Monday, April 6, 2015

February-March 2015



      There’s a reason why the works of many of the acclaimed novelists of the Twentieth Century, including Bellow, Cheever, Updike, Malamud, Pynchon, and DeLillo, have rarely been adapted for the screen.
      Unlike more popular novelists or those from earlier eras, a large portion of modernists’ “stories” take place in the mind of the protagonist. The books are less about the events of a character’s life—which rarely get more exciting than extramarital affairs, struggles with their art or establishing relations with family—than what they think about the society they exist in. Novels that take place, in large part, inside a character’s head don’t make for entertaining movies.
      Yet many of Philip Roth’s books have been brought to the screen, though rarely with success. His focus on troubled, usually May-September, love affairs has been the attraction.
      Veteran director Barry Levinson (“Rain Man,” “Wag the Dog”) makes a valiant attempt to turn Roth’s 2009 novella, “The Humbling,” far from the author’s best, into an interesting film. The filmmaker improves his odds by casting Al Pacino as Simon Axler, the neurotic, self-absorbed stage actor, whose sudden inability to perform on stage is at the center of the film.
      It’s a perfect late career role for Pacino, who brings out the desperation the actor feels having lost his most precious skill, while conveying the bafflement he experiences when his life takes a strange turn. He suddenly finds himself in a relationship with the bisexual daughter (Greta Gerwig) of his oldest friends. Pegeen sweeps into his life—she’s had a crush on him since childhood—after she escapes a dysfunctional arrangement with a fellow professor. 
     In all aspects of his life, Simon has lost control; he’s not even sure what’s real or what he is imagining. He’s clinging to what he was—great actor, lady’s man, respected professional—yet that’s all in the past.
      Levinson and screenwriters Buck Henry and Michal Zebebe substitute the lengthy inner dialogue of Simon with Skype sessions with his psychologist. And because his thoughts are the heart of the book, those scenes are the most interesting in the picture and provide Pacino with his finest moments.
     Not unlike the book, the relationship between Simon and his younger lover is never fully developed or at least made believable. In the film, Gerwig doesn’t add much to the role of Pegeen, failing to show any complexity or intellect. It never was clear to me why she went beyond a one-night stand with Simon, 40 years her senior.
     The film is additionally hampered by its similarities to 2014 Best Picture winner “Birdman,” a more entertaining and convincing movie tackling many of the same themes, also focused on a troubled actor.
     Ironically, last year also saw the release of “Listen Up, Philip,” an irritating, pointless fictional account (I guess?) of Roth’s early days as a published author. The clue to the connection is the typeface used in the title and credits o the film, duplicating the style of the titles on Roth’s paperbacks issued in the 1970s, from “Goodbye Columbus” to “Professor of Desire.”
      Writer-director Alex Ross Perry is reportedly a big fan of Roth, yet the portrait is anything but complimentary. Jason Schwartzman (“Rushmore” and other Wes Anderson comedies) plays the arrogant, blunt and thoughtless Philip, who seeks mentorship from an older writer (Jonathan Pryce), who is equally self-absorbed, seemingly the older version of Philip himself. He scowls at everyone and treats his longtime live-in girlfriend like a rug, but is shocked when he’s not respected. Even as a devotee of Roth, I found little of interest in “Listen Up, Philip.”
      One of the novelist’s late masterpieces, “American Pastoral,” more plot oriented than most of his works, is set for release next year, with actor Ewan McGregor as star and director.


