A Study in Scarlett: The Siren Song of “Under the Skin”

Under the Skin

“Isserley always drove straight past a hitch-hiker when she first saw him, to give herself time to size him up. She was looking for big muscles: a hunk on legs. Puny, scrawny specimens were no use to her.”

- Michel Faber, Under the Skin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000).

Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

Billed as “based upon the novel Under The Skin by Michael [sic] Faber,” perhaps the most remarkable thing about the third feature by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy BeastBirth) is how absolutely unique and unlike the source text the movie evolved to be. According to the press kit, Glazer originally wrote a faithful adaptation, but then experienced a breakthrough while writing Birth (an interesting, if deeply flawed film), and decided to focus almost exclusively on the one aspect of the book that most interested him: identity. What would we look like to an alien species, and what would happen if that alien species began to identify with us as more than just objects for consumption? Filmed with lingering long-duration takes that draw us in to the mind of said alien, the movie also asks what happens to us when we identify with the alien. It is a disturbing, if deeply mesmerizing, experience.

In the book, Isserley – a female of her species, surgically altered to look relatively human – cruises the highlands of Scotland looking for muscular men to capture, bring back to her company’s farm, fatten, and ship off to her home planet. In the movie, the alien (Scarlett Johansson) – never named – cruises the streets of Glasgow in a white van, picking up any men (muscular or not) in need of a ride, and brings them back to an abandoned building where she strips naked and lures them into a pool of black viscous liquid where they float suspended until their vital essence is sucked out, leaving them as desiccated husks of discarded skin. She is assisted by mysterious men on motorbikes who clean up any messes (and evidence) left behind. Why she is here, where she is from and why she needs us is not important. She is predator; we are prey. The siren calls, and we respond.

Certain passages bring to mind the existential questions at the heart of another great science fiction film, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which used the genre as an excuse to explore the nature of the human condition, particularly as viewed by its own non-human character, the HAL computer. Like Kubrick, Glazer uses extreme close-ups and abstract compositions and graphics to create occasionally unfamiliar landscapes out of ordinary objects. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the striking opening sequence, where we hear Johansson’s voice struggling to pronounce new words, yet see at first only white, then a bulbous object that slowly resolves into an eye. We don’t see Johansson, herself, until a few scenes later when, naked – and still in that white space – she strips clothes from a female victim, adopting her new human persona.

The choice to keep the Scottish location of the book helps the viewer to feel like an alien him/herself (unless one is Scottish). The impenetrable Glaswegian accents (some more indecipherable than others), in contrast to the crisp English accent adopted by Johansson, keep us more in her head than theirs. And since the men are often sizing her up, who is really predator and who is really prey? They follow the siren willingly, unable to resist the sexual promise of her ample curves.

There is, however, one scene that serves to remind us of this creature’s complete indifference to any empathy for the human race. Standing on a beach, Johansson’s alien watches as a woman swims after a drowning dog, only to start to drown, herself. When the husband attempts to rescue the wife and gets into trouble, too, a nearby swimmer manages to pull him out, at least, but then collapses, exhausted, at the edge of the waves. As the desperate husband swims back out into the surf Johansson approaches the would-be rescuer and beats him senseless with a rock. It is then that we hear a baby crying in the background. It is the now-drowned couple’s child. Later that night, when one of Johansson’s helpers goes back to the beach to remove traces of her presence, the baby is still there, crying, near the water, alone. The man walks away, leaving the child. I think it is one of the most disturbing images I have ever seen in a film.

But we need to see that in order for the alien’s later transformation to be meaningful. One of the men Johansson picks up is deeply deformed (played by Adam Pearson, who has neurofibromatosis), and something in his condition and apparent helplessness seems to touch her. After the encounter, she changes, unable to continue reaping the same harvest as before. Uncomfortable in her role, she becomes literally uncomfortable in her own skin, and wanders the countryside in a daze, until the film ends as she is forced to confront who she is and what she has done. Although I am still struggling to interpret that ending, I found the film beautiful, mysterious and shocking, and – much like the male hitchhiking victims – willingly followed Johansson wherever she led me.

For it is truly Johansson’s movie. Much of it was filmed with non-actors – actual hitchhikers who were unaware of Johansson’s identity (a nice parallel to the actual story) – shot with hidden cameras in the van, on the street, or in a nightclub. Later, if these men agreed, they signed releases and ended up in the finished work. It’s a fascinating technique – and quite brave of Johansson, who was alone in the van with strange men – and brings an authentic feel to the awkwardness of the interaction. Beyond just those scenes, however, Johansson – who has very little dialogue – brings great power and presence to the role, acting with her eyes as only a great screen actor can do.

