Thursday, May 29, 2014

Movie Review: Night Moves

Night Moves
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt.   
Written by: Kelly Reichardt  & Jonathan Raymond.
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg (Josh Stamos), Dakota Fanning (Dena Brauer), Peter Sarsgaard (Harmon), Alia Shawkat (Surprise), James Le Gros (Clerk), Katherine Waterston (Anne), Clara Mamet (Jackie), Logan Miller (Dylan), Kai Lennox (Sean).

The film’s director Kelly Reichardt have made up until now are the type of slow, subtle movies that those who don’t pay attention often complain that “nothing happens” in them. Films like Old Joy, Wendy & Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff are certainly slower than most films, but so much is happening beneath their surface that the charge that nothing happens in them is absurd. No one is going to accuse Reichardt’s latest film – Night Moves – as being one of those “Nothing happens” films. The film takes the form of a thriller – and even includes one (off-screen) explosion, and murder. Yet, while the film is certainly a more mainstream effort from Reichardt, it is also undeniably one of her films – it is still about people outside mainstream society, and it still requires the audience to pay attention, because much more happens in the movie than it appears like on the surface.

The movie is centered on three eco-terrorists (or activists if you’d rather) who plot to blow up one or Oregon’s many, many dams. The exact problem they have with that particular dam is never really stated – just caustic remarks about killing the salmon so everyone can have an iPod. In fact, they never really speak about their ideology at all – there is one scene, at an underground screening of a documentary about the evils of corporation pillaging the environment, where the filmmaker says that she isn’t focused on one large thing – but rather countless small things, everyone can do to help. That’s probably about as close as you’re going to get to specific reasons in this film – the three principles are doing their “one small thing” to help.

The film opens with Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) at that screening, and eventually hitting the road – where they buy a used boat for cash – Dena, it seems, is one of those trust fund kids with a conscience. The exact nature of their relationship is left unstated – largely because Josh doesn’t seem to like to talk at all. They head up into the Oregon woods, where they meet up with ex-Marine Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) and set their plan in motion. The boat with be packed with fertilizer, and when it explodes, in the middle of the night, it will destroy the dam. It’s the offseason, so no one will be around – no one will get hurt.

The movie is neatly divided into its two halves – leading up to the explosion, and its aftermath. There are several scenes where the suspense becomes almost unbearable – all the more impressive because of how Reichardt achieves this through little dialogue and without the aid of phony theatrics. A scene where Dena has to buy a lot of fertilizers for example – and has to talk the skeptical clerk (James Le Gros – a character actor who seems to specialize in these wonderful, tiny roles) into why she needs it. The scene at the dam itself, when an unexpected car stops too close for comfort as the ticking clock winds down in also expertly crafted by Reichardt. This may be her first thriller, but she has the chops to handle the genre elements amazingly well.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the movie is just how good Eisenberg is in the lead role. We all know Eisenberg is a talented actor – but he has been typecast into movies that rely on his motor mouth skills – he is a natural for the dialogue of an Aaron Sorkin, which is why his performance in The Social Network is one of the best of the decade so far. But in Night Moves, he doesn’t speak much – and when he does, it is slower and more deliberate – he weighs the words he says, and never says more than he has to. It is altogether more impressive than that he makes Josh into a fully rounded character – and his regrets and grief that slowly take over in the second half are down with subtly as the weight of his actions slowly threatens to crush him. Fanning is also very good – in that scene in the fertilizer store in particular – but she is pretty much shunted to the background in the film’s second half. Her off screen actions drive the plot in that half, but they remain off screen until close the end. Sarsgaard is even more back grounded – showing up well into the first act, and other than an occasional voice on the phone, all but absent in the second half. The film is Eisenberg’s from start to finish – and he delivers an excellent performance.

The film itself is not quite as good as Reichardt’s previous work. I admit, I prefer the previous movies, which lacked narrative, but were more interested in human behavior. Reichardt isn’t quite as adept at handling narrative as she is her characters. Still though, Night Moves remains an uncommonly intelligent thriller – one that sticks close to its characters, and doesn’t fill the movie with phony suspense. Yes, it’s a thriller – a damn good one – but it is also a Kelly Reichardt film in all that implies.
Note: I saw this film at TIFF in 2013 - as far as I know, nothing has changed in the version I saw, and the one opening in limited release today.

Classics Revisted: Night Moves (1975)

Night Moves (1975)
Directed by: Arthur Penn.
Written by: Alan Sharp.
Starring: Gene Hackman (Harry Moseby), Jennifer Warren (Paula), Susan Clark (Ellen Moseby), Edward Binns (Joey Ziegler), Harris Yulin (Marty Heller), Kenneth Mars (Nick), Janet Ward (Arlene Iverson), James Woods (Quentin), Melanie Griffith (Delly Grastner), Anthony Costello (Marv Ellman), John Crawford (Tom Iverson).

The post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era was perhaps the most cynical time in American history – and that cynicism affected the movies in a big way – particularly a series of neo-noirs of the time. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) ends with the futile line “Forget it Jake, its Chinatown”. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) is about a man who is apparently the best at his job, but completely and totally misunderstands the title conversation until it’s too late. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) is based on a Raymond Chandler Philip Marlowe novel from 20 years earlier, and Altman has great fun pointing out how much has changed in the decades since – and turns Chandler’s noir hero into a cold blooded murderer. Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975) probably isn’t quite as well-known as those other movies, but it deserves to be in their company – and it’s perhaps more cynical than any of them. It stars Gene Hackman as a detective who from beginning to end has no real idea what is going on – and ends with him literally going around in circles trying to piece together yet another twist in a case that had so many of them – that he keeps thinking he has figured out, and keeps being completely wrong.

It would be easy to call Harry Moseby (Hackman) a little on the slow side – he’s a former professional football player, who now makes his living as a P.I. – mainly doing divorce and runaway cases. His wife asks him to go to an Erich Rohmer movie with her, but he declines. “I saw a Rohmer movie once. It was kinda of like watching paint dry” he says in the film’s most famous line of dialogue. He doesn’t realize that his wife, Ellen (Susan Clark) is cheating on him – and even when he finds out, he seems to be acting hurt more than actually being hurt.

He gets hired by a woman who could be straight out of a Chandler Marlowe novel – Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward) is a former B-movie starlet, who has married and divorced a few rich men in her life, and now is living on all that money, drinking her days into oblivion. She wants Moseby to find her daughter Delly (Melanie Griffith – in her first movie) – a teenager vixen who has taken after her mother, who she hates, in that she’ll sleep with just about any guy who pays her the slightest attention (both mother and daughter will hit on Moseby throughout the movie). Moseby tracks her down in the Florida Keys, living with her ex-stepfather Tom (John Crawford) and his, what? (Girlfriend? Lover? Companion?) Paula (Jennifer Warren). From there the plot gets thicker and more twisted and I won’t say anything else except to say that the movie locks in on Moseby’s point of view, and he makes deductions and assumptions that seem to make sense at the time. Watching the film both times I have, I’d be hard pressed to come up with a different solution than Moseby does – even the second time through when I knew the mysteries. The movie doesn’t play like a typical mystery film where the director and writer plant clues for the audience to put together as the movie goes along. There’s no real way you could figure out what really happened as you watch the movie – not because the movie withholds the information (not really anyway), but because Moseby doesn’t see all the pieces of the puzzle until it’s too late – and neither do we. And looking back at all the puzzle pieces at the end of the movie, I’m sure there will be quite a few viewers like myself who still don’t think they fully understand what the hell happened or why. In a sense, we’re stuck on that boat with Moseby going round and round wondering what the hell went wrong.

