Battling Goliath in Powerful “Leviathan”

Leviathan landscape

Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014)

The landscape is beautiful, but cold. Sky, earth and water converge in a steel-like mix of blue and grey, and at their juncture lie the bones, exposed. The skeletal remains of ships and whales intermingle in the sands of time. This is where the bodies are buried, though the graves are open, exposed. There is grandeur in the acceptance of the inevitable. Best get on with it.

So opens the magnificent new film from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return), the camera slowly revealing the barren majesty of a northern outpost. The movie ends, over two hours later, with almost the same exact sequence of shots, in a visual coda redolent of futility. What purpose has been served by the actions of the petty human characters at the center of the drama?

The plot of Leviathan is simple enough. Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov, unknown outside of Russian-language films), a middle-aged father with a younger second wife, has the misfortune to live on land coveted by the local mayor. Unwisely, he has refused to accept the verdict of the local court – turning said property over to this politician – and has appealed, bringing in an old army buddy of his – now a big-city lawyer – for help. This friend, Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov, similarly mostly unknown to non-Russian audiences), arrives from Moscow, full of hope for Kolya’s case. Thanks to some seedy connections, he has the dirt on the mayor. If he can only keep Kolya – a hothead – from blowing the case, he might just be able to win the appeal.

Taking as his departure point events that took place in Colorado in 2004, Zvyagintsev uses this seemingly straightforward tale of a land-grab to craft a narrative of political corruption and abuse of power. Is it about Russia today? Well, sure. It’s also about Russia of yesterday (and maybe tomorrow). In one amazing drunken scene, a group of local policemen shoot up portraits of former Soviet leaders, intimating that next up are the current rulers (though it may yet be “too soon,” as one of them says). In another scene, the corrupt mayor confronts Dima while standing beneath a framed photograph of Vladimir Putin. But it’s not only about Russia. As with all great works of art, out of great specificity come universal truths. Zvyagintsev layers his story with rich details of Soviet and Post-Soviet life, but his movie is a parable of what can happen to any one person who decides to battle an entrenched system. David does not always beat Goliath.

Though events do take some serious dramatic turns, the prevailing emotional tone of the film – except when vodka is involved – is one of carefully managed restraint. Always, just below the surface, lurks a violence waiting to erupt and to destroy those in its path, yet it is often hidden beneath a veneer of civilized banter or official courtroom procedure. Zvyagintsev uses very little music on the soundtrack, and what music there is comes from composer Philip Glass, known for his minimalist compositions. The most shocking moments in the film catch us unawares, though the sense of dread throughout is palpable. Zvyagintsev frequently sets us on edge with camera pans away from the action, following one character, while we hear the sounds (sans music) of the other characters off-camera. We know they’re up to something, and it’s dangerous, but we can’t see it.

Serebryakov is wonderful as Kolya, alternately depressed and volatile. Vdovichenkov is equally strong. His Dima has a greater sense of how to play the political game, but is still no match for the venality of the establishment. The heart of the movie, however, lies with the magnificent Elena Lyadova (Zvyagintsev’s Elena), as Kolya’s wife. In her, we see the burdens and disappointments of life in the far north and the hope for something better that, for one brief moment, comes alive, and then dies.

Leviathan was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, but lost to Ida. Both films are masterpieces, so that’s OK with me, but don’t neglect to see Zvyagintsev’s movie just because it didn’t win. It still remains one of the best films of 2014. It opens today at the Charles.

If I Were King of the Oscars …

King of the Oscars

Let’s leave aside, for the moment, who or what will actually win an Oscar on Sunday night when the ceremony airs. If you want to read about which films and actors are favored to bring home the trophy, there are certainly plenty of prognosticators to choose from. Let’s also forget my own lists of favorite movies, favorite actors, and favorite craft and technical achievements from 2014. Here are my choices (unless otherwise noted, all movies are hyperlinked to my own reviews) – my favorites, or what I believe should, rather than will, win – from among the 2015 Oscar nominees:

Best Picture:

For me, it’s a toss-up between Birdman and Boyhood. I found each film powerful in its own unique way. Both Alejandro González Iñárritu and Richard Linklater had a clear vision and realized that vision beautifully. Simply because Linklater’s movie required a greater investment of time and purpose, I would perhaps give a slight edge to Boyhood. Part of me would love to give the award to Selma, instead, given the ridiculous controversy surrounding its portrayal of Lyndon Johnson, but I still feel as if both Birdman and Boyhood are better overall movies.

Best Director:

I never understand how a film that wins for Best Director could not also win for Best Director, since the two awards are inextricably linked, for me. Therefore, I would also give this to Linklater, though I will shed no tears should it go to González Iñárritu.

Best Actress:

The choice is unequivocal for me: Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night. She does not perform – she inhabits the character, shedding her aura of movie star and demonstrating the brilliance of behavioral acting. She is, simply put, sublime.

