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How I spent my summer vacation
...or, a good way to break up with a crappy boyfriend.
Somewhere there is a good movie to be made of this material (already accomplished by M. Night Shyamalan in "The Villiage," but Sweden is a lovely setting). It's very much like the commercial where the kids decide to hide in the chainsaw shed rather than head for the car with the motor running. But honestly, most films of this genre require a suspension of belief, but if you frame your horror movie in the pretense of academia, I think it's fair for the viewer to expect more than this.
After a long and, I think, pointless prologue, a group of graduate students arrive at a festival in Sweden that's a 4 hour drive from anywhere. It's a little disconcerting that none of the usually annoying need-to-know-more-than-your-colleague seems not to have infected this group. They get on an airplane without a care.... Well, everyone except the lone female in this expedition whose major is psychology not anthropology so we can forgive her for not researching the trip a little more than the rest, plus she's in the throes of grief which really annoys her boyfriend and his buds.
Ari Asher's previous film, "Heredity", was an infinitely more developed and visually compelling film than "Midsommar." And it's curious since there seems to be much more to plumb here. It has the look of something that the producers just gave up on and said, "No more money," like some uninhabited, freshly built stage set. (Where is the kitchen? Where is the bathroom? Where does water come from? Is the puny garden meant to feed all these people? Maybe they live in Stockholm and just come to this location every 90 years to dance around a maypole? I don't know. Answering one or any of these questions would have helped make any of it more believable.)
I walked into this film cold. I'd not seen a preview or read a review. It just looked interesting from the poster. About the only expectation that was fulfilled was from the costumer, the set decorator and the score by The Haxan Cloak...and Florence Pugh who manages the best she can with the material.
The idea of the disabled having magic powers is offensive. And the Swedish Bureau of Tourism and Travel should sue. That was my take-away.
James Acaster: Repertoire (2018)
It's unfortunate that this may not be for everyone
This is more of a performance piece than what is traditionally a "stand-up" comedy routine...well, four routines. Highly intelligent, written with precision and masterfully acted, James Acaster reinvents the genre and gives a radically new take on the stand-up. While it's wide-ranging, it all seems to be of a piece and each episode could stand alone, but there are references to what's come before that invite the audience to join in the joke. The persona Acaster gives is someone who may be a little dim, but his ponderings--sometimes with one sentence or sometimes a lengthy story--sharply illustrate today's modern culture. He/she will recognize situations if not necessarily brand names (Pret a Manger) or the finer details of Brexit. Eschewing what's typically become a ribald forum for shocking the audience, this (these pieces) are at a much higher plain using language to unmask the viewer rather than berate us with the obvious. Thoroughly entertaining and fresh.
The Lighthouse (2019)
The tricks the mind can play
Egger's film "The Witch" is my favorite horror film. Fiercely intelligent and thoroughly researched, the horror is not knowing what's happening in unfamiliar surroundings. The imagination can run wild with blame and suspicion when simply a good meal and a grounding in reality would be a much better approach.
There are projects that the filmmakers can get so deep into the material/process they undertake they forget there's going to be an audience watching that doesn't have the luxury of knowing why choices were made or the significance of allusions, visual or in dialogue. I felt this film fell very far off that cliff. It's beautifully made, incredibly well-acted and a beautifully shot movie. But the tension between the two characters quickly becomes their problem, and the audience is left outside the struggle, and I thought, "Well, hope you guys can work it out. I've got better things to do."
True, I may have had unrealistic expectations knowing who made the film and the actors that were cast. But the stilted dialogue (which works well in "The Witch") becomes so dense and full of allusion, I quickly lost interest.
What is most impressive is the look of the film. It recreates the chiaroscuro of the master filmmakers of the silent era in a very eerie way. The sound/music, as well, is haunting and sets the viewer in dread. But the two characters are so locked in their own individual struggles, I just didn't care. Defoe in particular is such a force and so thoroughly intimidating, I'd have moved to the other end of the island rather than put up with him. Pattinson is always interesting and as impressive as Defoe. But their struggle starts out at a very high level and never lets up. It became tedious to watch.
Ad Astra (2019)
The answer is not in the stars
James Gray has made some wonderful films. This isn't one of them.
Two things to watch out for in the "near future": The credibility of psychological tests and security on rockets headed to and from Mars.
The main character asks a question while at the far reaches of the galaxy as he's bobbing around in space. It's a simple one. "Why?" I had a lot of why's to ask during this film. Given the screenplay, why chose interplanetary space travel and not, say, a nice beach resort for everyone to sort out their issues? It would has saved around $70 to $80 million in production costs.
This is a beautiful film, glacially paced, with a near catatonic Brad Pitt being the only character around. He's often alone traveling millions of miles, delayed here and there, on a mission to confront his daddy. Father abandoned his son for his work, and might be the cause of power surges wreaking havoc on earth since their origin is the planet Neptune. Daddy was last heard from near or about the planet Neptune, so it's a good guess he might be the problem. Brad assumes he's been dead for a number of years, so the news he indeed could be alive barely registers a change in heart rate for Brad. We're very preoccupied with Brad's heart rate since you can't seem to do anything to raise it like getting chased by pirates, being asked to step into the pilot's seat of a commercial rocket where he's been a passenger, arm a nuclear device, or probably putting him in a room full of a barrel of monkey's. Is this is a metaphor or perhaps does Brad have issues? His wife, who's walking out the door as the film opens, has an opinion about that.
The casting of this epic is odd. Occasionally, a familiar actor (Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Nathasha Lyonne, Kimmy Shields) will appear for no apparent reason and then speak (since Brad rarely does) and disappear from the film never to be seen again. Casting unknowns could have saved another 5 or six million bucks.
