Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Most Wanted Man

It turns out that we need A Most Wanted Man very much. I haven't read the John LeCarre novel on which Anton Corbijn's new film is based, but I'm guessing we have Corbijn to thank for bringing LeCarre's critique of post-9/11 intelligence practices to a wider audience. Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a marvelous sad-sack performance) is an intelligence officer of the old school, one who values human resources above all else and views ideology as a nuisance at best. Gunther and team work a network of sources in Hamburg to fight Islamic terrorism, and Gunther has come to believe a prominent liberal Muslim named Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) may be channeling money to Al Qaeda. Gunther wants to turn Abdullah against bigger targets, but first he must unravel the case of Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) and an inheritance that can be used as bait. Gunther's rival Mohr (Rainer Bock) and the CIA officer Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) favor a more blunt approach to anti-terrorism, it's implied that Issa and Abdullah will simply be captured and taken out of play, and at heart A Most Wanted Man (adapted by Andrew Bovell) is a dialogue between two ways of answering the question of what to do about radical Islam.

The Hamburg of A Most Wanted Man is a stew of religious and ethnic differences, and the sterile rooms in which Gunther defends his tactics feel very far removed from the streets where he meets informants and surveils a lawyer (Rachel McAdams) and a banker (Willem Dafoe) connected to Issa's money. Corbijn is superb at cutting between conversations, surveillance vans, and agents watching from different angles, and while the film is heavily detailed it's also neither slow (save for a brief pass at intimacy between Issa and McAdams' lawyer) nor confusing. At the center of it all is Hoffman, and of course it's impossible to watch A Most Wanted Man without thinking about Hoffman's death. The fact that Gunther isn't a healthy man - far too many drinks, smokes, and too much bad food - is difficult to separate from what we know about the end of Hoffman's life, but there is much in the performance to call attention to on the merits. Late in the film Gunther must win approval from a government minister for his plan to catch and turn Abdullah, and Gunther mentions "making the world a safer place" (a phrase Wright's CIA officer had used earlier) as a motivation. Corbijn holds the camera on Gunther for a moment after the line, and Hoffman gives a tiny, brilliant take that reveals the character is disgusted and amused in equal measure at what's required to do his job. It's a small moment but also a great piece of screen acting, and it's the way I want to remember this actor. A Most Wanted Man creates a fully realized post-9/11 world in all it's complexity, and that is the reason I used the word "need" in the first sentence of this review. Put another way, this isn't a film about how spies behave but rather one about how humans behave.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Maps To The Stars trailer

Here's the trailer for David Cronenberg's Maps To The Stars, which just won Julianne Moore a Best Actress prize at Cannes.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive is what happens when Jim Jarmusch, the best living example of what it means to be "independent" in American cinema, comes to the vampire genre. If you are familiar with Jarmusch's career then you won't be surprised to learn that here he is as disinterested in structure and narrative expectations as he has ever been, instead there is a broader set of concerns that feel like a summing up of something the director has been trying to say for some time. Only Lovers Left Alive is a film about culture and why it matters, and why in a way the world needs snobs in order to keep on moving.

 A vampire movie needs some rules, and I'd be curious to know whether Jarmusch viewed the world-building aspects of writing this script as a chore or a challenge. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) lives as a recluse in what looks like a nearly empty Detroit, where he sleeps by day and composes experimental drone music by night. Neither Adam nor the other older vampires we meet pursue humans; they view bites on the neck as a sign of bad manners. Adam gets his blood from a friendly doctor (Jeffrey Wright) and consumes it in something that you or I might use to drink sherry. It's not clear why Adam's wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) is in Tangiers, other than the great blood supplied by Christopher Marlowe (yes that Marlowe, played by John Hurt), but she soon joins Adam in Detroit and thinks his new music is his best work yet. Adam's music is essentially artisanal, a "zombie" (human) associate (Anton Yelchin) sells unlabeled 180-gram vinyl to hipsters in clubs in the same way that people in Brooklyn might buy cheese or bread. Adam abhors conventional fame but wants to get his music heard, and it's that conflict that Jarmusch is interested in. The wall of fame in Adam's house contains pictures of Thelonious Monk, William Burroughs, Neil Young, and others who are legends for their work as opposed to their personality. We're told that Adam gave Schubert an adagio and that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare's plays, and since the vampires aren't going anywhere they'd like to see their work hang around too. Jim Jarmusch is dry and self-deprecating in interviews and those Criterion Q&A things, and I certainly don't think he's claiming a spot for himself in the cultural pantheon but rather asserting the importance of having a canon. Only Lovers Left Alive is a slow (not boring) film about creatures who live forever, and the music and art they need to keep on going.

 What "plot" there is comes with the arrival of Eve's sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), a vampire from L.A. (Adam: "Zombie Central") who isn't averse to mingling with or biting humans on her way. Ava's behavior pushes Adam and Eve towards an ending I'm still thinking about, one that pushes them back into the world in order to survive and which suggests that Adam may not have time to compose music for awhile. Art isn't made in a vacuum, and what Adam doesn't get is that the personal or societal obstacles faced by the artists on his wall helped shape the work they did. Jim Jarmusch has privileged his independence over a certain level of fame, and I doubt he regrets the choice except maybe for the fact he can't make films as fast he'd like to. Jarmusch may not wind up on the same tier of cinematic regard as his own heroes, but he has done what Adam tells Marlowe is the key: Get the work out there.

