Category Archives: Reviews

Another Year

As Another Year, Mike Leigh’s latest wonder, came to a close, I was met with a horrible feeling. I was never going to see these people again. Good people, irritating people. It didn’t matter. They were people, and I was never going to see them again.

What a master Mike Leigh is! Who else can bring an audience to pity, reject, and completely forgive a fictional character in the short space of two hours? Simply inspiring pity would be enough, but the full cycle! Continually shifting our alignment between complicity and remove, Mike Leigh, with imperceptible finesse, demonstrates (once again) his total control over his people, their stories – and utterly without bravura style – his medium.

It’s British and verbal and the camera doesn’t do much, so critics call it “theatrical,” but Another Year is unmistakably cinematic. Yes, what transpires in those long masters could be set on stage, and a hefty handful of the film’s more actorly moments stretch easily to the very back row, but what’s between those unmoving wideshots – the strategic inserts and reactions Leigh layers in like Miracle-Gro – offers, by cutting, a deepened view of the story as only the movies can. Via the well-placed close up, in other words, Leigh is refracting his people through his people. The effect is one of total knowledge.

But without the right look from the right actor, the right close-up will never be. I know audiences will leave the theater talking about Mary, Leslie Manville’s attention-grabbing character, but the person I will never forget is Gerri. Played by Ruth Sheen with paper-thin lightness and ingenuous off-camera ease, this is, male or female, the performance of the year. I promise. There is great acting that you notice and great acting that you don’t, and Another Year is bursting at the seams with both kinds, but it’s Ruth Sheen – whose work is notably devoid of juicy “moments” – who shows, once again, that the most affecting performances, like the most affecting cinema, disappear as they appear. (Johnny Depp can do a lot, but I wonder, can he, like Sheen, just be?) That right there is the real real stuff. Meryl Streep may be the actor’s actor, but Ruth Sheen, we now know, is the actor’s actor’s actor.

Hereafter

Putting aside The Outlaw Josie Wales, High Plains Drifter, and Unforgiven, terrific westerns bearing Clint Eastwood’s unmistakable air of somber, refined cool – qualities we observe in his best performances – I’m completely at ease asserting he’s the clumsiest A-list filmmaker in Hollywood. One of the greatest movie stars of all time, overqualified for iconic, forever and ever status alongside Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in the pantheon, but a wet blanket behind the camera.

Hereafter, which I wish L. Ron Hubbard was still around for, is sure to inveigle critics with its “contemplative pace” and “mood.” But don’t mistake aberrant filmmaking for vision. Don’t confuse Clint’s hand with his haunch. For all the waiting we’re made to do in Hereafter, we might as well be in a Dreyer movie (watching Gertrud at least gets you bragging rights). As in “The Golden Girls,” every new scene begins with an establishing shot; as in a student film, no scene begins until the actors have walked into the frame, and none ends until they have left it; each line is followed by a ham-handed meaningful pause wherein we are, I suspect, supposed to be absorbing a certain latent emotional complexity which, sadly, is never latent. (For more on this, see Million Dollar Baby, Invictus, Gran Torino, and Mystic River, an equally miserable film, which contains one of the most insincere cinematic clichés in all of filmdom – the crane up from a dead body/grieving person to signify the ascension of their spirit/cry to God up from the concrete and into [you guessed it] heaven. Is that really, after his eighty years in life and film, Clint Eastwood’s best evocation of that experience? It seems to be. He does it again in Hereafter.)

They say Clint Eastwood is the last classicist. He isn’t. Peter Bogdanovich is the last classicist. Clint Eastwood is merely out of touch. He makes movies as if people haven’t been making and thinking about movies for a hundred years. Add to that Hereafter’s amateur metaphysics, and you have a film only M. Night Shyamalan could love.

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go is a hollow hunk of emo-camp masquerading as highbrow literary fare, a Stephanie Meyer novel directed by Antonioni, a film about (I think) the dehumanization of humans that purports to have a nobler stance on human values than the subhuman values it condemns. But Charlotte Rampling is in it!

Charlotte Rampling! Did you hear me? I said Charlotte Rampling!

Truthfully, La Ramp doesn’t have much to do here. It’s a bad part, written, it seems, by a sixth grader who had Henry James explained to him by another sixth grader, and I gritted my teeth through her every stilted scene. If only I had the DeLorean from Back to the Future, I would have set it to take me to that fateful moment, probably around a year and a half ago, when Charlotte was advised to accept the role of the mean old schoolmarm (oh, she’s so strict!). In no time at all, Christopher Lloyd and I would have stopped her, and then, like the sun drying out a dirty pond, her likeness would evaporate from each and every print of Never Let Me Go. Great Scott! History would never know the difference.