In particular, Tommy Lee Jones, who we very early on learn is the father who may or may not be causing all this trouble on Neptune, could have been played by anyone old enough to be in geriatric care. I don't think it's a spoiler to say--if you're waiting for some big reveal--it's not waiting out on Neptune...other than the realization that hard work and no play makes Brad a dull boy, but we caught onto that 10 minutes into the film. So whoever's Odyssey this is, if they'd skipped all the computer generated psychological profiles and taken a good self-inventory, the answer to the question "Why?" is really simple. We didn't need this overblown, over-hyped film to discover anything. Well, maybe that antimatter doesn't really matter...and should probably not by the choice of energy to replace the fossil fuel kind.
Operation Brothers (2019)
The power of "yes"
The magnitude of this grim story gets away from writer/director Gideon Raff. Perhaps his effort to keep us from turning away from the horror and desperation by making this a breezy buddy story explains the odd tone, but it's almost offensive to which the privileged white principals complain and whine when there's such devastation around them. And there's virtually no sensitivity to the inherent "white savior" Israeli's rescuing the Black Jewish population from war torn Ethiopia through an even worse situation in the Sudan.
But we have to admire what good can come of saying "yes" to possibilities in an impossible situation. There's true heroism to be rewarded both from the Nation of Israel as well as those who are concerned for their fellow believers who are being slaughtered.
But the story line gets muddled and we spend incomprehensible time watching Chris Evans (who comports herself very well in this adventure) drawing on a map but we're dislocated as to how the intricate movement of thousands of people is so easily unnoticed by even something as chaotic as Ethiopia.
The model for this film was clearly Preminger's "Exodus," but the buddy/buddy banter between the assembled rescuers really throws you out of the picture. It's hard to empathize with a surgeon complaining about two lost finger when all around are people starving and being mowed down by automatic rifles.
Yet the film manages periods of suspense and fear even if it's really hard to believe an air transport can fly in and out of a country with little notice or consequence.
It's an important story that needs a more serious treatment.
The Spy (2019)
An exceptional life
For a film about one of Israel's national heroes, it's impressive the point of view is relatively even-handed politically. Names like Osama Bin Laden, Arafat, Sadam and Khomeini get thrown in to give us a hint at who the bad guys are. But we spend more time among the lives of Syrians than we do Israelis. And the deception by the principal to people who are earnest in their hospitality, friendship and even love raise the moral dilemma usually missing from espionage stories. The hero--and he's nothing but that--Eli Cohen steps out of his comfortable domestic life into a world of intrigue and duplicity where he excels. His handlers worry that he's too eager and will expose, but he reaps such a bounty of ill-gotten information, they're reluctant to pull him out...for his own good as well as theirs.
I'm not a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen's schitck, but in this very demanding role I became an admirer. He's surrounded by a superior cast, including Hadar Ratzon Rotem, Moni Moschonov, and Noah Emmerich, who has shed his "The American's" skin and gained weight, put on an accent and delivers an award-worthy supporting role.
I was in high school when these events occurred and the cinematography is faded and desaturated like a half-forgotten dream. Indeed, this was a time when Israel was the land of hope and a haven that has always been tenuous, so the look of the film is perfect, the vistas of the Sea of Galilee and the Golan heights are so beautiful, it's understandable why the land is so coveted.
For fans of spy dramas, there's a lot to see. While the action sequences are a little clumsy and hard to believe, they aren't they don't detract from the human drama. And the focus of the series is the human drama: envy, betrayal, loss and love, as well as their cost and how far a person will go to bargain for them. But this is a reverie and not a documentary, which may disappoint those looking for an accurate, complete portrayal of history.
For me the first episode was tenuous. Kaitlyn Dever carries a very heavy load in the first hour, portraying a teenager with an incredibly complex background who reports that she's been raped. It isn't until the second hour when Merritt Wever is paired with a reluctant Toni Collette as two detectives who, by coincidence, discover they might be looking for the same very sophisticated rapist.
Merritt Wever can make the answer to a question as simple as "What time is it?" a whole suspenseful soliloquy that rivets the viewer to what's happening as the investigation unfolds. And, Collette matches Wever's intelligence (both as a character and an actor) with a toughness that is absolutely thrilling to watch. Both actors are unusually luminous for this genre.
The entire cast is strong and full of very skilled character actors. At each turn, you're almost as excited at the plot discovery as you are as who's next to join a very large cast.
Expertly filmed and directed, the screenplay's need to bombard us with statistics is saved by the skill of the actors. Really, they're all so good you're willing to listen to anything just to see them on screen.
The isolation of the victims that results as result of the crime is stunningly portrayed, particularly by Dever. Her character's history is one that leads her to feel anything she does is wrong even if all her motives are pure. The resulting helpless of the victims of rape is frightening and a subject that is often neglected.
a long way from "A Pig's Foot and a Bottle of Beer"
There are two characters in Lorene Scafaria's "Hustlers": Constance Wu (in a performance killing wig) and Jennifer Lopez who exudes enough energy and glamour to power Times Square for a month. It's an odd coupling because Wu, who's cast as a wallflower (in a strip club, no less) has perhaps twice the screen time as Lopez, but all you remember and want more of is Jennifer Lopez, who finally fulfills the promise she showed in "Out of Sight."
I wandered into the movie on a hot summer night looking for, oh, something silly and fun. It was my fault for not doing a little research about what the subject matter of the film was about turning my expectations on their head when the film was closer to "Wise Guys" without the guns. Well, wise guys and a lot of window dressing pilfered from films like "Pretty Woman," that assume we're all content to watch high brand fashion being paraded back and forth.
