Tuesday, December 13, 2011

My predictions for the 2012 Academy Award Nominations


Jean Dujardin, THE ARTIST
Michael Fassbender, SHAME

Viola Davis, THE HELP
Kirsten Dunst, MELANCHOLIA
Meryl Streep, THE IRON LADY
Michelle Williams, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN

Albert Brooks, DRIVE
Nick Nolte, WARRIOR
Christopher Plummer, BEGINNERS

Jessica Chastain, THE HELP
Melissa McCarthy, BRIDESMAIDS
Carey Mulligan, SHAME
Octavia Spencer, THE HELP
Shailene Woodley, THE DESCENDANTS

Michel Hazanavicius, THE ARTIST
Terrence Malick, THE TREE OF LIFE
Alexander Payne, THE DESCENDANTS
Martin Scorsese, HUGO

Michel Hazanavicius, THE ARTIST
Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, BRIDESMAIDS
Terrence Malick, THE TREE OF LIFE
Tom McCarthy and Joe Tiboni, WIN WIN

Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, THE DESCENDANTS
Tate Taylor, THE HELP
Aaron Sorkin, Steven Zaillian and Stan Chervin, MONEYBALL
Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, WAR HORSE
Lynne Ramsay and Rory Kinnear, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN

THE ARTIST, Guillaume Schiffman
HUGO, Robert Richardson
THE TREE OF LIFE, Emmanuel Lubezki
WAR HORSE, Janusz Kaminski

ANONYMOUS, Sebastian T. Krawinkel
THE ARTIST, Lawrence Bennett
HUGO, Dante Ferretti

ANONYMOUS, Lisy Christl
THE ARTIST, Mark Bridges
IMMORTALS, Eiko Ishioka
JANE EYRE, Michael O'Connor

THE ARTIST, Ludovic Bource
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
HUGO, Howard Shore
WAR HORSE, John Williams

"The Living Proof" from THE HELP
"Coeur Volant" from HUGO
"Pictures in My Head" from THE MUPPETS

THE ARTIST, Anne-Sophie Bion and Michel Hazanavicius
HUGO, Thelma Schoonmaker
MONEYBALL, Christopher Tellefsen
WAR HORSE, Michael Kahn








PINA (Germany)


Monday, December 5, 2011

Review: HUGO

I was absolutely disappointed with Martin Scorsese's HUGO. I was ready to love it, too. I don't know why so many are saying this is the director's most personal film, just because half of it deals with the title character's last-minute love of movies. Scorsese's A PERSONAL JOURNEY THROUGH CINEMA already did that (meanwhile, MEAN STREETS and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST are also infinitely more personal, for more complex reasons). I'm baffled, too, because HUGO bears few hallmarks of a Scorsese movie; Thelma Schoonmaker's editing seems flabby and the mere presence of kind, well-balanced children makes it a strange entry into Scorsese's ouvre (the only kids I can remember in previous Scorsese movies are the mouthy Alfred Lutter and Jodie Foster in ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, Foster's teen whore in TAXI DRIVER, the minature gangster wannabe Henry Hill in GOODFELLAS, and the very young, nude Howard Hughes in THE AVIATOR's first scene). Plus, Scorsese's postcardy 1925-era Paris feels more like Dickensian England. (Scorsese's connection to Paris is tenuous. Everyone in the film has a British accent. Are French accents too much at ask for? Oh, yeah, this is the company that changed the film's name three times, from the book's title THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET, to HUGO CABRET, to the Franco-scrubbed HUGO; the studio would prefer, obviously, to downplay the French thing). Some are saying that this is Scorsese's try at a Spielbergian statement, but it feels more like lazy late-80s Chris Columbus. (If Scorsese's name weren't connected to this film, would it seriously be given as much leeway as it has with critics and movie fans? At press time, the audience has spoken and this $170 million film is a resounding box-office dud.)

The first hour of HUGO is pure set-up and 3D tricks, with the orphaned title character winding his way through the innards of the Gare Montparnasse, the Paris train station he calls home (he lives inside of, and runs, the station's huge, many-cogged clock). Hugo, as a character, never really gets under our skin because he's written so thinly by screenwriter John Logan (who doesn't skimp with the plotholes, either); Hugo has two unpleasant settings: harried and hurt. Asa Butterfield, the actor playing Hugo, doesn't help matters: his palpable lack of facial expressions eventually became somewhat disturbing to me (he does have big, blue, blank-staring eyes, though I never had any idea what they were saying). The one scene between he and Jude Law as his father wasn't enough for me to sense any sort of demonstrated connection between the two characters, and certainly not enough for motivation to drive this story (Law is dispatched early, with only five or six lines, mostly about the admittedly nifty wind-up robot that plays a central role in the tale; by the way, Hugo's mother is never mentioned). Sasha Baron Cohen, as a constantly frustrated train station gendarme who's after the thieving Hugo, plays the sort of now-cliched Frenchman that Peter Sellers had a much better time with in the 60s and 70s. He's totally wasted here, and doesn't even get to do a reDACulous Far-ench accent.

In HUGO's busy-work first half, there're a lot of essentially boring scenes strung together with dizzying camera/computer tricks, gorgeous art direction (by Dante Ferretti, who can polish up his Oscar speech now), and never-exciting chases. After all of the set up with the father dying and Hugo's adoption by a drunken uncle (Ray Winstone), we're then never given any hint of Hugo's real relationship with his clockwork-training uncle because, like Law, he disappears from the film so quickly. Hugo's love interest, played by a usually-reliable but here struggling Chloe Moretz, injects a little life into the movie, but their flirtations eventually fizzle out mightily (I was left at the film's end wondering how Hugo felt about his instantly-changed relationship with Moretz--it starts as a romance, but ends with them being siblings, which I imagined was met with resounding crash with both characters). About an hour into the film, Scorsese's main point--that silent films are awesome--comes into play as a sidebar when the cantankerous toy shop owner that torments Hugo (Ben Kingsley) turns out to be film pioneer George Melies.

