“Frozen” Won’t Completely Melt Your Heart, but It’s Still (Kind of) Fun

Frozen

Frozen (Chris Buck/Jennifer Lee, 2013)

Let’s talk about what works first:

  • The 3D animation is stunningly beautiful. You must see this in 3D. The frozen snowflakes that hover in the air are magical.
  • The songs are pretty good, some better than others.
  • The film has not one, but two female protagonists, and although men figure prominently in the story, ultimately the movie is much more about the relationship between the two sisters at the center of the story, and how they must learn to trust each other.
  • The reindeer is cute.

For the rest, well, a lot of it is standard Disney boilerplate stuff, with even less character development than one might hope for. It’s a mixed bag of a movie, in other words, but harmless good fun, and well worth bringing your kids and/or the whole family to see.

Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel, from the original cast of Broadway’s “Wicked“), the eldest of two princesses, has a dangerous (and never explained) supernatural ability to freeze objects around her. As a young girl, she almost kills her younger sister, Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell, of “Veronica Mars,” and much more), and so her parents, the king and queen, convince her to hide her power from the world (and to wear gloves to help limit its use), and have the local troll wizard wipe Anna’s memory to keep the power secret. As a result, Elsa withdraws into herself, spending most of her time in her room, avoiding Anna. Years later, the now estranged sisters suddenly find themselves orphaned when the king and queen die (a scene showed with great restraint) in a violent storm at sea. On Elsa’s subsequent coronation day, the sisters open the castle to the general public for the first time in years, much to Anna’s delight and Elsa’s trepidation. When a young prince, Hans (Santino Fontana), shows up at the party, he and Anna fall instantly in love. Elsa disapproves, and when Anna announces that she and Hans plan to marry (yes, it’s sudden), Elsa, in anger and fear, fails to control her power and unleashes a permanent winter over the land. Horrified at what she has done, she flees into the mountains.

The rest of the movie is the story of how Anna tries to find Elsa and reconcile with her. Along the way, she meets a hunky woodsman, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) – who comes with a reindeer sidekick – and a magical snowman, Olaf, who yearns to one day sunbathe on a beach, having missed the memo that heat is bad for snow creatures. It’s the usual fun mix of silliness and song, common to most Disney films, and cute to watch, for the most part. Unfortunately, the story gets moving before we’ve really had much of a chance to understand the two central characters, Elsa and Anna, and so the entire enterprise suffers from the curse of superficiality, which limits the effect of the *spoiler alert* final reconciliation. What is nice about that ending, however – and what makes the film unusual – is that the saving act of “true love” is not what you think it will be. Indeed, this film would definitely pass the Bechdel Test and so, as generic as some its sequences turn out to be, we can count that as genuine progress.

Finally, to repeat what I wrote, earlier, the look of the film is stunning. And not only the feature, but the short film before it – Get a Horse! – both employ gorgeous 3D effects. Visually, this is a masterpiece of modern animation. Enjoy.

Death Steals Profundity from “The Book Thief”

Book Thief

The Book Thief (Brian Percival, 2013)

The best thing about this film are the young leads, Sophie Nélisse (Monsieur Lazhar), as Liesl – pictured in the poster, above, and the “book thief” of the title – and Nico Liersch, as Rudy, her neighbor and friend. The adults – Geoffrey Rush (The King’s Speech, and so much more) and Emily Watson (War Horse, and so much more) among them – are all right, if a bit hammy, but it’s the kids who shine. The worst thing about the film is Death (with a capital D) – voiced by Roger Allam (Inkheart, also as narrator) – who narrates the film with a sardonic flair that I found profoundly irritating in a film about Germany, World War II and the Holocaust. I understand that this device comes straight from the source (the book of the same title, by Markus Zusak), which I have not read, but while it may have worked on the page (though Janet Maslin of The New York Times dubbed it “Harry Potter and the Holocaust”), once brought to life (pun intended), it is supremely off-putting. There are some good moments within, but there is no escaping this unintentional trivialization of the mass extermination of Jews in Europe. Death – the narrator – makes death – the end of life – less profound than it should be.

Which is too bad, because at first the narration works. Before we meet any of the characters, we hear, as the camera descends through the clouds to a moving train, the following words: “One small fact. You are going to die. No one lives forever.” This sets us up well for the arbitrariness of who died and who lived during the war and attendant genocide. But as Death continues his commentary, the arch irony of his tone begins to grate.

