Tuesday, April 9, 2013

February-March 2013


      If it wasn’t for Roger Ebert I don’t know if I’d be writing this blog; I don’t know if I would have been inspired sometime in the early 1980s to start writing about movies, first for myself and later for public consumption. It wasn’t even Ebert’s prose that spurred my need to put film thoughts into words—I would discover his impressive, thoughtful and always entertaining writing later on—but the thoroughly invigorating weekly debate over the worthiness of recent releases with his cross-town foil Gene Siskel.
      It was as if the TV gods had invented a show for me: What could be better than a pair of very smart, well-schooled film aficionados arguing about movies? It was pretty much what my friend Jerry and I had been doing over beers since college—and continue to do so 35 years later.
      I savored every episode of “Sneak Previews”—or whatever it was renamed over the years—appreciating the two critics’ ability to make reviewing seem like a couple of guys just chewing the fat. More often than not, I sided with Siskel, who, like me, was irate over Hollywood’s turn toward big-budget crowd pleasers in the 1980s and ‘90s, more so than the populist Ebert.
      But it was Ebert’s personality—gregarious, self-assured and possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of film—that turned reviewing into a national sport. Now, everyone and their cousin—myself among them—has a blog to offer their opinion on something. For better or worse, Siskel and Ebert brought the idea of opining into the mainstream.
      And while some may argue that Ebert isn’t among history’s greatest critics (James Agee, Manny Farber, Pauline Kael, André Bazin, Vincent Canby, Andrew Sarris, Stanley Kauffmann, David Denby and Manohla Dargis, to name the cream of the crop), he is clearly the most important critic in the past four decades. Ebert showed that, under the right circumstance, a film critic, even as the clutter of noise grows exponentially, can have enormous influence, command the attention of filmmakers (Woody Allen affectionately referred to Siskel and Ebert as “the boys”) and convince the most unadventurous filmgoers to check out a Scottish  comedy or an Iranian political drama.
      Ebert also influence me in the way I write, the manner in which I attempt to use the language as if I’m  having a conversation with you, dear reader. That’s what Ebert did (I hate to write that word in the past tense) so well. Reading an Ebert review made you feel as if you were sitting in that balcony seat across from him, just waiting for an opening to offer a dissenting view.
      I still remember Ebert’s most egregious opinion—his failure to appreciate the brilliance of “Blue Velvet.” He missed the boat on David Lynch’s masterpiece of macabre comedy, but that I remember his review 25 years later says much about the effect Ebert had on my opinions, my writing, my thinking.
     If you want to remember Ebert, check out his amazing web site rogerebert.suntimes.com and spend an hour or so reading. You will find the finest (and most extensive) collection of personal prose you’ll likely discover anywhere on the web. Not only was Ebert the hardest working man in the business, he was among the internet’s most insightful essayists (on any subject) and a genuine humanist who saw that what the movies should do, most importantly, is help us understand each other and bring a bit of joy into a sometimes dark world. He did that with regularity and with a passion few have ever matched. Movies, like any art form, need critics; critics who put a piece of art in historical context, who bestow greatness or dispense it into obscurity.
   Few opinions in movie history have had the influence of Roger Ebert’s; his death leaves a gaping hole not only in film criticism but for cinema itself. He was the Ford, the Hitchcock, the Spielberg of movie journalism.
AMOUR (2012)
      This emotional devastating chamber drama is everything except what you’d expect from a French-language film titled “Amour.” The tipoff that this will be something quite different is the movie’s Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke, a decidedly serious, intensely challenging filmmaker, arguably the finest working in cinema today, whose films, including “The Piano Teacher,” Cashé,” “White Ribbon,” are studies in the unexplained horrors of life, often baffling and always thought provoking.
      In “Amour,” which earned him a well-deserved Oscar for best foreign film, he has cast two icons of the French cinema, Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant as an elderly couple enjoying their final years surrounded by the books and music so integral to their life and love. The morning after attending a concert by a former piano student of Anne who has gone on to fame, she suffers a stroke that affects her memory and sends her health on a rapid decline.
