Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Way, Way Back

The Way, Way Back is an above average example of a familiar type of movie, one in which a teenager grows up and gets some adult perspective over the course of a summer. 14-year old Duncan (Liam James) isn't happy about spending the summer with his mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) at Trent's beach house. Casting Carell as a jerk was a smart choice by co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Oscar-winning writers of The Descendants. Trent insults Duncan's shyness in the opening scene, and we instantly feel like we don't know what's ahead. Faxon and Rash have cast their movie well; the presence of Carell, Collette, Amanda Peet (who wrote this), and especially Allison Janney as a drunken neighbor turns the beach house scenes into a sour, uncomfortable hell for Duncan. It isn't surprising that Duncan would want to escape, nor is it surprising that he would find a friend in Owen (Sam Rockwell), the garrulous, goofball manager of an aging nearby water park. I was waiting with some dread for the scene in which Owen turns out to be a disappointment, but Faxon and Rash sidestep this moment by making him a man acutely aware of his own flaws. (The always welcome Maya Rudolph plays the woman who wants to straighten Owen out.) The ways in which Duncan gains confidence (impromptu break dancing, sneaking off to a party at which he's forbidden to drink) are fresh and honest and his attraction to a local girl (AnnaSophia Robb) feels like the beginning of something rather than a screenwriter working out an old crush. The Way, Way Back sneaks up with its emotional honesty, and the final moment between Duncan and Pam is well-earned. This is a movie that will win you over.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sunday Music: Bob Marley - "Cornerstone"

I caught some of Kevin MacDonald's Marley on TV and was struck both by the simple beauty of this song and by its supposed genesis in Marley's rejection by a father he barley knew. See below for a clip from Marley.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

Thor: The Dark World must be considered in light of its place in Marvel Studios’ attempt to create an epic, interlocking series of films that involves both core characters like Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and lesser known heroes in films yet to come. This installment of Thor has a job to do then ; it must carry the macro-story forward while still developing the characters and situations introduced in Kenneth Branagh’s first Thor film. That The Dark World, directed by Alan Taylor, succeeds to a large degree should be considered a sign of the overall health of the Marvel project. The opening scenes find Thor bringing peace to the Nine Realms (locations like “Vanaheim” appear in titles on the screen) with the help of old friends like Sif (Jamie Alexander) and Volstagg (Ray Stevenson). A reluctant Thor is being groomed to become King of Asgard by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) while brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) languishes in prison because of his actions in The Avengers. In the unlikely event that The Dark World is your first stop in the Marvel Universe then you should know that Hiddleston’s Loki is looking like Marvel’s insurance policy, a character that can be hauled out at any point to make mischief. That certainly happens here, but only after a good deal of the story has already unfolded.

The central villain of Thor: The Dark World is called Malekith and played by an unrecognizable Christopher Eccleston. There’s a good deal of exposition around Malekith’s desire to use a substance called the “Aether” to bring darkness to the universe. The search for the Aether intersects with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her Earthbound friends Erik (Stellan Skarsgard) and Darcy (Kat Dennings, holding up the comic end well). Jane discovers a dimensional portal which leads to her merging with the Aether, a reunion with Thor, and an a race to stop Malekith from destroying everything. Though The Dark World lacks some of the charm of the first Thor it tells its story with great efficiency. The battle scenes aren’t overlong and Hemsworth is good at conveying just how much Thor’s efforts cost him. I wish that Malekith had been individualized a little more, he’s a little too close to the anonymous aliens of The Avengers, yet Eccleston layers on the menace skillfully and makes a little something out of the part. The rendering of Asgard has improved since the last film, but the people there are still far less fun than Jane and her crew. Only Idris Elba as the watchful Heimdall suggests depths beyond his function in the plot. I’ve no doubt that there are hidden things here that non-comic readers like me will miss; that didn’t affect my overall enjoyment of the film. Finally The Dark World is a bridge from one Marvel film to another, but if you’re already on the ride then it’s a bridge worth crossing.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Master class