We begin our story in 1938, as Liesl – not quite 10 years old – meets her adoptive parents (Rush and Watson) in a small German town (her mother, a Communist, has been forced to give her up). It is shortly before Kristallnacht, and though there are Nazi flags everywhere, the residents treat them and the required party rituals with a mix of enthusiasm and resignation, depending on who they are. Liesl’s new parents are indifferent to the Nazis, but careful to hang their flag like everyone else. Liesl’s neighbor Rudy – a lookalike for a Hitler Youth poster child – is more interested in Liesl than the Führer, and life doesn’t seem all that different from a Frank Capra film. But then the book burnings and the attacks against Jews begin, and life quickly begins to change. Most submit – willingly or not – while a few resist in ways large and small. Liesl and her family (and Rudy) fall into the latter category.

This part of the film – while Death leaves us alone – is actually quite interesting, showing us one view of what it might have been like to be an ordinary German faced with an extraordinary set of circumstances. How would you behave, the film seems to ask. Well, for Hans (Rush), the choice arrives in the form of Max (Ben Schnetzer), the son of an old Jewish friend – a man who had sacrificed himself to save Hans in World War I – who needs refuge from the Nazis. While Rosa (Watson) initially wants to turn the young man in to the authorities to protect the family, her conscience prevails, and so they take on the risk of hiding him (and an extra mouth to feed). When Max falls ill, Liesl steals books from the home of the local Buergmeister (the town’s Mayor) to read to him, and it is through this interaction that she escapes (somewhat) from the horrors outside. But this is a film about war, and, as Death so casually informed us at the start, people do die. Which would be fine, if we could just experience that death without the return of . . . Death.

I give the film a very mixed response, therefore. My feelings about it are not helped when I think of the overbearing score by John Williams (he of the many soundtracks for Spielberg and Lucas). Nor was I happy to hear everyone speaking English with a German accent – but this has been a convention of Hollywood filmmaking for so long that it’s almost not even worth commenting on. In any case, “mixed” does seem to be the overall consensus out there, and I share a few other reviewers’ opinions below:

Washington Post movie review by Stephanie Merry (mixed)

Jonathan Kim of The Huffington Post (more negative than positive)

Mick LaSalle of The San Francisco Chronicle (largely positive)

Dennis Harvey in Variety (very positive)

If you see it, let me know what you think!

“Philomena” – The Triumph of Faith over Church

Philomena

Philomena (Stephen Frears, 2013)

Philomena manages to both attack the hypocrisy of organized religion and affirm the power of faith. It’s a remarkable feat, and a fascinating movie. And it’s based on a true story. Bring your outrage.

50ish Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, star/co-writer/producer), an ex-BBC reporter and recently fired government spin doctor (in the time of Tony Blair), at loose ends and depressed, meets a waitress at a cocktail party who overhears him declaring his intention to return to journalism. She invites him to meet her mother, who has just informed her that she has a half-brother she never knew about. This mother, the Philomena of the title (Judi Dench), 50 years earlier, in Ireland, had gotten herself pregnant as a teenager, out of wedlock. Taken in by the nuns at the convent of the town of Roscrea, Philomena had signed a contract giving up her rights to her child (a boy, whom she named Anthony), and agreed to work for 4 years in the laundry room. One day, an American family arrived, ostensibly to adopt a little girl, but since Anthony refused to let the girl go without a fuss, the family adopted him, as well. Philomena had not seen her son since. Now, on the 50th anniversary of Anthony’s birth, she wants to find him. With nothing better to do, Sixsmith – an Oxford man more interested in Russian history than anything else – reluctantly agrees to pursue this “human interest” story.

They make an odd couple. He’s an atheist and intellectual who sees in this story all of the reasons for which he hates religion. She, in spite of her early experience, is a devout believer and simple working gal, who still goes to Catholic mass (although the truth they discover in the course of their investigations will shake her faith in the Church, if not God). Together they travel first to Roscrea, where the current nuns politely decline to offer any leads, claiming that all records have been lost in a fire. By this time, Sixsmith has been able to secure a book contract on the strength of a story about potential church misdeeds. Knowing that Anthony had been adopted by Americans, they next head to the United States, with the trip paid for by the publisher. There, thanks to Sixsmith’s contact from his two former careers, they are able to locate Anthony, although this find does not resolve the story; rather, it complicates and deepens it. To say more would be to give away too much.

Superbly written and acted, and with marvelous direction by Stephen Frears (The QueenHigh Fidelity), Philomena is that rare film that deals in nuance and complexity without the need to pass excessive moral judgment on its characters (you, the viewer, get to decide where you stand). That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a point of view – it clearly does, and it’s all for Philomena – but rather that it allows for multiple perspectives on the events portrayed. It’s also terrific entertainment: you’ll laugh (how can one not, with Coogan’s ever-present dry wit?); you’ll cry (I hope); you’ll feel uplifted by the power of the human spirit. I highly recommend.