In many movies, that would be a flaw – and I’m sure that the people who spend their time trying hard to decode every movie – treating them as a puzzle to be solved rather than a work of art to be interpreted will think it’s a flaw here as well. It’s not one to me though, because although Night Moves looks like a typical noir mystery, it really isn’t – it doesn’t really care about the plot, which after all really is kind of ridiculous (the devious conspiracy plot involves smuggling, and really could come out of Hardy Boys novel “They’re all about smugglers.” “Except this one: The Smugglers of Pirate’s Cove. It’s about pirates”)

So what is Night Moves really about if it’s not about its overly complex mystery? In part, it is a character study of Moseby – a character who is drifting, not sure what to do with his life. He’s middle aged, has one career behind him, another that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, a childless marriage that may break up because of infidelity on her part (and then his). Hackman is one of the few actors who could make a man like Moseby – kind of dull, not overly bright – and make him seem sympathetic and likable. He really is kind of asshole if you think about it – but everyone around him is even worse, so you forgive him his sins. But mainly, I think it is a portrait of a society that simply cannot follow along with what the hell is happening. The conspiracies are too big, too wide ranging, and we don’t have all the information we need in order to know who the hell is screwing us this time. However well-intentioned Harry Moseby is, he has no clue what he’s gotten himself into.

The movie was directed by Arthur Penn, whose Bonnie & Clyde was one of the movies that helped announce a new generation of American filmmaker, influenced by the young, European masters like Godard and Truffaut. That golden age of American filmmaking lasted from 1967 – when he made Bonnie & Clyde – until about 1975, when he made Night Moves. Certainly American movies were already moving back towards a modern studio centric, blockbuster model even before this year, but Steven Spielberg’s Jaws pretty much sealed the deal, even if we continued to see trickles of that golden age until Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) pretty much put a nail in its coffin.

Penn was a major figure in American film at that time – but Night Moves may have been his last hooray – although he continued to direct afterwards, none of his previous films are have garnered the same praise as his work during this period (which also included Alice’s Restaurant and Little Big Man). It’s remarkable how Penn went from something with the energy of Bonnie and Clyde – also co-starring Hackman – and its portrait of ultimately futile, but liberating, youthful rebellion, into something as dark and cynical as Night Moves in just a few years. The film is a different kind of noir – much of the action takes place during the day on the sun drenched beaches of Florida. But no matter how beautiful, make no mistake; this is a dark and cynical film to its core. And one of the best of its kind to come out of the 1970s.

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Heaven's Gate (1980)

Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Directed by: Michael Cimino.
Written by: Michael Cimino.
Starring: Kris Kristofferson (James Averill), Christopher Walken (Nathan D. Champion), John Hurt (Billy Irvine), Sam Waterston (Frank Canton), Brad Dourif (Mr. Eggleston), Isabelle Huppert (Ella Watson), Joseph Cotton (The Reverend Doctor), Jeff Bridges (John L. Bridges), Ronnie Hawkins (Major Wolcott), Paul Koslo (Mayor Charlie Lezak), Geoffrey Lewis (Trapper Fred), Richard Masur (Cully).

Movie history is full of movies that the critics got wrong upon their initial release. Either mediocre films that were praised to high heaven for some reason, or great movies that somehow would critically reviled when they first came out. You’d be hard pressed to find a more critically reviled movie than Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980). It was supposed to be his epic follow-up to the Oscar winning The Deer Hunter (1978). The studio gave him almost unlimited funds, and Cimino’s obsessive attention to detail put the film way behind schedule (it was said at the time that after six days of shooting, they were five and half days behind). But over the 33 years since the film has been released, it has gained a lot of friends – many critics now believe that Heaven’s Gate is misunderstood masterpiece. After watching the film myself, I have to conclude that those critics are idiots. While the initial reviews of the film may have been a little too harsh, they pretty much nailed it. Heaven’s Gate really is a three-hour and forty minute, shapeless, ridiculous, borderline incoherent mess of a movie. But the cinematography is great, as is the art direction and costume design. As for the rest, I’m not quite sure what to say.

The film opens, for what reason I am not sure, in 1870, at the graduation ceremony from Harvard University. We have to sit through the stuffy speech by the Dean, the great Joseph Cotton, and then a more free spirited speech by valedictorian, John Hurt. The two speeches go on and on and on, and before you know 20 minutes have gone by, and nothing has happened. Worse still, we won’t see Cotton again for the rest of the movie, and Hurt will only have a few scenes – mainly in the background as a drunken buffoon. The main character of Heaven’s Gate is neither of those men, but James Averill (Kris Kristofferson), among the graduates that day, who will next see 20 years later, out in Wyoming where he is Sheriff of Johnson County. How Averill got to Wyoming, and how he became Sheriff is anyone’s guess, because the movie doesn’t bother to explain it.

In a series of seemingly endless scenes, we get to know Averill and his life in Johnson County. It isn’t long before we know he is not much liked by the Cattle Baron’s Association, run by Sam Waterson. Their plan is to legally execute 125 European settlers, who they say are stealing their cattle. The Governor and the President have apparently been appraised of this plan, and are all for it. But Averill lets them know he won’t stand for it – unless, of course, they have legitimate paperwork on each and every person.

There is more – much more – but I’ll try to get through it quickly. Averill is close to these European settlers – especially John Bridges (Jeff Bridges, just to confuse me), who runs the local bar. He doesn’t tell them of this plot he has uncovered, until they find out on their own. Averill is also in love with Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), a Madam on the outskirts of town, who spends much of the movie in various stages of undress. She is torn between Averill and Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken), who is one of the people hired by the Cattle Baron’s Association to execute all the European settlers – which of course, he doesn’t share with her – nor does he share with her that she is in fact on the list.

I could, as many critics did, poke fun at the movie’s more extreme instances of ridiculousness, but I really don’t see much of a point in doing so. I could point out all the plot holes in the movie, but that would imply that the film has a plot to begin with. Perhaps that is unfair, because the movie does, I suppose, have a plot. The problem is the film has about an hour of plot stretched out over almost four hours of running time. Huge chunks of time pass with nothing going on. I was amazed to look at my watch and discover that 90 minutes had elapsed without anything of interest happening on screen yet. The movie continues that way over its entire running time. The final, bloody, epic showdown that the whole movie has been leading to is a confused mess full of explosions and constant gunfire, that is so poorly put together that I had no idea what the hell was going on.

It was said that Cimino was obsessive in his attention to detail on the set of Heaven’s Gate. There were many stories about this obsessiveness – some of them apparently exaggerated – but my favorite was upon discovering that the street in the town they built was six feet too narrow, Cimino insisted that they dissemble both sides of the street and movie them back three feet. When the crew complained that it would easier to simply move one side back six feet, he would not be swayed. Cimino also apparently hired guards and locked the door of his editing room to keep executives from United Artists away from him during his months long editing process. Cimino apparently shot 1.3 million feet of film (approximately 220 hours of film) and was very proud of the fact he beat Francis Ford Coppola, who shot 1 million feet of film for Apocalypse Now. His initial cut of the film was apparently 5 hours and 25 minutes, but United Artists refused to release it at that length, so he edited it down to 219 minutes (just a shade under three hours and forty minutes). Cimino was convinced he had a masterpiece on his hands. A disastrous one week run at a single New York Theater proved otherwise however, and the film was re-edited once again – down to 149 minutes and released in 1981. That version also got slammed by critics. After spending roughly $44 million on making Heaven’s Gate, the film grossed less than $4 million at the box office. And for all intents and purposes, Cimino, who was once seen as a rising directorial star, had his career ruined. 33 years later, he has only directed 4 others film – The Year of the Dragon (1985), The Sicilian (1987), Desperate Hours (1990) and The Sunchaser (1996) – none of them very highly thought of (I can only speak for Sunchaser, and it indeed does suck).