In "Wise Guys" we're never invited to envy the life a gangster; in this film we're meant to long for how easy it is to make money rain down while you--rather expertly--show your naked bum while twirling around a pole to an audience of screaming men dressed in Armani suits.
What the film didn't include was the desperation and consequences of the sex worker's trade. No one ever gets sick or misses work because they're hung over or strung out or have been beaten half to death. There are hints of that but including it would have required production values that had a wrinkle or a stain or a costume that didn't look like they'd just been run off the seamstresses sewing machine.
The veneer of the film becomes its subject. Wu can't break through that; Lopez shatters it every time she appears, whipping her extravagant furs hither and yon like they'll be disposed of after one wearing...which apparently they are. None of this excess is the actors' fault. While everyone is on the take in one form or the other, apparently everyone is happy, happy, happy with the fist loads of cash they accumulate (then later steal). All you need is money and a tendency to vomit under stress which is just funny and adorable.
We don't see that the victims of the con that develops is on men who deserve it; we're told that and have to assume no harm is done to people who can afford being robbed of thousands of dollars in one evening, often sent off in a cab mindlessly drugged and drunken, as if whatever transpires at the destination they've been sent to is as happy to see them in that condition as the people are happy to get rid of them...ecstatic with the cash they've lifted off them. The whole idea of drugging someone, stealing their credit cards and charging larges sums of money is easy and has no consequence becomes as unbelievable as all the expensive clothes that pass by while watching the film. And you can either laugh at it (which is what the film wants you to do) or be offended that the film thinks we're that gullible and lacking in morality. Morality is something assigned to a reporter, Julia Stiles, mugging shock as she's told this wild tale excess and greed.
Make no mistake. It's fun to watch. It's just not...fun-fun. There's a short speech about how everyone is on the take and deserves being exploited by the exploited, and that's where it becomes offensive and cynical. We're not asked if we want to agree with that, it's assumed we do. I don't.
Taking Lives (2004)
Wearing out one's welcome
What Hitchcock mastered was when to wind things up and deliver the package to the audience. "Taking Lives" is a well acted, beautifully photographed and expertly cut thriller that makes a grievous error in the final quarter of the film by heading off in a completely unnecessary and unbelievable direction. Would Clarice Starling bed Hannibal Lecter? Well, okay she did but it was in the less--awful--sequel. But she never would have in "Silence of the Lambs."
While that's an interesting topic in and of itself, i.e., why investigators are attracted to their jobs and maybe even their targets, it's introduced too late and we've got too many other fish to fry already.
As well, that particular turn in the film distracts us from unraveling what's already pretty complex in who is who and what is what to whom (much less why). And Angelina Jolie makes a career error in going along with a pretty racy scene that takes us completely out of the movie, a classic example of "gratuitous."
But along the way, there are some great scares and a reasonably challenging mystery that's involving even if the opening credits (fantastic by the way) give us more information than the following screenplay.
It all holds up even if rickety and ultimately unsatisfying. Were Agent Illeayna's choices poor judgment or a sanctioned masterful trap?
A handsome, well-written skewering of the consequences of greed
Right now, this is my nominee for best new series. It's certainly cleverly written and gives us characters so self-absorbed and eager to please...well-eager to please their buttered side of the toast, i.e., Daddy.
The assortment of personalities assembled at any given time is deliciously, wickedly triumphant. Dressed to the nines and living in surroundings just short of European royalty, the damage that each character is doing to themselves in an effort to harm others is a kind of guilty pleasure not usually offered on any major network. We usually see these types held up in admiration. Not so here. You wouldn't want to spend a second of time with any of these folks...other than to be a fly on the wall and see what degrading thing they're up to next.
I was disappointed that one of the major character was so emasculated at the end of season 1, although perhaps by the end of season 2 he will have regrouped to wreck havoc on his family yet again. The poise of Sarah Snook's Siobhan as she sinks a dagger into the heart of anyone nearby is particularly admirable. And Kieran Culkin's Roman is the family clown that shows how pratfalls masks a very insecure, desperate character that probably everyone needs to look out for, is deserving of his being singled out for an acting award. Hiam Abbass as a kind of step mother Lady Macbeth holds her own in this nest of vipers, and anyone who is smart enough to cast J. Smith Cameron in anything, anytime, anywhere should get our thanks. (Ditto for giving us Jeannie Berlin.)
But it's Brian Cox as Pater familias *in extremis" who provides the glue that holds all of this craziness together that wins my praise. Alternately compelling, brilliant and truly terrifying, he proves we never get to see him enough in our entertainment.
Long may this family live and demonstrate, "It ain't so great to accumulate riches."
Carnival Row (2019)
Right off the bat, I have to admit...
...I'm not a fan of the fantasy genre. "Game of Thrones" changed all of that. I was one of that series' biggest, though initially reluctant, fans.
When the previews began airing for "Carnival Row," I was hoping this would be another exception to what I usually find tedious in the genre: a lack of literary sophistication. In the case, of "Carnival Row," there's no sophistication at all.
Well, visually. There is a great deal of time spent on the recreation of a world that is impressive. It's just the script is so derivative ("Your mother would be proud of you.") and trite, you could finish just about every sentence before the actors do.
And there is a good cast assembled, but they're hopelessly misdirected. You get the feeling a lot of improvisation went on during the film, "Well, just say whatever you feel the character would say." And to say this lacks poetry of any kind would be a criminal understatement.
The script is a hodge-podge of many previous "B" projects thrown together with current affairs. As a result we're looking at some stunning effects with zero emotional connection and a whole lot of nonsensical vocabulary and silly names that stop any involvement dead in their tracks.