The genius of Alfre Woodard. (Ebert)
Sitting on her porch with Solomon and the continually violated Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), Mistress Shaw smiles at them and presides over a kind of mad tea party. Mistress Shaw, as Woodard plays her, is maybe a little mad, but her madness could also be seen as will power. There's something deliberately absurd, or absurdist, about her, and she can afford this luxury because she has come to some conclusions about her place in the world and her debased milieu. McQueen has given Woodard what seems like the key line of his film, and she pronounces it with such airy authority that it has haunted my consciousness ever since I heard her say it. "The plague of the Pharaohs is but a poor sample of what awaits the plantation class," she says to Solomon, in a way that makes it seem like an open-and-shut case that barely touches the hem of her own private, locked-away consciousness. This line augurs earthly punishment for the American South, but Woodard suggests much more than that. Will there really be a judgment for human evildoing after death? I'm assuming you've given this idea some thought at one time or another. I’ve never been sure. But I’m slightly surer that there might be because of the smilingly certain way that Woodard says that line.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Doris Lessing

Nobel Prize winning novelist Doris Lessing died yesterday at age 94. This 1969 article by Roger Ebert reveals that Lessing had a healthy degree of skepticism about the world and the place of the novelist within it. (Photo by Ida Kar)
About her own work, Ms. Lessing is less expansive. "I keep on writing," she said. "I consider that professionalism. But I don't see the use of it sometimes. I really do believe there's no use. Sometime in the next few years it's all going to end. It will be the bomb, or bacterial warfare, or we'll simply foul our environment beyond help. We're too stupid to make the decisions we have to make, and so we'll commit suicide. Sometimes I think man is programmed to destroy himself. So writing novels is a useless occupation. I wonder if small groups of us—of mankind, that is—will survive here and there and be able to carry on. I wonder what the conditions of survival would be. You see, these are absolutely the most important questions but nobody cares about them."

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sunday Music: Ben Sidran - "Nardis"

I didn't know much about Sidran until I heard him on the WTF podcast, but this performance (Sidran's lyrics over the Miles Davis-written tune) would seem to be a good example of the jazz niche that he has carved out for himself. Sidran is obviously a smart man; the podcast is worth checking out and I'd like to read some of his interviews with other jazz musicians.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave is the film we have waiting for about slavery, and in an important way it is the film we deserve as well. We are used to screen stories about African-American life that follow arcs of hardship followed by easy uplift, or those that push well-meaning whites into the foreground while making supporting characters out of those who need their stories told the most. Director Steve McQueen, working from a rich screenplay by John Ridley that is itself a work of art, has refused to accept shopworn notions about the ways Americans are willing to look at their history on screen. McQueen’s hand is almost invisible here; we are not invited to feel empathy for and certainly not to pity the slave characters but rather simply to be with them and acknowledge both their humanity and the brutality of their captors. 12 Years a Slave is drawn from the memoir of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), which was published in 1853 after Northup had been freed from slavery. Once a free man with wife and children in New York, Northup is kidnapped after being tricked by two men (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam) who profess to admire his talent for the violin. Solomon is transported to New Orleans and becomes the property of Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a man with no real appetite for what slavery entails who comes to appreciate Solomon (mistaken for a Georgia runaway and renamed “Platt’) and his intelligence. After things go wrong at Ford’s Platt is sold to Epps (Michael Fassbender), a brutal master who owns him for the rest of years in slavery.

John Ridley’s script is clear-eyed about the mechanics of slavery in a way I don’t think we’ve ever seen before. It isn’t for nothing that McQueen includes shots of the boat churning away as it takes Solomon and others newly kidnapped south to be sold. There is also a stunning overhead shot of newly kidnapped slaves stuffed into the back of a wagon like the product they are. The auction at which Ford buys Solomon/Platt is conducted in the home of a middleman (Paul Giamatti) and would almost be funny for its dry gentility if it didn’t echo with the sounds of a mother pleading not to be separated from her children. There are multiple levels of control even at Ford’s plantation, a place presented as an outpost of relative civility. Platt runs afoul of a low-level white boss (Paul Dano in the film’s most shaky performance) and Ford can only sell Platt  to Epps because, as he tells Platt, “You’ve made a reputation for yourself.” Platt’s value as property is down, and not even Ford considers him in any other light. It is this sobriety about the way that the human economy of slavery sustained the culture that might be the most valuable gift of 12 Years a Slave. Ridley and McQueen don’t view slavery as an obstacle against which dignity must be maintained but rather as a systemic imposition on that dignity. The meagerness of the psychic comfort available to the slaves  - mostly singing, there’s no laughter even in their interactions with each other - is recognized and faced squarely.

