Maryland Film Festival 2014 Recap #2 (Friday)

Friday, May 9:

I made it to three films yesterday – two documentaries and one narrative – all of them interesting in very different ways.

Actress

Actress (Robert Greene, 2014)

Brandy Burre – best known as Theresa D’Agostino in Seasons 3 and 4 of the HBO series “The Wire” – is the subject of this fascinating and visually lo-fi profile, and both she and director Robert Greene (Fake It So Real) were in attendance for the post-screening Q&A. The film follows Burre as she struggles to reconcile her post-Wire life as a mother (she moved to Beacon, NY, with her partner Tim to raise a family) with her continued desire for a creative outlet. According to her, she had grown of the constant rat-race auditioning process and, at the time, had looked forward to a break from her career. As the film begins, however, she has grown restless, both in her small town and in her relationship. A loving mom, she nevertheless longs for more.

Early on, the movie raises questions about its own intentions and artifice. Is Burre performing for the camera? Is she using the film to jump-start her acting career? Is she manipulating the director (a friend and next-door neighbor)? Is the director manipulating her? Interestingly, Robert Greene raised most of these issues, himself, during the Q&A, saying that he had wanted to make a film that would cause the audience to ask these very questions and wonder as to the veracity of what is on the screen. What is documentary truth, after all? As Greene mentioned, Robert Flaherty staged almost all of Nanook of the North, and when we think of great later documentaries like Grey Gardens and American Movie, we remember how part of their charm is the constant guesswork to determine how much is performance and how much is real (whatever that means). It is no coincidence that Greene’s previous film was about the world of professional wrestling!

In any case, I think Greene and Burre succeed in their intentions, and leave you deeply emotionally involved in the actress’s life, even as you ponder its authenticity.

The film plays again on Sunday, May 11 at 2:15pm.

Whitey

Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger (Joe Berlinger, 2014)

Joe Berlinger (Under African Skies – which I saw at the 2012 Maryland Film Festival) has made a far more conventional documentary, complete with well-lit and staged talking-head interviews, that leaves no doubt as to its intentions. Nominally about the infamous Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, its real target is government corruption. Yes, Bulger is a very bad man, but he was aided and abetted by agents within the FBI and possibly the Department of Justice – at least according to the filmmaker, who takes the side of Bulger’s defense team. These lawyers are not trying to prove Bulger’s innocence – which Bulger, himself, does not claim – but rather the fact that he was never an FBI informant, and that money paid to agents by Bulger was for them to allow him unfettered control of Boston’s underworld. It’s a complex and very dense argument, and the film is frustrating at times because Berlinger does not always maintain strict control over the many divergent threads to the story. But what comes through, and powerfully so, is the outrage and hurt of Bulger’s many victims, including that of a man named Stephen Rakes, who opens the film with an interview about Bulger, and then is mysteriously killed halfway through the story.

As a piece of investigative reporting, it is suffused with the power of its own convictions, and seems to build a strong anti-government case. I have no idea how much of the case it makes is actually true, but the pain of its many human subjects is never in doubt.

Abuse of Weakness

Abuse of Weakness (Catherine Breillat, 2013)

French director Catherine Breillat (A Real Young GirlRomance), who suffered a debilitating stroke in 2004, has now made a film based on the experience of that stroke, her recovery and subsequent relationship with a con man who took much of her money. The movie was presented by filmmaker John Waters, who chooses one film every year to screen at the Maryland Film Festival, and who described to us how he once met Breillat in Paris. Though neither of them spoke each other’s language, they had a wonderful meeting of minds. I bet! They are each, in their own unique way, enfants terribles of the cinematic world.

Abuse of Weakness features a mesmerizing central performance by Isabelle Huppert, who plays Maud – the Breillat stand-in – with conviction, humor, strength and pathos. We believe in her paralysis, her weakness, and her strength. When, at the end of the film, she confronts her family to admit to her reckless financial giveaway to con man Vilko (a very good Kool Shen, normally a French rapper), her confession, “C’était moi, mais ce n’était pas moi” (“it was me, but it wasn’t me”), reflects both her continuing defiance in the face of her handicap and a grudging admission of weakness. Only an actress of Huppert’s power could pull of that duality.

Breillat has always been interested in the intersection of female desire and danger, and here she manages to evoke both without resorting to her occasional over-the-top explicit quasi-pornography. It’s a genuinely moving film, although the many plot ellipses may frustrate some viewers. Go see it when it finally gets a proper release in the U.S.