The challenge for the filmmaker is to create a visual style that equals Proust's prose. And, I'd guess, that's true of most "adapted" works for the screen...particularly literary masterpieces. For some, just the attempt might be enough. But the film--after a decade--is already dated, stilted and stuffy. I'm not sure you can say the same about Proust's voluminous works. Ultimately, it comes down to the viewer's taste and willingness to go along with Ruiz' project of a dream-like rendering with surrealist effects. I didn't. While Proust's literary attempt to recapture the past may alter the reality he's reconstructing, his exquisite words aren't in the least surreal, they make the reader soar.. The film is beautiful and clever, but it moves at a glacial pace. And while Proust's works are hefty in the page count, for the reader they glide effortlessly. This film is full of artifice, melodrama and quickly forgotten. Which has nothing to do with it's source, an excursion into a life thoroughly lived and beautifully recorded for the ages.
Historia de un clan (2015)
If you're ever embarassed by your family...just pull this out to watch and you'll feel better
The most original aspect of this series is the family and how perfectly the actors render their, uh, quirks. "Based on real events" is a staggering claim, but here they are the grand and glorious Puccio family who could probably qualify as their own psychological disorder. While the social fabric in Agrentina was strained during the time of the crimes, this bunch brings a whole new meaning to pathology...which is both hair-raising and very, very funny.
Imagine bringing the mark of a kidnapping home, keeping him hostage in a bathroom and believing none of the rest of the family is aware of what's going on. As the criminal syndicate who thought up this disastrous little project gather and regularly march in and out of the house without anyone asking, "What are you doing?" Not since "The Accidental Tourist" have such a family of eccentrics been assembled. Their crimes become legendary.
The style the director chose is straightforward (with magnificent yet unsettling mise-en-scène), you feel like you've never seen anything like it. Gathered for dinner, the family wearing full head masks as the daughters perform a dance that probably will never again find comparison in film. And Cecilia Roth as the mother of this lot, brings such a subtle humor in her performance as the wife who can't sit still or the family won't have clean clothes or food to eat without her efforts (and that's probably true). Once the ransom money starts pouring in, she takes on the role of bourgeoise with great alacrity, hiring a maid/cook/housekeeper so she can shop with the same determination she devoted to caring for her family...yet she's bored with her new found freedom and longs to put the vacuum to use.
At least her daughter has moved on from having a nun (who tap dances) in her bedroom to a "voluptuous" nude for her daily sketches. The shame it brings in her mother's eyes disrupts the moral balance in the family, yet the body tied up in the bathroom seems outside her gaze.
The series becomes darker and darker with each episode as the crimes become more frequent and the family members' tenuous sanity gets buried with each body. But our enjoyment increases with what the producers accomplish: the foolishness and avarice of men...and the blood ties that no one ever seems to think or able to verbalize, "I'm outta here, folks."
Don't miss this. It truly is one of a kind...just like the Puccio's and their "Association" and its exploits.
Personal Shopper (2016)
O, brother, wherefore art thou?
Having missed all of the "Twilight" movies (after trying to start one, then abandoning it as...silly), I only know Kristen Stewart through her other work, "On the Road," "Clouds of Sils Maria," and "Into the Wild," specifically. Her pale beauty which she casually underplays and her "method" of acting remind me of what James Dean tried to do with his work. Shunning the glamour of stardom, she invites us into the character rather and tells us how to feel. I'm a fan.
"Personal Shopper" puts her almost exclusively on the screen, so she's carrying quite a load both in screen time as well as demonstrating a person who functions but is also lost in grief over the death of her twin, felled by a heart condition which she also carries. As well, she's a paranormal and has made a pact with her brother that whoever dies first will try to contact the other...for reasons that are never really explained. (One would assume as a paranormal she isn't looking for proof of an afterlife, but that is one of the mysteries the film addresses.)
As the title suggests, she is a personal shopper for a celebrity (whose fame is also unnamed) and her boss isn't the most reliable of employers, testing whether or not the job is worth the effort and while not resentful of the person's celebrity, she's also not particularly enamoured of it. If you've ever worked for someone like this, it's one of the dawning realizations: fame is something that happens to people as flawed and annoying as anyone.
Her boss is also temperamental and has certain demands that seem at odds with Maureen (Stewart's character) and her effort to contact her brother. And her aggravation seems valid. But Maureen is also under some self-imposed pressure to wind up waiting for her brother's sign from the afterlife. Other spiritualist who are supporting her need to move on to something the produces concrete results. Maureen's sensitivity HAS stirred up some kind of presence, but she's certain it isn't her brother and she's also not comfortable that's it's hanging around her since it might have a wish to harm her... or not.
But we watch her personality change, and most of that is focused and directed toward her employer and the Chanel fashions and Cartier jewelry she's shopping for.
When an unexplained crisis occurs and Maureen is the likely suspect, she's alarmed that she can't explain either her whereabouts at the time or where some expensive jewelry has gone. As the audience we hold information that Maureen doesn't which takes away from who-did-what-and-when. It's a device that Olivier Assayas uses that puts us at ease, until the final sequence of the film (filmed in sunny Oman which is a world apart from the grey skies of Paris) where the rug gets pulled out from under us and we're left to solve the mystery for ourselves.
It's a traditional as well as a new form of "ghost story" that imposes the usual horror film devices (see "Poltergeist") onto contemporary life and its routine (Maureen's cellphone gets quite a work out). It's a curious film since it likely won't satisfy fans of the horror genre, and people who love Assayas (and the House of Chanel) will most likely be irritated by all the paranormal happenings.