When Platt arrives at the Epps plantation his already difficult life becomes even harder. There are daily whippings for those who can’t pick a consistent amount of cotton and Epps drags Platt and his other slaves into the middle of his tumultuous relationship with his wife. (Sarah Paulson). It is impossible to know how  to divide responsibility for the conception of the Epps character among McQueen, Fassbender, and Ridley, but it is with Epps that 12 Years a Slave loses some of its footing. Epps is a religious man saddled with what looks to us like a welter of  psychological problems from alcoholism to manic fits, and these are compounded by his erotic fixation on the young slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Epps’ attachment to Patsey and his conflict about it lead to the single most difficult to watch scene in the film, when Platt is dragged into the middle of Patsey’s punishment for getting a bar of soap from a neighboring plantation. The problem with all of this isn’t that masters didn’t sometimes take sexual advantage of their female slaves, we know they did, but that Patsey exists in the movie only to sexualize Epps’ behavior. Nyong’o is obviously a talented actress but she has little to do other take the brunt of her master and his wife’s abuse. Patsey’s biggest scene involves a speech where she pleads with Platt to kill her; Nyong’o brings a terrific ferocity to it but she should have been made more than a symbol. Adepero Oduye fares somewhat better as the mother who lost her children and in a remarkable one scene role Alfre Woodard brings home the horror of an outwardly comfortable woman who has sacrificed much to avoid the work of a slave. The existence of Woodard’s character alone is argument for  fuller treatment of Patsey. It is as if the filmmakers weren’t comfortable treating the sexual politics with the same dispassion they bring to everything else, except perhaps in the moment where Mistress Epps hits Patsey with a bottle. I’m not sure that making Epps a man in conflict between his God and his sexuality adds to our understanding of or horror at the institution of slavery in any way, it merely makes for a louder film.

12 Years a Slave never seriously considers the possibility of Platt running away, it is made clear that to attempt escape would mean death. Ridley’s script doesn’t pause to note time passing but rather piles day upon day upon indignity. The circumstances that lead to Platt becoming Solomon again involve an itinerant handyman played by Brad Pitt, who gets a scene about how slavery will one day pass away that feels forced and overwritten. Yet it is appropriate that the moment where Solomon reunites with his family is the one moment where he shares his emotion both with them and with us. Even Hans Zimmer’s spare score becomes something more than accent here. I wasn’t a fan of Steve McQueen’s last film Shame, a study of sex addiction which I thought draped excessive stylization over recognizable human behavior, but in 12 Years a Slave McQueen is working at full mastery. He is helped by an excellent performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who like his director never asks for a emotional reaction when he can play the full complexity of a situation. Though they stumbled at moments over modern questions of motivation, the artists behind 12 Years a Slave have succeeded in producing an important work of great specificity and sincerity. 12 Years a Slave is an essential American film.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Girl Most Likely

