Wednesday, May 28, 2014

April-May 2014

    Like a ruminating, 600-page novel from Graham Greene or Saul Bellow, this Italian masterpiece is wide in its scope yet filled with small moments of epiphany, offering a devastating examination of modern society through the eyes of one fascinating, but deeply flawed man. In this case, Jep, a self-effacing, cynical journalist and celebrity partier who just turned 65, leads viewers through the decadent environs of the rich and bored of Rome; the old trying to hold on to youth, the young failing to grasp the pointlessness of it all.
     As in life, there is no real plot. The film, written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino (best known for his 2008 film “Il Divo”) is a series of parties and dinner engagements and other encounters Jep has with the “beautiful” people. Most of his rich, talkative friends are longing for something more but they have no idea how, nor the talent, to get there.
    Jep—played to perfection by acclaimed Italian stage director and actor Toni Servillo—published a highly regarded novel when he was young, as we learn through his many sparkling conversations, but never wrote fiction again; instead he became a highly paid celebrity journalist. The only difference between Jep and his friends is that he’s sadly aware of his failures, which, he feels, gives him the right to judge all in his presence.
     In one of the film’s most uncomfortable scenes, Jep methodically deconstructs all the lies and pretences of a middle-aged woman who boasts of her superiority because of the books she’s written and her devotion to her family. (Later in the film, he asks her, “Have we ever slept together?”)
    What makes Jep such a compelling character is that he is so well spoken, so spot on in his observations, even as he enjoys the hell out of this hedonistic existence.
    We’re offered a glimmer of hope in the second half of the film when Jep falls into a relationship with a much younger woman, the troubled daughter of a friend. The pair seems to thrive on each other’s awareness of the sadness of their lives. Needless to say, the relationship is doomed.
     If it’s possible for a film to be both life affirming and existentially bleak, “The Great Beauty” is it. The picture also points out that the one perfect, true love can sustain a real romantic for a lifetime, allowing him or her to put aside the pointless sound and fury of daily life and find an inner piece that pulls them through.
      There is a moment early in the film when Jep comes home at dawn after a night-long party. We see his luxury apartment, with a view of the Coliseum; he seems to be living the perfect life. But the film offers a deeper, more clear-eyed view of the facades that surround us and how we often mistakenly accept them as evidence of happiness and success.
      It’s hard not to compare “The Great Beauty” with the works of Federico Fellini, especially “La Dolce Vita” and “8 1/2,” two of the 20th Century’s greatest films. That director Sorrentino has even attempted to tread on the master’s milieu shows he’s fearlessly ambitious; that he succeeds on so many levels elevates him to world class status. 
     Along with Servillo, and veteran cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, the filmmaker has fashioned an unendingly compelling and thoroughly insightful look at a country whose potential has been frittered away for the past half century and, on a bigger scale, how contemporary man continues to grasp blindly for something meaningful in life. In “The Great Beauty” this still young century has found its defining film.

GORDON WILLIS (1931-2014)
     How can you not love a guy whose nickname is “The Prince of Darkness”? Not often will I be remembering a cinematographer in this space, but Gordon Willis, who died on May 18, shot so many of my favorite films, leaving such an indelible stamp on them, that he deserves a place beside the great directors of his era.
    Truthfully, if his only film work had been on the first two “Godfather” pictures, I’d still be writing this. The sparsely lighted, shadowy, neo-noir look he helped create for Francis Coppola’s masterpieces is as much a part of those movies’ legacy as the lines “I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse” or “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” Just watch some of those interior scenes with Brando or Pacino with an eye to the lighting and you can see the role Willis played in creating these iconic characters.
      Paramount executives were shocked when they first saw the dailies because scenes were so dark, actors faces shadowed; yet Coppola fought to keep Willis and his now iconic photographic vision.
      And then there are his collaborations with Woody Allen. Starting with the bright, sunlit “Annie Hall” to the tricky, movie-as-life “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” Willis defined the look of Allen’s films during the writer-director’s most fertile period. Standing out in that stretch are two masterful black-and-white pictures: “Manhattan,” certainly one of the most beautiful movies of the last half-century, capturing Woody’s at his most romantic; and “Zelig,” filled with photographic slight-of-hand that has never been equaled and so essential to the story that Willis should have been listed as co-director. It did earn him a belated first Oscar nomination.
     Willis did grittier work for Alan J. Pakula, serving as DP on the crime thriller “Klute” and the director’s two great political pictures “The Parallax View” and “All the President’s Men.” His work on “President’s Men” is especially impressive, helping turn a paper-chase into a taunt thriller as he contrasts the flat, fluorescent look of the Washington Post newsroom with the dark rooms of the bureaucrats and the ominous  pitch black of the parking garage where they meet “Deep Throat.”  
      After finally being honored with an Oscar nomination for his “Godfather” work—for “Part III” in `1990—he only shot three more films; two for his old pal Pakula, “Presumed Innocent” and “The Devil’s Own,” and “Malice” for Harold Becker.
      The Academy attempted to amend for the injustice of its membership through the years and awarded Willis an honorary Oscar in 2009. But he hardly needed an official stamp for most movie fans of the 1970s—two “Godfathers,” “Klute,” “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan” and “All the President’s Men” tell his story. Few cinematographers in film history have left such a rich and distinctive legacy.