Still, the charm of Stewart, the veneer of the world she inhabits as a personal shopper, and the talent Assayas brings to the project make this worth a visit from the art house crowd.
"Be sober and alert. The devil prowls the earth."
Robert Eggers' "The Witch" now replaces my all-time favorite horror film (previously Robert Wise's 1963, "The Haunting" with Julie Harris, now a little dated). What the two do have in common is a literary-mindedness, fine performances, superior cinematography, and that which is new and strange, that is, nothing is predictable.
In the case of "The Haunting" sexual repression, loneliness and maybe a psychotic heroine; for "The Witch," sexual tension from single room living as well as a religious repression, a dark foreboding wood, and a landscape unfamiliar to the inhabitant, that is, a New World. In both cases, an ignorance that needs some kind of definition so fear/panic can be managed. Ignorance is usually at the heart of the supernatural, but both films manage to convince the audience there is some kind of actual unknown force threatening the characters.
Eggers researched cases from the 1600's prior to the infamous Salem witch trials. Using court documents and lore, he's put together a convincing logic for what happens during the course of "The Witch," whether it be contaminated food, starvation or isolation born out of new surroundings or expulsion from society.
The spookiness creeps in slowly. The personality quirks of the family explain a lot. Never before have two "twins" been more cause for alarm than Mercy and Jonas and their "pet" goat Black Phillip.
The use of archaic language both Christian incantation (and other darker forms of religion) really raise the hackles. When Mercy and Jonas taunt an untethered Black William (a goat) with repetitious rhyme, I wanted to flee. But family members are stuck with them, and tensions build in their new surroundings as various significant and insignificant mysteries begin, and alarm and panic consume the family where no one is trusted and blame comes quickly to the lips, causing more and more tension. As pioneers, they are living on the margin of survival, in and of itself terrifying.
What happens in the wood is both beautiful and fraught. Jarin Blaschke's painterly cinematography draws us in to the drama, as does the careful costuming and production design. The film harkens back to the work of Carl Theodore Dreyer's 1920 "Leaves from Satan's Book," and masterful exploration of occult throughout his long career.
But it's the music that pushes this over the edge. Mark Korven's dissonant chorale and seemingly period instruments are as unfamiliar to us as the surroundings are for the family, driving us as mad as the fear that inhabits the characters.
All of this is accomplished in an almost casual way. But slowly the injection of the unknown and fear of it, consumes us without the usual tricks that have become so familiar (and anything-but-scary) the many horror films that are cranked out by the industry. "The Witch" is different which is bold enough. But it's also accomplished in what it sets out to do and earns a very special place in the canon of horror films.
Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)
Cinema is likely the most democratic of art forms, encompassing pop as well as the finer, more challenging intellectual philosophies. It always pays to know your own likes before buying a ticket to something, and Olivier Assayas' "Clouds of Sils Maria" certainly isn't the purview of the masses or those who only require cinema to fit comfortably with their expectations or past experiences.
I saw this film on Netflix after watching a later Assayas film, "Personal Assistant." Both feature American actress Kristen Stewart and both films mirror one another only because in both, Stewart plays a personal assistant...and Coco Chanel's fashions have a role...in one film more than the other.
"The Clouds of Sil Maria" is a towering intellectual achievement dealing with an actress facing the end of her career and asked to participate in the production of a theatrical play about an older woman's infatuation with a younger one. In this new production and in her maturity she's asked to switch characters and instead play the older character, which brings into focus many things in her life that are unconscious, and she's struggling whether or not she wants to face them. That is the sum of the film we're watching but it doesn't unfold in linear form. Rather within conversations she has with her young assistant, and later through rehearsing the lines for the play itself with this young assistant.
The play of her youth is named "Maloja Snake" which is a famous weather pattern in the Alps, where in the right conditions clouds stream into a valley resembling a snake. As the film opens, she is journeying to a ceremony to accept an award for the playwright of "Maloja Snake," who has asked her to decline the award. We meet her and her assistant on the train to the award ceremony, and afterward winds up at the playwright's chalet in the Alps for another kind of ceremony involving him, tagging along is the young assistant who is convincing her to take the role of the older character and also is a big fan of the actress they are considering to play the younger character which Helen herself began her career 20 years before.
This is a clever construct in the screenplay because is forces Helen to face her maturity and reason to consider secondary roles since her beauty, she feels, is fading. It's an ironic concern for Juliet Binoche, one of the most famous beauties of the screen at any age. And as the assistant, Kristen Stewart represents a different generation of actresses who (forgive me) seem to take their own physical attributes with very little concern. It's wonderful casting...and the result is equally thrilling.
Into this dynamic a young Chloe Grace Moretz is introduced who while more aligned with Kristen Stewart's character's values displays a hardness and contempt for Binoche that threatens Binoche even more. And Stewart begins losing respect for and finding more fault with her employer Binoche. It's a very modern triade in today's culture, and Binoche's insecurity with her life and it's predicament begins to threaten her survival in the industry. Or so she thinks. She looks to Stewart more and more and finds less and less assurance. In that insecurity the film's one mystery presents itself. And it happens at a time when the two have gone on a mountain hike to view the spectacular Maloja Snake.
The imagery during this sequence overpowers the viewer in such an overwhelming way, we tend to lose where we are in the drama. I felt that was the film's only weakness, forgivable since the spectacle of the event is stunning. But Binoche and Stewart create such vivid conflict and Chloe Grace Moretz' subterfuge are all formidable in what they're asked to do, all become part of film's conflict and the mystery. It's the work of a master who pulls all of this off.
The great Angela Winkler has a wonderful, though all too short, appearance. She provides the hope for which Binoche's character needs both within the context of the film and as an example of what actresses have to look forward to as they age.
