with harsh, interrogation-strength lighting emphasizing the crags and crannies in Gleeson’s broad mug. When he’s not sitting in front of a supersized photo of water and swimmers (one of the many ways forms of foreshadowing the filmmakers have knit, mostly seamlessly, into the narrative), he’s often surrounded by some garish color, whether it’s the sickly green of his bedroom wall or the checkerboard floor and cherry-red accents of a faux-American diner.

There’s just one consistent exception: a freckle-faced little boy who keeps popping up on his bicycle, his disheveled dog in tow, always outdoors and filmed in rich colors. The heroic angles from which he is shot and the gorgeous landscapes that often stretch out behind him make him a symbolic, almost mythical figure: the sole witness to Boyle’s hidden heroism and maybe even the soul of the town.

But there’s nothing mythic about Boyle. Reaching inside his baggy briefs to scratch his balls as he stumbles across his bedroom one minute and drawing information out of his partner’s widow with surprising delicacy the next, Gleeson’s sergeant is a walking Rorschach test. Everyone with the sense to see his own carefully cached sensitivity trust and confides in him, while the rest heap him with abuse. He takes it all in with an air of bovine indifference, punctuated every now and then by a goofily mischievous grin.

Cheadle plays off Gleeson’s deceptive passivity beautifully, his sense of humor getting a rare and welcome airing as Everett goes into slow burns at Boyle’s bouts of apparently blissful insensitivity (“I’m Irish, sir,” he protests at one point. “Racism is part of my culture!”) Watching these two play off one another is one of the movie’s great pleasures.

Another is the interplay between the villains, especially Mark Strong’s tightly wound Clive Cornell and David Wilmot’s sociopathic Liam O’Leary, who looks and acts something like an ungroomed terrier. Between bouts of violence, the bad guys kill time Tarantino-style, comparing favorite philosophical quotes, parsing the fine points of each other’s statements, and chafing at the quality of the people they’re forced to put up with. “That’s the payoff, yeah?” Cornell hisses when his contact asks if all the money he promised is there. “That’s the dynamics of this situation. Why the f--- would I cheat you out of the money? … That would defeat the entire freaking purpose of the entire interaction!”

Every so often—including, unfortunately, in an ending that feels more canned than candid—the supple script strikes a false note, pulling you out of the story for a moment. But then someone says or does something so smart or touching or funny or all three that you’re immersed once again in this entertaining fable. After all, that’s the dynamics of this situation, right? And you can trust this crew to respect those dynamics.

Written for TimeOFF