     Like no other movie I’ve ever seen, “Amour” provides an unblinking look at the indignities, frustrations and tortured heartbreak that end of life conditions carry with them. Not only does Anne suffer though physical ailments of all sorts, but faces the guilty and embarrassment of becoming her husband’s burden. Georges must face the inevitable decline (and virtual disappearance) of his life partner, but also the heavy load of caretaker and the loss of self to the other’s illness.
      As with most of Haneke’s works, there are no real answers—just his unmoving camera (no one holds a shot longer) staring directing at life at its most difficult point.
      At the time of the Academy Awards show, it was reported that “Amour” was the lowest grossing film ever to be nominated for best picture (and in four other categories). That’s impressive, speaking to the esteem Haneke, along with Trintignant and Riva are held by the Hollywood rank and file.
    The 83-year-old Trintignant, who has starred in such European classics as “A Man and a Woman” (1966), “Z” (1969), “My Night at Maud’s” (1969), “The Conformist” (1970), “Red” (1994), remains a subtle, sensitive actor who has smoothly morphed from French matinee idol to honored elder statesman. His career stands as one of the finest in cinema history.
     Riva, who at 86 became the oldest actress nominated for an Oscar, is remembered for her film debut as the talkative lover of a Japanese man in Alain Resnais’ political-charged masterpiece “Hiroshima, mon amour.” She’s worked continually for the past 55 years but nothing matched that first role until now. Her performance in “Amour” is astonishing in its depth and honesty; it will be remembered when Jennifer Lawrence is an octogenarian.
        “Amour” is not for the faint of heart—at points it is hard to watch, I felt I was intruding on the couple’s intimacy—but is well worth the sorrow; it’s a searing examination of life’s inevitable endgame.  
      You’d think that after I spent seven plus hours a day dealing with teenagers the last thing I’d enjoy is a movie about troubled high school students. Turns out this story about an emotionally scarred freshman outcast offers more wisdom about life than most so-called adult pictures.
    Though the Pittsburgh-set film features the typical, not very believable depiction of 9th grade bullying, it survives the clichés because of three sharply drawn characters who form the center of the story.
    Logan Lerman plays Charlie, a repressed, friendless but quite bright young student struggling with issues from his childhood as he faces the horrors of high school. Luckily for his sanity, he meets two kindred spirits—Patrick (Ezra Miller), the school’s openly gay rebel without a cause and his stepsister Sam (Emma Watson), a wild, serial-dating charmer who suffers from low self-esteem.
        Their romantic cynicism, their desperation to experience life as if they are the first ones through the gate, gives Charlie the jumpstart he needs to face the rituals of public schooling.
       Writer-director Steven Chbosky, a Pittsburgh-area native, working from his own novel, manages to elevate the moments we’ve all experienced to make them both cinematically exhilarating and easily relatable. And he’s cast three young actors who seem to understand their characters quite well.
      The big name of the film is Watson, whose Sam is far from her bookish, in-control Hermione; she’s a mature, charismatic, nurturing senior whose inner sadness is belied by her partying spirit; she’s the girl everyone wants to fall in love with.
      Miller, who plays her partner in teen angst, a post-hippie smart ass (the film is set in the late ‘80s) who just wants to be loved, expresses the film’s central question: “Why can’t you save anybody?” He delivers a memorable performance as his Patrick struggles with the turmoil of being a gay teen while offering Charlie the sometimes brutal advice he needs to hear.
      Carry the film and serving as narrator to his character’s young life, is Lehman, who has been in films since he was eight, debuting as Mel Gibson’s young son in “The Patriot” (2000) and played a feisty D’Artagnan in the 2011 version of “The Three Musketeers.” He’s impressive in the way he shows the evolution of his character from “wallflower” to self-confident young adult who endures the inevitable breakdowns along the way.