When the grand follies of Hollywood are brought up, it never takes very long for Heaven’s Gate to be mentioned. This was financed at the tail end of the 1970s, when studios were already moving away from what they had done for the previous decade, when they gave young, talented directors freedom to make the type of films they wanted to make. When they were cheap films, that made money, they didn’t care. But when they starting costing huge amounts of money, they moved to safer choices. Coming out a year after Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, the two films make an interesting study in contrasts. Coppola was given all the money and freedom he could ever want, and ended up making (in my opinion) the greatest film ever made – even though it cost him a large part of his own sanity, and he has never come close to replicating the greatness of the four films he made in the 1970s (along with Apocalypse Now there was The Conversation, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II). Given the same money and freedom, Cimino made a formless mess – a borderline incoherent movie, where nothing makes a whole lot of sense, especially not the actions of the characters, whose motivations are never really clear. The performances in the movie are for the most part terrible – the exception could be Christopher Walken, who at least exudes that Walken-esque insanity he does so well, and has perhaps the most over the top death scene in cinema history. Kristofferson’s acting career would be forever marred by Heaven’s Gate, although he has been quite good in films like John Sayles’ Lone Star (1996).

Reading the reviews of some of Heaven’s Gate supporters before writing this, I was struck by all the fancy wordplay in them. All the comparisons to the work of the great John Ford. Or how Cimino brilliantly deconstructed the Western genre, by making his hero completely powerless to stop what happens (this ignores the scene where he bursts into a room like John Wayne kills 4 people trying to gang rape Isabelle Huppert, and doesn’t shoot her, but whatever), or how even when the immigrants seemingly won, they still lost because of all the people killed. But I was also struck that few of these reviews actually highlighted anything in the movie itself that they actually liked. Why do some think Heaven’s Gate is a masterpiece? It beats the hell out of me. The film is no misunderstood masterwork. It is almost as bad as the initial reviews would have you believe.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Movie Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-Men: Days of Future Past
Directed by: Bryan Singer.
Written by:  Simon Kinberg & Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn.
Starring: Hugh Jackman (Logan / Wolverine), James McAvoy (Charles Xavier), Michael Fassbender (Erik Lehnsherr), Jennifer Lawrence (Raven / Mystique), Halle Berry (Storm), Nicholas Hoult (Hank / Beast), Anna Paquin (Rogue), Ellen Page (Kitty Pryde), Peter Dinklage (Dr. Bolivar Trask), Shawn Ashmore (Bobby / Iceman), Omar Sy (Bishop), Evan Peters (Peter / Quicksilver), Josh Helman (Maj. Bill Stryker), Daniel Cudmore (Colossus), Bingbing Fan (Blink), Adan Canto (Sunspot), Booboo Stewart (Warpath), Ian McKellen (Magneto), Patrick Stewart (Professor X), Lucas Till (Havok), Evan Jonigkeit (Toad), Mark Camacho (President Nixon), Michael Lerner (Senator Brickman).

One could – and lord knows many already have – spend their time drawing detailed diagrams about what the time travel in X-Men: Days of Future Past means for what we have already seen in the previous 7 X-Men movies (basically, that everything that happened in all of them except for First Class didn’t actually happen – or at least happened in a slightly different way) – and whether or not what happened in those previous movies makes sense in light of what we now know happened in the past in the original timeline, which one assumes is the timeline that the other movies took place in (the answer – not really). As with all movies of this sort, it’s easy (and sometimes kind of fun) to get lost down the rabbit hole of alternate timelines, but for me this is more or less meaningless. The real question is whether X-Men: Days of Future Past makes sense and is entertaining as a movie unto itself – and the answer is pretty much yes. Like almost all the previous X-Men movies (and more than most if we’re being honest) this one suffers a little bit by having so many characters – and their powers to keep track of (which is made all the more confusing when they give mutants powers they didn’t use to have – since when can Kitty Pride send people’s consciousness back in time?). The movie then asks us to keep track of multiple timelines simultaneously, in addition to keeping track of all the characters. This sounds like a recipe for disaster – or at least an extremely convoluted and confusing movie – but somehow director Bryan Singer and the writers manage to make it all make sense – at least while you’re watching the movie, and if you don’t spend too much time diagramming everything out afterwards.

The movie opens in the future – 2023 to be precise – which is a dark place. The government has created a new weapon to be used against mutant – known as Sentinels – which are essentially giant robots who are programmed to read the DNA of its targets and wipe out the mutant threat. If this wasn’t bad enough, the Sentinels have evolved to the point where they aren’t just killing mutants – but they have discovered “regular” people who will one day be the parents – or grandparents – of mutants and starting wiping them out as well – essentially meaning that humanity has created a weapon that will exterminate them all. According to Professor X (Patrick Stewart) this dark future can all be traced back to 1973 – when Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) assassinated Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) – a brilliant scientist, and founder of the Sentinel program. She did this because he was conducting experiments – basically torture that ends in death – on her fellow mutants, and she wants to stop this. All she succeeds in doing however is convincing people that mutants really are a threat, and giving his program the funding needed to bring it to its fruition. And because she was captured, she becomes the most important test subject – and her ability to transform is fused with the Sentinels, giving them almost unlimited power. So essentially, they need to stop Mystique before she can do that, and so they send Wolverine back in time, to talk to Professor X and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to try and convince Mystique to not kill Trask. They selected Wolverine, because he’s the only one who will survive the journey. His body isn’t really going back, just his “consciousness” – so he’ll wake up in his older body. There are problems when Wolverine arrives. Professor X has grown cynical, and is addicted to Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult)’s serum that will give him back use of his legs – but at the price of his mutant abilities. And Magneto is being held captive way beneath the Pentagon for taking part in the assassination of JFK a decade earlier (“How else could a bullet curve like that?”).

The movie is less action oriented than most of the previous X-Men movies. That isn’t to say there isn’t action in the movie – there are some amusing scenes with Quicksilver (Evan Peters) who enters the movies for the first time, and in the dark future scenes there are battles with the Sentinels as they try to stay alive long enough for Wolverine to get the job done – but for the most part, this is the most plot heavy and character oriented superhero movie I can recall in recent years. For the most part, this works. By now we already know that the likes of Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, James McAvoy, Ian McKellan, Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult and Jennifer Lawrence are fine in their roles – and the new additions (essentially Peters and Dinklage) are also quite good. It was kind of fun to see a lot of the old crew for the previous Singer/Brent Ratner X-Men films come back for what amounts to mainly cameos.

Does the movie make sense? For the most part, while I was watching it, it seemed to. There are a lot of questions about what precisely happened, and how much of what we think we know has now changed in light of Wolverine travelling back in time and changing things. So many questions in fact that I jokingly told my wife that the next movie should be called My Dinner with Professor X, where Stewart and Jackman sit done to dinner (like Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn in Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre) so Stewart can explain everything that happened and everything that has changed to Wolverine. But I think what essentially the movie does is reset the X-Men universe. They have already said the next movie – Apocalypse – will be set in the 1980s, and because Wolverine has changed the past, it frees them up to do anything they want in the future and not be beholden to what has come before. This is both kind of cool and kind of a cop out – but I’m on board for future installments. The X-Men series has been wildly inconsistent over its previous 7 installments – and I still think only X2 and X-Men First Class come close to be great movies – but they all seem more willing than most of the other series to take risks, and do something different each time out. We’ve essentially seen the same Spider-Man movie 5 times now, and all the Marvel movies that feed into The Avengers are having their characters follow similar arcs with different results (the latest Captain America may be the best of all these movies, but they are also starting to fall more and more into the trap of each movie essentially being a trailer for the next movie). The results of the X-Men movies is not always satisfying, but more often than not, they are something a little bit different. That almost passes as daring in the world of superhero movies.