Best Actor:

This choice is also unequivocal for me: Michael Keaton in Birdman. Amidst a stellar ensemble cast, and through a performance without vanity, he is the glue that holds the entire marvelous enterprise together.

Best Supporting Actress:

Surprisingly – since those who know me know how frequently I have gone on record to disparage Ms. Keira Knightley – I would give this award to her for The Imitation Game. Benedict Cumberbatch does a fine job as Turing, but it is Knightley who gives the film its heart and soul. I would not be unhappy, however, if Emma Stone were to win this award for her fine work in Birdman. I like Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), as well, but I don’t think her performance contributes as much to the film she is in as Knightley’s and Stone’s do to their respective movies.

Best Supporting Actor:

This is one of the toughest categories for me, since I like Edward Norton (Birdman), Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher) and J.K. Simmons (Whiplash). I like Ethan Hawke (Boyhood), too, but I feel the same way about him as I do about Arquette. Of my three favorites, I think Simmons contributes the most to his film: his is a tour-de-force, grab-you-by-your-throat performance that makes the movie.

Best Cinematography:

No question on this one: Dick Pope, for Mr. Turner. I didn’t much care for the film, but Mr. Pope’s work in it is absolutely stunning, and, what’s more, it supports the story (as best as it can, given the shortcomings of the script).

Best Editing:

The Grand Budapest Hotel it is. According to my original “best of” list (referenced above), I should give the award to Whiplash (which is a close second), but I just watched this film again, and though I still find it a little annoying in the way that most Wes Anderson films annoy me, I love the cross-cutting between times and places. Barney Pilling deserves the Oscar for demonstrating how well editing can serve the storytelling vision of a director.

Best Production Design:

I would also give this to The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is a marvel of carefully crafted visual detail. Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock have done amazing work to support Anderson crazy construct.

Best Original Screenplay:

I feel the same way about this kind of award as I do for Best Picture and Best Director – they should all be the same – so I would give this to either Birdman or Boyhood.

Best Adapted Screenplay:

I would feel the same way about this award, as well, except that Birdman and Boyhood are up for Best Original Screenplay. Of the nominees in this category, I favor Whiplash. It’s such a powerful story, so well told.

Best Documentary:

Unfortunately, the only film I have seen from this category is Citizenfour (which I loved), so I am not qualified to weigh on which film should win.

Best Foreign Language Film:

Same goes for this category. Of the two nominees that I have seen – Ida and Leviathan (the film has yet to open in Baltimore, so I have written no official review, yet) – I would be happy to see either one win.

Best Animated Feature:

Of the nominees, I have only seen Big Hero 6, The Boxtrolls (I never wrote a review of my own), and How to Train Your Dragon 2. Of those three, I would reluctantly give the award to Dragon, though I am so deeply sad that The Lego Movie was not nominated.

That’s it! Enjoy the show Sunday night! In a few hours, I’ll be on WYPR’s Midday Show today to discuss these nominees and more. Please tune in!

Not Just Another Inspirational Sports Movie: Kevin Costner Rises Again in “McFarland, USA”

McFarland, USA

McFarland, USA (Niki Caro, 2015)

While the inspirational coach film is hardly the most recurrent of genres, it has nevertheless produced enough popular and enduring films to stick in our minds as, well, a genre (or at least a sub-genre of the “sports movie”). Think of films like Knute Rockne All AmericanHoosiers and Remember the Titans – to name but three – and you’ll know the main components: a tough, exacting coach; a sometimes ragtag group of young men (Bend It Like Beckham brings in women) in need of direction; a stronger, usually better-funded, adversary; outside forces (recalcitrant parents, illness, prejudice) that conspire against everyone’s best efforts (Dead Poets Society essentially fits into this genre, only it uses drama, rather than sports). In the end, whether or not the team triumphs, all participants in the events will have learned valuable life lessons. The best of these movies – which can, if not careful, come a little too close to maudlin sentimentality for my taste – inspire the audience as much as the coach inspires the team, and do what cinema does best: briefly transport us to a higher plane of consciousness through their well-crafted catharses.

Now we have a new such film, McFarland, USA, from director Niki Caro (Whale RiderNorth Country). Starring Kevin Costner (25 years past his heyday) – who, with both this and the recent Black or White, seems to be announcing a career resurgence (a Costneraissance, perhaps?) – as the coach, the movie is set in 1987 in California’s Central Valley, in the eponymous town of the title. It is to this scorching and inland outback, mostly inhabited by ethnically Mexican fruit pickers – some of them migrant laborers, some of them new (and newly proud) landowners – that Jim White (Costner) brings his family (a wife and two daughters) after he is fired – yet again – from a previous high-school coaching job. It’s a rough transition from Boise, Idaho, where the movie begins, and the Whites pretty clearly want to get out as soon as they get in. But Jim White knows this is his last chance, and so tries to make it work.