This is a film that you'll either love or hate...or simply shrug off. I'm not sure I'm in agreement that this is "one of his best." "Pulp Fiction" and "Jackie Brown" are enough for any one director to have created. They're masterpieces. This film is marred by an unchecked self-indulgence.
What I liked: The craftsmanship, the work with the actors, the infinitesimal period detail, the ability to create considerable suspense in a story that's so familiar we can almost tick off the forensics of the crime which is the film's culmination. The performances of Pitt and DiCaprio both as a team and as individuals is remarkable. It's nice to see them do very serious work that is both comedic and dramatic--and a whole lot of action. When the camera isn't the star (much of the film is done with actors alone in a scene, tripping through a sunny recreation of 1969 Hollywood), the film really soars. The soundtrack is a trip as well. It keeps the film alive when there's very little reason to be engaged other than an odd blunted nostalgia for a time in America where cigarette smoke filled lungs and penetrated clothing, women were objectified, drug use was about to flood American culture...and dog food really sucked. But by the time Feliciano's "California Dreamin'" hits the soundtrack, and it's late in the film, all that's come before gets infused with an immense sadness, and a dread that's not just about a crime and lost lives, but the weight of time itself.
What I didn't like: I'm not sure why the producers indulged the length of the cut of this film. It could easily have been a 90 minute feature. We have long sequences of people driving in cars or riding on horse back or...just walking down a street. Beautifully shot, I can see why the footage would be hard to let go. But the film is unnecessarily long. There is precious little plot, which was very disappointing. Given the subject, I would have liked to see something a little less like soft buttery nostalgia which Tarantino seems to revel in. The scene at Spahn Ranch is lengthy, unnerving and prepares us for the climax. But like most of the set pieces in the film (the filming of the Western with Caleb Da-ko-ta, Sharon Tate's watching "The Wrecking Crew" (which is charming), DiCaprio's tantrum over not remembering his lines, etc.) they go on and on, and...nothing much comes of it. A party at the Playboy Mansion gives us little.
All I'll say about the ending: This is one of the most disturbing crimes among many in American history. It wasn't just our fascination with the rich and famous, but the brutality and lack of real motive is the stuff of nightmares. For Tarantino to use it in the manner he's chosen--which of course he's free to do--puts us in the position of laughing it off while survivors of the victims are still living. It's ballsy, yes. I'm not sure it was worth risking where it leaves the audience.
If you go chasing rabbits, you know you're going to fall
The character's in HBO's "Euphoria" are already so lost when we meet them, you can't even think, "Well, if they'd just made this other choice or that one. Or, if their parents were around more or were different or...." All hope is lost, so we're left with watching the end game of some very troubling behavior. No one is going to grow out of this.
It's presented in such a dazzling way--through cinematography, sound, and some very major turns by actors--you become almost as hypnotized as the critically damaged, dazed and confused characters, dreading what will come next.
I'm not a squeamish person when violence or sex or drug use is portrayed on screen. But "Euphoria" pushes way beyond anything I've seen either produced for television or even motion pictures. And it's not just the explicitness that's troubling. It's where it leads. Which is no where. The nihilism is thicker than powders, smoke and alcohol consumed in vast quantities in just about every moment of the project.
It's less a reflection of reality (although it is that), than it's a warning. The only peace that anyone finds is in a very fragile relationship that develops between Rue and Jules, and at Episode 4, I'm not banking that even that is going to pull anyone out of the world they're in.
I'll return to this review after the series ends. But if you're wondering what all the fuss is about, it is a series that's not meant for everyone. The producers, HBO, production team and actors--and frankly even the viewers--are all taking a big risk here, and so far, it's spectacular once the shock wears off.
Returning with one episode left. The series has held up. Everthing calms down after a stint at rehab, but other--much more traditional--teenage conflicts arise. With that, a lot of the scarier (read "druggie") perils recede into the background.
Throughout these episodes, I always keep thinking, "What's ahead for these kids? How do you come out of this...if you survive? While there's a cautionary fable at the center of all of this, what we as a society can do to protect our children from predatory world we've exposed them to, hangs heavily in the air. As a second season has been announced perhaps some solution will be offered. For me, I can't even guess what that might be. And that anxiety and sadness is as tick as smoke throughout the episodes.
On occasion, the film gets lost it all the (spectacular) kaleidoscopic imagery, and we're not exactly sure what's going on or what point there is watching it. Two episodes however use the visual style to a superb end: "Shook One, Part II" where a major plot complication is introduced; and the finale "Salt the Earth Behind You" is the best use of nonlinear style I can remember. But the young actors rain compelling, and I would predict this show will garner more nominations for HBO, particularly Mr. Levinson who handles all of this with confidence and that of a master.
Stranger Things (2016)
At season 3, I'll try to respect the "no spoilers" that seem to be so important to Netflix
The bloom is off the rose in Season 3, which I found repetitious, predictable and over-produced. That often happens with successful TV series. There is a challenge since the young actors have reached an awkward age where it's hard to portray them as kids and you certainly want to avoid addressing their emerging sexuality head on. But what they've found as a solution (kissy-face) is really tedious. The young actors as well seem lazy in the application of their craft which was the hallmark of Season 1. They've fallen back on the McCully Culkin school of Home Alone screaming and mugging. It was particularly disappointing since they are so affecting ins the first two seasons (a "Material Girl" sequence in a mall with Millie Bobby Brown is really stomach curdling). The older actors fair better but they really aren't given much (new) to do.