Movie Review: Fading Gigolo

Fading Gigolo
Directed by: John Turturro.
Written by: John Turturro.
Starring: John Turturro (Fioravante), Woody Allen (Murray), Vanessa Paradis (Avigal), Liev Schreiber (Dovi), Sharon Stone (Dr. Parker), Sofía Vergara (Selima), Bob Balaban (Sol), Loan Chabanol (Loan).

There are moments in nearly every scene of John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo that I quite enjoyed. The film is filled with some fine performances, humorous moments, and moments of surprising tenderness and emotion. The problem for me is that none of them ever really come together to make a cohesive whole. It’s almost as if Turturro is making two different movies – a sex comedy about a middle aged, normal looking man who becomes an unlikely gigolo and a tender romance between that same man and a widow of a Hasidic Jewish rabbi, who has grown lonely since her husband’s death. Had he followed one path or another, perhaps he could have made a very good movie. But because he tried to do both, he ends up doing justice to neither – and there seems to be a lot of necessary connecting tissue that isn’t in the movie. The Turturro character himself doesn’t seem to be the same person in each of the two halves of the film.

Turturro stars as a man living in New York who needs money. He works part time at a flower shop, and part time at a used and rare book store run by his best friend Murray (Woody Allen) – who has had to close up shop. In one of those things that only happens in the movies, Murray’s dermatologist, Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone) mentions that she has always wanted to have a ménage a trois with her best friend Selima (Sofia Vergara) and a man – and is wondering if Murray knows anyone. He thinks of his friend, Fioravante (Turturro) – and tells him this could be a good way to make extra money – with Murray, as his pimp, taking a small percentage of course (a 60-40 split seems fair to him). Parker wants a “test drive” with him, and it goes well, so Murray starts finding him other clients, and the money starts rolling in. Then Murray finds an abnormal client – Avigal (Vanessa Paradis) – the widow of a rabbi in a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. She seems lonely – because she is. She has a lot of children, but hasn’t been touched by a man since her husband died. Murray thinks that Fioravante could help bring her out of her shell a little bit. What neither of them count on however is that he would start to have deeper feelings for her than he does for the rest of the women he “services”.

Parts of Fading Gigolo work quite well. This is Allen’s best performance in quite some time – although in part that’s because he has only cast himself in two of his own movies for the past decade, and those two (Scoop and To Rome with Love) are among the worst movies he has ever made. I cannot help but wonder if Turturro let Allen write some of his own dialogue – if not, than Turturro does an excellent job at mimicking Allen’s writing style as Murray could very easily be an Allen creation. Turturro’s direction owes a debt to Allen as well – along with Spike Lee, who Turturro has worked with often – as he lovingly shoots New York combining the different styles of those two directors. The rest of the performances are fine as well – Paradis, although she undeniably still sounds French – is quite good as the shy, quiet woman slowly emerging from her grief and Stone and Vergara have great fun as a pair of vulgar, rich women lusting after Turturro. Turturro is fine on a scene by scene basis – but the performance never really comes together. He’s in full comic mode when paired with Allen, he’s putting on an act with Stone and Vergara, and he’s tender and sweet with Paradis. While each of these aspects of his character work in their individual moments, they never come together – I almost felt like I was watching different characters played by the same actor.

That pretty much describes the movie as well – that in the individual moments, it works just fine, but when taken as a whole, it doesn’t really work at all. As a writer and director, Turturro needed to find a way to make everything come together, and it never really does. This was a problem with his last film as a writer/director as well – Romance & Cigarettes – but that film had the benefit of being an ambitious, working class musical, full of great performances, that helped plaster over the scripts weak spots. Fading Gigolo never really does that. The film is an amusing diversion, but could have – and should have – been something better.

Movie Review: Belle

Directed by: Amma Asante.
Written by: Misan Sagay.
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Dido Elizabeth Belle), Tom Wilkinson (Lord Mansfield), Sarah Gadon (Elizabeth Murray), Emily Watson (Lady Mansfield), Penelope Wilton (Lady Mary Murray), Sam Reid (John Davinier), Matthew Goode (Captain Sir John Lindsay), Miranda Richardson (Lady Ashford), James Norton (Oliver Ashford), Tom Felton (James Ashford), Lauren Julien-Box (Young Dido), Cara Jenkins (Young Elizabeth).  

Belle is apparently based on a true story, but as happens with so many movies that make that claim, I cannot help but wonder just how accurate it is to the real life of its characters. Everything in the film seems far too pat and predictable – that everything comes together at precisely the right moment – the sort of thing that happens in the movies all the time, but very rarely in real life. It is an extraordinary story nonetheless, and one that should make for a fine movie. The problem with the movie is that the emotions seem strangely muted. This is one of those stories that is almost unbelievable – like 12 Years a Slave – yet did happen (at least in some version). But the film is too given with making speeches, too concerned with outward surfaces, so that I never really felt I got to know any of the characters – and their pain was too far removed from the surface, so that it barely registers at all. That’s a shame, because there is much to like about the film.

The film stars newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Elizabeth Belle – who is the illegitimate daughter of a gentleman, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), who wants his Uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife, (Emily Watson) to raise him as he goes off in the Navy. This is not an unusual request, and even if people looked down on illegitimate children at the time, they were often too polite to say anything about it – at least publicly. What complicates matters is simple – Dido’s mother was black, and she cannot hide the color of her skin. Lord Mansfield takes Dido in anyway – and raises her alongside their other niece, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) – but in a slightly different way. Dido is too high class to eat with the servants, but her skin color makes her too low class to eat with her family. She’s caught in the middle – and seems destined to live a lonely life. No gentleman would want to marry someone of her color, and everyone else would not be good enough for someone of her father’s bloodline.

Most of the action takes place over the course of a few months – when the Mansfield’s arrange for Elizabeth to “come out” into society to find a suitable husband. This will be difficult, because her mother died long ago, and her father has remarried – and at the behest of his new wife, has cut off Elizabeth – meaning she has no dowry to speak of. This marks her in contrast to Dido – whose father has recently died, and left her with a healthy income that will support her the rest of her life, but no gentleman will want her because of the color of her skin. At the same time that this is going on, Mansfield, who is the highest judge in the land, has to make a decision on the Zong case – where a shipping company drowned their “cargo” of slaves, presumably because the ship was running out of water, and not doing so would have meant the crew would also die. The insurance company doesn’t want to pay out – saying that fraud had been committed, and that the shipping company drowned diseased slaves that would be worthless to them as “merchandise” – so they are worth more dead than alive.

Dido has two suitors – the first is Oliver Ashford (James Norton) – who is from a good family, but is the second son of that family, and as such will receive nothing from his father. He has a name but no money – but Dido has money, and no other “options”. The second is John Davinier (Sam Reid), the son of a vicar, who wants to enter the law – who is somewhat below the Mansfield in terms of bloodline – and also who has angered Mansfield with his opinions about the Zong case – so he has no chance of being approved by them – even if he and Dido really do fall in love.