Soon, Coach “Blanco” (as his students call him) notices that the football-playing kids in his charge are far more suited to running trails than running plays, and this revelation conveniently comes to him just as California announces new funding for high-school cross-country programs (the screenwriter freely admits that he compressed the facts of the true story on which the movie is based for a stronger dramatic punch). With the reluctant acquiescence of the principal (and the students), White manages to recruit the requisite seven members of the team, and soon both he, the students, and the movie, are off and running. As a poor school without resources, the kids of McFarland will have to face off against elite private schools throughout the state, though what they have going for them is grit, drive and the need to prove to everyone that they are better than how the world sees them. Will they win the state championship? Have you seen these kinds of movies before … ?

What makes McFarland, USA work is the rich texture of the town and it’s inhabitants, and how Caro and screenwriter Grant Thompson structure the narrative to emphasize how White is as much in need of inspiration as his students. These kids – played, wonderfully, by a cast of relative unknowns and first-timers – don’t even see “Blanco” as a savior. They mostly come from supportive – and extremely hard-working – families, and though they are destined to work in the fields as their parents do, these are not troubled teens (with the caveat that all teens are, by their very nature, “troubled”). Almost everyone in this film – with the exception of Maria Bello (A History of Violence), wasted as Mrs. White in an underwritten part – feels three-dimensional and acts with personal agency. When the movie ends and we meet the real-life White, together with the students he coached, over the credits, and learn how the depicted events affected all of them, the sentiment of the moment feels genuinely earned (though I do wish that Caro were not so determined to underline her big beats with the sometimes overpowering musical score).

It’s great to find Costner working so hard again. Maybe it’s finally time to forget the debacle of his mid-1990s missteps (Waterworld, The Postman) and remember the finer work of the 1980s (The UntouchablesBull Durham). His features are still ruggedly handsome, and he’s still as good as ever at portraying resolute men. Now, however, with the wisdom of the added years, he’s also willing to play the flaws, which is what makes him such a pleasure to watch. See the film for him, the amazing supporting cast, and for Caro’s gentle, yet purposeful, direction.

“Kingsman: The Secret Service” Offers Violence, Comedy and Bad Taste. And Colin Firth.

Kingsman - The Secret Service

Kingsman: The Secret Service (Matthew Vaughn, 2014)

On Friday, at the start of my Fifty Shades of Grey review, I expressed my reservations about seeing Kingsman. Who needs an other ultra-violent tongue-in-cheek adaptation of a comic book? The trailer promised nothing new, other than a fresh-faced new lead actor. Still, I did, finally, go see the film over the weekend, and here are my thoughts.

Based on the comic series The Secret Service, written by Mark Millar (who also wrote Kick-Ass) and illustrated by Dave Gibbons (who also drew Watchmen), Kingsmen: The Secret Service is directed by Matthew Vaughn, who also directed the movie version of Kick-Ass (as well as Layer Cake and X Men: First Class). As one would expect from the man who brought us a gun-toting, foul-mouthed under-age Chloë Grace Moretz, this new film is tasteless and violent, as well as tastelessly violent. It’s also a fair amount of fun. Disgusting, but fun. 

Why disgusting? Well, for starters, there is a bad-ass villain’s henchman (henchwoman, actually) with prosthetic steel blades in place of legs, with which she chops and dices her opponents with the skill of a master chef. Vaughn does not hold back on the resultant blood. There’s also a scene in which hundreds – nay, perhaps, thousands – of heads explode (including, it seems, the head of a sitting U.S. President), played for comedy. And let’s not even get into the bloodbath that occurs in a church, in which Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) goes berserk and slaughters the entire congregation, all to the tune of “Freebird.” Did I mention that the film is tasteless?

Still, there are some genuine pleasures, most of which come from watching said Firth strut his (mostly tasteful) stuff as he trains relative newcomer Taron Eggerton (Testament of Youth) in the ways of cloak and dagger (or, in this case, suits and explosives). Firth plays “Galahad” – a code name – an agent in a super-secret independent “international” (yet they’re all British) espionage outfit, tasked with finding a replacement for a fallen colleague. He sets his recruitment sights on “Eggsy” (Eggerton) – a nickname (I hope) – the son of a previously fallen comrade and a kid in need of new direction, and soon we are in full training mode, a territory Vaughn has visited before with Kick-Ass and, especially, X-Men (perhaps, looking back 100 years from now, if anyone remembers Vaughn, he’ll be talked about as that guy who made comic-hero training movies). It’s a good thing that Firth and Eggerton, as well as a few other supporting players – including Mark Strong (The Imitation Game) as “Merlin” (the head trainer), Samuel L. Jackson (does this man need any introduction?) as Valentine (the arch villain), and even Mark Hamill (yes, that Mark Hamill) as a hapless professor – are all compulsively charming and watchable, as they, and not the pyrotechnics, are what make the movie work, when it works. The women – with the exception of new arrival Sofia Boutella (Monsters: Dark Continent) as the Ginsu-wearing killer – are fairly forgettable. Which should not surprise, since this is a boy’s playground.

