Tuesday, December 10, 2013
I've spent more time reading about ultra low-budget auteur Joe Swanberg than I have watching his movies, so I don't know if Drinking Buddies is his best work but I'm pretty sure it's the closest he has come to a mainstream relationship film. Luke (Jake Johnson) and Kate (Olivia Wilde) work together at a Chicago brewery and are frequent hangout buddies over after-work beers, but both are in other relationships. Luke loves long term girlfriend Jill (Anna Kendrick) while Kate is reaching a transition point with the more restrained Chris (Ron Livingston). Fault lines are revealed when the couples take a weekend at Chris's cabin in Michigan but Swanberg never pushes the melodrama or forces our reaction. Wilde is the revelation here, playing a woman who doesn't even understand her own need for connection. The conclusion is refreshingly low-key and open ended and while I admire Swanberg's devotion to the Luke-Kate relationship I wanted more of the marriage-ready Jill, whose last scene hints at an intensity that the movie doesn't have enough time for. There's a shot of Johnson and Kendrick together on the deleted scenes that's like something out of Cassavetes. Swanberg wrote an outline but had his actors improvise their dialogue, there are a few slow moments but the tensions in each scene are nicely articulated. I don't know what Swanberg has planned for the next act of his career, but Drinking Buddies proves that his small-scale style can work on a bigger stage.
Monday, December 09, 2013
Keep The Lights On, directed and co-written by Ira Sachs, is drawn from the director’s long-term and now concluded relationship with a man fighting a drug addiction. The stand-in for Sachs here is Erik (Thure Lindhardt) , a Danish filmmaker working in New York who in 1998 spends an evening with an publishing house attorney named Paul (Zachary Booth). Paul has a girlfriend when he first meets Erik, but she’s soon out of the picture as the men’s relationship deepens and they move in together. The movie, with a few time jumps, follows the tumultuous relationship until 2006, with the tumult being caused primarily by Paul’s drug use and his habit of disappearing for long stretches. Erik, outwardly confident but upset by Paul’s inconsistency, must finally decide if the relationship is worth the stress.
A description of the plot doesn’t do justice to the success of Keep The Lights On, a film full of memory of nuance. Sachs has a way with details and moods, from the play of light on a New York street to the way that a drive outside the city can feel like skipping school. The film takes place in a series of apartments, art galleries, restaurants, and all the places a downtown life might unfold. There’s a wonderful lazy Sunday quality to the happiest moments, and so when things go bad it’s all the worse for Erik since the couple’s cozy life offers few options for escape. I had never heard of Thure Lindhardt before I saw his performance as Erik, but it’s a performance that will serve as a fine calling card for future work. We’re told Erik comes from money but don’t get many details; he’s determined to make his own name yet money is never an issue. Sachs’s script (co-written with Mauricio Zacharias) is very good about the ways that being a caretaker can grind on you. No matter what success Erik enjoys (a documentary he makes wins a film festival award), his worry that Paul is slipping into trouble overwhelms his life. Lindhardt gets this conflict and turns in a performance of great sensitivity. Zachary Booth is off screen for stretches but is equally good and never overplays Paul’s addiction. We worry about Paul the last time we seem him, just like Erik he’s a picture of confidence masking inner troubles. I don’t know anything about how Sachs works, but there is plenty of credit to go around between him, Lindhardt, and Booth for these lived-in., utterly convincing characters.