     Even when a Woody Allen film is less than stellar, if the writer-director-actor has an on-screen role it inevitably makes the movie worth watching. Surprisingly, he's only appeared in two of his past 10 pictures, as a music promoter in one segment of “To Rome With Love” (2012) and as a second-rate magician in “Scoop” (2006).
      This John Turturro-directed film offers Allen the juiciest role he's had in years—probably since he played the title role in his underrated “Deconstructing Harry” (1997)—playing Murray, a retired bookstore owner who becomes the arranger (in other words, a pimp) of paid sexual encounters for his friend Fioravante (Turturro).
     This is an odd little film that seems to stumble from one idea to the next without any real intent. Most of the acting comes off as forced and pretentious; even the usually reliable Turturro is stoic to a fault.
      The tall tale begins when Murray's doctor (Sharon Stone) asks him if he knows anyone who would be interested in a ménage á trois. Why she would ask this elderly bookstore owner about such matters is beyond me, but he comes through, convincing the reluctant Fioravante, a part-time florist, to meet with her. Soon he's working regularly, as Murray starts soliciting clients all over the city.
     The strangest part of the film occurs when Murray hooks up a Hasidic Jewish woman (the striking French actress-singer Vanessa Paradis), whose rabbi husband has passed away, with Fioravante. When a Hasidic community patrolman (Liev Schreiber), who is in love with the woman, gets suspicious, Murray is accused of breaking Jewish law. In an Allen-penned film, the sequence would have been played for broad comedy, but here it sits uncomfortably between jaw-dropping reality and Woody one liners.
      At some point I stopped caring about the story and just enjoyed Allen stammering through this strange comic creation. In what may be a caustic commentary on the criticism of Allen's lack of people of color in his own films, Murray has a sharp-tongued live-in girlfriend who is African-American and he plays "uncle" to her four young boys. It just adds to the quirkiness of Murray, an unrelentingly positive man who goes from rare book dealer to pimp without missing a beat.

      Like a thousand films that came before it, "The Counselor" looks great on paper, but much less when realized on the screen. Directed by one of Hollywood's most reliable filmmakers, Ridley Scott, and starring two of the best actors working today, Michael Fassbender and Javier Bardem, this thriller about a lawyer who foolishly tries to throw in with the other side of the law is so lacking in basic structure and substance that it became irritating before it reached the 30-minute mark.
     What makes the film’s failure so ironic is that this incomprehensible script is the work of one of America’s greatest writers, Cormac McCarthy.  Author of such masterful novels as “All the Pretty Horses,” “The Road” and “No Country for Old Men” (all made into better films than “The Counselor”), McCarthy has turned spare dialogue and unexpected, bloody violence into an art form. Think of McCarthy as the Sam Peckinpah of novelists.
     While his style works beautifully in print, it hasn’t always had a smooth translation to the more literal-minded cinema. I found the film versions of both “The Road” and, despite its Oscar acclaim, “No Country” lacking clear narratives and fully formed characters. A novel can get away with being ambiguous, artfully vague, but it’s the rare film that can pull it off.
     “The Counselor” is the 80-year-old’s first attempt at an original screenplay and, to his credit, he creates a script that is very much in the spirit and style of his printed work.
Fassbender plays the nameless title character, a not to successful (I’m guessing here) lawyer who always seems a bit lost, humorless and lacking in the type of charisma you expect from someone only referred to as “the counselor.” Bardem, as an oily businessman named Reiner, is so over-the-top loony that he seems to have drifted in from the set of the latest “Hangover” sequel. He and the mysterious Westray (Brad Pitt, playing a character right out of a Tarantino film) have brought the counselor in on this sweet, but dangerous drug deal and when it goes wrong, it really goes wrong.
     There’s a very odd scene between the counselor’s fiancée (Penélope Cruz) and Reiner’s evil-hearted mistress (Cameron Diaz), but otherwise neither actress is given much to do, even when they become more crucial to the plot.
      It’s one of those films where every elliptical conversation ends with some quasi-thought-provoking question that only confuses the counselor (and, in most cases, the audience). Deep-dish philosophy is fine but it can’t substitute for basic, old-fashioned storytelling.