HUGO perks up for a while with this diversion from Hugo's own story, mainly because Melies had a fascinating rise and decline, to which Scorsese's film is faithful. But, you know, though it would have been a harder sell to the studios, I would have preferred Scorsese tackling a whole movie about Melies' life; as it stands, this film history lesson/plea for film restoration seems shoehorned into this rather somber kid's film, and effectively works as a sort of bait-and-switch for the audience. Kingsley's performance is not particularly memorable, but I do love the remarkably colorful Meiles' shooting set recreations--in fact, everything in HUGO that deals with film history is fun (it was a welcome relief, actually, to see all the silent movie clips here--everything from the Lumiere's WORKERS LEAVING A FACTORY to Harold Lloyd's SAFETY LAST, but no NOSFERATU or SUNRISE; also, it's interesting to eventually see the flat Melies images transformed into 3D). However, this section of the movie shoves Hugo way into the background of his own story. By the time we come back to his world, we hardly care what happens to him, and you can sense Hugo's an afterthought for the filmmakers as well. In the end, the most interesting character here is the taciturn automaton (another Ferretti creation) that drives the film's plot. The device's enigmatic face is the film's single lasting image, which is pretty sad to say, considering HUGO obviously wants to move us to tears.

Look, I adore Melies as a filmmaker, and I'm glad that HUGO tries to educate kids about the charms of silent cinema by his inclusion here. But, honestly, that's no reason for me to love this movie (by the way, the kids sitting in front of me at the theater spent the first hour distractedly trying to grab at the 3D snow and steam and once the Melies story commenced, they began seriously squirming in their seats). I will handily admit HUGO's steampunky rust is beautiful to look at (forget the 3D, though; it's impressive, but unnecessary). But all the way through, I kept wishing Scorsese's film had the overpowering emotion of, say, Carroll Ballard's THE BLACK STALLION, another visually striking film about an isolated boy who, instead, happens to be funny, clever, talented and easy to care for. THE BLACK STALLION does everything HUGO wants to do; it conjures up REAL magic while restoring the lovable main character's self-confidence and connection to a charismatic father. But, instead, HUGO is, in toto, a humorless, charmless affair. Though it's constantly searching, it fails to find its heart. It's a broken machine.

FINAL NOTE: In case you loved HUGO and want to call me an unfeeling curmudgeon, you should know that I went to see THE MUPPETS right afterwards. I forgave that movie for its faults, because the Muppets themselves--as always--captivated me. Lotsa laughs in THE MUPPETS (but maybe too much focus on the human characters and only one good song; Paul Williams was apparently unavailable). But, for sure, it was much more fun than HUGO.

Friday, December 2, 2011


As ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA begins, we witness three police cars burning up a lonely, storm-swept road which curves through the Turkish contryside. The worn-out lawmen in these vehicles entertain themselves with Tarantino-esque talk about the merits of varied yogurts, while one chastened, paralyzed suspect sits in the backseat (there's another suspect too, but he remains largely unseen). Military, police and felons--all are in the midst of a seemingly impossible search for the burial spot marking an unnamed victim. But the suspects each contend they were each drunk at the time of their supposed crime, and thus cannot remember where they buried the body, or if they even committed the misdeed.

Who is this victim? And what is the nature of this crime? Director and co-writer Nuri Bilge Ceylan slyly keeps this information from us for quite a time (the film is nearly 3 hours long, but it speeds by). And so begins this haunting, mysterious examination of the evil that lies in wait in the heart of all men, good or not. Riding along with the police is a troubled doctor assigned to the autopsy (an intense Muhammet Uzuner), as well as a grandstanding police inspector, played by a charismatic Taner Birsel. The movie's first two-thirds are enervated by a supremely frustrated, book-following commissar (Yilmaz Erdogan). Some of these characters struggle mightily with the small crimes in their pasts as they each attempt to wind their way through this maddening case.

In telling this riveting story, Ceylan treats us to a unique blend of film noir, gallows humor (this is a surprisingly funny film), and existential dread (the title comes poetically from a scene where a policeman tries to comfort the increasingly anxious doctor). This was the first film that I saw at the New York Film festival this fall; I saw this beautifully Cinemascoped movie at 10 a.m. one October morning, and I though "My God, if all these movies are this great, I'm in for quite a time here."

As it eventually stood, ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA remained my favorite of all the many movies I saw at this year's New York Film Festival. I learned later that it's Turkey's official entry into the Oscar race, and I think it deserves to win. It's a wonder, pure and simple. Photographed in a stunning digital widescreen by Gökhan Tiryaki, this recipient of the Grand Jury Prize at 2011's Cannes Film Festival (where Ceylan has previously garnered top awards for his past films THREE MONKEYS, CLIMATES, and DISTANT) sports a plethora of unforgettable images: the burnished yellow glare of headlights trying to shed light on the truth; a head-on examination of the scarred, downtrodden main suspect (Firat Tanis); the careful, lantern-lit steps of a brown-eyed nymph, looking like some sort of ethereal ghost as she carries a tea-tray through a leisurely stop in a small country berg; an accused killer lost deep in the thought of what he might've done; a vigilant dog growling at the police while standing its ground; the prosecutor, smiling triumphantly at his movie-star-like status while being compared to Clark Gable (to me, he looks more like Gregory Peck); and, most memorably, an incredible sequence involving an errant apple shaken loose from a tree by a policeman, and then coming to rest down a stream, where it joins a batch of rotting fellows.