There were only two parts of the film that I did not like:

  • The sound design is, at times, a little too bare – in an outside field in Ireland and in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, especially, making it sound as if the dialogue were added in post-production, rather than recorded in those actual locations. While I can see the decision being made to do that to create the illusion that Coogan and Dench are in this together, alone against the forces arrayed against them, but it doesn’t quite work.
  • I usually like the look of films shot on the ARRI Alexa, but not this time. While what was on screen was often striking and beautiful, the way it was shot – and the way the camera moved – sometimes looked like high-frame-rate television sportscasts.

Everything else is terrific.

“Nebraska” Exists in Shades of Gray

Nebraska

Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013)

I’ve always loved Alexander Payne’s uniquely quirky (but never twee, unlike Wes Anderson) sensibility, from films like Election, About Schmidt and Sideways to 2012 Oscar-nominee The Descendants (for which he, himself, won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay). This new film has all of the elements of his writing that I admire, including the seamless way he almost always uses physical journeys as metaphors for the spiritual journeys of his protagonists.

Still, for better or for worse, when this new film ended, I felt as empty as the landscapes of the vast plains of the Midwest. The change – if any there really was – in the lives of the characters had been minimal. Which, to give Payne all due credit, seems to be his point. After all, he shot Nebraska, with all of its glorious landscapes, in black & white. Life is full of shades of gray, with subtle shifts between near identical colors that may hide pools of meaning beneath the surface, or may be just part of the same palette. The journey’s the thing, in other words; getting there may not be the point. I guess this time, I felt like getting there (metaphorically speaking, since we do arrive, eventually, somewhere). You may feel differently. Some folks like the journey for its own sake. I still greatly enjoyed the film.

Nebraska – which could be seen as a cross between Fargo and The Straight Story  – is Payne’s sort-of homage to his home state. Bruce Dern, still going strong at 77, and wonderful here, plays Woody Grant, a man convinced that the generic sweepstakes letter he received, promising him a one-million-dollar reward, is real. Or, at least, believing in it gives him something to do. And that “something” is to get himself to Lincoln, Nebraska, from Billings, Montana, where he now lives. The problem is he can’t drive (no license) and no one will take him (they know the letter is fake, and don’t feel like indulging him). A not-so-functional alcoholic with a long-suffering wife and two grown sons, Woody seems to be rapidly approaching the end of self-sufficiency. There’s talk of putting him in a nursing home. So why not escape into fantasy? No one will play along, except for his younger son, David (Will Forte, best known as a cast member for 10 years on “Saturday Night Live,” and quite good), whose own life isn’t that great, either. So, together, they head southeast to Lincoln.

Before they arrive, however, Woody’s drinking causes him to injure himself. There’s a trip to a hospital for a quick patch-up, and by this time David realizes he’s in a bit over his head. Instead of driving to Lincoln, then, the pair head to the small town in Nebraska where Woody grew up, and where the rest of his family still lives. Woody’s wife, Kate (June Squibb), and elder son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), decide to join them, and the film shifts gears to become a meditation on roots and the consequences of action (and inaction). With great performances all around, including from Stacy Keach as an old frenemy of Woody’s, the film is pitch-perfect in its observations of human goodness and venality.

At times almost a documentary of the absurdity of Midwestern life (Payne, shooting on location in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, loves to show close-ups of odd billboards and road signs), the film is saved from caricature through the strength of its writing and its actors. Everyone is a real person, no matter how silly. Comedy and beauty exist side by side. One shot best sums up this aesthetic for me: when Woody and David visit Mt. Rushmore, we see the four presidents on their cliff, a marvel of sculpture and engineering; on the right side of the frame in the foreground, however, is a road sign that partially blocks the view, making the shot ridiculous. Even if I wanted to end up in a slightly more satisfying place at the end of the film, I was more than happy to have spent two hours with a man who would choose to line up a composition like that. Shades of gray, indeed.

“The Hunger Games” Finally Catch Fire

Hunger Games Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, 2013)

I did not like the first Hunger Games. As I wrote in my review of it last year, there seemed to be no raison d’être to the first movie other than the obvious one of cashing in on a bestselling series. The actors – especially the lead, Jennifer Lawrence, so good in films like Winter’s Bone and Silver Linings Playbook – gave lackluster performances, and looked too well-fed and healthy to convincingly portray members of a population existing at a bare subsistence level. Furthermore, the director, Gary Ross (PleasantvilleSeabiscuit), was incapable of staging action sequences with any sense of tension and danger. I was bored during the actual “Hunger Games” of the title. Given the built-in fan base for that movie, it is not surprising that it made money, but it was a dispiriting experience, and I was not alone in that assessment. Even Manohla Dargis of The New York Times, who liked the first film more than I did, notes, in her review of the sequel, my same points about Lawrence’s performance.