     One of the most interesting and  troubling developments in journalism in the past few years has been the emergence of websites willing to publish anything leaked to them, without consideration of its truth, its importance, its consequences. With everything—from government secrets to shady corporate dealings to all our personal information—stored on someone's computer, the possibility of the information becoming public seems inevitable.
      The cache of intel being slowly released to the media by Edward Snowden will turn out to be just the tip of the iceberg.
     Before Snowden, there was WikiLeaks, a website created by Australian hacker Julian Assange, to provide an outlet for anyone willing to anonymously open the window on the secret dealings of governments and corporations, in hopes of forcing both to operate with greater transparency.
     The idea of turning a website success, and the controversy surrounding it, into a commercial movie seems a daunting task, but filmmaker Bill Condon (“Kinsey,” “Monsters and Gods”) pulls it off to some degree by doing what he’s done in the past—putting the spotlight on smart, talented but less than admirable characters. Assange is all that and more: an arrogant, deceptive, paranoid loner who is never wrong.
     Benedict Cumberbatch (“12 Years a Slave” and TV’s “Sherlock”) keeps “The Fifth Estate” from becoming a tiresome collage of laptop typing and shots of world capitals as his “organization”—it’s really just him and the enthusiastic Daniel Berg (played by Daniel Brühl, the arrogant racecar driver in “Rush”)—convinces insiders to pass along incriminating information. With his shaggy white hair, unchecked confidence and brusque tone, Assange, at least this version of him, provides enough evidence to label him both hero and traitor.
    The film is at least 30 minutes longer than necessary as it contains too many repetitive scenes and a failed attempt at big-picture symbolism (Condon keeps returning to an imaginary scene of a huge office with hundreds of Assanges working at their desks), but the central relationship between Assange and Berg remains interesting, right up to its inevitable break.
     After WikiLeaks teamed up with major newspapers to release thousands of U.S. State Departments emails and cables connected to the war on terror, Assange became a pariah to Western governments and he ended up taking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. There he remains.
     I never felt like the film takes seriously the fears of the establishment (represented by State Department officials, slickly portrayed by Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci, and various newspaper editors) about Assange’s mission, leaving only the somewhat naïve, sincere Berg to provide of a voice of sanity.
     But what the film most blatantly neglects is that the reality of this surge of unearthing secret dealings doesn’t result in a more open society (as Assange imagines) but in more secrecy, more security, more official eavesdropping. As admirable as the motivations of WikiLeaks (still going strong as a website) and other organized whistleblowers, the results might be making matters worse.

     Watching this challenging, complex film, with its nimble use of time-shifting and multimedia as it examines the line between drama and reality, it’s clear you are in the hands of a master. It was the penultimate film directed by legendary French filmmaker Alain Resnais, who died on March 1 at the age of 91.
     Resnais directed two of the touchstone movies of the French New Wave movement (which he was only peripherally connected), “Hiroshima mon amour” (1959) and “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961), both post-modern studies of man drifting aimlessly away from society, unsure of the world and his position in it. At least, I think so. Resnais’ films tend to be elaborate puzzles, posing unanswerable questions and following the irrational needs of the human heart. Things are rarely as they seem in a Resnais film.
     My favorite of the director’s 68-year career (before “Hiroshima,” he was primarily a documentarian) is his 1977 foray into English-language cinema, “Providence,” starring British stage icon John Gielgud as a dying writer who creates (or remembers, it’s hard to tell which) a story about his backstabbing, vitriolic family. Already, Resnais, then just in his mid 50s, was examining the view of life from the far end, the attempt by those near death to find some meaning.
      He’s been very productive since turning 80, directing five films this century, including “Life of Riley,” yet to be released in the U.S., along with one of his best films in years, “Private Fears in Public Places” (2006), a thoughtful examination of the difficulties in finding and maintaining relationships among the middle-aged.
    “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” (a rather unnecessarily flip title) brings together some of France’s best known actors and directors (playing some version of themselves) as they gather for an unusual memorial service for beloved, if difficult, playwright Antoine d’Anthac. His assistant plays a video of the author’s latest production of his version of the play, “Eurydice,” for the assembled, which includes Mathieu Amalric, Michel Piccoli, Lambert Wilson, Anne Consigny and Sabine Azéma (Resnais’ wife). The video inspires these older actors to recreate their roles in earlier versions of the play, pairing off and reciting the lines in different parts of d’Anthac’s home (though sometimes it seems as if it is happening in their imaginations/memories).
    Though certainly pretentious and talky, the film is also filled with intense emotions and Resnais’ usual insight into the games between men and women, the foolishness and irrationality that love brings out. It helps to be somewhat familiar with the Greek legend of Eurydice, who, after she married Orpheus, dies and goes to the underworld. A distraught Orpheus arranges through the gods to follow her with the hope of bringing her back to the world of living, but there is much to overcome to make that happen. It has been the basis of numerous plays, operas and films through the years.
     “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” though it won’t be remembered along side of Resnais’ masterpieces, is among last year’s top foreign films, an engaging and astute master class in this timeless tragedy.