       There’s a formula to teen movies that is rarely deviated from: naïve newcomer finds “seasoned” hipsters to guide him or her through the usual array of clueless teachers, bullying jocks and catty, insensitive females. “Wallflower” offers its quota of these talking points, but through three memorable characters also provides thoughtful reflection on the ride we all take on the emotional rollercoaster toward adulthood.
      Early in the film, as the friends drive through one of the Pittsburgh’s tunnels, they are swept away by a song they’ve never heard—David Bowie’s “Heroes.” In that sequence, the film captures everything that is precious about those years: discovering something new—music, movies, people—while daringly emerging from the cocoon of childhood, breaking through to the exoticness of night, exploring the frighteningly exhilarating world of romantic love and finding an identity beyond your bedroom walls. Even 40 years removed from those moments, I was moved by the way they are captured in this fine, hopeful film.
THE GREY (2012)
       It’s hard to take the annual Liam Neeson winter vehicle seriously. Most of the movies released in the first quarter of the year are the disappointments studios would have preferred to send directly to DVD but fear insulting the big-name headliner. But, occasionally, these films turn out to be disappointing only to the marketing department that couldn’t figure out a way to sell it to a fickle public. This seems to be the case with “The Grey,” a thoughtful examination of the tentative hold we have on life in the guise of a survival adventure.
       Just in case you mistake this for the usual Neeson invincible hero role, before the action begins his character, Ottway, a severely depressed oil rig worker stationed in remote Alaska, puts the barrel of his rifle in his mouth and prepares to end it all.
      He has a change of heart, but his troubles have just begun as the transport plane taking some of the men back to the Lower 48 crashes in the middle of the frozen tundra, leaving just seven survivors. If surviving the brutal elements of the weather and environs isn’t enough of a challenge, it turns out that they’re been stranded in the middle of a territorial pack of very large, ferocious and predatory wolves.
    Though it is a typical B-movie setup, what happens after that is anything but, as these men already removed from mainstream society and the stabilizing forces of home and family now face death in its all its piercing, inevitable glare. As their numbers are quickly reduced by the killer greys, the men start to face their fate, as all men must, and reflect on what it means to be alive, what their lives have added up to.
     Neesom’s Ottway is a tough, stoic leader who has been permanently damaged by personal loss but is determined to escape the wolves, or at least go down with a fight. It’s not the kind of performance that will ever earn critical praise, but it’s one of this actor’s best, along with his Schindler and Kinsey.
     Also bringing gritty reality to the film are Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo and Ben Bray.
      Director Joe Carnahan, who directed Neeson in “The A-Team,” balances the intensity of the chase with the frost-bitten philosophy screenwriter Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (from his short story) works to get on the screen.
     “The Grey” was a pleasant surprise—I was clued into its merits by a passing comment in a Los Angeles Times Oscar story—and among 2012’s more interesting pictures even if it was released in the midst of bad-movies season.
    Since its quick and unsuccessful theatrical run 57 years ago, this Katharine Hepburn-Bob Hope comedy has been unseen, locked away by producer Hope because he was unhappy with the final product.
     The odd pairing of these two Hollywood giants has long intrigued me, with the added cache of it being the only Hepburn film I had never seen.
     TCM scored special permission to show the film from the Hope estate, premiering it late last year. I’m must sadly report that this is one film that would have been better kept behind locked doors; a lifelessly stiff, horribly acted reworking of the classic culture-shock comedy “Ninotchta,” sans the humor, style and entertainment value of the original.
     Hepburn plays Vinka Kovelenko, a sour-faced, androgynous Soviet test pilot who, because she was passed over for a promotion, defects to the West. Arriving unannounced at an American base in Germany, she immediately attracts the attention of Captain Lockwood (Hope, as usual, playing a character who treats every female as if she’s the first he’s ever seen), who is assigned to squire her around London.