The score – by first-time film composer Mica Levi – also contributes to the film’s off-kilter atmosphere, alternating between tremolo and pizzicato strings and synthesized chords. Cinematographer Daniel Landin does wonderful job shooting at night in low-light conditions. Ultimately, though, it is Glazer’s vision and Johansson’s performance that makes Under the Skin one of the best films I have seen so far, this year.

“Oculus” Has an Eye for Editing

Oculus

Oculus (Mike Flanagan, 2013)

I am not a particular connoisseur (or fan) of the horror genre. Occasionally, I find myself blown away by films like The Others (if that ghost story counts), Let the Right One In or even The Ring, not to mention such older classics as The Shining or The Haunting, or true classics like Frankenstein. But I do not seek out scary films, and so I am far from the target demographic of Oculus. I will say, however, that the clever parts of this new film from Towson University alumnus Mike Flanagan (Absentia) will probably appeal to all cinema fans, regardless of genre preference. Even if I did not ultimately enjoy the story – I tuned out at about two-thirds of the way through – I found much to admire in the movie’s stylized editing: its temporal and spatial ellipses and shifts were almost breathtaking at times. The film geek in me was pleased until the narrative storyteller reared his ugly head and asked for greater coherence and follow-through.

Oculus tells the story of a mirror possessed by a malevolent supernatural force that compels people to commit horrible suicidal and murderous acts by manipulating the reality around them so they realize not what they do. In the course of the film, we learn that said mirror has existed for hundreds of years, leaving a barely traceable trail of destruction in its evil wake – after all, if it looks like suicide and murder, why would anyone suspect anything different? Well, it turns out that 11 years prior to the main events of the film, Kaylie (played as an adult by Karen Gillan of Dr. Who” fame) and her brother Tim (played as an adult by Brenton Thwaites of Blue Lagoon: The Awakening) had survived attacks by their mirror-controlled parents (Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff), and actually witnessed the physical manifestation of the evil force. Now, the 21-year-old Tim is being released from the mental ward where he has stayed ever since, and Kaylie - who has spent the same years in foster homes researching the mirror’s past – greets him with the news that the time has come to take their revenge. Back they go to their old house, where Kaylie installs the mirror in its former place. She has a plan to defeat the power within. But the mirror has been waiting, and knows how to defend itself.

Much of the film consists of marvelous editing tricks, where we cut seamlessly back and forth between the present and the past, the real and the fantasy, the memory and the nightmare. We think we’re in one space, only to discover that we’ve been fooled by the mirror and are actually elsewhere. Flanagan, who also edited, deserves full credit here for creating a wonderfully paranoid atmosphere where nothing is what it seems. Unfortunately, his lead actress (Gillan) has a tendency to overact with her eyes (perhaps appropriate for a film entitled Oculus), though Sackhoff (Starbuck on the  “Battlestar Galactica” reboot) is terrific. The film also features lovely production and costume design (I was  a big fan of the green blouse which complemented Gillan’s red hair). Unfortunately, it’s at the script level that Oculus falls apart, as there’s only so many gotcha surprises we can tolerate before we stop caring. Also, at some point, it becomes clear how ill-matched the one side is against the other, so the ending lacks suspense. Sure, there are some creepy visuals (those glowing eyes in the reanimated spirits are not pleasant to look at), but those don’t make up for the missing chills and thrills.

Still, there is plenty to recommend, and if you like the genre, I suggest you give Oculus a try.

Delivering Us from Evil: “Joe” is Southern Gothic at Its Best

Joe

Joe (David Gordon Green, 2014)

I saw Joe at the 2014 SXSW Festival, and found it both powerful and difficult to watch. It features a terrific lead performance by Nicolas Cage as a man at war with himself, an equally compelling supporting performance by up-and-comer Tye Sheridan (so engaging in Mud), and a riveting art-imitating-life performance by real-life homeless alcoholic Gary Poulter (who drowned in a lake before the film was released). They each represent three different points on the trajectory of male violence that David Gordon Green (George Washington, Pineapple Express) has chosen to examine in this, his ninth theatrical feature. From Sheridan – as a 15-year-old just learning the ropes of a life made rough by poverty, despair and addiction – to Poulter – as his ravaged, brutal father – there lies a clear and predetermined path, with Cage’s Joe at its midpoint. The film is about how these men’s lives intersect, and whether or not the journey is as foreordained as it originally seems.

Be prepared for scenes of extreme violence (made more disturbing by the cheerless setting, like the Ozarks in Winter’s Bone, only – ha! – less rich) between men and other men, men and children, men and dogs, and dogs and dogs. What women there are there for sex and submission, if they matter at all. Small-town Texas has never seemed so bleak.