       North Braddock is one of the many communities in the Pittsburgh area that once thrived in the glimmer of the steel industry. For a time, it was at the center of it—Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill opened in North Braddock in 1875—until the industry moved out of the country in the 1990s. This film, set around 2008, takes place well after the area has been decimated by the economy, a community filled with desperate people with little future.
      One of them is Russell Baze (Christian Bale, as good or better than he was in “American Hustle”), who, despite actually having a job at the last remaining local mill and a beautiful girlfriend (Zoe Saldana), worries about his dying father and his unsettled, unpredictable brother Rodney (Casey Affleck). Though 15 years younger, Russell and Rodney reminded me of so many guys from my graduating class; capable of much, but, because of circumstance or inclination, stuck in that hometown rut.
      Director and co-writer Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) and his production team, filming in the actual community, have perfectly captured the gritty atmosphere—from the under-lit, narrow interiors of the old company row houses to the rundown, nearly abandoned streets—but the script is still a few rewrites away from being screen-ready. Overloaded with clichés and predictable plot turns, the screenplay doesn’t come close to matching the film’s half-dozen good performances and authentic background.
      I wanted to like this film, but it ends up being just an exercise in excellent acting, especially by Bale and Woody Harrelson, who plays the psychopathic leader of a scary Appalachian clan. The impressive supporting cast also includes Sam Shepard (ubiquitous in these kinds of films), Forest Whitaker and Willem Dafoe.
     Another thing that bothered me about this film were its similarities to “The Deer Hunter,” too many to ignore. Both are set in small towns outside Pittsburgh and focus on the efforts of a serious, responsible man (Bale/Robert De Niro) to save a reckless “brother” (Affleck/Christopher Walken), who, after serving in a war, finds his only outlet in destructive behavior. And, just in case you didn’t catch the homage, “Out of the Furnace” also includes a serene, symbolic deer hunting scene.
     There’s nothing close to the heartfelt ending of “Deer Hunter” in “Furnace,” which is a good thing, but, by then, the film had taken too many familiar roads to leave much of a mark.

     You could argue that it is senseless to criticize a martial arts extravaganza for its lack of substance, yet even the most juvenile of action movies offer some purpose for the mayhem. Be it the end of the world as we know it or controlling the drug traffic on a street corner, screenwriting 101 requires movies to supply a point to all the spaceships, car chases, superheroes, gunfire and bloodletting.
      Yet “The Grandmaster,” the latest from Wong Kar Wai, Hong Kong’s most celebrated filmmaker, is about nothing more than martial arts masters proving who’s style is better, a one-upmanship that last a lifetime. These “masters” don’t make life better for their people or improve their status in the world (what they do for a living is never examined) or defeat any type of real enemy. And what makes the film’s plot most ridiculous is that the action is set during the invasion of China by the Japanese in the late 1930s and the post-war turmoil that ended in China becoming communist. Monumental times in the ancient kingdom yet this group of well-dressed, mob-like families are more concerned with what style of martial arts is more effective—Northern or Southern.
      Like Wong’s other films, including “Chungking Express” and “In the Mood for Love,” “Grandmaster” is spectacularly beautiful, often more staged pictorial than drama. The Oscar-nominated cinematography of Philippe Le Sourd and the astonishingly detailed editing turn the fight scenes into master classes of modern film style. Seemingly hundreds of cuts go into a few minutes of fisticuffs. But it all seems so arbitrary and pointless.
      The writer-director tries to hold the film together through its main character Ip Man, a real life martial arts legend who, at the end of his life, was Bruce Lee’s mentor. Though the film attempts to be a biography of sorts of Ip Man, he never emerges as more than an image, the distinguished face of Tony Leung. The great Hong Kong actor (in most of Wong’s films, along with “Hero” and “Lust, Caution”) is always watchable, but here he’s given little to do.
      Wong tries to spice up all the stagey, predictable fight scenes with a romance between Ip Man and his rival’s young daughter (Ziyi Zhang of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) but that subplot seems tacked on and uninvolving.
     I’ll buy into amazing kung fu action, but only if there is a payoff at the end. Just don’t give me a bunch of guys flinging their legs and arms around for bragging rights, while the Japanese are ravaging the country, killing half the peasantry.