     Hepburn performance as this unemotional Russian, with an accent that renders much of what she says inaudible (not necessarily a bad thing), isn’t just the low point of the great actress’ career, but one of the most ill-conceived performances I’ve ever witnesses from a major Hollywood star. And the chemistry between the two stars is nonexistent.
     According to TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, Hope flew in his crew of gag writers to punch up the script (it was filmed in England), a move that Hepburn saw as undermining her lead role. In this case, the venerable comedian was absolutely right—his one liners are the only thing that kept me awake through this mess of a film.
     When Hepburn’s Vinka finally takes to Western indulgences and dolls herself up, Captain Lockwood, catching a glimpse of her spindly legs, does a classic Hope double-take, mumbling something about taking a “tour” of that attraction.
      Director Ralph Thomas (who went on to direct mostly British B-movies), working from an uninspired script from the great Ben Hecht (he must have been writing from under his desk), seems to be clueless as to how to stage a comedy; it’d have made more sense if Hope and Hepburn had just made up their dialogue as they went along.
      Both stars quickly moved on from this disaster. Hepburn starred opposite Burt Lancaster in “The Rainmaker” later that year and followed it with another film with Spencer Tracy, “Desk Set,” while Hope, in addition to his television projects, starred in one of his rare dramatic roles as legendary New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker in “Beau James” (1957).  
     One of the most thrilling and brutal imports released in the U.S. last year, this Norwegian action movie deserved a bigger splash. Maybe it was a bit too much like a Hollywood action movie to merit attention from the foreign film aficionados; Morten Tyldum, directing just his third feature, seems a shoo-in to helm a big-budget, star-driven crime picture on these shores very soon.
     Aksel Hennie stars as Roger Brown, a “headhunter”—those experts in finding just the right executive to fill corporate openings—with a side job: he uses the interview process to find out who owns expensive artwork and then steals the paintings. Thought obviously well paid in his day job, the rather short Roger feels the need to supplement his income with his criminal hobby because he lives in fear of losing his tall, blonde and gorgeous wife Diana (Synnove Macody Lund). Yet, typical of European males, this guy worrying about losing his wife’s affections is having an affair on the side.
     When he meets Clas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) at the opening of his wife’s gallery he discovers that this charismatic Dutchman is both an art collector (he owns a priceless Rubens) and has just left a top job at a prestigious tech firm. He fits the bill for both of Roger’s needs.
     But his charmed life turns sour very quickly when, while robbing Clas’ apartment, he finds his wife’s cell phone in the man’s bed and then finds himself being pursued by thugs hired by Clas.
       The superbly paced plot turns on itself more than once (adapted from a popular novel by Jo Nesbo), never heading down a road in quite the way one expects. Hennie, one of Norway’s most honored actors, is perfect as this tough guy with a heart; a complex, even sympathetic con man who shows amazing resourcefulness when forced to go on the run. Even in retreat, he finds a way to get the upper hand on Clas.
      Most impressively, while the bodies pile up, “Headhunters” never loses its psychological bearings, both in the battle royale raging between Roger and Clas and between Roger and his misunderstood wife. 
      This quietly contemplative drama about a series of crises encountered by the members of a critically acclaimed string quartet builds as if it was a great piece of music. The cast speaks in hushed voices with solemn reverence for each other as the film begins, which gives way to an andante of conflicts and a stirring, emotional finale.
      Despite the metaphoric structure, superbly controlled by director Yaron Zilberman and five well-measure performances, the film is disappointing in the way it relies on predictable plot turns and resolutions that are never in doubt.
      The long-standing quartet is made up of the married couple Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Juliette (Catherine Keener), leader Daniel (Mark Ivanir) and their musical mentor Peter (Christopher Walken). They seem perfectly matched until Peter announces that the on-going effects of Parkinson’s disease will force him to give up the cello. That spurs second violinist Robert to demand a chance to occasionally play first chair; it all comes tumbling down from there. 