By the film's unspeakably sobering final third (the movie doesn't end where we think it should), Ceylan turns his camera upon the accusers, who all begin to realize they've committed their own maybe minor, but nonetheless punishable offences. The doctor gets a spit right in the face and he takes it in stride, as if it were his due. This moment literally put me in shock and few movies do this. This film is my introduction to Ceylan, but for me he is instantly an intelligent observer of things both big and small. ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA saddened and stunned me, and caught me off-guard perhaps more than any movie has this year. It deserves to be seen by all and, likewise, Ceylan deserves to be regarded as a world-class filmmaker.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Sometime in mid-September, I was a call-in guest on Jason O'Brien's Oscar-related podcast, and I posited that Michel Hazanavicius' tribute to silent movies called THE ARTIST was going to be the winner of this year's Best Picture Oscar. Everyone made fun of me, and thought me insane, and I agreed that it seemed quite wacky that a movie like this could bewitch so many in this digital age. I explained to Jason that I have a gift.

See, I have this bell. It's in my head. I can't explain how I got it--maybe it came from being an Oscar fan for 35 years. But it's there. And each year, when I see signs of the eventual Best Picture winner, that bell goes off. I started noticing this bell in 1982. I was 16 years old and I remember predicting the five Best Picture nominees that year; E.T., GANDHI, and TOOTSIE were easy to predict, but THE VERDICT and MISSING were adventurous choices. Still, I got them all right. This gave me confidence. And the winner was easy, if painful, to predict (I liked all four nominees more than GANDHI, but I knew Attenbourough's bio-pic would win).

I had a dream in the summer of 1992. It took place in January 1993, and I was leafing through an issue of VARIETY, and I was looking at an ad for Clint Eastwood's UNFORGIVEN, and the ad said that Clint's newest movie had gotten eight Oscar nominations. I was, at this point, convinced that the very unlikely UNFORGIVEN would win Best Picture. The film, of course, ended up with nine Oscar nominations, and was the winner of Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor and Editing. I was creeped out by this prediction, in particular. I thought, at this point, I had a preternatural ability.

From this point on, the only time this bell of mine has failed me was in 2005, when I was sure Ang Lee's BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN would win the big prize. But CRASH famously dashed those hopes, and I was shocked. Still, after that, I knew that THE DEPARTED, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, THE HURT LOCKER (the bell REALLY went off on that one), and THE KING'S SPEECH would win the Best Picture Oscar.

This year, when I saw the trailer for Hazanavicius' THE ARTIST, the bell went off big time. I let Jason O'Brien know of this first here. Yeah, I was mocked. But now that the movie is hitting full force, and is no longer a Cannes Film Festival rumor (where it was a frontrunner and eventually won Best Actor for its lead), it's turning out that I am correct. Yes, it's a silent, black-and-white movie filmed at 22 frames per second (making all of the action a little quicker than you might be used to) and, yeah, that might not seem like a sure bet awards- or box-office-wise. But THE ARTIST is a total crowd-pleaser, and the positive talk will gather. It's an exhilerating Hollywood comedy with sneaky dashes of melodrama. Moreover, it's a ridiculously beautiful look at moviemaking's past; it's filled with adoring references to a now-ancient form of the craft and it's impossible to hate.

THE ARTIST captured me immediately with its first scene where the hero, the dashing silent film star George Valentin, gloriously laps up praise after the premier of his new silent spy epic, "A Russian Affair." THE ARTIST's star, Jean Dujardin, won my imagined Best Actor vote almost immediately because his Valentin is so lovably, hilariously hammy (seriously, I was cackling all the way though the film's first six minutes---what a winning toothy smile Dujardin has). Also, on top of his smashing face and ebullient energy, he's got an indespensible sidekick: a Jack Russell puppy billed as "The Dog" but played by an amiable pooch named Uggie (who should win Best Supporting Actor this year). Uggie's precise, energetic showing here ranks as one of the cinema's great animal performances.

Being realistic, THE ARTIST doesn't go many places you don't expect it to go. The story--Valentin is a silent film actor left behind after the advent of sound cinema--is basically A STAR IS BORN crossed with a bit of SINGIN' IN THE RAIN--but its charm lies in its mastery of each composite of film art. The detailed art direction (by Lawrence Bennett), cinematography (by Guillaume Schiffman, who shot the film in the old-time 1:33 aspect ratio), closely-examined costumes (by Mark Bridges), editing (by Hazanavicius and Anne-Sophie Bion), tuneful scoring (achieved succinctly by Ludovic Bource), scripting, and yes, even the sound (which is used is always surprising ways), is absolute perfection.