Joe’s the good guy, but even he is a heap of trouble. He runs an illegal business poisoning trees in the woods, yet appears to be a boss who is well-liked by the African-American laborers he picks up every morning in his pickup truck. He drinks – even heavily – but never gets really drunk (or violent). Into his carefully constructed world – and it is carefully constructed, as we soon discover, since he has done previous jail time as reckless younger man - comes Gary, the son of a man who has given himself wholly over to his drinking. Poulter’s Wade – all hollowed cheekbones and wiry frame – is a frightening creature, and though he looks like the wind could blow him over, turns out to have a lot of strength left in those gnarled hands, which he uses to beat Gary down and (possibly) rape Gary’s sister (or at least pimp her out to willing strangers). The mother is a shadow, barely present.

Gary asks Joe for a job – money is scarce – and before he knows it, Joe is both surrogate big brother and father to the desperate young man. As he becomes more and more involved in the miseries of Wade’s clan, Joe’s own propensity for violence – along with his drinking - threatens to destroy his hard-fought (relatively) peaceful existence. But perhaps it will all be worth it, if he can save Gary from following in Wade’s and his footsteps.

Peopled with other local non-actors beyond Poulter and shot in real locations in and around Austin, Texas, Joe brings a fine level of authenticity to it, even while starring a major Hollywood actor. Perhaps it’s because that actor has never been finer, and the emotions he and his fellow cast members bring to the story feel as real as the sets. “What keeps me alive is restraint,” is what Joe says at one point in the film, and Cage seems to take that mantra to heart. Not always known for restraint as an actor, he here understands just what is needed. If you can keep your eyes open during the tough parts, you’ll find the experience of watching Joe well worth the discomfort.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” – Everything You Want and Need in a Superhero

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony Russo/Joe Russo, 2014)

I did not grow up reading comic books. I was no fanboy. It was not until I was in graduate school and was desperately looking for things to do other than write my Master’s Thesis (I am a world-champion “productive procrastinator,” always reading avidly that which needs not be read at that given moment) that I discovered my then-roommates’ treasure trove of Marvel and DC comics. I had a lot of desperate fun learning about Spider-Man, Animal Man, the X-Men, etc. (but not Captain America, sadly), as well as discovering the fantastic graphic novels by Alan Moore, including The Dark Knight Returns, V for Vendetta, and Watchmen. I’m pretty sure I haven’t read a comic since. But the better stories still resonate, and in this age of comic-book movies - many of which just aren’t that interesting – I often long for a superhero movie that will give me good character-based drama, great action and topical relevance to the world we live in today (like much of Alan Moore’s work). Sadly, I rarely get what I’d like.

The role of science fiction and fantasy should be to help us explore the important issues of our time in a seemingly alien context (what the Russian formalists called “estrangement“). This distancing device can, if handled properly, make us more receptive to the ideas therein, slyly working in societal critiques that we fail to interpret, at first, as anything more than fantastical plots. Little by little, we find ourselves hooked on the adventure, and only afterwards realize that we were reading a book or watching a movie about ourselves. Sometimes, messages are better conveyed in the guise of escapist entertainment than as sincere social commentary.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the kind of superhero film that gives us (or me, anyway) all of the action and adventure we need, great characters to root for (with little digital imagery to distract), and a terrific and timely politically paranoid plot that forces us to contemplate our contemporary lives in serious ways. I liked Captain America: The First Avenger (the first film in this series) better than any of the other “Marvel Universe” movies, including Iron Man, which I nevertheless enjoyed. That introduction to Steve Rogers – the 90-pound weakling who is transformed into a brawny super soldier by an experimental serum – featured Chris Evans (who had previously appeared in another superhero series, Fantastic Four, as Johnny Storm) as its protagonist, and he brought a warmth and humanity to the proceedings that made us truly empathize with Rogers’ demons, both internal and external. Rogers had grit and a strong moral compass – which is why he was chosen to be injected with the serum, rather than his healthier peers – and bore his “Captain America” moniker with grace and humility. Set during World War II, that film featured an inevitable showdown with Nazis and people even worse than Nazis, presenting familiar tropes with an energy reminiscent of the best Indiana Jones films. It also ended on a surprisingly melancholy note, as Rogers sacrificed himself to save the world, plunging his doomsday weapon-laden plane into the ice and freezing himself in the process.

Captain America returned in The Avengers, a film I also enjoyed, but which featured too many competing characters (Hulk! Iron Man! Thor! etc!) for any single one to stand out. And, compared to his truly superhuman colleagues in that film, Rogers – just recently rescued from his icy grave and miraculously revived - seemed physically reduced. But now he gets his own movie again, or at least a movie in which he is the star. There are plenty of other terrific actors around to help him shine, however, including Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow (when will she get her own movie?), Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury (the head of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Robert Redford (yep – Bob has decided to lend his considerable talents to a superhero film, and we are very grateful) as Alexander Pierce, and Anthony Mackie (always appealing) as a U.S. Army veteran who is befriended by Rogers in a very funny opening scene. More importantly, the same screenwriters – Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely – who made the first film such a winning combination of wit, heart, adrenaline and soul, are back for this second outing, and have here crafted a story that is superior to its predecessor. Brothers Anthony and Joe Russo – who haven’t made a feature film since the dismal You, Me and Dupree in 2006, but have been working in TV ever since – display a solid talent for working with their stars and staging the big set pieces, even if some of the later action sequences are a bit too chaotic to be coherent (though an earlier car chase scene with Samuel L. Jackson had me on the edge of my seat). It’s wonderful to see good actors delivering good performances, rather than the showboating we so often see in the Iron Man films.