The story, such as it is, revolves around the usual megalomaniac plotting to take over/destroy the world. And only our hero can stop him. You get it. We’ve seen this before. If you don’t mind desensitizing mayhem, and think it’s funny when a princess offers to let the main character “do it up her asshole” if he saves the world, then this is definitely the movie for you. I could have taken it or left it, but I did not emerge from the experience unamused or unentertained. So there’s that.

Midday Goes to the Oscars

[Missed our show? You can still listen to the podcast!]


Join host Dan Rodricks and Midday film critics Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed – Chair and Professor, Department of Film/Video, Stevenson University– on Friday, February 20, at 1pm, when they will discuss the 2015 Oscars race (the Academy Awards are presented two days later, on February 22, starting at 7pm EST). You can find more details about this year’s nominees on the official Oscars page.

Which film is your favorite to win? Which films mystify you by their inclusion? Which films did you wish to see nominated that didn’t make it? Tune in to hear what we have to say, and add your own voice to the conversation by listening live and emailing your comments and questions to, or by calling in at 410-662-8780 (locally), or toll-free at 1-866-661-9309. If you can’t listen locally, you can live-stream the show on-line. If all else, fails, you can always download the podcast afterwards, either via iTunes or the Midday page.

Enjoy the show! And check out my own lists of favorite films, favorite performances and favorite art/craft work before the official Oscars ceremony.

“50 Shades” of Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

I’m bummed. I had a dual review of two terrific recent films – both dealing with Russia past and present – all ready to go, but the Baltimore release dates of both have been pushed back. I was hoping to write about Leviathan - a nominee for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (and the one I hope will win, though Ida is also excellent) – and Red Army – each of which tackles questions of the human cost of Soviet and Russian totalitarianism, among other topics. It was not to be, at least not this weekend.

Instead, I’m left with <gasp> Fifty Shades of Grey, a film I had no particular desire to see, and which lived down to my lowest expectations (with one noted exception). I haven’t seen the other big film opening this weekend – Kingsman: The Secret Service - either, though this review by Manohla Dargis gives me enough pause that I may not see it. Then again, I liked Layer Cake, Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class – all by the same director – so perhaps I’ll disagree with Dargis.

In any case, for now, it’s on to Fifty Shades, one of the most boring films about sex I have ever seen.

Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johnson, 2015)

I was never tempted, in any way whatsoever, to read the book (and its sequels) on which this movie is based, in spite of its global success. Originally inspired as Twilight fan fiction (Twilight being another book series that I avoided, though I did, sadly, watch the movies), the series received mostly derisive (but also guilty-pleasure) reviews while racking up big bucks – plus a picture deal – for its author, E.L. James. It told the story of virginal college student Anastasia Steele, who meets handsome young gazillionaire Christian Grey – a man with serious control (and other) issues and a taste for kink – and plunges into a sadomasochistic relationship in which he is the dominant and she the submissive. Except that plucky young Ms. Steele doesn’t quite take to the lifestyle as Mr. Grey might want, making the central conflict of the book (and series) the question of whether or not Anastasia can change (or heal) Christian and mold him into the man she would prefer to love: rich, strong, and like, totally into her but without the whips and chains.

Since I haven’t read the book, I cannot tell you where the movie, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson (who also made Nowhere Boy, and is, coincidentally, the wife of Aaron Taylor-Johnson, star of Kick-Ass, which I mentioned, above), departs from its source material. I can tell you, however, that based on what is on screen, if this is what BDSM is all about, I’ll take a pass, as I like to think of sex as an alternately exciting, romantic and intimate – or, ideally, all three – communion between two (or more, let’s not judge) consensual souls, and what we get here is none of that. Instead, we have two actors who look bored in each other’s presence going through the motions of sex (and bondage) with neither zest nor passion. Say what you will about the artistic merits of a film like Nine 1/2 Weeks – an obvious comparison – but the characters played by Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger seemed, at a minimum, to enjoy being in each other’s presence. Unfortunately for Ms. James’s fan base, there is no chemistry whatsoever between the heretofore little-known Dakota Johnson (Need for Speed) – daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) – and her co-star Jamie Dornan (Flying Home).

At least Ms. Johnson is fun to watch, much to my surprise (my noted exception, from above). She’s got moxie. Based on my reaction to the nauseating trailer, I expected to not only loathe the film, but both actors, as well. Instead, I found myself thoroughly won over by the young female lead. Until the tedium of the script and listless sex scenes take over the movie, Ms. Johnson livens up every scene she is in (which is most) with her winsome spirit and energy. It’s not her fault that the source text requires her to bite her lip like a schoolgirl, and she makes the most of what opportunities there are to rise above the material. The same cannot be said for Mr. Dornan, an actor with the screen presence of days-old meatloaf. This is a man who, at 27, has somehow managed to amass a huge fortune and create a vast empire? I don’t think so. Granted, his is a thankless task: he has to somehow incarnate a man who has to be strong, sexy, dominant, yet also somehow vulnerable. I’m sure that greater actors than Mr. Dornan would fail, as well. And yet, it would have been nice to see him actually try. Can you imagine Mickey Rourke wining after the fact about how he hates seeing his “bum” on screen? Hey, nobody forced you to make this awful movie, dude; could you not even try to match Dakota Johnson’s effort?