But let’s forget about all that. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, with a new director, Francis Lawrence (I Am LegendWater for Elephants, and no relation to the actress), at the helm, is quite fine entertainment. Whether through make-up, costume, lighting, post-production visual effects manipulation, and/or a radical workout and diet by all involved, the actors look like they actually belong in the dystopian world of Collins’s imagination. And they give actual performances. Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and her co-Hunger-Games-victor Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), behave as if they have the potential for some future love affair, and the steamy on-screen chemistry between Katniss and Gale (Liam Hemsworth, brother of Chris), makes this a love triangle with real heat. Ladies and Gentlemen, we have liftoff!

The story this time starts off in the months just after the end of The Hunger Games. Katniss, plagued by nightmares, and Peeta, gentle as always, now live in the Victors’ Village of their district, along with their mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, one of the few bright spots in film #1), trying to live as normal a life as possible. All is not well in the rest of Panem – as the post-apocalyptic remnants of the United States are called – however, as Katniss’s act of defiance at the end of the last games – her refusal to kill Peeta by threatening to have them both eat poisonous berries, thereby leaving the games without a victor – has lit a spark in the tinderbox of rebellion, and mutinies are breaking out in various districts. Before she and Peeta are to begin the traditional post-game victory tour, President Snow (a good Donald Sutherland) pays a visit to Katniss, warning her that unless she can convince all of Panem that her actions were motivated solely by love of Peeta, and not by thoughts of revolution, he will kill her family and all those she loves. To drive home his point, he shows her surveillance footage of a surreptitious kiss she has shared with her lifelong friend Gale. Unfortunately, the tour does not go well. Once begun, the mutinous fires are hard to stamp out. Angry, Snow calls for a special new edition of the Hunger Games, in honor of the 75th anniversary of their founding: the tributes from each district will be chosen from among the remaining living victors. And so Katniss and Peeta head back to the capitol to fight again.

It’s a strong set-up, and finely rendered by cast and crew, alike. The look of the film this time around is more wintry and blue, and this color palette serves the story well. The world-weariness of the victors as they are all – much to their horror and anger – called back to the capitol is perfectly captured by performers like Jeffery Wright, Amanda Plummer, Jena Malone and Sam Claflin (a well-chosen cast). Finally, the action sequences, once the new games begin, are engaging and terrifying. This is commercial filmmaking at its best.

Perhaps, as the movies go on, their quality trajectory will be the reverse of that of the books: I liked Collins’s The Hunger Games, very much, but with each subsequent novel her writing and plotting felt sloppier and rushed. If the next two movies are even close to the quality of Catching Fire, then the movie series should end strongly. Why, though, are they splitting up the last book into two films, Mockingjay, Part 1 and Part 2? The answer, of course, is money (again), and the fact that the Harry Potter film series paved the way, with Deathly Hallows, Part 1 and Part 2, followed closely by Twilight‘s Breaking Dawn, Part 1 and Part 2. The filmmakers should be careful, lest they fall into the same trap as they did with Hunger Games #1: when your motivation is solely your paycheck, you’re a lot less likely to be inspired to set everyone else’s hearts on fire. For now, however, let us be grateful that #2 has fire, and lots of it.

“Kill Your Darlings” – The Future Awaits

Kill Your Darlings

Kill Your Darlings (John Krokidas, 2013)

We’ve seen a number of films about the 1950s “Beat Generation” recently, among them Howl (about the 1957 obscenity trial surrounding the publication of poet Allen Ginsberg’s collection of poems of the same name) and On the Road (about the novelist Jack Kerouac’s cross-country travels that inspired his novel of the same name). Howl, co-directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet), which featured James Franco as Ginsberg, was a fascinating mix of documentary (the spoken dialogue came directly from the historical record) and narrative (all sequences were dramatized and performed by actors) elements, effectively rendered, that nevertheless didn’t quite hold together, primarily because of the ill-considered animated sequences by Erik Drooker (an artist whose work, such as Blood Song, I normally admire). On The Road, by Brazilian director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries), though beautifully photographed, was unevenly scripted and acted, and managed to make banal the radical vitality (i.e., the very reason we remember them today) of Kerouac, Ginsberg and their friends.

Now comes Kill Your Darlings, the first feature by director/co-writer John Krokidas with whom – full disclosure – I attended NYU’s Grad Film MFA program (we worked on each other’s short films, he on All About George, for me, and I on Shame No More and Slo-Mo, for him). This new film focuses on a seminal event in the life of young Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame), with Kerouac (Jack Huston, grandson of John) in tow, long before either of them had realized their potential as writers. Indeed, we find ourselves at Columbia University in 1943, where Ginsberg, a freshman, meets Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan, of Chronicle and “In Treatment“), a charismatic and troubled older student whose ideas of self-actualization and intellectual liberation will end up inspiring the work of the future “Beats.” None of them know, at this point, what that future holds, however, and part of the joy of this fresh look at well-known figures is watching the actors brilliantly portray these men as they struggle to define themselves. Their proposed literary revolution has the naïve innocence of foolish youth about it, and when that innocence is lost, late in the film, the sudden maturity of adulthood that is thrust upon them is powerfully felt.