The film was directed by Amma Asante, who has clearly studied the work of Merchant-Ivory. The visual look of the film is quite good – full of fine costumes and set design. The film seems slightly dirtier than most costume dramas of its ilk – the streets and muddier. The emotions are just as buried however – as everyone has to don a mask of civility at all times, and never really say what they mean, because that would be improper. This is even true when discussing the Zong ship, and slavery, which most people in the movie seem to think is nothing more than a financial transaction – and an important one. The slave industry helps England financially – and surely their lives cannot be worth the same as white lives, right?

The lead performance by Gugu Mbatha-Raw is quietly great. She tries very hard to play by the rules of a society that would like her to not exist, but is too “polite” to say anything directly to her face. Many don’t hesitate to say the cruelest things behind her back – but only one person (played by Tom Felton aka Draco Malfoy, who will probably always be stuck playing assholes, because he does it so well) actually says anything directly to her. This is a racist society, but one that likes to cloak itself in class and manners. Mbatha-Raw is the center of the movie – and her face does more to convey the emotion she is feeling than anything she could possibly say. The rest of the performances are fine – although at this point the likes of Wilkinson, Watson and Penelope Wilton (as a spinster aunt) can basically go on autopilot in a costume drama like this, and often do. Current Cronenberg muse Sarah Gadon is quite good as Elizabeth – but really only good enough to wish she had more to do. Reid is too stiff as Davinier, but that could have something to do with the fact that much of his dialogue is of the speechifying type that never really allows him to settle into his character.

That’s the problem with the movie as a whole – there are far too many speeches, where the characters seem to be speaking solely for the benefit of a modern audience. Misan Sagay’s screenplay falls into the old trap of “telling, not showing” where they basically spell out the themes of movie repeatedly through dialogue. That’s a shame because Mbatha-Raw’s performance is quite good, as is the direction. They just needed a subtler screenplay to make it all come together in a way this movie never quite does.

Movie Review: Finding Vivian Maier

Finding Vivian Maier
Directed by: John Maloof & Charlie Siskel.
Written by: John Maloof and Charlie Siskel.

It would probably be too kind to describe Vivian Maier as “eccentric”. She worked as a nanny for most of her life, but didn’t seem to stick around in any of the jobs too long. In Finding Vivian Maier, filmmakers John Maloof and Charlie Siskel track down many of her former charges, most of whom – but not all have fond memories of Maier. There are allegations of abuse from one former charge, and everyone agrees she was at the very least strange – taking them on outings around Chicago, where you had to keep up or be left behind, freaking out over newspapers – which she kept stacked everywhere. She was fiercely private – and almost everyone who knew her admits that they didn’t really know her. She is described early in the movie as “pack rat” – but she was really a horder. But she was also a talented street photographer – who left behind thousands upon thousands of photos – many of which she never developed. She died in poverty in 2009, and co-director Maloof discovered a box of her negatives at a storage auction. He bought them, started to look through them, and thought they were good. From there, he set about trying to figure out who Vivian Maier was, and why she didn’t show her work to anyone.

One could criticize the documentary Finding Vivian Maier for a number of reasons. The first being that is Vivian Maier really wanted her work shown, than she probably would have taken steps to achieve that during her life – an there’s no real evidence that she did that. There is ample evidence that she was an immensely private person who didn’t want people going through her stuff, and didn’t like to reveal her true self to anyone – which is now precisely what Maloof is trying to do. You could also argue that the documentary itself is really a marketing tool for Maloof. He now owns most of Maier’s work – and he has complained that many in the art world still do not take her seriously (although some do – and they are seen in the movie). The more interest in Maier he drums up, the more he can sell her work for, and make a profit for himself.

Those are fair criticisms to a certain extent – but ones that in all honesty didn’t really bother me while watching the film. For one thing, Maier is now gone. She made the choice to remain private throughout her life – and that was her choice to make. But exposing her work now cannot hurt Maier – even if she didn’t want the attention while she was alive. As for Maloof trying to make money for himself – all filmmakers do to a certain extent. And I think the documentary that he co-directed is a fascinating exploration of a complex person.

The film is a mystery more than anything else. Maloof and Siskel track down as many of Maier’s former employers and the children she helped raise as he can and interviews them. What emerges is a portrait of a woman who was alone by choice – an obsessive collector and documenter of her time. She took what she thought was an undemanding job so she could pay the bills, but also allowed her the freedom to do what she really loved – which were her photos. Those photos are mainly beautiful black and white portraits of people she met on the street – often the poor, who she shoots with dignity and respect. The photos are haunting in many ways, because they capture the full spectrum of life in and around Chicago (where most of the photos were taken) during her lifetime.

The interview subjects cannot agree on much when it comes to Maier – not even what she preferred to be called. Some look back with fondness at her eccentricity, some with pity when they find out how her life ended – in poverty and alone. It’s clear that Maier was afflicted with some sort of mental illness – but since she never sought treatment for it, we’ll probably never know what it was.

One of the questions that ran through the documentary – stated by Maloof and many others during its runtime is “Why?”. Why did she take all these pictures and yet never show them to anyone? She obviously had passion and talent, yet she didn’t try to get any recognition. To me the documentary pretty much answers that question, even if Maloof doesn’t quite think so. Part of it, I think, is that to some people getting fame, money and recognition for their work just isn’t very important – it’s doing the work that matters most to them – and Maier was able to do that. Her mental illness probably played a role in it as well. She obviously had an obsessive personality – her hording shows that – and she may well have not been able to stop herself from taking photos even if she wanted to. It was something she “had” to do – and so she did it.

Finding Vivian Maier is a fascinating, though necessarily incomplete, portrait of a woman who had the soul of artist even if she didn’t pursue her art professionally. There will always be mysteries about who Vivian Maier was, why she did what she did, and what it all meant to her. That’s because that’s the way she wanted it. What she left behind are her pictures – that are somehow enhanced by not knowing everything about her. They raise even more questions about her.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Films of Lynne Ramsay: Conclusion

Lynne Ramsay is one of the most fascinating voices in contemporary cinema currently working. She has a background in photography and cinematography, and it’s a background you can see in all of her films – which are primary visual exercises. She is the personification of the old filmmaking edict of “Show, don’t tell”. Her films are all fascinating, and all leave it to the viewer to draw their own conclusions. She trusts the audience enough that she isn’t going to hold their hands and walk them to a pre-determined conclusion.

It’s somewhat sad then that a filmmaker who has been making shorts since 1996 only has four shorts, three features and one heavily re-edited music video (not reviewed as part of the series, because frankly, I didn’t find it that interesting, so I didn’t know what to say about it other than it looks good, but also like a typical music video) to her credit after 18 years – only two of which have happened in the last decade. I don’t know why this is – I still don’t know what she did between 2002’s Movern Callar and 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin – or what if anything she is working on now. The furor that enveloped her after she walked out of Jane Got a Gun last year was mystifying. Many directors have either left or been fired from a movie during production (Stanley Kubrick – One Eyed Jacks - and Martin Scorsese – The Honeymoon Killers - spring to mind, but are hardly alone) but the media treated Ramsay horribly. Apparently, all the legal issues around that have now resolved, so hopefully, Ramsay can move onto to something else. She is a great filmmaker, and one I cannot wait to see more of – hopefully in the near future.