Leaving aside the politics of whether we need, in 2015, yet another Cinderella fantasy of the poor girl offered a life of pleasure and leisure by a fantastically rich man, or whether or not a film about a dominant-submissive relationship is appropriate for Valentine’s Day – all besides the point for those who just want a naughty escapist movie to watch – the greatest sin of this movie is that it is just so absolutely, dreadfully boring. “I’m 50 shades of f***-ed up,” utters the tortured Mr. Grey. If only he really were, then we might have something interesting on our hands.

Here’s a suggestion for you, if you’re into what the story promises, yet fails to deliver: stay in and rent last year’s Venus in Fur this weekend, instead. You’ll have a better – and sexier – time.

February Fantasia, or I Never Thought “SpongeBob” Could Look So Good (Compared to “Seventh Son,” Anyway)

Something’s in the air this weekend, and it’s unreal. Truly.

We’ve got three films opening that all take place in the realm of the fantastic: one an enjoyable confection; another a grotesque mess, sans discernible raison d’être; and the third, which I haven’t yet seen*, a bout of Wachowski madness. A smorgasbord of cinematic disturbia! [*NOTE: I saw the film the day after posting this review. My extra notes on the film are at the end of my original entry.]


The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (Paul Tibbitt, 2015)

I have two confessions to make:

  1. I have never seen a single SpongeBob SquarePants” episode, nor have I seen The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. Amazing, given the longtime appeal of the TV show.
  2. I went to college with Jonathan Aibel, one of the two screenwriters of this new film, who, along with his longtime writing partner, Glenn Berger, has written such animated delights as Kung Fu PandaKung Fu Panda 2, and Monsters vs. Aliens, as well as many episodes of the TV series “King of the Hill.

OK – that’s out of the way. Please feel free to keep those facts in mind as you read my review.

I didn’t love this movie. But I liked it. A lot. For someone like me, unfamiliar with the SpongeBob universe, the movie opens with a beautifully scripted live-action prologue that introduces the pirate Burger Beard as he steals a mysterious book from a booby-trapped island shrine (shades of Raiders of the Lost Ark). Played by a perfectly cast Antonio Banderas (The Skin I Live In) – William Shatner would have been good, too, if he were younger – hamming it up for all he’s worth, Burger Beard settles down on his ship, book in hand, and starts reading to a resident flock of seagulls. Et voilà! We have a perfect excuse for the exposition that takes us down under the sea to meet SpongeBob SquarePants and his friends, colleagues and, of course, enemies. I learned all I needed to know about that world in a brisk five minutes that was quirky and a lot of fun. Thank you, Jonathan and Glenn!

Soon we find ourselves immersed in the anarchic and silly shenanigans of the town of Bikini Bottom, where SpongeBob lives and works. It’s a paradise where the lives (and eating habits) of the citizens revolve around the delicious burger known as the Krabby Patty. When its secret formula is stolen, that paradise morphs into a fire-torn hell. As one character gleefully states, “Welcome to the Apocalypse. I hope you like leather.”

The movie’s title promises that our little yellow sponge and company will leave their ocean hideaway, and that they do, interacting with the residents of a beach resort in a skillful blend of CGI and live-action footage (directed by Mike Mitchell, he of Sky High fame) as they hunt for their lost formula. It’s all wonderfully entertaining, except when we get sidetracked in a long and completely unnecessary time-travel subplot that involves a British-accented ancient dolphin (the film has second-act issues, for me). Then again, that might be just the kind of thing that one expects from SpongeBob episodes and movies. What would I know? If you know, and like that kind of stuff, then this movie will work for you even more than it did for me.

Seventh Son

Seventh Son (Sergei Bodrov, 2014)

This movie is based on Joseph Delaney’s “Spooks” books. Have you ever heard of them? I had not. This makes me think that studios are desperately scouring the shelves for any multi-volume series that they can adapt into a (hopefully) long-running movie series. Seventh Son, I am sad to report, will most likely not result in such a series. Incomprehensible, with its two big stars doing their own crazy thing, apparently without direction from the formerly interesting Russian director Sergei Bodrov (Prisoner of the Mountains), the movie lurches from messy set piece to messy set piece without bothering with coherence. Oh, and though there are plenty of nasty white folks, the only people of color in the film just happen to be evil. Seriously – why bother? I guess the CGI looks pretty good, so there’s that. Still, I forgot the entire movie as I was walking out of the theater, so maybe it wasn’t all bad.

We get Jeff Bridges (True Grit)! Julianne Moore (Still Alice)! Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair)! Ben Barnes! (wait . . . who?). The former two are just making up their performances as they go, with Bridges riffing on every other alcoholic hero he’s played. Vikander – lovely – comes away with fewer battle scars, but her part is so severely underwritten that this fact barely registers. Barnes (The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian) is a good-looking lad, but very boring.