It's a good sign that Kristen Wiig chose Girl Most Likely for her first major role after Bridesmaids. That choice coupled with the fact that she's not interested in doing a Bridesmaids sequel is proof enough for me that Wiig is interested in a career as opposed to momentary success. I only wish that Girl Most Likely, which unlike Bridesmaids Wiig didn't write, wasn't so uneven and so casual with the talents of a good cast. Wiig plays Imogene, once the winner of a prestigious playwriting  fellowship who is now most famous for never having produced any work. After years as a New York society girlfriend Imogene is single and back at home in New Jersey with her compulsive gambler mother (Annette Bening) and eccentric brother (Christopher Fitzgerald). There's also a boarder named Lee (Darren Criss) who helps Imogene open up emotionally and get ready to face the world again. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini get good performances out of their cast; if I didn't already know I would never have guessed that the restrained Wiig was a Saturday Night Live veteran. I especially liked Fitzgerald as a man so committed to his own shyness that he builds an exoskeleton even as his crush on a sweet boardwalk girl (Natasha Lyonne) is helping him see that there is life beyond the Jersey shore. The tone varies wildly; there are broad caricatures of New York book parties, good moments with Bening as a woman realizing what a bad mother she was, and a sequence with Bob Balaban that's out of a Wes Anderson movie. Just as things are settling down we get a bizarre, broad scene that resolves the fate of a character played by Matt Dillon who may or may not be with the CIA. Kristen Wiig can clearly handle what is asked of her dramatically, and so I wish the movie had been allowed to breathe a bit and not be turned into such mishmash of moods and styles. There's nothing in the writing to paint Imogene as woman of the theater. We're told that Imogene has playwriting ambition but not shown any until it's too late, but I can't totally dislike any movie that gives Whit Stillman a cameo as an impressed theatergoer. Girl Most Likely is a good line on Kristen Wiig's resume but finally a movie where too many ideas get in the way of a beating heart.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

"Gay teenagers would dress up as her for Halloween."

Lena Dunham interviews Mindy Kaling.
LENA: Let's start light: What would you like your legacy to be? For example, I hope to have made it easier to be oneself in this hardscrabble world and to have rescued at least 15 animals from certain death. I'd also like to be known as "prolific, iconoclastic, and winsome."

MINDY: "She threw the most amazing parties and she had the most gorgeous and cheerful husband. Gay teenagers would dress up as her for Halloween. She seemed to have read every book, yet no one ever saw her reading. She had the appetite of an Olympic swimmer and the physique of an Olympic figure skater. She dressed like Chloƫ Sevigny and could fuck for hours. . ."

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Who Is Lorde?

Having recently become aware of just who this Lorde person is, I was intrigued to read this piece detailing not only her strong family background and slow arc to success but also some strong opinions on her contemporaries. But could she really become the next Kate Bush?
One thing Ella doesn’t often sing about directly is love or lust – the subject matter of the vast majority of hit singles. She quotes Del Rey’s ‘Blue Jeans’ with disgust: “I will love you till the end of time/I will wait a million years”, and recently decried the sentiment of Selena Gomez’s ‘Come and Get It’. Suffice to say, she’s a feminist.

“Absolutely. Wholeheartedly,” she says. “I think women who say, ‘No, I’m not a feminist — I love men,’ I think that is just… You don’t know what it means. You think it means that, ‘I don’t shave under my arms, I burn my bras. Fuck men!’ How could you be so uneducated, and so unwilling to learn about something which is so important to you?” She’s also conscious of the influence she has on other young women. “Taylor Swift is so flawless, and so unattainable, and I don’t think it’s breeding anything good in young girls."

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Kings of Summer

Although it relies slightly too much on musical montage, Jordan Vogt-Roberts' The Kings of Summer is a very winning, low-key tale of the moment when childhood passes away forever. In this case the "moment" is a summer when teenage friends Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso) each reach their breaking point with life at home and decide to light out for the territory. In their case freedom means a shack constructed in the woods just far enough away from home that no one will think to look there. Joe can't take life with his widowed father (an excellent Nick Offerman), who doesn't know how to relate to anyone as a single parent. Patrick's parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) are sketched much more broadly but let's just say that their son is afraid of being stifled by boredom. There's a third traveler in the party, a strange kid named Biaggio (Moises Arias) who's in the movie mostly to move the plot along but who does provide some of the best laughs. Joe, Patrick, and Biaggio live well in their idyll for a time, swimming and playing and not admitting to each other that their food comes from a Boston Market on a nearby road. When trouble comes it comes believably in the form of Kelly (Erin Moriarty), a good-hearted girl drawn to the boys' rebellion who can't help but come between two lifelong friends. There's fun around the edges of the movie, from Arias and Mullally and from Mary Lynn Rajskub as a cop, but Vogt-Roberts and writer Chris Galletta are honest about the fact that there's no going back for Joe and Patrick. The Kings of Summer ends with a brief moment of connection followed by a simple, heartbreaking image of life moving on. Jordan Vogt-Roberts has made a very good film about growing up in America.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sunday Music: The Connells - "I Suppose"