Hazanavicius delivers this love letter to long-gone moviemaking complete with dazzling uses of period graphics, multi-layered montages, surprising digital effects (which bring the film into the modern era--this is a movie that firmly belongs HERE, at the death of 24 frames per second), and well-considered casting of nearly every person who appears onscreen (though there are perhaps unnecessary appearances by Malcolm McDowell, Ed Lauter, and Beth Grant--they get high billing but their arrivals are little more than cameos; the bit players are more noteworthy though, meanwhile, the amiable James Cromwell is cleverly cast as Valentin's steadfast chauffeur, harkening back to Cromwell's film debut as the driver in 1976's likeminded throwback MURDER BY DEATH). John Goodman, post-MATINEE, portrays yet another cigar-chomping movie mogul (and he's an expert at this), and Brazillian actress Bérénice Bejo is Dujardin's lively rival/romantic interest (she's dynamite). But, though I wish the film were slightly more moving in the scenes where it's meant to be, Hazanavicius' loving, playful direction bests everything. He's having fun with film and film history and, boy, yeah howdy, he does it so well. Though Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE is still the most astounding movie of the year, THE ARTIST remains a winner through and through.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Like Alexander Payne's last three films, his newest is based on a book, this time Kaui Hart Hemmings' best seller called THE DESCENDANTS, and it has more of the circuitous feel of a novel than ELECTION, ABOUT SCHMIDT, or SIDEWAYS. All of Payne's movies deal with people who feel disconnected with their own lives, and here the focus is on Matt King (George Clooney), the pater familia of a clan sprung from Hawaiian royalty who, as a result of their inherited beachfront land, are set to become billionaires once the development deal is done. King's figurehead status--he represents the family's interests in the sale--disguises his dourly fractured family life. His youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) is a tween brat. The older daughter Alexandra (a vital Shailene Woodley) is off at school, partying hard. And his wife is carrying on a secret life behind his back. But Matt is totally disengaged with all this. In the ersatz paradise of Hawaii, he is floating in a sea of numbers and is about to be jerked back into reality.

Clooney is already looking pretty hangdog as the film begins, his stylish grey hair looking finally like the product of stress. Things only get worse for him. First his wife lapses into a coma after a ski jet mishap. Matt gets blamed for the accident by his wife's cantankerous father (the always-welcome Robert Forster), who chides "If you had only bought her the boat she wanted, this wouldn't have happened." But Matt knows differently, because an exasperated Alexandra clues him in: Mom was having an affair. And so, as in all of Payne's films, we watch as a hero at last attempts to truly occupy a world they've allowed, through inattentiveness, to degenerate into vapitity.

Payne's movies always have an outrageousness that I've come depend on to commingle with their scripts' humanistic insights. But THE DESCENDANTS is never really off-the-charts hilarious or affecting; it's probably not even a comedy, though it's feels like it should be one (meanwhile, I was only moved once by the melodrama--when Matt withholds the truth about his wife from the chiding Forster). This is the director's first movie without his longtime screenwriting partner Jim Taylor, and I wonder if this is why it's the director's least lively film. THE DESCENDANTS is smart stuff, for sure, and there's a lot to like about its ruminations on respect and forgiveness--but it's not very fun. It's missing that raucous feel that permeates his other works; it turns out the most amusing character in it is Nick Krause's burnout teen, who's brought along on this ride by girlfriend Alexandra. (Krause--who makes this familiar archetype his own--and Clooney share the best scene in the film, a midnight tete-a-tete about personal tragedy that leads both to a shaky mutual admiration). There are always a lot of tears in Payne's movies, but this one asks us respond to heartfelt ones, while the director does crocodile tears a whole lot better.

The movie is solid and well-played (especially by Clooney, who delivers a terrifically harried performance), and I particularly liked the wryly overstated Hawaii feel to the art direction, and the stupendous collection of Hawaiian music injecting jolts of life into all this absorbing dreariness. But I would be lying if I didn't say that THE DESCENDANTS is a movie I respect more than love. It left me feeling not enervated and energized, as did CITIZEN RUTH and ELECTION, but instead rather uncomfortably blah (sort of like ABOUT SCHMIDT). Other than with one perfectly timed kiss, the movie just never seems to be taking any real chances and thus, for me, it's a mild disappointment.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


The grandiose opening to Lars Von Trier's newest cataclysm is an upfront shock (unlike most of his other films, which are loaded with climactic jolts). He and his able crew have crafted a nine-minute overture, set to Richard Wagner's urgently emotional prelude to TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, and in this sequence, the story you are about to see is told fully in drowsy, lavish tableaus that floor the senses (they sting even more upon the second viewing). But, first time around, the viewer has no ken; these stunning abstracts leave us unprepared somehow.

MELANCHOLIA peers into the pros and cons of depression. Von Trier, in his upheaval of a press conference at this year's Cannes Film Festival, admitted that he suffers from the disease. As a fellow in this respect, I can tell you that what one depressed individual may find funny is not something to which one who is not depressed can relate. And that's all I'm going to say about that sideshow.

It's seems clear to me, at least, that BOTH of Von Trier's lead characters here suffer from the same affliction. Justine (a transformed Kirsten Dunst) handles the challenge very differently from her sister Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg (both actresses were child stars, which we all know can lead to some serious problems, and I wonder if this is what lead Von Trier to this pairing). Justine is a damaged butterfly; Claire is an overworked beetle. Over the course of the film, the onslaught of a looming companion planet, named Melancholia by soothsaying scientists, threatens our Earth's life. Maybe this is a reference to the pesky global warming debate--will it kill us, or will it not? But fear not, lovelies. This isn't a political film.