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the threat to our world comes from within. Following the massive chaos and terror unleashed in The Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D. – basically, the NSA on steroids – has decided to develop massive gunships that can stay aloft virtually forever and eliminate terrorist targets, perhaps even before they commit any acts of terrorism in the first place (shades of Minority Report). When Nick Fury discovers an anomaly in the controlling algorithm, he orders a delay in the program’s implementation. After which, all hell breaks loose, since certain forces have their reasons for wanting the gunships to fly. At the center of the film’s plot is a very discussion of the ethics of violence-in-the-name-of-security, as well as of the dangers of the government’s ubiquitous data mining of the secrets of our lives. What would you trade in the name of ostensible safety? I am hardly the first person to see interesting parallels between this film and the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, of which Three Days of the Condor - starring Robert Redford, making his presence in this new film especially resonant – was one of the best. Those films asked similarly complicated questions of us, and it’s a welcome surprise to see such weighty material handled in a genre that all too often focuses on silly God-like lunkheads from other planets. True, much of the dialogue is rendered in comic-book simple sentences (you can see The. Bold. Lettering.), but that doesn’t detract from the complexity of the issues considered.

What’s particularly refreshing, as well, is how beautifully Captain America: The Winter Soldier (and I haven’t even discussed that “Winter Soldier,” preferring to leave him as a welcome surprise for you) plays to an audience that has no interest in the overall “Marvel Universe.” I watched the post-credit sequence, in which Joss Whedon (director of The Avengers and its upcoming sequel) sets up additional characters to come - Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch - and I thought, “who cares?” That thought, however, did not detract from the wonderful experience I had just had. I wholeheartedly recommend this film and hope it kicks Iron Man’s metal behind.

Barbara the Brilliant: Midday on Stanwyck, April 4, 1pm

[For those of you who missed the show, here is a link to the podcast: http://wypr.org/post/midday-film-1 ]

Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990)

Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990)

From 1927 to 1986, Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990), née Ruby Stevens, entertained us on screens both large and small, in films (and later TV shows) of almost all genres (she’s listed as #11 on the AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Stars list). Hers was foremost an intelligent presence. Yes, she was beautiful and sexy, but it was the brilliance of her mind, always thinking, that truly captivated me from the moment I first saw her in Billy Wilder’s film noir classic Double Indemnity. Born in New York City and orphaned young, she had a hard life, at first, which probably accounts for her tremendous and dynamic strength. She went to act in some of the classics of 20th-Century cinema, including – in addition to the aforementioned Wilder film - Baby Face, Stella Dallas, The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and The Furies. She later continued in television as the matriarch on the 1960s hit show “The Big Valley,” and turned in an electric performance opposite Richard Chamberlain in the 1980s mini-series “The Thorn Birds.”

A Life of Barbara Stanwyck Book Cover

And now there’s a new biography out about her: A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940  (volume 1 in a two-part series), by Victoria Wilson. On Friday, April 4, Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed – Chair of Film/Video at Stevenson University – will appear on Midday with Dan Rodricks on WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station, during the second hour, 1-2pm, to discuss Barbara Stanwyck’s life and career with Victoria Wilson, herself, who will join us to discuss her book and Barbara Stanwyck’s enduring legacy.

If you can’t listen locally, you can live-stream the podcast.

And you can always download the podcast afterwards, via iTunes the Midday page.

Enjoy the show!

Paris – The City of Fight: The True Romance of “Le Week-End”

Le Week-End

Le Week-End (Roger Michell, 2013)

Love is a battlefield, especially in certain long-term relationships. A 60-something English couple, Nick and Meg – the one a college philosophy professor, the other a grade-school teacher – head to Paris (from Birmingham) for the weekend (“week-end,” in French, believe it or not) to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. They have a comfortable, if occasionally antagonist, rapport, and very different ideas about what constitutes an ideal getaway. Their last trip to the “City of Light” had been for their honeymoon, and Nick has made reservations at the very same Montmartre hotel at which they had previously stayed. Unfortunately, it’s a bit rundown, and so Meg, disgusted, grabs the first taxi she can find and insists on an aimless ride through the streets of the French capital (“We’re in Paris,” she cries) until her eyes alight on the perfect stopping point: the Hotel Plaza Athénée. It’s expensive, but price is no obstacle (it turns out that price will matter, but the consequences only come later). Clearly, we have entered the story of Nick and Meg at a crisis point, and the joy (and extreme discomfort) of the film is in watching that crisis unfold, and in the great performances given by Jim Broadbent (Topsy-Turvy, Cloud Atlas, and so much else), as Nick, and Lindsay Duncan (HBO’s “Rome” and a lot of British stage and TV), as Meg, as they invest their characters with humanity and complexity.