The plot assumes a lot from the viewer. Talking around the subject, there are a whole cadre of actors present that we really don't know why they are there. In material such as this (sci-fi) there needs to be some kind of internal logic that either we don't question or is explained. I had a lot of questions and zero was explained.
We do get some cringe-worthy, stomach turning special effects and some new or extraneous character actors that really up the classiness of the production. Many are dispatched in a way that I regret. I'd like some of them to carry over to season 4. There's a dazzling addition of Maya Hawke who is given a central role paired with Joe Keery (to his benefit; their chemistry--which has a surprise--is wonderful) plus a late appearance by Gabriella Pizzolo (and she's worth the wait). Priah Ferguson given screen time that is worthy of her gifts. Her performance is fresh, droll and she needs to be put in charge of teaching our familiar group of nerds how to hold the screen. She's wonderful.
For me, the final episode redeems a lot. It's really smashing and beautifully edited. It also is a worthwhile payoff to all the bloat we've sat through in the previous episodes of season 3. I thought this entire season could have been boiled down into a 2 hour feature and been much more satisfying. Let's hope the writers learn a lesson and give us much more than traveling down endless hallways for very little purpose.
Tales of the City (2019)
A tough reminder of the importance and delirious fun of the PBS original
One shouldn't fault the new series of Maupin's "Tales of the City" for skipping over, well, reality. After all the original work was about an overly idealized account of an era through the eyes of the pixelated magic found at the top of the stairs at the mythical Barbary Lane. Yet the magic of the original work was capturing the "high" found in an emerging queer culture, or the fleeting ecstasy in dancing to disco, or the rose-colored reflection of a city and a place that advertised anything goes or everyone's welcome. None of which was actually true, but no one can fault the effort of the author of the place and time he wrote about. It was a dream walkabout.
The downside of it all was never really the subject of Maupin's articles about the place which were published serially in the newspaper. Yet, on a facing page in the news print were often the actual stories that reflected San Francisco's mean streets.
Today is a whole other vibe, and the nostalgia that gets trucked into the social challenges of 21st Century San Francisco are brittle, fake and...well, even a little irresponsible.
One scene sums up my objection: Zosta Mamet's character invites Ellen Page (both superb in this series, by the way) to lie down with her at the corner of Taylor and Turk--the site of the Compton Cafeteria riots of the 1960's--on the bare pavement and stare up at the sky. In today's Tenderloin that could never happen. You'd be taking your life into your hands either from the constant muggings and violence or from the dire health hazards of the coming into contact with the filth on the pavement. (Occasionally the sidewalks are steam pressure washed, but if you're going to attempt this crazy act, you'd better act quickly after a washing and have a third person keep an eye out for your safety.)
There are moments in this series where the truth outs, e.g., finding an affordable living space on short notice (or any notice, in truth) and a dinner scene where a young "Millenial" is surrounded by men of a certain age, and the young fellow corrects the use of the word "tranny." "Today, we say 'transsexual.' The resulting anger of how-dare-you-young-whippersnappers correct a generation who fought and suffered to give you the freedom you have rings true. And viewing the scene both side's offense is presented without criticism by the writers.
But there's little else that seems very honest (even the frequent sexual couplings which don't seem to take a toll on the participants). Other than the primary actors who make watching the episodes very agreeable, this is a project that was better left dreamt of than realized.
When They See Us (2019)
The Human Stain
A story of such injustice and controversy is almost eclipsed by Ava DuVernay's gray-toned, gorgeous cinematography (which is unparallel as shot by Bradford Young) keeps the story at a distance, even though the uniformly fine cast of actors delivers. It takes until Episode 4 when the tragedy rips through all the artifice of the filmmakers by courtesy Jharrel Jerome and Niecy Nash.
If you lived through this news story, there may not be any revelation provided about a night of "wilding" by a group of teenagers in New York City that was a convergence of residents who are weary of street crime and too willing and ready to hang it on an emerging African American culture. It was so scandalous what happened to these teenagers that it's difficult to portray without cynicism which the first episode is guilty.
While Felicity Huffman's (always superior) work as Linda Fairstein is saddled with such an uncompromising villain by the script that she can't break free from it. Whatever role Fairstein played, she couldn't have orchestrated all of this alone. And it's letting off an entire system to scapegoat one woman in the D.A.'s office. We're kept in the dark about how brutal the crime these kids are accused of, so we can only sit in righteous judgment Fairstein's motives. It takes away the humanity of the story and the fulness of the tragedy. And some of it seems a little rushed and leaves you asking for more information.
But there's plenty left to be heartsick about.
The sense of helplessness the parents feel in watching their children become pawns in a political and cultural upheaval is wrenchingly portrayed. I thought the parents are given too heavy a blame in what happened, although they suffer mightily from their mistakes the night of the arrest...and a father's earnest struggle to make right turns into a tragic stumble. Once the trial is over and the verdict's rendered, the episodes fragment into each victim's own journey--which is one of enormous suffering for themselves and their families.
And Episode 4 can stand alone as it's own film. The scale of horror in Korey Wise's incarceration reaches near mythological proportions, and Jharrel Jerome's performance is one for the ages. (Matched by Niecy Nash as his mother.) The cycle of fear, suffering and long-earned redemption is something that gives the viewer pause to consider what is possible in the face of life's unfairness. The series is never anything but admirable, but it's in the final two hours that it crosses over into the terrain of a masterpiece.
Eighth Grade (2018)
Tediousness taken to a whole other level (and not a higher level)
Really, girl? Just some advice--since you're so willing to give it unsolicited: It's really rude to be on your iPhone at the table. If you'd put it down and engage in conversation with your Dad, you might get some practice at human interaction. I do worry that you're challenged so early. Life gets a whole lot harder.