There is a murder at the center of the film, as the title implies (though that title is also a reference to a well-worn bit of writerly advice). In August, 1944, Lucien Carr killed an older man, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall of “Dexter“), who had been his former scoutmaster, and perhaps lover, a crime for which he later served 18 months in prison. The movie opens with images from that killing, as Kammerer’s body floats in water, swirling in blood and dim light. We then flash forward to a prison cell, where Carr and Ginsberg – or “Ginzie,” as Carr calls him – argue over an account of the murder penned by Ginsberg that is damning to Carr. The violence of brute force is replaced by the violence of thought, and the link between them is clear. This is 1944, after all, and World War II is in full swing. Words have meaning and power.

We then flash back to Ginsberg’s arrival at Columbia and his introduction to Carr’s world of freethinking and indeterminate sexuality, down where the “fairies” live (as Ginsberg’s jock roommate calls Greenwich Village). This is primarily Ginsberg’s tale, and Krokidas and his co-writer Austin Bunn show us the liberating effect of 1940s New York Bohemian culture on the budding poet. In addition to new ideas, Ginsberg and pals absorb enormous quantities of drugs, thanks, largely, to William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster, The Messenger), a noted amateur pharmacologist (as well as future “Beat,” himself). Soon, they’re advocating a “New Vision” (inspired by William Butler Yeats’s A Vision), and breaking rules right and left. It’s the typical kind of college rebellion, and is all fun and games, until someone – Kammerer – actually gets hurt. In many ways, as Krokidas and Bunn make clear, it was this very tragedy that set the stage for a more sober reflection on life and literature that led to the later – and greater – accomplishments of these men. Otherwise, they may have remained satisfied with impish pranks, such as the (very funny) one they stage in the Columbia library (entirely invented by the filmmakers, but true to the spirit of the “New Vision”).

It is an assured debut. Krokidas directs his actors and cinematographer (Reed Morano, shooting on 35mm film) to great creative heights. Radcliffe is perfect as Ginsberg, and passionately conveys his yearning for new experiences. Like Kammerer, Ginsberg was infatuated with Carr, and Radcliffe shows us his sexual longing, and subsequent hurt when his advances are rebuffed, with moving pathos. It’s wonderful to see Radcliffe so flawlessly announce his own liberation – from Harry Potter – in this way. Kudos, as well, to Radcliffe for being willing to jump into Ginsberg’s skin so completely that he is willing to jump into bed for the required gay sex scenes (which shouldn’t be noted, except that it always is). The rest of the cast is also quite fine. I especially liked Ben Foster, whose Burroughs is both funny and frightening, and Michael C. Hall, whose Kammerer is simultaneously despicable and sympathetic.

It’s a great movie, and I highly recommend it. As the film ends, we know two things: that an acclaimed future awaits a new generation of writers, and that a glorious future awaits a new director.

“The Best Man Holiday” – A Sequel You Didn’t Know You Needed

Best Man Holiday

The Best Man Holiday (Malcolm Lee, 2013)

I must confess that I never saw The Best Man, back in 1999. Did you? Have you been wondering all these years what happened to its characters? If so, then The Best Man Holiday may be just the film for you. If not, then before you head out to the cinema, ask yourself whether you like your raucous comedy served with a side of gooey sentiment (sprinkled with Christian toppings). Because that’s what you’re going to get, and for this viewer, the heavy-handedness of the latter ruined my positive reaction to the former. I wanted more Terrence Howard, less Morris Chestnut.

As Stephen Farber writes in The Hollywood Reporter, “The Best Man was a hit in 1999, partly because it appealed to a more upscale African-American audience than Hollywood ordinarily acknowledges.” That previous film, also directed by Malcolm Lee – cousin of Spike – centered on a group of twenty-somethings, friends since college, and their interactions at the wedding of Lance (Morris Chestnut) and Mia (Monica Calhoun). Also in the film were a slew of actors who have since become – to varying degrees – Hollywood and television stars: the aforementioned Howard, Taye Diggs, Nia Long, Sanna Lathan and Harold Perrineau. And while I can’t comment on the first film, Farber’s description most definitely applies to the sequel. The characters are more than just upscale. Many of them – especially Lance, a pro football player about retire – are ostentatiously wealthy. They even have almost exclusively white domestic help (a nice touch).