The director Roger Michell (PersuasionNotting Hill) and the writer Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) have collaborated three times before: first on a 1993 British miniseries, The Buddha of Suburbia (based on Kureishi’s novel of the same name), and then on two films that both – like Le Week-End – analyzed the challenges of aging in remarkably frank ways, The Mother and Venus. I found their new film less interesting than The Mother (in which 60-something Anne Reid carries on an affair with her daughter’s hunky 30-something boyfriend, played by Daniel Craig), but far more accomplished than Venus (which I just found kind of gross with its crude sexual humor). Regardless of how one feels about any of their films, however, kudos to them – both just shy of 60 – for writing and directing films about a demographic that often does not get its fair share of screen time.

In Le Week-End, Michell and Kureishi explore the ups and downs, the comedies and the tragedies, the good and the bad, and the love and the hate that all co-exist in any intimate relationship between two people. In short, they explore the awesome beauty and pain of life, itself. If the film can seem at times reductive (a lot seems to happen – some of it coincidental – on this one particular weekend), it is nevertheless a masterpiece of behavioral study. When the marvelous Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and a gazillion other films which he elevated just by showing up) arrives in the second half to act as unwitting narcissistic foil to the roiling sadomasochistic co-dependency of Nick and Meg, his presence unleashes a final torrent of tragicomic existential mayhem (he also serves as the perfect set-up for the movie’s jokey French New Wave-inspired ending). You’ll laugh; you’ll cry; you’ll scream; you’ll definitely feel something. You’ll hate Meg at first, then find Nick a bore, and eventually come to realize that we’re all very much like them (up to point). It’s finely acted and scripted drama, and a welcome return to form for Michell after the disappointing Hyde Park on Hudson. I highly recommend.

As a side note, the cinematographer is Nathalie Durand, who also shot Avant que de tout perdre - which should have won the 2014 Oscar for Best Live Action Short (it lost out to the far inferior Helium) - and Blame It on Fidel. She does a lovely job photographing Paris by mostly natural light, and is definitely someone to watch.

“Cesar Chavez” – A Great Man Struggles against the Mediocrity of His Biopic

Cesar Chavez landscape

Cesar Chavez (Diego Luna, 2014)

Biopics are frequently problematic. How does one reduce the life of an important historical figure into a meaningful and comprehensive narrative of approximately two hours length? If one tries to do too much, then there is a risk that the vital elements of the subject’s biography – the reason we remember this person – will get lost in an excess of detail. If one’s focus is too narrow, then we never grasp the context of the totality of that person’s actions and influence. Walk the Line (James Mangold, 2005), about Johnny Cash, kept the story on Cash’s struggles with addiction and his relationship with June Carter. Once he resolved those issues, the film ended. By being so specific (yet still beginning with the beginning of his career), the film succeeded in giving us a real human being at the center of the story, while also helping us understand why Johnny Cash mattered. By contrast, Clint Eastwood’s 2011 J. Edgar was a failure, partly due to its attempt to show us all of J. Edgar Hoover’s life (on the other hand, Eastwood’s Invictus - which focused on just one incident in Nelson Mandela’s life – was a fine film).

Since the earliest days of the cinema, filmmakers have tackled biographical subjects, so there’s a wealth of both positive and negative examples to choose from. Take your pick. Opening today we have Cesar Chavez, by the actor-turned-director Diego Luna (Y Tu Mamá TambiénMilk). I wrote a brief review of the film after I saw at the SXSW Festival. I did not like it very much, although I certainly found aspects of it to admire. There was tremendous energy in the theater when Luna got up on stage at the end with his actors, and if only that energy had been present in the film, it might have been significantly better.

Cesar Chavez (1927-1993), the man, was a seminal American labor organizer whose nonviolent protests in the 1960s and 1970s - and founding of the United Farm Workers Union with fellow activist Dolores Huerta – eventually resulted in the major United States agricultural growers being forced to grant higher wages and more decent conditions to the legions of field workers who had long toiled in hardship. If you believe in workers’ rights, he was a great man. As played by lead actor Michael Peña (End of Watch), however, he’s a bit of a passive force and accidental leader, who stumbles and shuffles his way to victory. It’s hardly a fitting tribute to his legacy. I have liked Peña as a supporting actor in other films, but here he is out of his depth.