Charlotte Rampling! I could count the ways! The Night PorterStardust MemoriesUnder the Sand…Should I go on? I could.

There is one moment, six hours into the picture, when my darling Char – until then all smiles and English grace – lowers her eyelids in spite and pity. In that moment, she seems to grin maniacally, of course without cracking a smile. It’s chilling, more chilling in fact than any of Mark Romanek’s attempts at “chilling imagery,” and watching it, I felt my throat close up and my heart turn black. I felt – for the first and only time in the picture – I was in the company of a major actor. It was glorious.

The rest of the movie was smugly self-pitying, almost miraculously without content, and worst of all, more than a touch contemptuous of the audience’s honest, God-given craving for catharsis.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy of all is that this material might have made for fascinating viewing. But unfortunately, Never Let Me Go, with its after-the-prom ideas of love and death, is all mood, and within about twenty minutes begins to chafe horribly, like dry humping in the Mojave.

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Life During Wartime

Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime is that rare thing, a sequel that actually outstrips its predecessor.

I must say, I was rooting for it. I always thought Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse had been unfairly lumped into “The Films of the 90s,” an estimable category, but ultimately not fit for notable one-offs. Dollhouse was as singular as it was representative. Combining a sense of playful extroversion with a whole lot of suburban misery, the film struck a chord most black comedies of the era (and boy, there were many) did not. It was dark as hell, but illuminated from within, thanks mostly to Heather Matarazzo, the film’s slackjawed star. No matter how much grime Solondz asked us to swallow, little Matarazzo was there with a spoonful of Sweet’N Low. She was just too pathetic not to root for. Or to want to root for.

That quality was sadly absent from Solondz’s next films, Happiness, Storytelling, and Palindromes. After Happiness, a blend of Bergman and John Waters, you started to think the guy was turning into a one trick pony of shock. Then in Storytelling the horse died, then, in Palindromes, he beat it. It was enough already with the perverts. We got it.

Life During Wartime contains its fair share of dead-horse-beating, but it’s far more patient than Happiness, the film that introduced us to these losers back in 1998. The difference, I think, is that in Life During Wartime, Solondz is as interested in figuring out how his sickos cope with their shame as he is in the shame itself. Happiness, for all its empathy, was really about swinging from shame to shame and cringe to cringe. Like in a horror movie, we wanted to cry, “Don’t go in there!” or in this case, “Don’t molest him!” After a while, Wartime starts pushing up against the same difficulty, but until then, it’s a carefully balanced spinning-plate act. Right when you think a ceramic is going to slip to its belabored and miserable death, Solondz reaches out a hand and gives it a lift. Jokes keep the picture buoyant – and they’re good jokes – whereas in Happiness they seemed only to fling the muck. Oh, but enough of that. When you have Allison Janney, Michael Lerner, and (my darling) Charlotte Rampling, who needs to worry?

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Inception

I went.

Within the first fifteen minutes, I fell into a deep sleep and dreamt I was sitting in a movie theater watching a movie – a romantic comedy, actually – about two mostly normal people of slightly-above-average intelligence, a man and a woman, who meet at a party thrown by a mutual friend. After a few glasses of wine, it comes out that both were only pretending not to know the other for fear of embarrassing themselves in the event that one remembered meeting the other and the other one didn’t. Laughing at the ridiculousness of this, the woman reaches across the buffet table for a spring roll and suggests they relocate to a couch in a far corner of the room, where it’s quieter. The man agrees. A short time later, with more wine behind them, he learns that she likes Borges, and she learns that he likes that she likes Borges. The floodgates open. They move from literature to film to the small restaurants in the uncharted neighborhoods of their vast city, and then, almost accidentally, she mentions something intimate about her last boyfriend, a guy named Ben, a Jungian dream analyst. Almost immediately, the woman tries to change the subject. But sensing her need to stay on Ben, her new friend steers the conversation back to where she abandoned it, and then stops. Was he being too pushy? If she changed course, was it a faux pas to change it back? But it didn’t matter; she was already back to Ben. With mounting intensity, she describes the apartment they shared overlooking the opera house, the operas they saw, the operas they planned to see, and soon she’s crying. Flummoxed, the man tries a joke – and then instantly regrets it. He was trying to cheer her, but did it come off as callous? Without time to explain, he is interrupted by Lucy, his high school girlfriend. Or were they never really together together? And what was she doing there? At this, the woman across from him looks up, her face wet with tears, and Lucy, sensing she has disturbed a private exchange, throws out a heap of apologies and flees the room, knocking over a small Deco footstool by the door. “That’s a lovely piece,” the man thinks, and he looks down. Wiping her face with the back of her hand, the woman, smiling quite beautifully, insists that he go to Lucy. But he says he’d rather not. She tells him he should. He insists again, then she insists hoping to induce him to insist harder, which he does, then I woke up. There was still two hours to go.