Saturday, May 10, 2014


 Neighbors has a real idea at its center, that being a grownup with a house and a family is as scary in its own way as the transition from college to adulthood. Director Nicholas Stoller executes this idea just well enough to keep the movie from being a disposable pleasure, but if you’ve seen the trailer then you know that the jokes are the reason why we’re here. Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) are new parents settling into their first house when a fraternity moves in next door. Delta Psi president Teddy (Zac Efron) first promises to be considerate of his new neighbors and their child, but soon the music and the parties have Mac and Kelly plotting how to get the brothers kicked out. The script by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien is clever enough to make life at the frat house attractive to Mac and Kelly, even as they decide how ask Teddy the keep the noise down they’re worried about how to look cool. (Notice how often Mac says “dope”.) The frat parties prove irresistible; Rogen shows some physical comedy skills in a dance-off scene and Byrne (baby monitor clutched to one ear) plays Kelly as a woman craving a moment’s release from motherhood. Rose Byrne is the real star of Neighbors, the broad comic roles she has played in Bridesmaids and Get Him to the Greek aren’t anything on the very specific character she creates here. Byrne is more than a match for Rogen, who plays a version of his usual character and as usual sounds like he’s making up his lines. (That quality may be his greatest gift.) I’ve never thought much about Zac Efron as an actor, as opposed to a personality, but here there’s a fascinating blankness to Teddy that’s either a result or an unintended consequence of Efron’s ability. Teddy is just beginning to realize that he doesn’t get it, never more so than in a scene where he watches his best friend (Dave Franco) at a job fair. Our last sight of Teddy doesn’t allow for much of a future for the character, though it does argue for why Efron will have a career for a while longer.

Neighbors ends with a showdown at the Delta Psi year-end rager - the comic violence escalates throughout the movie - and with Mac and Kelly embracing the next chapter of their lives. As thick as the jokes fly, with a better than usual hit/miss ratio, the fact that not all the characters get off easily is the movie’s greatest asset. While immaturity has never been a bad bet as the subject of big studio comedies, Neighbors finds some bite and plenty of laughs in the struggles of growing up.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Touchy Feely

There's a spark missing from Lynn Shelton's Touchy Feely, a sense of what animated a film in which appealing characters fall through each other lives for reasons that the director never seems to fully engage with. Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt, who worked with Shelton in this) is a Seattle massage therapist on the brink of moving in with boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy). Just as Abby begins to lose her desire to touch her patients and her boyfriend, her brother Paul's (the excellent Josh Pais) quiet dental practice takes off when Paul somehow acquires the ability to "cure" his patients' TMJ with a touch. The siblings' are headed in opposite directions as Paul's daughter Jenny (Ellen Page) nurses a crush on Jesse and debates whether to tell her Dad she wants to leave for college. I kept waiting for Abby and Paul's story to mean something, but Shelton can only give a nod to deeper spiritual thoughts in a brief performance by Allison Janney as a Reiki teacher. I'd watch DeWitt and Page in just about anything, but Shelton doesn't seem to know what to with Abby and resorts to writing her an (impressively shot) ecstasy trip. Ellen Page plays Jenny's conflict and unhappiness very well; if only the role had give her a chance to show some wit or more ambition. (Jenny wants to cook, but we barely see she can.) Josh Pais steals Touchy Feely as Paul, in a superb depiction of what happens when chance brings a middle-aged rut to an end. Pais and the other actors deserve better from the script. Lynn Shelton seems to have no trouble attracting talent - her next film stars Keira Knightley and Chloe Moretz - but next time out she needs to build a stronger framework for her talent.

Monday, May 05, 2014


Kevin Spacey opens up about "left turns" and coming back to the theater.
When I moved to London, there was a tremendous amount of "Oh, this movie actor is coming to do theater." There was a lot of criticism that followed that. A movie actor was going to tell them how to do theater. They could create headlines using my name that they couldn’t with any other artistic director. I remember saying to my staff…people were saying I should fight back and tell them what I was doing. And, I said, "Look. A) I’m not going to take the bait. B) Eventually, they’ll realize that I’m still showing up to work everyday. That’s my job. They’ll get over me. They’ll start judging us as a theatre company and it will no longer be about me." It’s a little bit like that. My job is to show up every day and be a company member. Now, I do believe that there is a leadership role. I was taught that by Jack Lemmon. You’re playing a leading role, it’s also a leadership role. You can be a part of leading an environment, creating a space. Maybe it will take people a couple days to get over that but it’s the same thing an audience experiences to. I was just reading this wonderful interview with Bryan Cranston about his playing LBJ on Broadway and young people are coming to the theatre for the first time because of "Breaking Bad." And his attitude is "I don’t care why they come. Our job is to get them in the seat." If for ten minutes is all they’re thinking is "Breaking Bad," if you’ve done your work, and, by every indication he fucking has, they start to accept him as Lyndon Baines Johnson. They start to accept this play. They go into this world. They believe it.