There are two other actors who could have risen to the challenge and carried the film – America Ferrera (“Ugly Betty“) and Rosario Dawson (Seven Pounds) – since they have demonstrated real power in other roles, if only they had been given a chance by the script. Instead, this is yet another film where women are cast as supporting players, rather than active participants. Since Dolores Huerta (Dawson) was at least as important as Chavez, this is particularly inexcusable. Fererra (as Helen Chavez, Cesar’s wife) gets more of a chance to flex some muscle, but it’s not enough.

So what we have is a film with occasional flashes of historical interest – and if you know nothing about Chavez, you might as well see it – and a lot of dead weight. If you keep your expectations low, you might actually enjoy it.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Serves a Tasty, If Lightweight, Feast

Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)

In the past 20 years, the writer/director Wes Anderson has made just 5 short films and 8 features (including the stop-motion-animation Fantastic Mr. Fox). In spite of this (relatively) limited output (in the same time frame, the writer/director Woody Allen has released 20 features, or one a year), Anderson has developed a strong cult following. His films feel truly unique, and uniquely designed: every frame is carefully planned; every action taken and word spoken seems to emerge from the brain and vision of an auteurist director with excellent control over every single detail the audience sees.

Anderson’s films are a delight to his fans, and a welcome reprieve from the ubiquity of sameness that so often pervades Hollywood blockbusters. Unfortunately (for me), that same tight control also lends his films an air of artifice that often keeps the viewer at a distance from the emotional lives of the characters: we always observe, but never participate. I love Wes Anderson films; I hate Wes Anderson films. I admire his style and panache, but often wish there was less of both. The only one of his films that truly captivated me was Rushmore: somehow (and maybe because it was the first film of his I saw), the artifice worked as a brilliant expression of a precocious teenager’s soul. Every time the house lights go dark on a new Wes Anderson film, I hope for a new Rushmore, and I am always disappointed. Nevertheless, I keep coming back, which is a testament to how glad I am that an artist such as Anderson exists.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is no Rushmore, but it’s still a lovely refuge for a certain kind of cinematic delight, nonetheless. Anderson seems to acknowledge his own tendency towards artifice right at the start: first, when the vocal music on the soundtrack transforms into yodels from the mouths of three men on a bench past which the camera glides; and second, when the establishing panorama of the Grand Budapest Hotel shifts between the virtual and the actual, with a hand-crafted paper model of the mansion morphing into the solidity of stone. It’s a beautiful opening, but one that presages Anderson’s usual prioritizing of style over content.

The film takes place primarily in 1932, but the main story is framed – as if inside a Russian nesting doll - within three later time periods: the present (or something later than 1985), 1985, and 1968. Each layer is peeled back until we arrive at the hard center, where the marvelous Ralph Fiennes resides. He plays Monsieur Gustave, the concierge at the titular hotel, who runs his establishment with a firm hand and strong aesthetic sensibility, and makes a habit of sleeping with his elderly lady clients (though he is gay). His faithful (platonic) companion – a novice aptly named “Zero” (relative newcomer Tony Revolori, quite good) – accompanies him everywhere, even to the funeral of one Gustave’s paramours. It is at this funeral, after a series of delightfully frivolous set pieces – all scored with jaunty balalaika music by composer Alexandre Desplat - that the plot kicks in. Gustave is named as a partial beneficiary of the will – his gift is a painting named “Boy with Apple” – and the family (composed primarily of Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe, both in full psychotic mode, especially the latter) objects. The drama that erupts will eventually lead to much gruesome violence (severed fingers, a dead cat), many deaths, jail sentences, beatings, and much more. On the horizon looms the Nazi menace. Is this film a metaphor about the savagery that lurks below the veneer of civilization?

Quite possibly, but it’s all staged so giddily – even the severing of those fingers – that it’s hard to get a grasp on tone. It is this inability to be sincere, even for a moment – along with the excess of surface style – that always leaves me fatigued and annoyed at the end of most Wed Anderson films. But if you are up for a wildly inventive journey, and are a fan of any of these actors – Fiennes, Brody, Dafoe, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Léa Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, and/or Bob Balaban (what actors are not in this film, you may ask) – then chances are you’ll have a good time. And if you are a bigger and more constant fan of Anderson than I am, I suspect you will love the film. It is unmistakably his.

“Divergent” Takes the Path Most Traveled

Divergent

Divergent (Neil Burger, 2014)

In a post-apocalyptic world, where the survivors once struggled in the aftermath of war but have since rebuilt their society in new and innovative – and, to some, frightening – ways, a young rebel will emerge in a time of crisis to lead the faithful forward on the path to a new and better life. Her name is . . . Beatrice Prior. If you thought I was going to write Katniss Everdeen, then you haven’t been paying attention to the marketing hype over the past month (and more power to you!). If you don’t even know who Katniss is, then I wish you the best in navigating the fevered dystopian landscape of today’s best-seller scene, as populated as it is with hit young-adult book series like The Hunger Games and Divergent. May the odds be ever in your favor.