     This is the movie that dropped me head first into the world of Woody Allen, falling under the influence of his self-deprecating humor, pessimistic outlook on life, judgmental tone, intellectual allusions and overarching lesson that love, at least temporarily, makes it all worthwhile.
   The film, which marks its fortieth anniversary this June, opened so many doors for me that I can only touch on the importance it had in my aesthetic development.
    “Love and Death” was the first film that I recognized the role the a director, somehow understanding that someone was putting their vision of the world on screen and that even in a goof-ball comedy the message could be as serious as death. The film also introduced me to the world of the foreign cinema, as “Love and Death” never stops parodying the tropes of the Russian/Swedish/intellectual films from across the Atlantic.
    The film came into my life at the perfect time, the summer after my freshman year at college, as I was just beginning to appreciate movies (having been swept away by “The Godfather” in April of that year) and attempting to fashion myself as a writer. The 30-year-old Allen offered the fire for all the simmering ideas banging around in my 19-year-old brain.
      For Allen, it’s the transition film from his early episodical slapsticks (“Bananas,” “Sleepers”) to his more serious, landmark comedies (“Annie Hall,” “Manhattan”). “Love and Death” showed that he wasn’t just a standup dabbling in the cinema, but a filmmaker ready to make his mark on movie history.    
      Allen plays Boris Grushenko, the youngest son of a Russian peasant family who would rather discuss philosophy with his cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton) than fight Napoleon for the honor of “Mother Russia.” Surrounding by his beefy family, the short, red-haired, glasses-wearing Boris is hustled off to the front (with his butterfly collection and net in hand) after Sonja rejects him.
      These early scenes are sharp satires of Tolstoy/Dostoyevsky, with Prokofiev’s heroic music playing on the soundtrack, while offering timeless truths through a series of laugh-out-loud lines. Of his father, Boris remarks: “He also owned a small piece of land. He carried it around with him.” He remembers a moment in childhood just before an encounter with “Death”: “I was thinking about Jesus…if he was a carpenter, I wonder what he charged for bookcases?” Then, when Sonja provocatively says that she’s “half saint and half whore,” Boris comments: “I hope I get the half that eats.”
      At points, the film seems like a series of homages to the artists Allen admires, as he steals liberally from the Chaplin/Keaton legacy for the basic training scenes (the comically slight Allen in uniform; his gun exploding in his hands), offers a nod to Mel Brooks by having a black drill sergeant in charge of these 19th Century Russians, channels Sergei Eisenstein for the battle scenes, and then combines the shenanigans of the Marx Brothers and Bob Hope for a night at the opera.
      Not long after the Russians lose a major battle, Boris, by accident, becomes a war hero and gets his chance with the alluring Countess Alexandrovna (Olga Georges-Picot). When she offers him wine to get into the mood, he says, “I’ve been in the mood since the late 1700s.”
       Later he tricks Sonja into marrying him, but it doesn’t go to well. “Sex without love is an empty experience,” she tells him. A thoughtful Boris responds (directly to the camera): “Yes, but as empty experiences go, it’s one of the best.”
     The plot starts to get ridiculous when Boris and Sonja decide to make their mark on the world and assassinate Napoleon, which they bungle like Laurel and Hardy. Soon death, and a Bergmanish examination of life, with tongue in check, arrives. As Sonja opines: “Judgment of any system or a priori relation of phenomena exists in any rational or metaphysical or at least epistemological contradiction to an abstracted empirical concept such as being or to be or to occur in the thing itself or of the thing itself.” Try saying that with a straight face.
           “Love and Death” remains a goofy, sloppy, unoriginal comic gem, wonderfully entertaining and insightful all these years later. How can you not love a film that includes a discussion of how “jejune” life can be? Or, as Sonja suggests: “To love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer. To suffer is to suffer.”
     Ah, the joy that Woody has brought to our lives.

WILD (2014)
     I have seen so many films that botch attempts to use flashbacks as the main technique in revealing the character and the story that I was initially skeptical of “Wild.” Yet within about 20 minutes it was clear that director Jean-Marc VallĂ©e (“Dallas Buyers Club”) and editor Martin Pensa had mastered this lost art, enriching this well-written, finely acted portrait of a woman trying to reclaim her life.
     The here and now of the film is set on the thousand-mile Pacific Crest Trail, where novice hiker Cheryl Strayed decides to cleanse herself of the hardships she’s experienced to that point. Based on her memoir, the film chronicles the ups and downs of her hike while flashing back to what brought her there. While squeaky-clean Reese Witherspoon seems like a strange choice for this gritty, physically demanding role, she delivers a convincingly truthful and tough-minded performance, earning a well-deserved Oscar nomination.
     What we see in the flashbacks is her intense relationship with her unorthodox mother (a brilliant Laura Dern), a love-hate bond that is further complicated when cancer begins to take its toll on the mother. Dern, one of the most underrated actresses of her generation (she’s only nine years old than “daughter” Witherspoon), turns this free-spirited woman who wasn’t much of a parent into a sympathetic character, emblematic of so many clueless parents who had children too early and thoughtlessly.
      Before her hike, Strayed also drifts into drug addiction, bad relationships and promiscuity, heading down a trial of hopelessness. The PCT provides both a symbolic and real road to recovery.
     “Wild,” adapted by Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity”), reminded me of films like “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They,” “An Unmarried Woman,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” Those 1970s films, and many others of that era, dug deep into the female psyche, examine women not all cut from the same cloth. Those films are few and far between today, which makes “Wild” something special.