Maryland Film Festival 2014 Recap #1 (Wednesday/Thursday)

Another year, and another Maryland Film Festival is upon us. We are so lucky to have this event, which showcases such a wonderful variety of films to the city and the state. I go every year, and cannot possibly see everything, but try to see what my schedule allows. I may not like all of the films I see – and I even have a lot of reservations about the programmers’ continuing interest in mumblecore filmmakers and their ilk – but I embrace the festival for the exciting cultural and artistic renewal it brings to Baltimore every May. What follows is a (brief) recap of what I saw during the first two days.

Wednesday, May 7 – Opening Night Shorts Program:

More Than Two Hours

Still from “More Than Two Hours”

By far my favorite film of the opening night program was More Than Two Hours, from Iran, which screened in competition at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. It tells the harrowing tale of a young couple – unmarried – looking for a hospital to treat the woman’s post-coital bleeding (the two have just consummated their relationship). Since they are not married, no hospital in Tehran will serve them, and the film ends on a desolate note, with nothing resolved. It is a vibrant, if bleak, cinematic tour-de-force.

Of the other films, Verbatim is a farce that uses an actual court deposition transcript to create an absurdist “who’s on first” situation that only gets funnier as it goes along. It’s light fare, but well made and acted. The Bravest, the Boldest features a strong performance from its female lead, yet fails to manage its tone with any kind of consistency (in the interest of total disclosure, the director, Richard “Moon” Molson, worked for me at a summer camp – SOCAPA – I ran in 2004, and I found him a reliable screenwriting teacher). For a movie about the death of a child serving in the military, it veers too often into the kind of raucous comedy better left to Verbatim. Nothing wrong with some jokes to leaven the tragedy, but the film feels like a misfire. Neither Easy nor I Was a Teenage Girl offered any surprises or much of interest.

Thursday, May 8 – Two Feature-Length Films:

On Thursday, the festival screenings began at 4, and I was only able to make it to two features.

Stray Dogs

Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming Liang, 2013)

I am completely unfamiliar with this director’s work, but am now significantly intrigued that I will watch more of it. I am still not sure of the deeper meaning behind the film’s arresting images; however, as I sat in MICA’s Brown auditorium, I was frequently mesmerized by the long-duration takes and carefully crafted compositions. Tsai Ming Liang doesn’t move the camera much, and loves to leave his static frames running for long enough so that we are forced to watch the actors’ performances cease to be performances and become something much more raw. Nominally about a fractured family coming together after a strange unexplained separation, the film eventually brings us to one of its final scenes, which features an over 15-minute tight two-shot of the father and mother staring at a mural, inches apart from each other. He stands behind her, hesitating to reach out (and drinking), while she starts to cry. It took me about five minutes to realize that her eyes had been slowly gathering water, and when the first tear trickled down her face, it caught me by surprise. I was moved beyond what I thought I would be by such a simple development.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film quite like this. It’s a melodrama with very little overt displays of emotion, yet with roiling passions just below the surface, barely contained. That mural – a metaphor for a life just out of reach, or a life lost – hangs incongruously in a ruined building that evokes Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (as do the “stray dogs” of the title, although the entire family is, in effect, a pack of strays, as well). I love the visual duality in the mural room. In the foreground are patterns of rocks, water and light that mirror the rocky natural landscape of the painted wall. What are we, after all, but mere reflections of our desires and needs?

It’s a tough experience to sit through, in a way, but I highly recommend the film, and it plays again tonight at 6:45.

Happy Christmas (Joe Swanberg, 2014)

I do not like Joe Swanberg‘s work, so I am more angry with myself for attending this screening than with the director, himself, for making the film. What made me go? I read an article about the anti-blockbuster films of the summer, and thought I would give it a chance. Whoops.

The thing about Swanberg and his fellow mumblecore artists is that their films are always suffused with an inescapable (and, for me, intolerable) narcissism. We are usually forced to watch the directors, themselves, in central roles, playing uninteresting versions of themselves as they go through crises of their own lack of invention. In this case, Swanberg plays only a supporting role, yet even that is too much, as the film is always better when he is not in it.