Saw these guys for the first time in 20 years or so the other night, and while I'm not sure what the prospects are for a comeback the old tunes still sound pretty good. There are two videos of this song on YouTube, I picked this one because the vocals are clearer.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

All Is Lost

In J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost we are invited to consider the weathered face of Robert Redford, who plays an unnamed man piloting a small yacht through the Indian Ocean alone. We’re given only the barest scrap of information on Redford’s character; there’s a letter written by the character (whom I’ll just refer to as “Redford”) and read in voice-over at the opening in which he expresses deep regret to someone for something gone wrong. Though the story is structured as a struggle to survive at sea it isn't a leap to wonder if the title of the movie we’re watching has at least two meanings.

 After the hull of Redford’s boat is punctured by a stray shipping container he moves swiftly to patch the hole and continue on, though the fact that the water has destroyed his radio isn't a good sign. It’s the subsequent storm that makes survival a question, and it’s in these scenes that the movie takes hold thanks to the marvelous and somewhat unexpected work of Redford the actor. It seems to me that All Is Lost could only have been made with a star of Redford’s iconic value and this solo turn doesn’t allow him to hide behind charm or irony. Robert Redford is 77 years old, and although as a director he has made films of great sensitivity I don’t know that I’ve ever seen give as simple and moving an acting performance as he gives here. There is a keen intelligence to the character, but also a reserve of anger that the world hasn’t conformed to his vision. In a movie with almost dialogue how would I know what Redford is angry about? If All Is Lost has an idea about anything it is that even at sea and far from everyone there is no escape from the business of the world. The sneakers that bob out of the shipping container that strikes the Virginia Jean were clearly meant for someone, and the huge cargo ships that Redford (now on a life raft) encounters look like anonymous floating cities. The character is a man on the run, but Chandor doesn’t let us forget that the spinning of the world is an immutable force. These scenes of “contact” with the world outside of Redford’s boat are the only time we feel a directorial hand at work, but they are brief enough and they don’t spoil the movie’s unique spell. The technical achievement here is less showy than that on display in Gravity but at least as impressive. Chandor, working with cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco, knows how to make the Virginia Jean cabin and the inside of a life raft feel like spaces in which anything is possible. The other major character in the film, in a sense, is composer Alex Ebert, whose score is plaintive and restrained but never trite. Ebert’s music reminds us we’re watching something elemental, but it never gets in the way.

 I want to consider All Is Loston its own merits, of which there are many, but in a season of two formally rigorous films that are each built around a single actor and an imaginative director it is hard not to draw comparisons. Both All Is Lost and Gravity are about people making a choice to fight for life against great odds, but in Gravity the value of that choice is hammered home again and again while J.C. Chandor dares to suggest that the choice may have no meaning at all. Gravity neatly closes a circle for Sandra Bullock’s astronaut, but in doing so it highlights the overly determined nature of its plot. All Is Lost is less obviously accessible but has a much more deft touch in the way it doesn’t attempt to force certain answers. Then again, reading over this paragraph makes me question the prejudices that I bring to the film and I’ll give All Is Lost further credit for getting that response. Finally it matters little whether All Is Lost is better or worse than Gravity or any other film. It is a work of great maturity made by two artists working at their best; one is a director steeped in both cinema and the ideas that art exists to confront , and the other an actor with nothing to prove but much left to give.