Justine's seemingly gilded marriage ceremony is troubled from the start. Flowing gown and all, she has to get behind the wheel of the stretch limo in which she and her husband arrive, attempting to navigate the winding road leading the ridiculously huge mansion where the reception's afoot. Depression is never easy; yep--that snaky road is a metaphor, and an apt one. The incipient celebration is studded with sapping drains on the luminous Justine's energy. She puts up a brave front, because the pressure's on, but her boss (Stellan Skarsgaard) leadens her with work challenges; Skarsgaard's newest assistant (Brady Corbett) sucks at her with a queerly lucrative desperation; her mother (Charlotte Rampling) smashes the party up with her caustic honesty; her lovable but wackadoo father (John Hurt) friskily pockets spoons and pesters the waitstaff for replacements, while forgoing patriarchal responsibilities; her inarticulate new husband (Alexander Skarsgaard) wants most to get on to the honeymoon duties; and Claire is on top of helping Justine navigate this rigamarole, even while Claire's husband (Kiefer Sutherland), from his lofty balcony of logic, sneers at all this cryptic madness.

Enough. It's too much already. Couple this with the upcoming onslaught of the planet Melancholia--which may or may not end the world--and, inevitably, the idea of happily-married bliss becomes absurd for Justine. MELANCHOLIA is split into two pieces, each named after the two sisters, and by midfilm, when the siblings are taking a galloping horse ride through the foggy countryside, past all the frivolous golf courses, Justine is the with-it one who notices treasured stars in the sky have disappeared behind that ever-approaching threat.

The second half of Von Trier's newest and possibly most accessible (but still resolutely strange) tale follows Claire as she tries to make more down-to-earth sense of Melancholia's approach. She has a young son to worry about, and father Sutherland is too bent on showing their boy the planet's progress--via telescope and a more illustrative homemade device--to even address the larger implications of this event; in fact, he denies any implications until it's too late. In the end, it is the seemingly delicate Justine who's a bulwark of strength, even though at the beginning of this episode she's so overfunked she can barely take a bath. As a treat, Claire cooks Justine her favorite meal--a homey meatloaf--and even this fails to cheer her. "It tastes like ashes" a crestfallen Justine says. For me, this was MELANCHOLIA's height; nothing says more about the experience of depression than being presented with a former joy, whatever it might be and then, because you just can't help it, feeling yourself spit that fleshly gift right back into the faces of people you love.

Being depressed is like feeling the world implode each and every day. Justine knows this, and she needs relief. But she also suspects--no, is certain--she's correct in feeling this way. You'd have to be crazy not to (maybe this IS a political film--it equalizes the 1% and the 99%). So it's not surprising Justine's the one best equipped to handle an end-of-the-world scenario; it's possibly the only time being depressed would actually be a plus. For "sane" Claire, the world ends before it really ends, and you realy feel sorry for her because she's tried hard to smooth out all of life's wrinkles. But for the more unfettered Justine--a once fresh-faced but now sunken-eyed goddess--this radically troubled globe deserves its fate, so saying a lyrical goodbye is not at all hard to do. There haven't been many movies made about depression so it strikes me as doubly pleasant that MELANCHOLIA gets the downtrodden spirit so artfully right without smushing your puss into a batch of whiny speeches. It's a puzzle, but what a kooky beauty it is, this blanket of misery.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


After more than a decade apart, star Antonio Banderas and now-legendary writer/director Pedro Almodovar have revived their longtime collaboration with THE SKIN I LIVE IN, Almodovar's lurid take on the horror genre (which owes a lot, by his own admission, to George Franju's EYES WITHOUT A FACE). Here, though, the story we may already know is infused with the director's never-dying fascination with gender identity.

Banderas plays a boundary-pushing plastic surgeon who has a river of madness running through his veins. His current obsession lies in his attempts to develop a brand of super-human skin made out of pig cells. Frankenstein-like, he works in secret in the basement of his sleek, steely compound on his newest creation, a commanding and wide-eyed woman named Vera (Elena Anaya), who's the jailed and tortured recipient of a six-year regiment of skin grafts.

Through a hazy, jumbled series of flashbacks, we're let in on a tragic series of events that lead to both the release of the doctor's incipient madness, while at the same time we're being imformed of his creation's monsterous angst. There are blue and silver touches of Cronenberg felt here, and at the same time, Mary Shelley's spirit is alive. But Franju's ideas are most powerfully at work in this movie. This could even be seen as a remake of EYES WITHOUT A FACE. After the screening at the NY Film Fest, the incredibly clever and funny Almodovar was upfront about this influence.

When you see Anaya with the mask and bodysuit (designed by Jean-Paul Gauthier), you'll know what I'm talking about (if you've seen EYES WITHOUT A FACE, which you should see before hand, if you haven't yet). Anaya's pasty-white mask is total Franju; meanwhile, the precise bodysuit is utterly both Gauthier AND Almodovar. The latter finds much room for many darkly-tinged laughs, particularly with Banderas's tiger-suited brother, played with zest by Roberto Álamo. And, perhaps not so naturally, there is some of the most bizarre and unsettling sex in a festival that has been filled with strangely sexual tales.

Almodovar's newest picture is perhaps a bit overlong by 10 or 15 minutes, but it is also campy and action-packed, and ultimately quite moving, most notably in its brave and incomprehensibly sad final scene (capped with a simple, memorable final line). Backed with perhaps the most energetic musical score of the year (a violin-infused violence by Alberto Iglesias), I didn't love THE SKIN I LIVE IN, but I respect it immensely. It's a sick movie that made me smile.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


A total crowd-pleaser (with integrity), Simon Curtis' MY WEEK WITH MARILYN starts off in a slightly ponderous manner with Eddie Redmayne's wide-eyed, well-backed Colin Clark determined to wind his way into the British film industry. The film's smart economy allows this upper-class maven to land a job with Lawrence Olivier's production company at once, just at the right moment to allow him to meet his (and many other's) first big screen crush--a lady named Marilyn Monroe. She brings her resolutely American ways--learned at Lee Strasberg's Actor's Studio--to the UK, and this puts them on an inevitable collision course with Olivier's more traditional acting mores. Kenneth Branaugh's bluster as Olivier keeps us entwined in the first 20 minutes, as we follow his preparations for the filming of what would turn out to be his final directorial effort, 1957's THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL. But you can feel yourself waiting for the star of the show while watching MY WEEK WITH MARILYN. And the star does NOT disappoint.