    As a young filmgoer in the 1970s and ‘80s, I grew attached to the directors who spoke most directly to me, either by offering insight into life’s confusing journey or shedding light on society’s wrongs. That so few of these filmmakers (Allen, Scorsese, Malick) are still regular contributors to American film is disheartening. Either because of the unforgiving economics of Hollywood or their own decisions to step back, fine directors such as Francis Coppola, Brian DePalma, Alan Rudolph, Bob Rafelson, Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch are but fringe players in moviemaking.
     One of contemporary cinemas biggest loses is John Sayles, once the most important independent filmmaker in the country. Now, his movies are barely released in theaters and are hard to find even on disc. It has been 12 years since I saw a Sayles film—“Sunshine State” (2002)—on the big screen.
     In looking for a previously unreleased film of his on Netflix, I stumbled upon his latest picture, which I didn’t even know existed, “Go for Sisters.”
     The story begins when female parole officer, worried about her son who seems to have disappeared and may be mixed up in some criminal behavior, asks a parolee, once her best friend in high school, to use her connections on the shady side of town to help her.
      The two African-American women end up on a very dangerous journey that takes them into some of the more dubious parts of Southern California and Tijuana, described as “a theme park of bad behavior.”
     What I miss about Sayles’ films, and one of the strengths of “Go for Sisters,” is his ability to bring out sincere, unaffected performances from his actors, who are usually little-known performers. His characters are never slick or contrived; they are as real as your next door neighbors. Actresses LisaGay Hamilton and Yolanda Ross play Bernice and Fontayne so naturally that the picture could be taken for a documentary.
         Guiding the women on this trail they hope will lead to Bernice’s son is retired police detective Suerez, superbly portrayed by Edward James Olmos. The veteran actor, best known for playing inspirational teacher Jaime Escalante in “Stand and Deliver,” remains a compelling screen presence, here enlivening the film with his straight-shooting, irascible investigator. It is a performance that in a high-profile film would have earned him an Oscar nomination.   
      Sayles most ambitious film in recent years, “Amigo,” chronicled the nearly forgotten Philippine-American war that took place at the turn of the 20th Century, yet it was barely released in 2010. It wasn’t that long ago—“Lone Star” (1996) and “Limbo” (1999)—that the writer-director was making some of America’s best films. Now, his films go unseen except by his most loyal followers. Some things I’ll never understand.

ST. VINCENT  (2014)
     It’d be easy to dismiss this film for a plot as old as drama itself and sentiments more suited to a Lifetime Channel movie. But the cast of “St. Vincent” breathes new life into a set of stock characters, creating a lively, funny, insightful and even heartbreaking movie.
     Not surprisingly, most of the pleasures of this film can be traced to Vincent McKenna, a bitter, sarcastic alcoholic who spends his days at the track betting money he doesn’t have and berating anyone he comes in contact with.
     In the hands of comedy legend Bill Murray, this character is both a self-amused clown living life on his own terms and a sad victim of life’s irreconcilable tragedies. I’m sure this role was written for Murray, whose eclectic career, from “SNL” and “Candyshack” to “Groundhog Day” and “Lost in Translation,” now spans an amazing 40 years, as he plays Vincent with such casual confidence that he looks as if he just rolled out of bed. Of course, that is the greatness of Murray—it never seems like he’s putting in any effort, yet he keeps delivering spot-on performances. This one is among his best.
      The world intrudes on his curmudgeonly life in Brooklyn when a single mother (a refreshingly low-keyed Melissa McCarthy) and her young son (a sassy Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door and, through the usual turns of bad luck, Vincent takes on the role of after-school caregiver. Well, let’s rephrase that: there is not much care given, but he supplies the kid with bits of food, occasional trips to the track and local tavern, and a lifetime worth of stories.
      But Vincent isn’t just a one-dimensional loser; this Vietnam vet has a wife (Donna Mitchell) with early onset of Alzheimer’s and an attachment to a Russian stripper (a slumming Naomi Watts) who’s in the family way.
    This very entertaining, well-acted comedy is the impressive feature film debut of writer-director Ted Melfi, who previously made shorts and commercials. Rookie filmmakers should learn a lesson from Melfi: If you want to have a notable debut, spend all your money and energy persuading Bill Murray to star in your film.