Classics Revisted: American Psycho (2000)

American Psycho (2000)
Directed by:  Mary Harron.
Written by: Mary Harron & Guinevere Turner based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis.
Starring: Christian Bale (Patrick Bateman), Justin Theroux (Timothy Bryce), Josh Lucas (Craig McDermott), Bill Sage (David Van Patten), Chloë Sevigny (Jean), Reese Witherspoon (Evelyn Williams), Samantha Mathis (Courtney Rawlinson), Matt Ross (Luis Carruthers), Jared Leto (Paul Allen), Willem Dafoe (Det. Donald Kimball), Cara Seymour (Christie), Guinevere Turner (Elizabeth), Stephen Bogaert (Harold Carnes), Monika Meier (Daisy), Reg E. Cathey (Al, the Derelict).

Sometimes, against all odds, the right movie gets made by the right people after going through multiple different directors, stars, etc. Such seems to be the case with Mary Harron’s American Psycho. At one point, apparently Oliver Stone and Leonardo DiCaprio were attached to direct and star – although they looked to humanize psychopath Patrick Bateman more than Brett Easton Ellis’ novel – which I don’t think would have worked, but who knows? But what would Stone have brought to the movie, seeing as how he already made Wall Street, about the 1980s culture of greed on Wall Street, and Natural Born Killers, about ultra-violent psychopaths? And perhaps had DiCaprio explored a Wall Street psycho earlier in his career, we wouldn’t have seen his career best (so far) work in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street last year. Apparently there was another version of the movie planned at one point – with David Cronenberg directing and he planned to have absolutely no violence in the movie whatsoever. If anyone could have pulled this off, Cronenberg could have. At the same time, perhaps had Cronenberg been able to do that movie, we wouldn’t have seen Cosmopolis, about a Wall Street tycoon, who is essentially an emotional vampire. I may be in the minority, who loved it, but Cosmopolis continues to be a film that grows in my mind, and I wouldn’t want to give that up.

Besides, what we ended up with in American Psycho is great anyway. Perhaps the smartest thing that was done was hiring Harron to direct and co-write the movie alongside Guinevere Turner, as the two women bring a different perspective to this world soaked in misogyny and violence against women than a male director would have. Bret Easton Ellis wasn’t pleased – he ridiculously thinks that cinema requires a “male gaze” – but who cares. The novel, as written, would be un-adaptable for many reasons – the extreme violence could never be done in a mainstream movie, nor could all the graphic depictions of sex. And when Bateman goes on for page after page about the meanings of pop songs, a movie audience would be bored to tears. What Harron and Turner do is strip the novel down to its essentials, and have made a cold, Kubrick-ian examination of Patrick Bateman – a pathetic shell of a man, who as he describes himself “I am simply not there”. And that, I think, is really what Easton Ellis doesn’t like about the movie – he wrote it, in part, about himself and the empty excess he wallowed in through the 1980s. He feels a strange sympathy for Bateman that Harron and Turner do not.

To Patrick Bateman everything in his life is a status symbol – something that he wants not because he really wants it – but because others will feel envy that he has it. The film’s opening scene, as Bateman and his equally vacuous friends engage in a game of one-upmanship by showing off their new business cards, obsessing over the smallest details (“That’s bone. And the lettering is something called Silian Rail”) of their cards (which all look the same to me) is chilling in its emptiness. Bateman’s first crisis in the film comes in this scene, when he sees Paul Allen’s card (“Look at that subtle off-white coloring. The tasteful thickness of it. Oh, my God. It even has a watermark.”). His brand new card is now useless – a status symbol that is now all but meaningless because someone else has something better.

It’s like this with everything in Bateman’s life. He walks us through his morning routine – showering, crunches, the different gels and creams he uses on his hair and face, the meticulously tailored suits he wears. His body is as much a status symbol as everything else he owns – which makes the running joke through the movie that everyone gets everyone else mixed up. Two people insult Bateman to his face, while thinking he is someone else entirely. The all work on Wall Street – presumably in “Mergers and Acquisitions” – but we never see them do any work. When we do see Bateman in the office, he’s usually listening to music, watching to TV, or lying on his couch. One of the last straws that eventually seals Paul Allen’s fate – Bateman will murder him with an ax while discussing Huey Lewis and the News – is that he got an account that everyone wanted? Why? Because it’s yet another status symbol – and after the business card, and Allen’s ability to get a table at the hottest restaurant in town, that laughs at Bateman when he tries to make a reservation – that’s three times Allen has upstaged Bateman – so he has to be eliminated – even if he doesn’t even realize who Bateman is when he’s talking to him.

Christian Bale gives what is still probably his best performance to date as Patrick Bateman. It’s an over the top performance to be sure, but how else could someone play this character? He is great when he dons his “mask of sanity” with the other brokers – even though there scenes together show them all to be horrible people, with Bateman no worse than the rest of them. They can do whatever they want, and because they are white, male and rich, no one will ever punish them for it. They view women as interchangeable objects – or as one person describes them “someone to satisfy all their sexual needs, without being too slutty about it”. Bateman is cheating on his fiancé, Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon) with her best friend Courtney (Samantha Mathis), which is okay because she’s cheating on him with one of his friends. These people are all interchangeable and don’t connect on any real level (no one seems to notice Courtney’s rather alarming drug problem). He’s perhaps even better when that mask of sanity slips, and he goes on his blood soaked rampages. At least then, Bateman is showing some recognizable human emotion, even if it is all ugliness. He believes the world sees him as powerful, confident and in control – but one of the best moments in the movie is when he hires two prostitutes, and starts giving them orders, and the pair exchange eye rolls with each other. He’s just another rich asshole – although at the time they don’t realize how big of an asshole he can be. They will though. The infamous sex scene in the movie – that had to be trimmed for release in America – is one of the most un-erotic in cinema history. Harron’s doesn’t really view this sex as pleasurable- he doesn’t eroticize their bodies – and the camera seems almost to be mocking Bateman as he points to it during the session.

As the movie progresses, Bateman becomes more and more unglued – as he goes further and further with his violence. The only time he shows any compassion at all is while on a date in his apartment with his assistant Jean (Chloe Sevigny), who he warns away because he knows if she stays there any longer he won’t be able to keep himself from killing her. The movie grows surreal in its final act – an ATM machine asks Bateman to feed it a cat, a police chase is partly derailed when a single shot from Bateman’s gun causes a police car to explode. A visit to Paul Allen’s, which when he left it last time was a bloody, grisly murder scene, is now spotless with a real estate agent telling Bateman to leave – and not to come back. This has led some to speculate as to whether everything we’ve seen is in his head or not. For his part, Easton Ellis says he doesn’t know if Bateman really killed anyone or not. Harron and Turner both think he did, and view the ambiguity of their movie as one of its failings. Personally, I don’t think it really matters if he did it or not – and everyone is entitled to their own opinion (regardless of what Harron and Turner think, there is enough evidence to support both theories – and once filmmakers are done with their film, it belongs to the audience, who can judge it as they see fit, regardless of their makers intentions). It’s chilling either way.

American Psycho is more than anything a portrait of a culture that views wealth and status above everything else. It is a poisonous look at the Reagan-80s, but one that remains relevant to this day (just like the fact that The Wolf of Wall Street takes place in the early 1990s doesn’t diminish its relevance in 2014). Bateman is a symptom of this culture. American Psycho is the perfect name for movie. I’m not sure another culture could produce a Patrick Bateman.

The Films of Lynne Ramsay: Swimmer (2012)

Swimmer (2012)
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay.
Starring: Tom Litten (The Swimmer).