For the first half, the movie works. We meet (in my case, for the first time) each of the characters in turn, learn about their respective pending crises, and then find ourselves in Lance and Mia’s mansion for a Big Chill-like reunion over Christmas. Most of these folks, by now, have mid-life and mid-career issues, with the glorious exception of perpetual adolescent Quentin (Howard), the story’s much-needed Puck, who gets most of the best lines. Harper (Diggs) is a struggling (formerly bestselling) author; Robyn (Lathan) – his wife – is pregnant, hoping not to have a miscarriage this time; Julian (Perrineau), a school headmaster, has just lost a major donor; Jordan (Long), ever a commitment-phobe, has a new (white) boyfriend who may just be the one to hold on to; Mia harbors a mysterious secret; and the friendship between Lance and Harper has still never recovered from Harper’s admission, in The Best Man, that he had once slept with Mia.

One of the worst parts of the film – in addition to every scene featuring a child and every scene meant to tug at your heartstrings – is the opening credit sequence, where the major plot points from The Best Man are quickly – and incoherently – recapped over one of the sappiest Christmas songs ever produced. After that (during which I wanted to run screaming from the theater), the movie settles down for an hour, and is great fun. If you end up renting the film on DVD/Blu-Ray/instant viewing later, just stop it at 60 minutes if you don’t like cloying and maudlin sentiment. If you’re trapped in a theater, and unable to exit, just focus on Howard (and maybe Melissa De Sousa as a trashy star of a Desperate Housewives-like TV show). You’ll survive. I did.

“Dallas Buyers Club” Is Performance Positive

Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2013)

Dallas Buyers Club, the new film by French Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria), is inspired by the true-life story of Ron Woodroof, a hard-partying electrician (and rodeo rider) who, when the film starts (in 1985), is diagnosed with H.I.V. and given 30 days to live. At that time, the only available AIDS medication is AZT (Azidothymidine), and one can only obtain it as part of a year-long clinical trial (for which one has to apply). Unable to wait that long, Woodroof embarks on his own journey for a cure, first bribing a hospital attendant for extra AZT (which almost kills him), and then traveling down to Mexico to find a rogue (read: license revoked) American doctor who prescribes a less lethal cocktail of vitamins and unapproved anti-viral drugs. Feeling better (and not dead), Woodroof returns to the United States and sets up shop – a “buyers club” selling the same mixture that has helped him – in Dallas, to help his fellows AIDS sufferers. 7 years – and many epic battles with the FDA – later, he finally succumbs to the disease, but not before having helped countless others. You can read more about Woodroof on the movie’s website, and you can learn more about the socio-political climate in the 1980s towards AIDS and its sufferers by watching last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague.

Matthew McConaughey plays Woodroof, the latest in a string of roles that has effectively reversed the ever-downward slide towards mediocrity that had – not so long ago – seemed his inevitable fate. Gaunt and ravaged by hard living (and his as-yet-diagnosed condition), McConaughey’s Woodroof is aggressive and unapologetically sex-, alcohol- and drug-obsessed (and very straight). Even when spitting up blood and passing out, he radiates a surging will to live (the tagline and hashtag for the film – see the poster – is “dare to live”). McConaughey lost 50 lbs. for the role, and his clothes hang loose, emphasizing every bony ridge of his weakening body. It is a fully committed performance. We need someone like McConaughey – able to radiate charm in even the worst of circumstances – in this part, in order to understand how Woodroof could create his “buyers club” in broad daylight and convince so many others to join him.

McConaughey does not act in a vacuum, however. He is joined by three others who all give equally of themselves: Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner and Griffin Dunne. Leto – back after five years away from acting (performing with his band Thirty Seconds to Mars) – plays Rayon, a transvestite that the homophobic Woodroof meets in the hospital. Even more than McConaughey, he loses himself in the role. I forgot I was watching a man in drag, and found his transformation astonishing. His is also an incredibly moving portrait of an individual desperately trying to remained dignified in the face of death. He also provides some much needed comic relief. It’s a lot of fun to watch him tease Woodroof who, in spite of his prejudices, has no one else to turn to for help in setting up his business. And, at least in the film, it’s Rayon who truly redeems Woodroof, forcing him to confront his bigotry as the two men develop a friendship through forced proximity.

Garner is also quite fine as one of the doctors who first prescribes AZT, then thinks better of it (the drug’s side effects were often as bas as the disease it was supposed to treat). Her natural perkiness serves her well here since it sets up the eventual heartbreak she will face as her patients die. She has never been better.

But it’s Dunne who surprised me the most, since I’ve never seen him deliver such a finely calibrated performance. He plays the doctor in Mexico, and he’s not in the movie for that long, but he does a lot with small gestures and subtle shrugs that says more about the official approach to AIDS than any one line of dialogue. I was impressed.