There is another strand to Keep The Lights On worth discussing, one that connects it to its audience and its city and other filmmakers and artists here and yet to come. The documentary Erik is working on is about Avery Willard, a gay photographer and filmmaker, and Sachs uses the theme of an earlier New York gay life as a background to his characters’ struggles. Of course Erik and Paul have straight friends (including Julianne Nicholson as a woman interested in Erik fathering her child), but they often seem to exist in a sort of self-selecting world that in Sachs’s vision has existed and will continue to do so as people pass through it. Erik interviews Willard’s contemporaries for his documentary, and they bring their own memories of how their friend carried the fire of what was then an illicit subculture. Late in the film Erik enjoys a flirtation with a younger man (Miguel del Toro) who is still flitting from relationship to relationship, excited by the possibility of what’s to come. Erik and Paul are searching for their own places on this continuum, and as they end the film in transition Sachs gives us an appropriate Arthur Russell lyric to focus on: “Every step is moving me up.” I would describe Keep The Lights On as a Gay Human Drama, with equal emphasis on both of those adjectives. Ira Sachs knows where we’ve been and wants to find out where we’re going.
Sunday, December 08, 2013
It's funny how things connect. The late cellist/vocalist Russell figured in this nonfiction book I read recently about the music scene in 1970's New York City. His music pops up in Ira Sachs' excellent Keep The Lights On, a very New York-centric film that I hope to write more about soon.
Saturday, December 07, 2013
Philomena isn’t the film we’ve been led to believe it is. The marketing suggests a warm and affirming Oscar vehicle for Judi Dench, but in fact there is something both darker and richer on display. The fact-based Philomena is on one level a story of great anger and surprising political bite, but also that rare film where words like “guilt” and “forgiveness” carry real weight. Judi Dench plays Philomena, a retired Irish nurse whom we find thinking of the son she was forced to give up almost 50 years before. Philomena’s son Anthony was the product of a chance encounter, and because of her status as a single mother the young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) was forced to raise him under the “care” of nuns while she worked in a laundry and only saw her son for an hour a day. The flashback of Philomena’s girlhood (and Anthony’s adoption by an American couple) is filmed by director Stephen Frears with the haziness of a bad dream that Philomena is still having half a century later. It isn’t until she crosses paths with journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) that Philomena is able to take action and learn what happened to Anthony. It is because of Sixsmith (whose book on the case is the basis for the film) and Coogan (who produced and co-wrote the screenplay) that we know about Philomena, and Coogan as both writer and actor more than does his part to honor her story. When we meet Sixsmith he has just been fired from a government post after a gaffe and he regards taking on Philomena’s “human interest” story with apprehension for the way it might changed how he’ll be perceived. Coogan plays him by shedding his own comic persona, and I liked how Martin’s anger at what he uncovers about Irish society is gradually muted by his appreciation for the way Philomena simply wants to know what happened.
It takes a trip to America before Philomena and Martin learn what has become of Anthony, who was renamed Michael by his adoptive parents. The most surprising and necessary choice made by the makers of Philomena was to not make their main character a woman ahead of her time. Though Philomena (who went on to marry and have another child) is unfazed by most of human behavior thanks to her years a nurse, there is a degree to which she blames herself for losing Anthony that will seem alien to most of the American audience for this film. There are only a few moments of outright comedy here, as when Philomena ponders watching Big Momma’s House or piles on the croutons at a salad bar. Judi Dench’s excellent performance gets at the darkness that Philomena carries with her. A scene where Philomena lectures Martin about how to treat hotel staff comes from a belief that any of us could be punished at any time for the choices we make now. Dench burrows deep into herself to play this part, and it’s a performance that’s a substantial distance removed from the steely Englishness we’ve come to expect from her in year-end movies. While it might have been my choice to make a film that more squarely hit the Irish Catholic Church for the systemic use of single mothers as indentured servants and income generators, I couldn’t help but be moved by Philomena’s truly Christian reaction when she confronts the nun (Barbara Jefford) who prevented her reunion with Michael. There is a running argument about God and religion throughout Philomena, but in the end one faithful woman is able to transcend the institution that changed her life. Philomena forgives the Church, and more importantly forgives herself.
Tuesday, December 03, 2013
Great piece by Molly Haskell on Nashville, with particular attention to the contributions of writer Joan Tewkesbury.