Happy Christmas is like a late-20-something version of Blue Jasmine: sad-sack sister (Anna Kendrick, almost ruined for me by this movie) comes to Chicago to recuperate from a ruined life, wreaking havoc on the life of her long-suffering sibling (Swanberg). Self-destructive and irresponsible, she repeatedly fails to learn lessons of humility and growth. Melanie Lynskey (whose Aussie accent is absent at the start, then pops up after 15 minutes and stays until the end . . . sort of) and Lena Dunham are around to add to the lack of interest. Unless you’re a fan of this kind of filmmaking – as was about half the audience I saw it with – in which case you’ll eat up every morsel and laugh at every joke. Hey – no problem – it takes all kinds.

Shot on Super 16mm film by Ben Richardson, the cinematographer of the gorgeous Beasts of the Southern Wild, the film has an inexplicably ugly palette (oh, wait, that’s a Swanberg thing . . . I forgot). If that weren’t bad enough (though it suits the flat affect of the film), the filmmaker is of the opinion that people being drunk or high on screen is, in and of itself, funny. It can be, but only if funny things happen when people are drunk or high. And final note, Mr. Swanberg: your kid is cute (and more interesting than you), but a cute kid – like a drunk character – is also not enough to make a movie. Don’t worry though, you clearly have a fan base, and I have no doubt you’ll be back here next year. This time, however, I won’t be in the audience.

The film – lucky viewers! – plays again Sunday at 2.

“Locke” Journeys Through Conscience and Consciousness

Locke

Locke (Steven Knight, 2013)

Who is Ivan Locke? He drives a nice BMW, so he must be fairly well-off, and he speaks in a lilting accent that to my ears was unrecognizable, but which I now understand is Welsh. He is someone on whom, we quickly find out, many people depend, and until the fateful 85 minutes we spend with him as he drives down to London form Birmingham, he has been, for the most part, worthy of those people’s expectations. But now, something has changed, and he leaves family and work behind to own up to a responsibility that only he and the woman he has impregnated take seriously.

Steven Knight, who wrote Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises and directed (and wrote) one previous feature, Redemption (starring action hero Jason Statham in a slightly more reflective pose), has here given us what could have been a fairly conventional story of moral awakening and made it infinitely more interesting by keeping all of the action (a misnomer, since all action is through dialogue in the film) in Ivan Locke’s car. Locke is played by Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises, Lawless), an actor I had always previously thought of as more than adequate, and now find superlative. He is the only man on screen: though he holds many conversations in the course of the film, they are all on his cell phone (hands-free, have no fear), and so we only hear the voices of his interlocutors, yet never see anyone else. As the film begins, he first informs his boss and then his wife that he has taken off to visit a woman he slept with, once, 7 months ago (his erstwhile lover’s water has broken early, hence the surprise departure). He’s not in love with her, yet because his own father abandoned him, he is determined to give this new arrival his name.

And what a name! I know very little of philosophy, but one of the principle theories championed by the great 17th-century thinker John Locke was that of self-determination. Ivan Locke (and Ivan is the equivalent of “John,” in Slavic languages) – our present-day driver – may have heretofore been an excellent construction foreman (and was about to manage the “largest concrete pour in Europe,” as his panicked supervisor keeps reminding him) and model husband and father, but something has grabbed ahold of him tonight, and his will is set. It is his story, and he will tell it as he sees fit. By the end of the night, he may lose his job and his family (though perhaps gain a new child in the process), but that is his choice. And he will give the baby his name.

Hardy is nothing short of spectacular, and holds your interest throughout. The accompanying visuals manage to keep the film from feeling too claustrophobic: as you can read in this interview with the director, the crew used 3 Red cameras mounted on the car hood for a variety of angles, and mixed in exterior shots of the road, as well. Nevertheless, in spite of these camera flourishes, we are rarely looking at anything other than Tom Hardy’s (bearded) face. His eyes, mouth and brow express a wide variety of emotions as each conversation ratchets the emotions ever higher. The stakes are high – everything Locke holds dear is at risk – and it is truly amazing how little else is needed beyond one skilled actor to keep the tension as dynamic as it is. I could quibble over a few things – I found the imaginary conversations Locke holds with his father forced and unnecessary, and didn’t like some of the jarring cuts from moving shots within the car to static shots of the highway – but overall I found the film a marvel to behold, and recommend it highly.