Swimmer is a very odd short film by Lynne Ramsay – and it’s even odder considering it was commissioned by the BBC and London Olympic Committee to celebrate the 2012 summer games in London. It is a film about a lone swimmer going across the rivers and lakes in Britain, as some patriotic British music plays in the background. We also get snippets of dialogue and music from British films – like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and the theme from Peter Brook’s Lord of the Flies. The film is shot in stark, beautiful black and white – as the young man cuts through the water. But the film becomes darker as it goes along – children appear on the banks – they very well could have stepped out Lord of the Flies –and while the swimmer eventually gets out of the water, he also returns to it, and sinks underneath – not unlike the protagonist of Ramsay’s first feature Ratcatcher – who dies either a literal or metaphorical death at the end.

The film appears to be a dream that turns into a nightmare – and like all of Ramsay’s films, it remains ambiguous as to its meanings. This is perhaps the only film of Ramsay’s that I don’t really know what to make of it. It’s a haunting a beautiful film – you can see why it was acclaimed (it won the BAFTA for best short film in 2012) and yet its point remains shrouded in mystery. For a promotion film for the Olympics, the film seems almost impossibly dark. While it starts out somewhat romanticizing the dedication of the athlete, who puts everyone and everything outside himself when he’s swimming, it ends in a very dark place about what that actually means. I cannot help but wonder what the London Olympic Committee made of the film they helped pay for.

Whatever Swimmer ultimately means – and even more than Ramsay’s other films, all of which leave it up to the viewer to decide this one remains ambiguous. But damn it if it isn’t haunting and beautiful jus the same. I may not be able to describe the film adequately – but I won’t soon forget it either.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Tale of Tales (1979)

Tale of Tales (1979)
Directed by: Yuriy Norshteyn.
Written by: Lyudmila Petrushevskaya & Yuriy Norshteyn.

Yuriy Norshteyn’s Tale of Tales has twice been named the best animated film of all time by international juries – once in 1984 at the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival and once in 2002 at the Zagreb World Festival of Animated Films, yet I wonder how many people – especially outside of Russia where the film was made – having actually seen Yuriy Norshteyn’s 30 minute masterpiece. Like many Soviet filmmakers of his generation, Norshteyn ran into trouble with the authorities, who didn’t much like his films. Add this to the general basis in North America that animation is only for kids, and the bias against non-feature length films and it’s a bit of a wonder that anyone has seen Tale of Tales at all. But it should be seen – especially by those who love animation for adults.

Often compared to Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (it may be controversial for me to say this, but I much prefer this to The Mirror), Tale of Tales is a film about memories more than anything else. It has no narration, and very little dialogue, and tells a fractured, non-linear story. Some will say the film is crudely animated, and yet the images have a beauty to them all their own.

The film plays a like a dream – perhaps the dream of the baby we see early in the film, who is being sung a lullaby by his mother, as he suckles. A little grey wolf (perhaps he is the dreamer) acts as our guide through the layers of memory the movie goes through – each with its own visual look. Norshteyn flips the role normally ascribed to a wolf in fairy tales – he is not the big, bad wolf here, but a curious, sympathetic observer, who is trying to understand the lives he observes. At one point, he makes off with the baby and brings him to a bassinette in the woods. But he isn’t doing this to be cruel, he rocks the baby to sleep, singing the same lullaby his mother sang him early, as he peers at the baby, closer and closer, until he scares the baby and makes it start screaming – which makes the wolf rock the cradle harder to try and get it to sleep.

There are other scenes. A wistful scene of a child jumping rope with a bull spinning the rope (although the bull likes to take his turn as well), where the animation is so faint it’s appears to be in danger of disappearing altogether. These scenes seem to be the happy nostalgia we ascribe to our childhood – the family here seems to be happy and cohesive. Not so in another segment – with brighter colors, where a little boy tries to feed crows in a snowy wonderland, as his miserable parents sit on a bench below and argue as the father drinks from a vodka bottle. In the saddest scene in the film, Norshteyn shows the huge losses Russia suffered during WWII in a remarkable way – couple dancing the tango, and every time the record skips, another man disappears, and the woman is seen dancing in circles alone – until all the women are alone, and then men are scene as ghostly soldiers, still marching in formation.

If one so wanted to, you could probably ascribe different meanings to each of the films segments, and come up with how they all come together. But I don’t think that’s really necessary – and is perhaps besides the point. Tale of Tales is a movie about memories, that itself plays like memories – jumping for one scene to the next, and back again, much like our mind does. Can I explain all of Tale of Tales? No. Do I want to? No. The film weaves a spell all of its own, evoking memories and feelings in the viewer that are impossible to explain. Is Tale of Tales the best animated film of all time, as some have claimed? Not to me - I would probably pick something by Miyazaki. But does it really matter that much? Tale of Tales should be seen by anyone who values animation as more than just kids’ stuff – but the art form it truly is.

The Films of Lynne Ramsay: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

We Need to Talk Above Kevin (2011)
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay.
Written by: Lynne Ramsay & Rory Kinnear based on the novel by Lionel Shriver.
Starring: Tilda Swinton (Eva Khatchadourian), John C. Reilly (Franklin), Ezra Miller (Kevin, Teenager), Jasper Newell (Kevin, 6-8 Years), Rock Duer (Kevin, Toddler), Ashley Gerasimovich (Celia), Siobhan Fallon (Wanda), Alex Manette (Colin), Kenneth Franklin (Soweto).

Some people were just never meant to be parents. That’s the uncomfortable reality that Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin confronts in what could be described as a horror film. The film takes place entirely within the mind of its central character, Eva (Tilda Swinton) who is looking back over her life with her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) and her son Kevin (played at various ages by Rock Duer, Jasper Newell and most memorably Ezra Miller). Kevin becomes a monster – someone who commits one of those all too frequent mass killings at his high school – but what made him that way? In Eva’s mind, he was simply born an awful little kid – one who screamed constantly as a baby, wouldn’t talk for longer than normal, ignored her, bullied her, deliberately refused to potty train, and who exists simply to destroy her. Some people have complained that Kevin in this movie is basically a devil spawn – like Damien from The Omen – but it’s important to remember that the movie locks us into Eva’s perception of the events from the beginning. Every kid cries and throws tantrums (I say this as someone who has a nightly battle with a two and half year old, who at first refuses to get in the bath, and then refuses to get out), every kid seems to can be disobedient and frustrating, and every kid can look at their parents with the same look of anger or disgust (normally my daughter looks at me with nothing but love – but she does have what me and my wife have dubbed her “Jack Nicholson in The Shining look”). Kevin becomes a monster during the course of We Need to Talk About Kevin – but how much is because he was born that way, and how much is because he had a mother who quite clearly from the beginning of his life doesn’t bond with him, doesn’t like him and wishes she could go back to her old life before he came along. I’ve read Lionel Shriver’s brilliant novel twice now – once before I became a parent, once after – and seen Ramsay’s equally brilliant movie more times than that – and I still don’t know the answer. That’s because neither the book nor the movie really seek to answer it – they’re just asking the question.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of the best book to screen adaptations I have ever seen – and what makes that all the more impressive is how Ramsay captures the themes of the movie without resorting to the voice over narration that was implied in Shriver’s novel. Both the novel and the book are locked into Eva’s perception of events, not the events themselves, but how she remembers them – but Ramsay achieves this in a cinematic, rather than a literary, way – which is a more difficult trick to pull off. The movie is awash in red – fitting for a movie with so much violence – but very little of it is actually blood. One of the first scenes we see is Eva in what looks like a blood orgy – but is really a tomato festival in Italy, where the participants throw tomatoes at each other, and become drenched in them. Later, after the events in the high school, Eva will run away from someone she recognizes in the supermarket – and hide down an aisle in front of a shelf full of tomato soup. The freedom that the tomatoes festival represented is now gone – canned and shelved. Another recurring scene in the movie is Eva scrubbing down her house from the blood red paint that has been thrown on it – soaking her in more red. Eva is a character who went from free to a hollow, husk of person – someone who is punishing herself for her own failings.