Monday, November 04, 2013

My Brilliant Career

My Brilliant Career, the 1979 film responsible for the careers of Judy Davis and Sam Neill and the feature film debut of director Gillian Armstrong, feels like a gift wrapped long ago but newly discovered. This tale of a young woman discovering her purpose in late 19th-century Australia is as vital and urgent as any of the well-remembered films of the 1970's but is all the more remarkable for having been made by unknowns entirely outside of the Hollywood system. My Brilliant Career is also one of the best films I've ever seen about a female main character, and it's certainly deserving of being more widely remembered than it seems to be today. Based on a novel by Miles Franklin published in 1901, My Brilliant Career is the story of a young, would-be writer named Sybylla (Davis) growing up in the bush with literary ambitions and no immediate prospects of marriage. Sybylla is sent to live with her wealthy grandmother (Wendy Hughes) and other relatives to avoid  becoming an economic drain on her family, and that time away helps her cement an indomitable sense of self. A possible future arrives in the person of Harry Beecham (Sam Neill), a neighbor with property who's smitten by Sybylla's independent spirit. My Brilliant Career is as much a movie about economics as it is a love story - it reminds me of Jane Campion's Bright Star in that respect - and Armstrong (working from a screenplay by Eleanor Witcombe) is very specific about the pressures on Sybylla and the reasons that Harry may be a godsend. Armstrong and Witcombe are also resolute about honoring the point that marriage to Harry is truly a choice for Sybylla, and not a necessity.

Judy Davis pops up in movies these days as a brittle comedienne, but in My Brilliant Career she's something very different and an absolute wonder. The first meeting between Sybylla and Harry is a classic, with Harry assuming Sybylla is a servant and Sybylla playing along by affecting an Irish accent. Davis is very good at capturing the fine shades of Sybylla's roiling emotions and one wonders if other roles in this vein were available to her and if not then why. Only a few years later Davis was playing Adela in A Passage to India, not exactly one of literature's great wild spirits. Watching the way Gillian Armstrong films Australia (verdant, empty, a little scary) makes me wonder what she could do with a Western. My Brilliant Career is a gorgeous film; its cinematography (by Donald McAlpine) and production design are detailed but never feel stiff. When there's so much sameness in film it's a joy to discover a work as fresh and open as My Brilliant Career, a film that still has much to say to audiences and to the way that other films depict their female characters. 

Soderbergh's favorite Bond

Here's a great and somewhat out of the blue post by Steven Soderbergh on On Her Majesty's Secret Service, a film ahead of its time but also one doomed to semi-obscurity because it was George Lazenby's only turn as James Bond.
Also, Lazenby has a vulnerability that Connery never had—there are scenes in which he looks legitimately terrified and others in which he convinces us that he is in love with Tracy (particularly in the final scene), which brings us to another reason OHMSS is so distinctive—it’s the only Bond film with a female character that isn’t a cartoon, and the only film in which Bond is so completely frustrated with his bosses he wants and tries to quit. In fact, everything about the film suggests a reboot before the idea of rebooting was even in the air, much less fashionable (especially the ending, which you could never get away with today)

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Sunday Music: Jason Isbell - "Stockholm"

A song from Isbell's recent Stockholm album with the singer's wife Amanda Shires contributing backing vocals and violin. On a side note, I'm happy to announce that with my posts today I've exceeded last year's post total and marked the first time since 2007 that the number of posts here has ever increased over the previous year.

No Such Thing

There's a certain amount of sweet nostalgia involved when I review a Hal Hartley film. Hartley, who in his career has only come within shouting distance of the studio system (Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope produced No Such Thing), will for me always be a symbol of the independent film boom of the late 1980's and early 1990's. Years ago I found a VHS copy of Hartley's Simple Men in a Tower Records clearance bin in suburban Atlanta, and it feels like I've had to work just as hard to see most of his output since then. I had no idea until now, for instance, of Hartley's involvement in this ambitious project. 2001's No Such Thing feels like as much of a bid for mainstream acceptance as Hartley is capable of. There are well-known names (Helen Mirren, Julie Christie), a young star with credibility (Sarah Polley, now a hot director herself), and a plot elemental enough to resonate with audiences. Polley plays Beatrice, a young journalist whose fiancee has disappeared while investigating the supposing sighting of a monster in Iceland. (No Such Thing was funded in part by the Icelandic Film Council, and not to be cynical but I think the funding at least in part explains the setting.) Beatrice takes off for Iceland with the blessing of her producer (played broadly by Mirren) but on the way she stumbles into celebrity when she becomes the sole survivor of a plane crash into the Atlantic Ocean. Put back into the world thanks to a kindly doctor (Christie) and a bizarre operation, Beatrice is soon among a group of villagers who view her as an ideal sacrificial candidate to appease the Monster (Robert John Burke).