And there you have it. I had a lot of questions at the end of the film, but I can’t remember them anymore.

Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter Ascending (The Wachowskis, 2015)

Haven’t seen it, but based on its reviews, I probably won’t. Then again, the least one can say about the Wachowskis (BoundThe Matrix) is that their movies are usually visually sumptuous. Should I break down and watch it, I’ll update this post, unless it somehow inspires an entry of is own.

[2/11/15: So I saw Jupiter Ascending on Saturday, 2/7/15, and do not have much to add to the plethora of negative reviews that have already been written. It did not do well at the weekend box office, and someone at Variety saw fit to declare that this means that the Studios will now take even fewer risks than they already are. Hmmm . . . maybe, but if one takeaway of the fiasco that is the nonsensical and derivative (of every other space opera) Jupiter Ascending script is that the movie somehow represented the last gasp of originality in Hollywood, then all I have to say is . . . really? Imagine all of the science-fiction films you have ever seen combined into one movie, without the finesse of the worst of them, and you’ll have some idea of what to expect. And it’s not even “so-bad-that-it’s-good” bad. Blah. Let’s hope that even risk-averse Hollywood moguls can do better . . . Better luck next time, Wachowskis . . .]

In “Still Alice,” Moore Puts a Brave Face on a Pedestrian Script

Still Alice

Still Alice (Richard Glatzer/Wash Westmoreland, 2014)

If you want to see a truly poignant and cinematically innovative film about a woman succumbing to early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease, allow me to suggest the marvelous 2006 debut feature by Canadian actress-turned director Sarah Polley (only 27 when the film was released!), Away from Her. Shot and acted with poise and restraint, starring the great Julie Christie (Darling) and equally fine – but largely unknown outside of his native Canada – Gordon Pinsent (The Shipping News), that movie touchingly evoked the joy and pain of life and death. Based on a novella by Alice Munro, it was a perfectly crafted work of art.

Still Alice also has a literary source – the novel by Lisa Genova – and shares its main subject with that earlier film. It tells a similarly moving story. Unfortunately, its directors lack much of the grace and subtlety of Polley, and though Julianne Moore (The Kids Are All Right) tries her (mostly) best in the lead role of Alice, she cannot make up for the rather ordinary and plodding way the script takes us through her journey. I usually admire Moore – she’s one of the best actresses of her generation – but here she is unable to transcend the pedestrian soap-opera structure. So far, she seems to be favored in predictions for this year’s Best Actress Oscar, but for me it is not a performance on the same level as that of the other nominees. She’s good, but not that good.

Moore plays a noted Columbia professor of linguistics who turns 50 as the film begins, then soon discovers that her recent wave of disorienting experiences is due to an inherited genetic defect that will quickly lead her inexorably into dementia. Before long, the sharp-as-a-tack woman we meet at the start has turned into someone who cannot find the bathroom in her own house. It’s a tragic situation, made all the more so by the loss her family feels. Her husband, played by a distracted Alec Baldwin (“30 Rock“), is supportive but distant, unable to process the premature loss of his best friend; her youngest daughter, played by the ever-talentless Kristen Stewart (Twilight), struggles with the many unresolved issues we all have with our parents. There are other children, but they are not developed enough in the screenplay to have much effect on the story.

It’s sad. A lot of people cry. Alice speaks less and less. The camera isolates her with shallower and shallower depth of field. Surely we can do better than this shallow movie about such a devastating condition. And indeed we can: watch Away from Her.

Labor vs. Capital: “Two Days, One Night” in “A Most Violent Year” on the “Black Sea”

It’s always been tough being a worker in a capitalist system, and raising oneself up out of the state of non-unionized virtual peonage is especially hard: in such situations, one is at the mercy of the employer. The great global financial crisis of 2008 turned many laborers into ever more desperate souls, willing to work under any condition, but the battle between the forces of capital and labor have raged since long before Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital. Three new films take a look at this perpetual conflict – two from the point of view of the laborer and the other from the point of view of the rising capitalist (and former laborer) – in unique and mostly entertaining and intelligent ways. In particular, they analyze how the act of working, itself, can be what lends meaning to our lives: our sense of self-worth is intimately linked to the work we do or the job we hold, or simply the fact that we have a job.

Two Days One Night

Two Days, One Night (“Deux jours, une nuit”) (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2014)

From the great fraternal Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (L’enfant) – perpetually interested, it seems, in high-stakes stories about working-class and underclass characters in crisis – comes a new film that is one of the best treatments of the challenges faced by modern-day worker bees that I have seen. Starring Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose), nominated – for this film – for a 2015 Best Actress Oscar, the film is a brilliant portrait of a woman, Sandra, at the end of her rope, thanks to a cruel decision taken by her boss vis-à-vis her employment status. Through her struggle to retain her job – and her dignity as a human being – she discovers previously unknown reserves of strength within herself that compensate – up to a point – for her lost job.