Notes for a Blogpost on The Kids Are All Right

On a plane, hours delayed. Exhausted, but must write something about this heartening, misshapen movie.

Moment to moment the love shone through, and in a picture about love, that’s what you want. Still, could have used a bit of smoothing out. Naturalism no excuse for lumpiness. Why so long here? So short there? Why so little of that character and so much of that one? Why inject three-act arcs in into an honest, anti-Hollywood affront to the well-told story? (Also, lessons to be learned from Mike Leigh. When characters are given strong enough intentions, they can meander a little.)

However. Many howevers. However: points for things we’ve never seen. New ground broken? Lesbians watching gay porn and other bold (gratuitous?) sex scenes. Grownup fucking, but childish attitudes (slack filmmaking, or thematically relevant? Too late to decide.) Another however: Annette Bening’s thoughtful performance (however within however: tonally out of sync with the rest of the picture, as if she stepped out American Beauty. Yes, good, but turn down volume.)

Bit of context. Descendant of Mazursky. California liberals asking, “How much cool is too much?” cf. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Well observed local ephemera: Acai, Whole Foods, compost, give strong sense of time and place. How many movies pick settings that matter? Kudos.

Beating a dead hobbyhorse: Julianne Moore. I told you it was hype. Next to Annette Bening her deficiencies are easier to spot. Annette is a listener, a reactor, makes strange and memorable choices. Understands her relationship to the satire. Julianne too often playing attitudes. Blase, etc. Do we really know who she is? Feel what she fears? Want what she needs?

In the end, these people live. Though the drama is limited to a few situations, many of which are not explored to satisfaction, one comes to know the family intimately. One could imagine the movie going on indefinitely, just as losing twenty minutes may not have affected much. Bening’s work is crucial. She pumps the blood. Without her, you have skits tied together with frayed strings.

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Solitary Man

I love Michael Douglas.

I admit, it hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to come around to it. Back in the eighties/nineties, films like Fatal Attraction, Wall Street, The War of the Roses, Basic Instinct, Falling Down, and Disclosure – made almost in succession – made it almost impossible to remember the Michael Douglas of Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile’s Douglas, a version of the actor it was fun and easy to love. No controversy there.

Then Fatal Attraction came – and it came hard. No one expected it to get made, let alone get made the way it did, but less than no one expected it to be the hit that it was. Suddenly Douglas’s smarm, heretofore the subject of jest (Stone, Nile), was downstage center, and because it was the eighties, it was very, very real. We knew the guy. After his Academy Award winning performance in Wall Street a year later, it was official: the new Michael Douglas was here to stay. Thus the brand: a smoothie know-it-all (generally a success, generally wealthy) brought down to earth by his urges. It worked every time. Why? A combination of his “I know you and I’m better than you” smile and his God-given carnal swagger. One look at this guy and we knew just how he got so high and just how he’d fall so low. His whole story written all over him.

But the eighties ended. People lost their interest in the big guys. In the full bloom of the 1990s, they wanted to see little guys. Or, in the case of The American President, big guys made to seem completely commonplace. And Michael Douglas, whose age was softening crucial angles, was the perfect candidate. To his persona of power, he could add just a faint touch of humility. The role of President was hardly a leap.

But the apotheosis of Michael Douglas came in 2000 with Wonder Boys. Just add Romancing the Stone to Wall Street to The American President – a movie from each phase in his film career – and then – something new – a touch of crisis (he’s actually losing his famous mojo here) and you have Douglas 4.0. My favorite version.

It’s the version on display in Solitary Man. But unfortunately, our man Mike is out there on his own. The film is shapeless, meandering, both self-congratulatory and self-pitying, and worth it just to watch Michael Douglas. This is no great performance – I’m sure of that – but it’s Michael Douglas and he is good at what he does.

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