        Also playing a vital role in this series of emotional disturbances is Alexandra (Imogen Poots), the violin prodigy who is Robert’s and Juliette’s daughter.
       It is one of Walken’s better recent performances as he grapples with losing his ability to do what has been central to his life. His self-deprecating remembrance of an encounter with cello legend Pablo Casals, which he relates to his music class as an example of what it means to be a musician, is one of the film’s best moments.
        While Hoffman earned a 2012 Oscar nomination for his performance as the cult guru in “The Master,” I’d rank his work here as more impressive. He perfectly realizes the frustrations of a life-long underachiever who has accept a supporting role in his own life.
       The film, as you would expect, is filled with brilliant music—courtesy of the Brentano String Quartet—with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 (Opus 131), one of the master’s last works, which is played without breaks, serving as the metaphor to the way we’re forced to rush through life without taking a breath, without considering about what’s really important. The film’s theme deserved a more thoughtful plot.
     I haven’t a clue as to who director David Cronenberg and his producers imagined would be the audience for this unpleasant, verbose, faux intellectual character study of a thoroughly repulsive, epically shallow Wall Street mogul.
      Appropriately considering his previous role as the sexy vampire in the “Twilight” franchise, Robert Pattinson plays the slick, paranoid, perpetually randy Eric Packer, who spends the most of the film in the comfort of his spacious, tricked-out white stretch limousine. While inching across Manhattan in a massive traffic jam (the president’s in town), Packer discusses finance with a couple of young computer nerds, has sex with a pair of women old enough to be his mother (including Juliette Binoche) and lies down for his daily, yes daily, physical right there in the limo, featuring the longest prostate examination in the history of proctology.
     Packer occasionally emerges from the limo to speak with his new wife (Sarah Gadon), who he is anxious to, guess what, sleep with again. This is a film to be endured not enjoyed. The highlight (other than the incredible looking 48-year-old Ms. Binoche) is a way-too-late appearance by Paul Giamatti as an ex-employee of Packer’s who is now a crazed, 99-percenter.
     Cronenberg, certainly one of the most daring directors of the past 30 years, earned some of the best reviews of his career with “A History of Violence” (2005) and “Eastern Promises” (2007). But his last two efforts have fallen flat; “A Dangerous Method” (2011), a talky story of the Freud-Jung rivalry, and this latest strange attempt at condemning the excesses of the financial hierarchy. I am unfamiliar with the source material, a novel from acclaimed writer Don DeLillo, but I suspect there was more substance on the page than Cronenberg managed to put on the screen.
    Terence Davies might have been better suited to direct silent films, with his austere aesthetics and focus on unspoken, slowly evolving emotions.
     Like “Distant Voices, Still Lives,” his acclaimed 1988 debut, the British filmmaker’s latest is a remembrance of mid-century mores in which an affair ends badly. Based on a Terence Rattigan play, the story was made into a 1955 movie with Vivien Leigh in the lead.
    This time-shifting, dreamy melodrama follows the romantic entanglements of the symbolically named Hester (the always superb Rachel Weisz), who is married, for unexplained reasons, to the much older, distinguished but incredibly dull Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), whose imperious mother hates her.
      When the film opens, she’s fallen for a distracted, equally uptight ex-soldier, played by Philip Welch. Yet even when she leaves the stability of her marriage for him, he’s unwilling to commit to anything long term.
    To watch this movie requires intense focus, as it moves at a glacier pace, giving the actors seemingly unlimited to time to interpret the emotional truth of their lines.
    The best, maybe only, reason to stay awake through “Deep Blue Sea,” is Weisz, who portrays this confused, fragile, overly romantic woman with heartbreaking intensity. Her internal struggles dominate nearly every scene and Weisz is brilliant in illuminating this sad woman. Yet as much as I admired her emotionally raw acting, I never had much sympathy for this indecisive, rather histrionic character.