Because of Altman’s way of working, of absorbing other people’s contributions into his own artistic pageantry, we may never be able to fully appreciate what Tewkesbury brought to the table. She was especially interested in the women and their conflicted ambitions (she herself had left her husband and child behind to work with Altman, first as script girl on 1971’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller). With a background in theater and dance that began with a stage mother, she had performed with, directed, and hung out with actors for most of her life—which served her well as a writer. She understood the symbiotic relationship between stars and the backup men and women who support and manage their careers. And from her perceptive take on the musicians she’d come to spy on, she grasped the particular fragility of women country singers, trying to keep their dignity in a world run by men. One can see her sympathetic hand in the breathtaking balance between defiance and humiliation maintained in the striptease performed by Welles’s Sueleen, and in the ferocious power duel between Blakley’s Barbara Jean and her husband-manager, played by Allen Garfield. Tewkesbury would step in when things got too sticky or one-sided and, working with the women, gently nudge the dialogue, the emotion of the scene, toward a more expansive sense of the women’s point of view.
Sunday, December 01, 2013
An acoustic performance from 2001. For Kristin's more recent activity, check out this NYT review of Throwing Muses new Purgatory/Paradise as well as this short chat with Rolling Stone.
Saturday, November 30, 2013
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire brings up the question of how one writes critically about a film that had to be made. When I say “had to be made” I mean not made out of creativity or passion but rather as the fulfillment of obligations, both to the fans of Suzanne Collins’s trilogy of novels and to those who benefited from the success of the first Hunger Games film. The arrival of Catching Fire then allows balance sheets to be completed and the arcs of various careers to proceed in their course. It’s an awfully cynical attitude to go into a review with, but perhaps it’s best to just acknowledge and move on. Catching Fire finds Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) just as she embarks on her Hunger Games victory tour alongside co-champion Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Katniss and Peeta both have new homes in the “Victors Village” of District 12, but life in the District hasn’t improved for the other residents. (The victor’s house occupied by Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch looks like the stuff of Don Draper’s nightmares.) The film’s central concern is the degree to which Katniss, whose subversion of the Hunger Games during her win has placed her in opposition to the government, can play along with President Snow (Donald Sutherland in fine, oily form) and convince the public that her behavior during the Games was only motivated by love for Peeta. The victory tour goes badly wrong and leads to more violence. At Snow’s direction Katniss and Peeta are thrust into the “Quarter Quell”, an every 25th year special version of the Hunger Games, and forced to fight for their lives against fellow former winners.
Francis Lawrence takes over the director’s chair from Gary Ross but keeps up the overarching vision of a world where it always looks like winter. Catching Fire works well enough as an action movie; the Quarter Quell itself is a tense chase through a jungle arena manufactured by game maker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) . The group of former winners is filled out by a strong cast that includes Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, a touching Lynn Cohen, and Jena Malone as a politically savvy foil for Katniss. What Catching Fire isn’t is an interesting love story. Neither Peeta nor Gale (Liam Hemsworth) can offer Katniss much more than a kind of all-purpose adoration, and I’m not even sure that Collins is really interested in which one wins her heart. Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t break any new ground as Katniss but of course she doesn’t have to. Lawrence plays Katniss as a mirror of the movie’s emotions; she’s believably tough when it’s called for and displays an impressive amount of fright when the terrors of the Games begin to mount. What Katniss isn’t though is a politically engaged person, and the film repeats what I thought was a problem with the novel. Katniss is repeatedly confronted with signs of a changing political climate; there’s the quiet subversion in the behavior of Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) on her support staff and the brutal repression on display when Gale is flogged by a District 12 functionary. There are also multiple scenes where Katniss watches footage of riots on television, but it’s never made clear that she understands the scope of the situation or her own value as a symbol of hope. The film and the novel present Katniss’s political awakening as a “plot twist” but by the time it happens we’re already way ahead of her. There are one novel (that I haven't read) and two films left in the Hunger Games, and while I look forward to seeing how the series broadens the point of view of its heroine I just wish that the process had begun a little sooner.