The always remarkable Michelle Williams hooks us completely with her resolutely definitive version of Marilyn. She appears fleetingly in the first act, like a shy vision. But by the second act, she's found a friend and a flirtation in Redmayne's increasingly endearing Colin Clark (who wrote two memoirs about his unique relationship with the superstar). Williams is stunning in this bon-bon of a movie. I cannot dare to say what she has done, except to say that she shrinks the memory of any other actress who dared to portray Monroe on film. How do I know this?

Well, while at the New York Film Festival, I was lucky enough to view the movie while sitting next to a writer and actor who knew Marilyn well. He told me stories about being with her at the Actor's Studio, brushing up with her in a small-spaced clinch with her breasts pressing up against him. He admitted to having a crush on her much like Redmayne's Clark has in the film, and I could feel my now-elderly friend sighing with envy throughout the entire movie. He said he had met with Marilyn six times (including once at Elia Kazan's home), and that she remembered him and would wave to him anytime they were in the vicinity of each other. His ultimate review of MY WEEK WITH MARILYN is that Williams gets it all right--the insecurity, yes, but moreover the instantly recognizable sweetness of this little hurt bird that reveled in warbling and preening for the joy of every man. Though her difficulties on-set are portrayed, this is not a movie about her downfall; it's about her last chance at innocence (there's an insanely fine "date" scene with Monroe and Clark that erases all thoughts that, at the time, she was married to Arthur Miller).

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN is lithe and fast-paced. It's not a utterly fantastic movie--whenever Monroe is not on-screen, it feels like top-notch television fare--but it does contain a sparkling, supreme performance. It'll probably be a huge hit, which it deserves to be because of the captivating Williams. She is an actress who really seems she can do no wrong these days. Singing, primping, or depressed, Michelle Willliams portrays a perfect Marilyn Monroe.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

NYFF Review #6: SHAME

SHAME infuriated me. I can't blame this on the film's lead, Michael Fassbender, who delivers an undeniably physical performance as an NYC executive who's disinterested in anything that doesn't involve the stroking of his cock (and, in case you're interested, Fassbender has quite the member). I often blanched in fury at his blank stares, but I have to admit, Fassbender's quite good in this movie. You can feel his soul connection to co-writer/director Steve McQueen, with whom he did the vastly more affecting 2008 prison bio-pic HUNGER (though, for Fassbender's own health, I'd recommend he distance himself from the director, as he seems bent on driving the actor's body to a too-frail point). Also excellent here is Carey Mulligan, who punctures the lead character's emptiness as his effervescent, needy sister whose invasion of his world disrupts his steady routine of prostitutes, one-night stands, and internet porn sessions. She's a sweet presence, as she has quickly come to be in all the film's she's been in since her breakthrough, and she has a terrific extended play moment here where she sings the most drowsy version of "New York, New York" you're ever likely to hear. The moment where Fassbender's Brandon sheds a tear at her on-stage hurt (a hurt which we're never let in on) might be this empty movie's emotional high point.

My problem with SHAME lies in its barely-written screenplay (by McQueen and Abi Morgan). It shows, but never tells. Watching SHAME is like looking at a crime scene photo without being told what the crime was all about. Yeah, there's all the carrion. So what? Nearly nothing is new here. Predictably, this vacuous character named Brandon has a cold, sparce apartment, devoid of personality. You've seen AMERICAN PSYCHO? Yeah, like that. And we have Fassbender's unerring stare, which more often says nothing rather than everything (it's a slate that's decidedly TOO blank, which I DO have to blame on Fassbender). Glimpses into his work life and relationships make you wonder how he landed such a high-paying job in the first place, much less kept it (though Brandon seems to be on increasingly shaky ground here). All throughout the picture, I kept wondering why Brandon never realized he was just simply stupid; his lack of interest in anything other than sex is astonishing (I mean, even alchoholics are interested in more than just drinking).

Finally, there is the inevitable rock bottom--an addiction movie staple. There's a fine scene in which Brandon attacks his sister, demanding to know what she wants from him. I loved Mulligan's play here, in which she at first thinks it's a joke and laughs as he's pinning her down on an inevitably beige couch, and then fights back strongly, calling him a weirdo. Well, this transpires into the titular shame spiral, and McQueen's camera finally captures one yellowed, indelible image that's seared into me--Brandon's horribly pained face as he tries (and probably fails) to reach orgasm while schtupping two exotic girls in tandem. The end isn't far off from here, and you can probably predict what will happen.

But, again, so what? SHAME is one of those movies that's all about pushing buttons. They're not those Spielberg buttons, of course. They're the Solondz buttons. And they suck. There's only the slightest revelation for the main character ("Shithead"), and even when the final scene comes, we con't be sure if he's really moved forward, because we don't see Brandon actually reaching out to another for help. McQueen's movie makes it seem as if we can all handle the problems of addiction alone. But this is an untruth. If his main character had any sense, he'd remember back to an almost perfect date he has with a co-worker (played with zest by Nicole Beharie), and at least come to the slightest realization that this is what's he's been looking for (their dinner date scene is SHAME's pinnacle, punctuated beautifully by a pesky waiter who continually inturrupts their smooth rapport). I'm sorry, but being in the throes of addiction affords you a lot more opportunities of self-revelation than SHAME dramatizes. The film screams out for another character that has their feet on the ground.