“Neighbors” – Much Better Than Expected

Neighbors

Neighbors (Nicholas Stoller, 2014)

At one point in Neighbors, the new raucous and raunchy comedy from the director of the equally incredibly-stupid-yet-funny Get Him to the Greek (and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which I have not seen), one of the frat boys says, after having his pubic hairs brutally ripped off for reasons that I will avoid spoiling here, “That was much worse than I expected.” Well, Neighbors was much better than I feared. The movie’s trailer left me contemplating almost two hours of hellish Animal House-wannabe antics, yet when it was over, I realized that I’d spent as much time laughing as groaning in agony. Seth Rogen (ubiquitous funny man, most recently in This Is the End), Rose Byrne (versatile actress, recently in The Internship), Zac Efron (also versatile, as seen from his work in The Paperboy) and Dave Franco (James‘s younger brother, most recently in Now You See Me) make a pretty good on-screen team, and as long as you go in with your eyes open (which, since film-going is a visual experience, would be a good idea, anyway . . .), you’ll have a reasonably good time.

Rogen and Byrne play a late-20s married couple – dubbed “old people” by the college kids – who are new and loving parents to a baby girl. They’re not quite ready for the responsibilities (and, as the film portrays it, boredom) of the adult world, yet nor are they the party animals of their recently departed youth . . . well, not quite. They still enjoy lighting up a blunt and imagining that they’re still hip, but when they try to get out of the house for a night at the club, they’re too exhausted to make it past the door. And then, one day, a fraternity from the local college moves in next door. Rogen and Byrne are both fascinated and afraid: Zac Efron’s manifest physical charms attract them both (in different ways), yet they worry about the potential noise.

They’re first approach is to make nice with the new neighbors (a strategy reciprocated by the frat boys, who burned down their last house and want everything to go smoothly in their new digs), so they head over and party as if it’s 200 . . . well, whenever they were students. In the morning, they part company the best of friends, and promise to always talk directly to Efron (the frat’s president) about noise before ever calling the cops. Flash forward to the very next night, when a new party rages on, and the young parents break their promise. What follows is all-out war.

There are jokes that work and others that don’t, yet even when the film has each side resort to mean tactics (some, especially those involving automobile airbags, quite dangerous), the overall vibe is never excessively nasty. There are dildos large and small, a lot of drugs and alcohol, and cartoonish violence, but it all ends surprisingly sweetly. Frenemies have never hugged each other so meaningfully as in the film’s final encounter between Efron and Rogen. All of the performers seem to be having a great time, and all are equipped with oodles of charm (and Efron with a killer new bod), and Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe from Friends“) is a funny addition as the Dean of Students. If you can weather the idiocy and stick around for the parts that work, you’ll hopefully have at least as good a time as I did. If that’s hardly a stunning recommendation, it’s better than a pan . . .

“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” Cracks Wise but Spins Too Many Threads

Amazing Spiderman 2

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb, 2014)

Back in 2012, when I began simultaneously reviewing films on this blog and on WYPR, one of the first films I critiques was The Amazing Spider-Man. I liked it a lot. Here is my (slightly adapted from original posting) take on that first entry into the rebooted series:

Spider-Man, directed by Sam Raimi and released just 10 years ago, in 2002, was a very good superhero origin movie. Unlike Ang Lee’s disastrous 2003 Hulk, Spider-Man did good business and got good reviews. Starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, two actors still not past their youthful prime – even today – the film launched a series that continued (successfully) through Spider-Man 3, released in 2007.

I understood why the owners of the Marvel-Universe rights wanted to reboot the Hulk franchise after Ang Lee’s effort (and 2008’s The Incredible Hulk was actually a pretty good film), but I was completely flabbergasted when I heard about The Amazing Spider-Man. Why, I asked? Why not just pick up where Spider-Man 3 left off, much as the James Bond franchise does when it continues its own series with new actors? Did we really need – just 10 years later – a reboot with new actors?

Well, I’m still not sure we needed this new film, but it’s pretty damn good. I was surprised. After seeing Andrew Garfield in The Social Network and Never Let Me Go, I knew he had some decent range, but I was not prepared for how good he is as Peter Parker. I knew from a variety of films that Emma Stone was charming, lovely and funny, but I did not expect to like her as Peter’s love interest Gwen as much as I did. What really makes the film work, though, is an extremely smart script, which is surprising, since the number of credited writers (3 for screenplay and 1 for story) make it seem like it should be the usual failed “franken-script” that we often see in big budget disasters.

But this story works. The plot is tighter, and Peter Parker speaks in wisecracks, as he does in the original comic books. I also loved the fact that Parker’s web does not come out of his body (a ridiculous conceit that should NEVER have made it into the original film), but is a product of scientific tinkering. I once read one of those “Stupid Movie Science” books that pointed out how quickly Parker’s body mass would shrink as he put out as much silk as he needs to swing through the city. Can you imagine that? We need these movies to be scientifically sound, after all … ha!