If the movie has one flaw, it’s the scenes at the border crossings between Woodroof and the various customs and FDA agents (Woodroof has to buy his drugs abroad). Perhaps because Vallée was worried about his depressing subject matter, he plays them for laughs, allowing McConaughey to cockily hoodwink the officials. But it’s too much, and it almost seems as if everyone is in on the joke. Why, then, do they let the drugs in? Perhaps they are as seduced by the charming performance as we are.

This aside, it’s a moving and well-made film. I highly recommend.

“Blue” Is the Minutest Color: Abdellatif Kechiche and the Epic Cinema of Detail

Blue Is the Warmest Color

Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)

From 1895 to the 1910s, the early film pioneers wrestled with the storytelling challenges of the new moving-image medium. Part photography, part theater, the movies were both an amalgam of previous art forms and something new. One of the first great conceptual obstacles these trailblazing directors overcame was the limitation of the theatrical proscenium. Once the camera could move beyond its distant audience-level perch away from the action, film art – including the use of a variety of shots, from wide to medium to close – truly came into its own. One of the reasons we still remember D.W. Griffith, maker of the racist – yet cinematically innovative – The Birth of a Nation (1915), is because of his mastery of the close-up (as I mentioned in my first Ignite Baltimore talk, The Kuleshov Effect). From his work and that of Russians like Sergei Eisenstein, whose Battleship Potemkin revolutionized editing techniques, flow the creative streams of modern cinema.

Flash forward to the present, and we have filmmakers like Abdellatif Kechiche on hand to revel in the power of film to show us life on-screen in all of its glorious detail. I have only seen one other movie by this Tunisian-born French director, The Secret of the Grain (“La graine et le mulet“), from 2007, but in both works Kechiche delves camera-first into the world of his characters, close-ups (and extreme close-ups) always at the ready. Much as actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux explicitly embrace each other – physically and emotionally – so, too, do we embrace them, and the objects around them. Indeed, much of the controversy over the film’s lesbian sex scenes stems, I believe, from the intimacy that the director so expertly creates between viewers and stars. For those willing to follow Kechiche, Exarchopoulos and Seydoux on their epic journey through the ups and downs of the one particularly intense relationship they portray, this intimacy is what makes the film great. For those who see the film through the lens of how that one relationship reflects on all other lesbian relationships, this intimacy can, apparently, prove repellant.

I applaud the work on display, and see the film less as a story about lesbians than as a coming-of-age story about love that just happens to feature lesbians, an opinion that is not mine, alone. That said, I do share at least some of the reservations noted by critics like Manohla Dargis of The New York Times, who complains about the male gaze of the director vis-à-vis the graphic sex scenes in the middle of the movie. I know nothing about how lesbian women actually make love to each other, but if it’s true that the director and actresses “are all straight, unless proven otherwise” – as Julie Maroh, author of the graphic novel on which the film is based, opined in a critical editorial she published on her blog (as quoted on Indiewire) – then I think those who find the sex unrealistic may have a point. Then again, since we are all individual beings with minds of our own, I am also sure that there are probably lesbians who do like the sex on display. I don’t care either way. I do, however, find the sex the weakest part of the story. We don’t need it – at least, we don’t need it for as long as we see it. The raw performances of Exarchopoulos and Seydoux – clothes on – are enough to sell us on their attraction: their kisses say more than their orgasms.

Kechiche’s decision to show three of the two women’s sexual encounters goes hand in hand with the rest of his filmmaking aesthetic. Less is never more. More is more. In The Secret of the Grain, we are repeatedly treated to close shots of food and the weathered facial topography of the 60-year-old protagonist. In Blue Is the Warmest Color, we see eyes, noses, mouths, ears, tongues, breasts, and vaginas, as well as plenty of food and wine, as well. Life is to be savored like a good meal (a tried and true French philosophy). Or, if not life, then at least “la mystérieuse faiblesse des visages d’hommes” (“the mysterious weakness of human faces,” a quote by Jean-Paul Sartre that features prominently in the film).

The film won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and it really is a masterpiece, of sorts. But at 187 minutes, it is too long, like its sex scenes. What is initially involving can, when on the screen for too much time, become less than the some of its parts. Even if you find the lovemaking exciting, you will, after a moment, begin to take a clinical approach to all of the grinding and groaning. Kechiche needs a (respectful) editor. More may be more, for him, but sometimes showing less is better.

Still, I highly recommend it. Kechiche and his actresses may no longer be on speaking terms with each other, but the emotions and storytelling on display, while not always perfect, are extraordinarily powerful. If you’ve ever been in love, you’ll be able to relate.