I know a lot of people are loving SHAME for its supposed bravery. But if the sex in the film had been replaced with, say, heroin, I think we'd all see McQueen's movie as the "whatever" sham that it is. Yeah, it's a challenging movie, and maybe one worth seeing for those who want to see everything, including the bottom. But I nearly hated it, mainly because I thought it was boring.


There's a moment in David Cronenberg's A DANGEROUS METHOD in which Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (a transformed Viggo Mortensen) are on a steam ship approaching that longtime home of all things neurotic, New York City, where they will unveil their "talking cure," called psychoanalysis, at a prestigious doctor's conference. Freud puffs on his ubiquitously phallic cigar and, knowing his relationship with Jung has reached an unfixable impasses, he wonders "Do you think they know we're bringing the plague with us?" It's such a perfect Cronenbergian line, since the director's dealt with so many plagues in his movie career. Yet this bitterly witty bit belongs to screenwriter Christopher Hampton. He's the hero behind this smart adaptation of his play THE TALKING CURE, which is in turn an adaptation of John Kerr's book A MOST DANGEROUS METHOD, which takes much of its content directly from Freud and Jung's copious letters to each other. This is most certainly Hampton's finest work since winning the Academy Award for adapting DANGEROUS LIASONS for the screen back in 1988.

But there's a third player in this juicy slice of history who's been unjustly forgotten, and that's Sabina Speilrein, a Russian woman played by a committed but sometimes too stagey Keira Knightly. A knowledgeable student of psychology herself, Sabina's torturous malady is, at the film's beginning, a violent reaction to her adolescent sexual arousal experienced at the hand of her strict father, who beat her mercilessly. Let's face it--she liked it. Humiliation begets humiliation in Sabina's tangled mind, and this leads her maniacally laughing and screaming into Jung's office, where the buttoned-down doctor's blue eyes jump in barely contained delight at her jaw-jutting affliction and his opportunity to remedy it. Soon enough, Sabina is begging Jung, who's stuck in a marriage that bores him, to break with ethical boundaries; she wants this cure to involve much more than mere talking.

Jung vacillates between cavings and protests, and it takes Sabina's reach out to Freud to seal the deal. In a jealously semitic whirl of strategy (Sabina and Sigmund are jews; Jung is not), Freud encourages Jung to stray from his moral boundaries, and thereby perhaps unknowingly opens both Sabina and Jung up to a doomed relationship that was somehow perfect in its imperfection. I find all of this incredibly funny stuff. This might be Cronenberg's most amusing film, in that it takes such wonderful jabs at psychoanalysis, and how the process very well might be more about the doctor than the patient. Of course, Hampton's always entertaining, intellectually challenging screenplay is key to this aim.

Cronenberg's newest chilly foray into the human makeup eventually being to resemble in inventive ways his 1988 masterpiece DEAD RINGERS, another film in which two doctors--twins, even, who are reflective of each other--find a woman standing in the way of their relationship's further consummation. A DANGEROUS METHOD might benefit from some pre-viewing research into the circuitous nature of psychoanalysis, as it contains a tidal wave of detailed psycho-geekery that I suspect could be even more highly amusing to the more informed. However, the corseted performance from Fassbender, and the really adroit support from the remarkable Viggo Mortensen, coupled with Knightly undeniable energy and capped off with Hampton's deft wordsmithing all do their part in helping Cronenberg achieve his slyly worked-out goals.


The writer/director of my favorite movie title of 2011, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, is named Sean Durkin, and he's a newfound wunderkind of disorientation. In his debut feature, he puts us right in the dizzied headspace of his film's title character, played with giggly, goggled, shell-shocked charisma by Elizabeth Olsen. From scene to scene, he makes it difficult to determine where we are in the story, and it's a dazzling effect. We may be with Martha as she seeks solace at her mildly rich sister's lakehouse, which she shares with her architect husband (this happiness-seeking couple are compassionately played by Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy). But, then, upon another cut, as we plunge into the lake with Martha, we may be seeing her as Marcy May or Marlene, frolicking in a bizarre green liquid with other searching souls.

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE strikes us as a sideways take on a horror story. It's about a girl who has her nowhere ambition taken by an upstate New York cult which demands that she pledge sexual and domestic allegiance to a steadfast, folk-singing leader, assayed with sinewy, slight menace by John Hawkes (who, in a memorable scene, delivers what may turn out to be the creepiest Best Song nominee in all of Oscar history). For me, the cult aspect of Durkin's movie falls short of letting me know anything about the inner-workings of such a spirit; once Hawke's character starts talking about death being a doorway into life (which comes later in the film), I felt I was in the well-traveled territory of Charles Manson and Jim Jones, and I fell out of the movie. But I had to remember that it's been a good two decades since movies have been made about such subjects, and so I felt I had to cleanse myself of this divisiveness. Still, the memories made my opinions about the movie veer towards seeing it as cliche (there's one moment of violence in it that's just too much).

The movie is photographed in a distinctively murky widescreen by Jody Lee Lipes, and it's this shadowy, still feature that most definitely helps propel this off-axis character study into bonafide horror movie territory (after the NYFF screening, I approached Durkin about my suspicions, and he confirmed to me that his two favorite movies were ROSEMARY'S BABY and THE SHINING). Olsen's well-studied Martha is truly haunted by her past. She can't even eat properly without being told it's okay to do so. She jumps and literally pees her pants at every errant sound. She can't suppress laughter at the normal things she now finds to be abnormal. She joins her sister as she's having sex with her husband. Sleep for her is impossible. And dealing with her reappearance strains her sister's marriage to the breaking point. Up until the very end, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is a scary movie.