Swinton is the perfect actress to play Eva. Her look is more exotic, almost otherworldly, so right from the beginning, she doesn’t quite fit into our idea of a suburban mother. She doesn’t belong there – and she knows it. Their perfect suburban house is too perfect – so neat and tidy it looks like a model home instead of one where people actually live. Her husband, Franklin (Reilly), wants to believe that his is a picture perfect family – while Eva sees everything Kevin does as a sign of his evil, Franklin refuses to see anything wrong with his son at all. His is what Swinton in an interview called “Hey buddy” parenting style – never addressing the real concern, and almost willfully ignoring it. The title of the movie is apt because this couple really does need to talk about Kevin – which is something they never really do. They ignore him, offer him superficial parenting that differs radically from each other in every way except that in both cases it’s fake – and Kevin senses this. It’s possible to watch the movie, where Kevin seems to be an evil little shit for almost its entire runtime, and still feel sympathy for him. Growing up in this house couldn’t have been easy.

Swinton is remarkable in this role – its perhaps the greatest performance of a career full of them. Like Samantha Morton in Movern Callar, it’s a performance that is largely wordless – or at least the best parts of it are. The film lets us inside of her head, to see through her eyes. She has an idealized vision of her life with Franklin before Kevin – represented by repeatedly returning to a rain soaked New York street that is impossibly romantic. There are other idealized visions in the film – the way she looks at Franklin and their daughter Celie dancing for example. She film is about her journey from that place, to the broken women we see after Kevin does what he does – a woman alone, in her dilapidated house, working for a low rent travel agency, and seemingly barely existing at all. Kevin forces her to confront her own failings – and she begins to see herself in him. Ramsay draws these parallels visually – the casting of Ezra Miller is great, not just because of who great he is, but because she shares the same androgynous features that Swinton has. In a scene where the pair go mini-golfing and Swinton complains about “fat people” Kevin tells her she can be “kinda harsh sometimes” to which she says “You’re one to talk”. “Yeah, I am. Where do you think I get it from”. Kevin is not much like Franklin – he’s able to put on an act to fool him – but his view of humanity is miserable, and so is Eva’s. I’m not sure Eva realizes that until Kevin forces her to.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a remarkable film by Ramsay – that grows the more times I see it. Unfortunately, the film was underrated when it came out just a few years ago, but I think it’s one that is eventually going to recognized as the masterwork it is. It’s Ramsay’s best film to date. I just hope she gets to make more like it soon.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Films of Lynne Ramsay: Movern Callar (2002)

Movern Callar (2002)
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay.
Written by: Liana Dognini & Lynne Ramsay based on a novel by Alan Warner.
Starring: Samantha Morton (Morvern Callar), Kathleen McDermott (Lanna).

Movern Callar was critically acclaimed on the festival circuit in 2002, and during its release the following year – and yet I think its reputation has grown even more in the last decade or so – it’s even made the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 acclaimed films of the 21st Century. That makes sense, as Movern Callar is one of those movies that grows in your mind after seeing it. I remember walking out of the film in 2003 confused and a little frustrated by the film. Who was Movern Callar? Why does she never let the audience into her as she does what she does in the film? And yet, the film haunted me – so much so that even though I had not seen the film since until starting this series, it remained remarkably clear in my mind. It is stunning film in a lot of ways – not least because of Samantha Morton’s brilliant performance in the title role. The film gets deeper the more I think about it – I doubt I’ll go another decade before revisiting it again.

The first scene of Movern Callar has her waking up, and finding her boyfriend dead on the floor, his blood pooling, after a suicide. He leaves her a note on the computer – telling her he loves her, but she couldn’t understand why he did what he did. The note also includes instructions for submitting his just completed novel. Movern ignores the body, and the note, for a while and heads out into the night and rides the subway. Eventually, she’ll get together with her best friend – Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) and go out clubbing, eventually ending up at a party, and sex with some anonymous strangers, before Movern and Lanna walk home the next morning – and Movern confesses that her boyfriend is “gone”. She doesn’t say where or how – just that he’s gone. Eventually, she will change the name on her boyfriend’s novel and submits it under her own name. When she can no longer ignore the body on the floor, she takes a saw to it – while listening to the mix tape her boyfriend left for her as a Christmas present – and disposes of it. She uses the money in her boyfriend’s account that he left for his funeral to pay for a holiday to Spain for her and Lanna – which results in more clubbing, more partying, more anonymous sex – before the pair head out into the middle of nowhere and get lost. The publisher calls and offers Movern a generous deal for “her” novel.

That’s the plot of the movie in a nutshell – although the movie doesn’t seem all that interested in plot – certainly not in any sort of linear point a to point b way. Based on that description, you may well think Movern is a sociopath – someone who is unfeeling and doesn’t care for her boyfriend at all. That she is, above all, a selfish monster. Yet, that’s not how the movie plays at all. Much of this is due to Samantha Morton’s brilliant performance as Movern. Morton has one of the more expressive faces in movies – it served her well as the mute love interest in Woody Allen’s Sweet & Lowdown as well as one of the floating psychics in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. Here you study her face for some sort of insight into why she does what she does – but it never really comes. Like Ramsay’s previous film, Ratcatcher, if you are expecting a scene where the main character breaks down and finally explains her actions, you’re going to be disappointed. No one ever finds out what Movern did – and the film never explains why she did it. In his review, Roger Ebert speculates that her motivations are based on class – the boyfriend is obviously fairly well off given the apartment they share, and yet Movern still works at the supermarket. The note he leaves her is rather condensing. In Ebert’s view, this was a fairly new relationship, and Movern does what she does to take care of herself. That’s as good of an explanation as any, but doesn’t fully explain everything. There does seem to be an element of class to Movern – she and Lanna seem used to having no money, and the trip to Spain floors Lanna with its extravagance even though the resort the go to is kind a dump. If her boyfriend killed himself, he doesn’t need the money he left behind – or the money his novel would bring. But Movern does. Still, though, I do think there is something deeper behind Movern’s motivations. Her slow break from Lanna – who is seemingly content to continue to revel in their hedonist lifestyle forever, whereas Movern seems to want to go and search for something “more” – starts when Lanna confesses that she once slept with Movern’s boyfriend. Their last scene together, where Movern tells Lanna she’s “going back” to Spain, and invites Lanna along again to which Lanna replies that she’s “happy here” and that Movern should be as well as stop looking for “something more” seals their breakup. Movern is in some bizarre sort of mourning – one that she lets no one else in on. Morton’s performance is mesmerizing simply because it never quite lets us inside. Her face has a haunted look to it though, one that suggests deep pain while at the same time appearing perfectly normal to someone not paying attention. I’m not quite sure how Morton did this, but it is a brilliant piece of screen acting.

The film is a bold, stylistic step forward for Ramsay as well. She has always made films from one characters point of view – from her shorts, to Ratcatcher and on to We Need to Talk About Kevin – and here she does the same basic thing for Movern, except her interior world remains closed off from us. A decade ago when I saw the film I was confused and frustrated – and I expect many viewers still would be. They want closure, they want an answer to all the questions Movern Callar raises, as a movie, and as a character, and Ramsay’s film and Morton’s performance don’t give us that. I found that frustrating 11 years ago, but find it oddly exhilarating now. Any answers Ramsay could give would seem disappointing compared to what we read into Movern as we watch the film. I didn’t think that much of Movern Callar 11 years ago. I love it now.