As the film begins, Sandra is about to return to work at Solwal, a Solar Panel company from which she has been away – on medical leave – for four months. She has just recovered from a bout of severe clinical depression, but is now healthy (enough). So when she gets a phone call on a Friday from a co-worker, Juliette, informing her that her boss just offered the other Solwal employees a choice between receiving their end-of-term bonuses or keeping her, Sandra, on the payroll, and that the vote (not surprisingly) did not go in her favor, she is (understandably) devastated. As we learn, she and her husband (and two kids) have only recently moved out of social-welfare housing, and the loss of Sandra’s salary will throw them back into their old situation. But Juliette is a woman on a mission, and drags Sandra to meet the boss, convincing him to allow another vote on Monday. This one will be done via secret ballot, and without the foreman present. Sandra therefore has the weekend – the “two days, one night” of the title – to wage a door-to-door campaign to woo her co-workers to vote in her favor. It’s a nasty deal – she is asking people in no better financial situations than her to give up money they feel they’ve earned – and would be hard enough for someone in great mental health. For Sandra, it threatens to undo her recovery.

Fortunately, she has an extremely supportive husband, Manu – played wonderfully by Dardenne regular Fabrizio Rongione (Rosetta) – who understands that the only possible way Sandra will become whole again is by fighting for her job (and dignity). Sure, they need her salary, but he, himself, needs her once more present as both mother and wife. Not only are both Cotillard (who spends much of the movie hunched over and physically weighed down by her burdensome task) and Rongione individually spectacular, but they are marvelous together, and completely believable as a long-term couple. It’s them against the system, and though the system may not care, we do. To see at all costs.

Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor, 2014)

The new film from J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost) is set in New York City in 1981, a time when the Big Apple was rife with crime and decay, and centers on a former truck driver, Abel – played with heart and grit by Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) – who now owns the heating-oil company for which he once worked and has plans to expand his business. Unfortunately, he also has a host of competitors, some of them with mob connections, and an ambitious D.A. – played by David Oyelowo (Selma) – threatening to prosecute him for financial improprieties. Things could either go really well for Abel or really badly. Right at the start, they take the latter course.

This is a movie that closely analyzes the politics and opportunities (or lack thereof) for social mobility in late-stage capitalism. As in Chandor’s first film, Margin Call, the director is fascinated by the nitty-gritty details of how institutions operate (in a way, All Is Lost was similar, too, if one substitutes “institution” for “survival”). We spend a lot of time watching Jessica Chastain (Interstellar), as Abel’s Lady Macbeth-like (and mob-connected, herself) wife poring through files (when she’s not taunting Abel on how a real man would respond to threats), looking through accounting errors. Crime may be rampant in the big city, but success in business depends as much on will power as in understanding paperwork.

Abel is a wonderful metaphor for what can happen to a person when they pull themselves up by their bootstraps, only to come face to face with the boot makers. He’s good at what he does, but will that be good enough? In sharp contrast to Abel’s mover and shaker is a fellow immigrant (Abel is originally from South America), Julian – touchingly played by Elyes Gabel (Rakharo on “Game of Thrones“) – who doesn’t have the same drive (and wife) as Abel, and so is ripe to be used and discarded when his usefulness has expired (shades of Two Days, One Night). Indeed, if the film is, indeed, an exploration of what it takes to succeed in (American capitalist) business, then it’s the interactions between these two men that the story is told.

The movie does have its action scenes (yes, violence comes into play), and also a lot of other, fun performances that add a rich texture to the seedy vibe. Albert Brooks is especially fine as Abel’s lawyer/consigliere, and Alessandro Nivola brings charm and chill to his role as a Mafioso rival to Abel. It is a powerful film about the temptations of corruption, how to avoid them, and the price we pay when we give into them. 

Black Sea

Black Sea (Kevin Macdonald, 2014)

In spite of some reviews labeling Jude Law as “somewhat miscast” – a statement with which I totally disagree – Jude Law is, in fact, one of the best things about this movie, and he is very, very good. All sinew and tough muscle, hair shorn to stubble, Scottish accent bursting from between clenched teeth, Law is the epitome of the angry blue-collar guy who gets the shaft from white-collar guys who care only about their bottom line. The film opens – after an unnecessary, though visually arresting, title sequence filled with archival footage of subs, Nazis and Stalin – on Law, as Robinson, a submarine captain who works (or soon, worked) for Agora, an international marine-wreck salvage company, receiving his pink slip from a mealy-mouthed (younger, English) executive. He is no longer needed (for reasons never specified) – even though he’s given 11 years of his life to Agora – and an £8,000 check is supposed to make it all OK. I don’t think so.