So what’s it about? 17-year-old Adèle (Exarchopoulos), heretofore straight, meets twenty-something Emma (Seydoux), and it’s love at first sight (a “coup de foudre,” or lightning bolt, as they say in French). They begin an intense relationship that lasts a number of years (the timeline is vague, though we know that Adèle progresses from school to her first job), before mutual incompatibilities take their toll. Adèle, though bookish, is simple in her cultural tastes, while Emma is a much more worldly rising visual artist, whose circle of friends often leave Adèle feeling stupid and provincial. By the time the film ends, Adèle – whose first real relationship this is – has transformed from the girl we first meet into a more experienced – if saddened by that experience – adult woman. The French title translates as “The Life of Adèle,” and the focus is truly on her.

It may not seem like much of a story, but – whatever its flaws – it is deeply affecting. There’s a great French verb – bouleverser – which means to turn upside down. It’s used to describe an emotionally wrenching experience: ce film est bouleversant, for example. And it is.

Okey-Loki – “Thor: The Dark World” Needs More Hiddleston

Thor: The Dark World

Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, 2013)

I have a problem with Thor. Not the Norse god, whom I never have reason to think about, but the Marvel Comics character, at least as he is presented in the new movie opening today and its predecessor. As someone who takes science fiction seriously – with all of its potential to tell us grand truths about the world we live in through artistic ostranenie (остранение, for my Russian friends) – I take great offense at the mishmash of the fantastical and pseudo-scientific ideas that make up the Thorian universe. As my friend Dan Gottheimer put it after the screening, this latest film was like Lord of the Rings meets Star Wars (to which I replied that it’s Lord of the Rings meets The Phantom Menace!). That is not a good thing.

With other superheroes, such as the Hulk, Captain America, Spider-Man, and Iron Man (from the Marvel universe), or Superman and Batman (from the DC universe), there is at least an attempt to ground the awesome powers of the characters in some semblance of science. Since nobody in our world can actually fly, or climb walls, or punch holes in the sides of the mountains, etc., the truth is greatly stretched, but the writers build a logical cause and effect to the rules of that particular story: Superman can fly because he comes form a planet with a red sun and a greater gravitational pull than ours; Spider-Man can climb walls because he was bitten by a radioactive (in the original comics) or genetically modified (in the later films) spider; Batman (the least fiction-y of them all) can fight crime because his great wealth allows him to buy state-of-the-art equipment and grants him the time to train incessantly (same with Iron Man – I guess money really is power . . .). It’s ridiculous, but we can suspend our disbelief because someone has taken the time to construct a world where these stories seem possible.

With Thor, we begin to enter the territory of what I like to call “bad fantasy” (which, I will admit, is not a generally recognized genre category), in which there are no rules, there is no logic, and stuff just happens because hey – it’s fun! As I wrote about in my review of the god-awful After Earth, the danger of this “genre” is that we feel as if we have entered the mind of a (perhaps very creative) undisciplined pre-teen child who feels no need to make sense. So, in Thor and its sequel, we find ourselves on a planet – part of the “9 worlds” – which floats in space as a flat disc, connected to other worlds through a mystical portal. The beings on this “planet” have powers . . . because they have powers. They are all clearly inspired by Norse mythology, but there is no attempt to explain the origins of their existence or of their strength. They’re just magic (the realm of fantasy). Blah. Nowhere was this genre formlessness more problematic than in The Avengers, where Thor fought side by side with superheroes from more classic science-fiction stories.

Still, given all of that – which may or may not bother other people – the film is not an entire disaster. Chris Hemsworth – so good in Rush – is an amiable presence as Thor – and many of the supporting characters are given funny one-liners. The scenes on earth – which mostly seem as if they belong in a different movie – have a zip to them (thanks mostly to Kat Dennings and Chris O’Dowd) that the extraterrestrial scenes lack. Natalie Portman gives a lackluster performance as an unbelievable astrophysicist, but her underlying likability nevertheless comes through. The real star of the film, however, is Tom Hiddleston, as Thor’s scheming adopted brother Loki. Like Johnny Depp in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, Hiddleston brings a twinkle in his eye and mocking self-awareness to his performance that leaves us wishing that the film had more of him and less of the useless CGI (and by the way, this is a film, unlike Gravity, to which the 3D effects add absolutely nothing). As he did in both Thor and The Avengers, Hiddleston (who also made a wonderful F. Scott Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris) takes underwritten material and makes it come alive with wit and gusto. Thank you, Tom!

So what is the movie about? Really? O.K. – some mythical elven creatures, older than the Norse god knockoffs, come back and wreak havoc, thanks to a red floating blood-like substance called “the Aether.” All seems lost, until it isn’t. If you’re worried about having trouble following a convoluted plot, fear not, for Anthony Hopkins (Thor’s father, Odin) opens the movie with an exposition-laden voiceover, making all clear (not really). <sigh> There’s still no film with opening voiceover exposition like Night Watch, however.

If you liked the first Thor, you’ll probably like this one, more or less. If you didn’t, you’ll get nothing out of it, so stay away.