Good luck, Mike
P.S. You should really be a whole lot nicer to your Dad. He's a saint.
Game of Thrones: The Bells (2019)
Wagnearian TV fully realized
The courage of the writers to yet again take us to places where we don't necessarily want to go reaches it's culmination in 8:5. It turns out the person who we believed would unite the Kingdom and lead its inhabitants to the land of justice and equality had a flaw. Her future inlaws turning a cold shoulder seemed to tamper with something deeply resentful in Daenerys...and then to learn her deep love for Jon Snow has a great big "well, what if?" It's more than the Mother of Dragons can bear.
All of this is on the screen, well rendered, clear as day. For the life of me those who think the change in Daenerys was "too fast" was either out of the room or has never been spurned...deeply spurned. Jon Snow's betrayal, his failure to heed what Daenerys clearly knew--and had observed--wrecks not only the narrative we've all been so deeply invested in but destroys her psyche. She states before Jon Snow withholds that kiss that she is wary of the citizens of King's Landing after meeting the cold hearts in Winterfell, knowing as well Cersei and her brothers can't be trusted further than she can spit. (Tyrion giving us ample proof.)
To those who profess they "know" George R. R. Martin's intent, and this wasn't it. Let me point out he was on the set.
I for one have never pretended to know what's going to happen next. It's one of the series grand accomplishments. You can just sit back turn your attention to something deeply fascinating and well-rendered and be swept along for a thrilling ride. Even the few weaknesses in the cast (very few) don't distract.
The only question I have after 8:5 is there even an Iron Throne left? It'll be interesting to see what fate awaits Daenerys and anyone daring to cross her. And I still remember that Jon Snow was raised from the dead for a reason. Certainly his military prowess wasn't it.
The imagination of both the creators and the renders of this story seems to exceed any bounds, and I look forward to how the game ends. The ride has been smashingly unparalleled in the history of television.
She's come undone
I wandered into a screening of Kent Jones' "Diane" solely on the strength of Mary Kay Place's reputation for giving an excellent--often quirky--performance in the many films she's graced us with. Here too the only thing that kept me in my seat was watching Place and her excellent supporting cast perform.
The film however wore the marks of a director's "first" film in that it's shape was loose (the first half maddeningly repetitious) and determined to equate the topic of depression with, well, depressing the audience.
Jones succeeds in creating the world of a small town in New England, winter of course, as well as a generational portrait (of which I am one) and the weight of one's mortality that comes with that. Everyone's sick, dead, or dying. The role of caretaker is what gets you up and out of the loneliness that's closing in, and the scourge/danger of substance abuse that if you yourself survived you want to save your children from, forgetting that you had to learn for yourself that tough, perilous lesson,.
Midway, the film breaks away from Place's role as compulsive nurturer and explores why she feels the need to atone by, hopefully, caring for others. Those revelations make the film engaging even if it comes a little late in the arc of the story.
I read another review that compares Jones' tone to the masterful work of Kenneth Lonergan. True, but it's a reach too far for this first time director with a script that needed significant tightening. Jones is able to capture a sense of place, and it would be wrong to omit the many cast members who contribute to this effort. If Jones has a stand-out talent, it's an eye for casting and getting something tender and relaxed out of his actors. And there's always having the chance to see Mary Kay Place get a role that keeps her on screen virtually from beginning to end.
Amazing Grace (2018)
"My soul looks back and wonders how I got over"
It took me nearly 50 years to see this footage. At 72, I wasn't sure I was going to make it. When this album was released, fans of Ms. Franklin flocked to buy it so we could hear her return to her roots: Gospel, not performed on a stage but in the setting where it originated, in two performances gathered at Los Angeles' New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. In the liner note was the teasing notation, "filmed by Warner Brothers," and it was maddening (in days long before the Internet) not to be able to find out when and where it would be released as a film.
Decades later we learned that it was impossible--with technology available then--to sync up the sound with the film footage and the project had been permanently shelved. The young director, Sydney Pollack, hadn't realized each reel needed a time clapboard for editors to find their way in assembling the footage to properly slate with the live sound recording. Not only that, but Franklin never wanted the film footage to be released (there was heavy post-editing in the audio's final release). So it was with a thunderbolt when we heard people had been working frame by frame to put the sound back in sync with the images (when you watch the film, just imagine what it would be like for an editor to be handed a 10 minute reel and be told "guess where this fits in"; and Pollack used 5 cameras to catch all that was going on with a reported 20 hours of unmarked footage).
It's a miracle to have this film in any form, and not only that but that the director(s) stayed out of the way of what was happening, no fancy edits, or commentary. Nothing but this woman transcending herself and her audience into spiritual ecstasy.
The album only hints at what we finally get to experience. But any performance, much less an entire concert by Ms. Franklin from this era is a gift. She's at her peak and her naturally shy demeanor that masks one of the greatest voices in history peels away and without histrionics or showmanship, she becomes an instrument of her faith. It's exhausting to watch; and, if you're so inclined, transforming.
While the filmmakers handle all of this beautifully, the participants intrude (as they do on the recording), trying to upstage the central reason for this performance. Both the Reverends James Cleveland and her father, C.L. Franklin nearly maul Ms. Franklin either physically or with obsequious lengthy praise. In fairness they have every right to show their pride, but it lessens them. (The choir director, Alexander Hamilton serves the evening much better with his graceful shaping of the choir that's almost a dance but it doesn't distract from the either the soloist or the choir.)
Aretha Franklin, with unparalleled poise and professionalism endures it all without a flinch. She's there to do a job, seems oblivious to the cameras, while using a vocal instrument with a power not seen before or since.