Soon, Law finds out that there’s a sunken Nazi sub at the bottom of the Black Sea, filled with Nazi gold, and before long he assembles an Anglo/American-Russian crew to track it down. This is the best part of the film, as we see the barely contained simmering resentment of all of these men, regardless of provenance, against the superiors who have left them without gainful employment. Plus, director Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) has populated his movie with excellent characters\ actors, Russian and non-Russian, alike: Konstantin Khabenskiy (Night Watch), Grigoriy Dobrygin (How I Ended This Summer), Michael Smiley (Svengali) and David Threlfall (“Shameless“) among them. Unfortunately, he also miscasts Ben Mendelsohn (The Place Beyond the Pines) and Scoot McNairy (Monsters), two usually fine actors who here do shoddy work in underwritten parts. While the former are part of what works so well in the movie – the wariness and solidarity amongst the downtrodden foot soldiers of the world – the latter are part of what doesn’t work so well in the movie – the submarine heist gone wrong.

Is that a plot spoiler? Well, then you just haven’t seen the trailer yet. But don’t get me wrong: I love a good submarine film (Das Boot, anyone?). And some of the scenes of underwater claustrophobia and tension work wonderfully. It’s that when things starts to wrong for the men, they also go wrong with the script. The set-up is fine; the development and resolution are contrived. But as a treatment of the struggle of labor vs. capital, the film works beautifully … until it doesn’t. So enjoy it while you can, and then be glad that it’s less than two hours long.

“Mr. Turner” Offers Beautiful Compositions in a Formless Landscape

Mr Turner

Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, 2014)

I wish that I could agree with the overwhelming majority of film critics who adored the new film from director Mike Leigh (Topsy-Turvy), entitled Mr. Turner (which is, appropriately enough, about the great 19th-century English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner), but while I loved the cinematography from longtime Leigh collaborator Dick Pope (also Topsy-Turvy) – Oscar-nominated (his second time) for this film – I found the movie, itself, a somewhat long and dreary affair. I have seen enough of Leigh’s films to believe completely in the sincerity and intentionality of his efforts, so I have no doubt that everything on the screen is meant to be there. I also admire his attempt to make a film that, as it progresses, devolves into the same formlessness as its subject’s later paintings. And yet in spite of my own great efforts to give a damn, I simply began, as time wore on (and on) to lose interest in all but the gorgeously composed images. Some works of arts are labors of love; this felt, quite simply, like labor, alone.

Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew/Wormtail in the Harry Potter films) certainly gives it his all, grunting and snorting (and spitting) his way through what can certainly be called a performance (of sorts), and which, given what we know about the historical Turner, seems designed to remind us, time and again, of the great artist’s working-class roots (that and his Cockney accent), yet what we come away with is merely a sense of the effort it took to sustain that role for the length of the production. I like the idea that beautiful things can come from unrefined people (and why not?), but apart from this (hardly new) presentation of the dichotomy of the vessel and its precious cargo (Amadeus, anyone?), but apart from this unoriginal observation about the physical awkwardness of the man, what does the film tell us about art, its creation, or even just this one particular artist?

Well, we learn this: Turner was a bastard. He loved his father, but mistreated most of the women in his life (for no discernible reason, according to Leigh). He was inarticulate, and not very sociable. He was successful enough to live well, but then, as his paintings grew more abstract and he fell out of favor, he became disdainful of selling out, and turned into even more of a recluse. He was original and ahead of his time. At the end, he found a good woman who took care of him, treated her reasonably well (better than her forebears), and then died. Events happened, maybe in that order, and some impressive art was left for us to admire in the centuries to follow. Does that seem a bit ajumble? Welcome to Mr. Turner!

One other note, which relates to a general criticism I have of Mike Leigh’s work – hit or miss, for me, though when he hits, he approaches genius – is Leigh’s tendency to write one-dimensional caricatures of characters who are either social climbers, of the upper classes, or just filled with pretension (to his mind). He does this in Life Is Sweet and Naked, among other films, and now Mr. Turner, where his John Ruskin – an incredibly important 19th-century art critic – is portrayed as a foppish wannabe. Why does he insist on doing this? I am glad that his focus is so squarely on the working class – someone’s has to be – but no one, not even a villain, is without layers and depths. He should take a lesson from Mohamedou Ould Slahi, recent author of the first ever memoir penned from within the prison at Guantánamo Bay, who writes of everyone – even his captors – as if they are fully human. Which, like all of us, they are. Leigh’s films would be of consistently greater interest if he understood his own weakness to demonize those whom he despises.

Dick Pope deserves all of the kudos he’s getting, however, and if he wins an Oscar, then it his work, alone, that will bring people back to this movie in years to come (even without an Oscar, you should watch the film – even if you get bored – just to see what he’s done). Shooting digitally, he paints with light, much as Turner did. To enter into Pope’s vision is to understand what cinema can do when the right tools are in the hands of the right people. It’s just too bad that the larger vessel that holds Pope’s cargo is full of holes. If you want to see better films made by Leigh and Pope, check out the following: Secrets and LiesVera Drake, and the aforementioned Topsy-Turvy.