The Divergent series consist of three books (surprise!), the last of which, Allegiant, was just published in October, 2013. The author is 25-year-old Veronica Roth, who sold the first book while she was still a Senior at Northwestern University. My hats off to her! I just wish the series were better and less derivative of so many previous works (The Hunger Games being only the most obvious source). I have read the first book and the second (Insurgent), and am now struggling through the third (really struggling). The writing has deteriorated with each volume, becoming ever more stale and desperate. I don’t know if I’ll make it to the end of Allegiant before my library e-book loan expires (I have no intention of buying).

Still, the first book had some interesting aspects to it, and since the movie hews close to its plot, I’ll briefly describe the world of both. In a Chicago of an unspecified future, the remnants of human civilization have divided themselves into five “factions” – Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, Erudite – where the character trait implied by the faction name is practiced by its members to the near-exclusion of all other behaviors (if you’re looking at that list and wondering why “Amity” isn’t “Benevolence” – for example – to make it a perfect alphabetical list that would match the simplicity of the conceit, I have no answer for you.). Every Chicagoan must, at the age of 16, choose whether to remain in their birth faction or switch to one more in line with how they see themselves. Since the members of Abnegation are supposed to be selfless, they govern the city; Amity farms (don’t ask); Candor debates openly and without prejudice (which somehow serves the city); Dauntless guards the city’s perimeter; and Erudite gathers knowledge, invents things, and wonders why they don’t get to rule (why is it so frequently the intellectuals – often the targets of bullying in real life – who are the bad guys in fiction?).

Beatrice is from Abnegation, and on choosing day she switches to Dauntless. She is different than most others, however, for she is “divergent,” which means she is not simply categorized, and thinks outside the box. She is a threat to the world order. In the middle of the dangerous and life-threatening Dauntless initiation, Beatrice (who has now chosen to be called “Tris,” instead) discovers that there may be a plot to overthrow the current political system through violent means, with Erudite (of course) manipulating the Dauntless and using them as their private army. What clever little evil intellectuals they are!

In spite of my obvious cynicism (is it that obvious?), I kind of enjoyed the first book. True, the premise is absurd. Why those five factions? And would anyone really want to always be any one of those five characteristics, all the time? Besides that, though, I found the details compelling, and enjoyed the main character’s journey. So I was looking forward to seeing what the movie would be like, especially since it is directed by the man who gave us Interview with the Assassin and The Illusionist

To be fair, if you’re a fan of the series, you will probably find much to like in the film. What differences there from the source material are so slight as to be meaningless. Neil Burger does a decent job with the action scenes, even if the violence has been significantly toned down for the PG-13 rating (and even if the CGI looks terrible). If you haven’t read the book, then why are you watching the film? The reviews have been terrible . . .

For me, the real problem lies in the casting of the main role. Shailene Woodley was wonderful in both The Descendants and The Spectacular Now, but here she is just wrong. I do not, for even one moment, buy her as a tough warrior, or even as a wounded sparrow about to become a tough warrior. She is too soft and inconclusive, even when she points a gun. Her co-star, Theo James, brings some nice gravitas to his role as Four, her trainer, but together they have no chemistry. Other fine actors populate the movie, from Ashley Judd and Kate Winslet to Ray Stevenson and Miles Teller, but there’s no escaping the central misfire. See it if you must.

SXSW 2014 Final Roundup

Friday, March 14, was my last day at SXSW. I wish I could have stayed until Sunday morning, so that I could have caught the Saturday screenings of all of the Audience Award Winners announced that day (the ones I hadn’t previously seen, anyway), but a week in Austin was what I had planned. After the 4-films-a-day marathons of Wednesday and Thursday, 3 films were all I could handle on Friday, and I (briefly) review them, below.

Before the reviews, though, I just want to sing the praises of SXSW. Austin should be very proud to host such a wonderful and diverse 9-day event (Interactive! Film! Music!). I only attended some of the interactive media panels (although I spent a lot of time in the trade show), and none of the music events, but it was impossible to ignore the energy and vibrancy that the combination of different media brought to the festival. What’s so great, too, is how many artists attend the screenings. Rare were the films that didn’t have a Q&A afterwards with at least the director, if not the director and the stars (and other crew).

If I have one criticism – and it is minor – it is over the separation of the films into curated programs. It makes sense to separate narratives and documentaries, shorts and features (and music videos and episodic TV pilots), but the other categories merely serve to confuse, especially since the catalog that one gets with registration does not list the films alphabetically, so that if you have a slow mobile connection at any given moment and are trying to look up information about a film, you have to know which program it’s a part of in order to find it in the catalog. I met no single attendee of the festival who cared about the category into which the film they were watching had been placed. Narrative or documentary (and shorts, etc.) – that was the concern.