IDA (2014)
    Just when you thought there were no new stories to enlighten our view of the Holocaust, this spare, emotionally powerful picture arrives from Poland.
     The movie opens at a monastery, where Anna, a young novice nun is told by the mother superior that she must visit an aunt, who she’s never met, before taking her vows. The contrast between the two could not be greater; when Anna arrives at the aunt’s apartment, there’s a man in her bed.
     Anna dismisses the woman almost immediately, until discovering that her family is Jewish, and that she, originally named Ida, was placed in the covent when the rest of her family was killed. Her aunt, Wanda, a judge who hears cases against war criminals, offers to attempt to find Anna’s parents’ graves. What they find is a network of complicity among the Poles, still reluctant to talk a decade after the Nazi persecution.
     Shot in purposely a dreary black and white, the film reveals the desolate landscape of rural Poland and the sadness that remained in Poland after the war’s physical and psychological devastation. Cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for their camera work.
     While primarily a stinging commentary on post-war Eastern Europe, the film is also a moving coming of age story, with Agata Trzebuchowska giving a heartbreaking performance as Anna, who, with very few spoken lines, is able to convey so much in her bright eyes and precise body language. Her discoveries with her aunt are both revelatory and burdensome. In the end, facing a world she’d never knew existed, she must decide between the secular and the sacred.
    Agata Kulesza is unforgettable as Wanda, a hard living, emotionally crippled woman who has never accepted the truth of her sister’s death and the affect it has had on her life. She has to carry the nearly one-sided conversations between the two, while pushing the reluctant girl toward the truth. Yet she is suffering more than Ida, who at least has her faith.
    Writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski (“Last Resort,” “My Summer of Love”) has made one of the most restrained yet pointed pictures about post war Europe I’ve seen in quite a while, enhanced by two perfectly calibrated performances. The film's Oscar for best foreign film was well deserved. 

GET ON UP  (2014)
   Admittedly, the bar for good biographical films has been set pretty low, but this look at James Brown’s life and music, because it doesn’t shy away from his volatile, unpredictable nature, feels authentic and remains fascinating from beginning to end.
    Not only is the movie jam packed with the Godfather of Soul’s amazing catalogue of funky songs, but Chadwick Boseman gives a rather astonishing performance as Brown, nailing his clipped vocal style, hipster swagger and almost robotic body movements. At first, I found Boseman’s Brown to be more of a caricature than human, but then I recalled that the real J.B. was a caricature, an invention, an incredible, animated human. The public man was always wearing his “James Brown” mask and the actor, who I did not care for as Jackie Robinson in “42,” captures that perfectly.
     Especially in the first half of “Get on Up,” the story keeps flipping back to Brown’s broken childhood and his rejection by both of his parents. He clearly has nothing to base his understanding of relationships on, so he relies on his survival instinct: what’s good for No. 1 is all that matters. Add to that an incredible singing voice and his meteoric rise from local sensation to music legend seems inevitable.
      Between the sizzling stage show recreations—the legendary “T.A.M.I. Show” performance is especially exciting—the film shows Brown as a mean-spirited, disloyal and childish man, who fires long-time collaborators, hits women for the slightest provocation and, later in life, leads police on a car chase after firing off his rifle at a community gathering.
     While I wasn’t that impressed with director Tate Taylor’s previous film, “The Help,” he certainly knows how to get the most out of his actors, and that serves him well here. Musicians that helped create Brown’s distinctive sound, Bobby Byrd and Maceo Parker, are superbly portrayed by Nelsan Ellis and Craig Robinson, especially when they face the wrath of Brown.
     About the only person the singer treats with any dignity is King Music record executive Ben Bart (a perfectly cast Dan Aykroyd), who eventually becomes Brown’s person manager.
    There’s a B-movie quality about “Get on Up” that keeps it from slipping into the artificiality that too many musical bios (“Ray,” “Walk the Line,” “Jersey Boys”) suffer from. I’m not sure how it happens, but even good actors start sounding like they’re in a made-for-TV movie when they play a real person. Boseman shines in “Get on Up” by never letting us forget that we’re watching a crazy man.