Olsen's performance is nothing short of superb. She's the breakthrough actress of the year. Every tiny movement she makes is perfection. I wish that I had never read HELTER SKELTER or seen the jittery 1981 Canadian movie TICKET TO HEAVEN or lived through 1979's Jonestown massacre, because I'd then be able to more fairly assess MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE for what it might be to most viewers. As it is, I see the film working strongly as a delivery device for Durkin's steady directorial hand and, most primarily, as a vehicle for a handful of searing performances, spearheaded by its welcome lead actress. You'll know what I mean when you hear Elizabeth Olsen's voice transform into a hardened devil's as she lays into her sister with a remark that's nearly unforgivable.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Don't be fooled: Nicholas Ray's final directorial effort, 1976's WE CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN, is not really a Nicholas Ray film.

Yes, he's in it (playing himself), and yes, he spent too many minutes from his emeritus years trying to make sense of it in the editing room. And yet the film--largely shot and performed by some bombed-out film students of his at Syracuse's Binghamton University--is an unwatchable mess, even by experimental film standards. I like me some Brakhage, Warhol and Belson, but this thing is a headache machine. Though a multitude of 8mm and 16mm images often crowd the screen at the same time (with a little 35mm thrown in for welcome relief), there is little to look at and less to enjoy in this plate of scrambled eggs. Dang, this thing was enough to make me swear off split-screen filmmaking forever, and I've ALWAYS been a split-screen fan.

Ray landed a gig teaching film at Binghamton after alcoholism and poverty had decimated his once florid Hollywood career. But this thesis called WE CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN plays like ugly wallpaper at the worst freak-out you've ever stumbled into. Interesting only for the most diehard film buffs, it does allow us a peek into Ray's final years, where he's been hobbled by his demons and thus is instantly inattentive to his classroom charges, who apparently were too enamored of a dying youth movement to listen to what this moviemaking master had to impart (the students say, in an opening scene, that REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE was just "okay"). Or maybe it was the eternally youth-loving Ray who, himself, smothered his own know-how in the face of a powerful rebellion with which he was just then coming into direct contact. At any rate, the film makes you sadly feel as if the director was pitifully cashing in his meager teaching pay check and spending it all on booze and young girls, some of which probably appear nude here. I'm thinking, now, maybe I'm being mean writing this. But YOU try sitting through this film...

There are moments of truth: I liked a scene in which a young student talks to Ray about how his recent weight loss really didn't change his life, and there's a full-framed sequence where and un-eye-patched Ray walks with another, more contemptuous student as the kid throws punches, trying to test if the great director is really blind in that eye. There's also a tweaked-out exchange where a girl student admits to hustling her body in order to raise money for the film (I really got the impression Ray was fucking this girl, too, and good for him, I guess). But these moments are fleeting in the extreme.

Instead, throughout most of the film's interminable 95-minute running time, we're treated to go-nowhere arguments, one endless close-up of some guy's rotten face, messy video art, unrelated views of student marches, and sub-par first-time filmmaker narratives involving cops and their wandering suspects. But we do have one clue that that Ray KNEW this movie had nothing to do with his great career. When it's all thankfully done, the movie's most memorable image has Ray, presumably watching dailies with his famed eyepatch on, augmenting that accessory with a second eyepatch so that he can't see anything. The inevitable DVD release of WE CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN should come packaged with two such eyepatches, to advisedly be administered to both eyes by the unfortunate viewer.

NYFF Review #2: 4:44: LAST DAY ON EARTH

Though the ominous title of Abel Ferrara's newest movie is partially self-evident, it's really a film about living fully in the present. Willem Dafoe and Shanyn Leigh play a May-December (or at least November) couple, ensconced in their Lower East Side NYC apartment, making copious love, meditating, being creative, watching TV, and talking to far away loved ones via Skype as they await the long-predicted and accepted burning away of the ozone layer's last vestiges, which will ensure the death of all living things.

While a slowly-building background rumble grows bigger on the soundtrack, this sweet and romantic (though sometimes overbaked) film does something that no other apocalyptic scenario has ever considered: it largely forgoes portraying humanity's cries and teeth-gnashings (there is one on-screen suicide), and instead favors the examination of our love for one another that would probably surface when we all found out this race has been run. As the 24-hour news cycle winds down for one final time (in one of Ferrara's most chilling moments), the value of money and status becomes distant as we all become as close as we'll ever be. There are drum-beating parties in the streets as friends and strangers try to say goodbye to each other in the most upbeat manner while that mean, green haze begins to overtake the sky.

It takes the end of our relationship with the world to make it happen, but Ferrara's happiest film dramatizes the raising of ultimate knowledge, the promotion of generosity, and the inspiration of understanding (this is most evident in a moving scene where the couple facilitate the last goodbye for a Vietnamese delivery boy who's desperate to talk to his family). This feeling of warmth, which pervades 4:44: LAST DAY ON EARTH, is what I liked best about the film; it's undeniably flawed in its most shrill moments and possibly improvised moments, but it has a tremendous heart, and heart is what counts. Shot quite sharply with the Red Eye digital camera (which, when projected digitally, provides its own shot at pin-point 3D quality) and edited with utmost precision by Anthony Redman, 4:44: LAST DAY ON EARTH occasionally goes overboard, but I'm on board with that.