Also, the distribution of audience awards across the different categories, rather than just one award for narrative features and one for documentary features, reduces the value of each award. If many people get prizes, then the individual prizes mean that much less. I’d also be curious to know how the choice to include some films (and not others) in the Jury competition was made (and why DamNation, according to its directors at the Q&A, was left out of the documentary competition).

Overall, though, it’s a brilliantly managed festival, and everyone should attend at least once.

Last Hijack

Last Hijack (Tommy Pallotta/Famke Wolding, 2014)

This is an interesting hybrid of documentary footage and animation, which, in the beginning, had me unaware that I was watching a non-fiction film. Something about the way the directors followed their subjects made me assume that I was watching staged scenes of non-actors in a narrative about Somali pirates. But then, as the film went on, I realized that these were real people, playing themselves (the on-camera interviews helped, obviously). It may seem like I am particularly clueless, but part of the power of this film is the way it blends different genres. It’s a look at the life of an ordinary Somali who decides on a life of piracy (Deborah Young wrote, in The Hollywood Reporter, that it was “like the backstory to Captain Phillips“), and the directors use whatever techniques they feel will best serve their story at that particular moment. There are talking-head interviews; there are animated sequences (for flashbacks and acts of actual piracy); and there are scenes that look as if they were set up for the camera. The whole is quite effective at illuminating the reasons why a young Somali would choose to be a pirate. There are problems in the storytelling – the ending is a little too opaque for a film called Last Hijack – but overall it’s a film well worth watching.

Vessel

Vessel (Diana Whitten, 2013)

This is one of the few screenings I attended where the standing ovation at the end was merited (fortunately, there weren’t that many ovations at SXSW, which is good, because most ovations are unearned). Not because the filmmaking was so extraordinary – it’s a messy movie, by a first-time director – but because the filmmaking was brave and challenging and powerful. I am happy that the SXSW Jury granted it a “special jury prize for political courage.”

Vessel tells the story of Dutch doctor Rebecca Gomperts and the international abortion-services organization she founded, Women on Waves, which offers abortions to women in countries where it is illegal by taking them 12 miles offshore, into international waters (where the laws of the ship’s home country apply), and giving them the abortion pill. It follows Dr. Gomperts and her crew from the organization’s inception and unsuccessful early voyages through their current growth and expansion (which now includes the online service Women on Web). Protests greet them everywhere they go, from Ireland to Poland to Portugal to Ecuador to Morocco. One occasionally fears for the safety of Gomperts (and the filmmakers), but not as much as one fears for the safety of the women they seek to serve.

What I particularly liked about the movie is how it keeps its focus on the needs of women – Whitten frequently puts letters and emails to the organization from desperate women up on the screen – rather than on the arguments for and against abortion. To Whitten and Gomperts, access to abortion is, as Gomperts says, a “reduction of suffering” (unwanted children lead to unhappiness and misery for them and their mothers), and so they spend the film telling us of all the dangers (and death) that women face when abortion is illegal, rather than arguing about morality (then again, granting women power over their own bodies is, in my opinion, moral). I think it’s a most effective technique, and a film that all should see.

Dance of Reality

The Dance of Reality (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 2013)

The only other Jodorowsky film I’ve seen is Santa Sangre, and boy, was that a trip! It was about an armless mother who dominates her son by forcing him to act as her arms for her, often murderously. It was extremely bloody and disturbing, and I’m still not sure to this day if I liked it, but it was deeply memorable (I often recommend it), which is what we want art to be, no?

This new film – Jodorowsky’s first since 1990′s The Rainbow Thief, is bizarre yet majestically beautiful, and compared to Santa Sangre, it is a model of filmmaking restraint. Of course, if you’ve never seen a Jodorowsky film, you’ll marvel at that description (and immediately rent or buy Santa Sangre, I hope, to see how The Dance of Reality could be called “restrained”). Billed as an autobiographical film about Jodorowsky’s childhood in Chile, The Dance of Reality is a magical-realist coming-of-age fable with a twist: it’s not the boy (young Alejandro) who grows up, but the father, Jaime (played by the marvelous Brontis Jodorowsky, the director’s son). In order for Alejandro to become a man, first the tyrannical father must die and be reborn as a kindler and gentler soul, able to appreciate the ways in which his son is different, and to celebrate that difference.

Filled with striking images and fantastical sequences, the film might turn off those looking for strict narrative coherence, although it is fairly linear in its plot development. I recommend that you stick around for the full journey, as it will surprise you and mark you as only a truly unique and inspired work of art can do. And now I have to go off and watch some more films by Jodorowsky, as two is not enough.