Hartley's conception of the Monster anticipates a complaint we've heard all too often in the last decade: Modern life has become both too fast and too trivial ("No one's scared of me anymore."), and it's enough make a monster want to kill someone. Or in this case, many people. Despite it's beauty and the beast trappings No Such Thing isn't a story about inner beauty or appreciating differences, but rather about checking out to follow one's own path. Hartley works in his usual dryly funny style; there's an almost-blind scientist (Baltasar Kormakur) who's good for some slapstick humor and who may hold the key to the Monster's future. Burke plays the Monster with the same air of resignation he brought to Hartley's Simple Men and Polley brings the same flinty intelligence to Beatrice that is on display in all of her work. There is no interest in ending the film on a note of conventional uplift, but that's hardly surprising. Both Hartley and his characters are dissatisfied with what they see around them, but if No Such Thing has a central idea it's that there's nothing wrong with choosing to exist on one's own terms. 

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips, directed by Paul Greengrass, is the fact-based story of the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of an American cargo ship called the Maersk Alabama. Greengrass, director of the most popular films in the Bourne series, has brought his usual immersive style to the story and he gets a strong, centering performance from Tom Hanks as Captain Richard Phillips. Although Captain Phillips has been marketed as an action movie and the film’s third act (after Phillips has left the ship in a lifeboat in the pirates’ custody) does involve the heavy presence of the U.S. Navy, the heart of the story lies in the relationship between Phillips and the leader of his captors. Muse (Barkhad Abdi, displaying either remarkable talent or the best case of acting beginner‘s luck in recent memory), is under as much pressure to hijack the Alabama as Phillips is to complete the ship’s journey. There’s a warlord who depends on the income that Muse and his crew deliver with their hijackings and if Muse can’t keep up the cash flow then the film implies that he won’t have a long retirement to look forward to. Captain Phillips wants to tell a story about the human side of a global economy.

Tom Hanks, Paul Greengrass, and writer Billy Ray (working from Phillips’ own memoir) deserve credit for not turning Richard Phillips into a swashbuckler or a gung-ho patriot. (Imagine how bad this film would have been if it had been made in the 1980’s.) Phillips is a grinder, obsessed with detail and not that interested in the crew’s complaints about sailing into dangerous waters unprotected. Some of Hanks’ best moments are when Phillips is at his most dismissive when a crewman (Chris Mulkey) invokes his union membership and starts to incite dissent. Ray starts his screenplay with a rather too on-the-nose scene between Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener) about family compromises and corporate cost-cutting, and when he’s in the lifeboat with Muse later Phillips is all too aware that the Navy will not allow the pirates to win even if it means his own death. In Greengrass and Ray’s telling, Richard Phillips is a man aware of his place on the balance sheet. Again though, the script hits awfully hard on the parallels between Phillips and Muse as pawns in the global economy. Could Phillips really have been this insightful about his own situation while tending to the injured foot of one his captors? Hanks underplays everything during the long lifeboat section with masterful control until a breakdown at the end, but we still can see the hands of a screenwriter at work. Events speed towards their inevitable conclusion when the Navy shows up to bring Phillips home. Lip service is paid to resolving things peacefully but any moral debate is pushed aside in favor of a protracted standoff between SEALS and the pirates. But then there’s that breakdown at the end. The film finally works because of Paul Greengrass and his command of energy and pace, but most importantly because Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi never let us forget the human stakes of what we’re watching.