So – my conclusion is that this is actually a better movie than Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, and Garfield and Stone are much more enjoyable to watch than Maguire and Dunst. Rhys Ifans as the ill-fated bad guy and Denis Leary as the police captain are both excellent, as well. The film falls prey to the usual overblown, over-long effects-laden battle sequence at the end, and I’m still not sure we needed a new film, even as good as this one is, but it’s pretty entertaining stuff.

Why quote the entire review here? Because, as much as I enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man 2, it is not nearly as good as the first film. Garfield and Stone – a real-life couple off-screen – are still delightful and charming as Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy, and the 3-D web-swinging and other action sequences are “amazing” to behold. But the plot is now just a little too complicated to make a truly compelling story. Instead of one villain, we get two. We also get an elaborate back-story that is extremely heavy on coincidence, which is not my favorite plot contrivance. Spider-Man still makes wisecracks and still has spunk, but some of the freshness has left the series. Perhaps it’s time for another reboot . . .

To summarize as briefly as possible: Peter and Gwen – both played by actors clearly in their mid- to late-twenties – graduate high school (following a wonderfully engaging and adrenaline-packed opening sequence), and drift apart after Peter refuses to break his promise to Gwen’s father (who died at the end of the first movie) to stay away from Gwen (to keep her safe). She pursues a successful college career, while he makes a meager living selling freelance photographs to The Daily Bugle and lives at home with his Aunt May (Sally Field, quite good). Meanwhile, back at Oscorp, source of the genetically mutated spider that originally bit Peter, a socially inept engineer, Max (Jamie Foxx, giving a performance remarkably lacking in any kind of subtlety), falls into a giant vat filled with electric eels, only to emerge as “Electro,” an angry man who can control the city’s entire electric grid. At the same time, Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan, unfortunately following Jamie Foxx’s lead), son of Oscorp’s newly deceased founder, and a childhood pal of Peter’s, returns to run the company (and to find a cure for a congenital degenerative disorder passed on to him by his father).

Mayhem ensues, some of it highly entertaining. This is, in fact, one of those rare films where I actually prefer the action scenes to the plot development (Gravity was another one). There are just too many characters for us to involve ourselves emotionally in any one of them. That, and a certain annoying coincidental plot detail involving Peter’s father’s DNA, kept me from being wholly engaged with the film. But I had a good time, all things considered, and I recommend you see it in 3D and in a theater, rather than at home. Welcome to the summer season, folks!

Jarmusch’s Hipster Blood Runs Cool in “Only Lovers Left Alive”

Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013)

Jim Jarmusch, one of America’s truly independent directors, has been making movies since the early 1980s. Funky and cool, with his shock of white hair, Jarmusch looks the part of a downtown artist. He has cultivated a style of thematic minimalism, where not much may happen, plot-wise, but where the vision he creates stays with the viewer long after the film is over. I still, to this day, in my dreams, see images of the drunk Finn at the end of Night on Earth, or of Johnny Depp floating away in a boat at the end of Dead Man, or of Bill Murray standing at a metaphorical crossroads in Broken Flowers. They’re that visually resonant and powerful. His films can also be quite whimsical, as witnessed by the three inmates (Roberto Benigni among them), chanting “I scream – You scream – We all scream for ice cream” in Down by Law, before escaping from jail and fleeing through the Louisiana bayou. I love his movies and the experience they bring me, but I can also find them quite tiresome when they reveal themselves to be not much more than empty hipster formalism. Still, his is a welcome voice in the cinematic firmament, and a reprieve from the even more tiresome world of recycled blockbusters that fill our megaplexes.

Only Lovers Left Alive is a film about vampires experiencing existential angst who struggle to remain civilized in a world of zombies (which is what they call normal humans), and has a lot to recommend it. Like Adam, the Rube Goldberg-like vampire (dreamily creating inventive mechanical machines where a simpler modern digital device would suffice) played by Tom Hiddleston, it’s a little too clever for it’s own good, but it nevertheless offers up many pleasures to savor. Just as Adam and Eve (the slightly less languorous vampire played by Tilda Swinton) ravenously devour a bloodsicle (O negative on a stick) but then almost instantly want more, so we, too, can enjoy every second of this movie yet emerge severely undernourished. Every shot feels carefully composed, and the meticulous details of the production design draw us in to the lovely yet torturous torpor of life everlasting. Eternity has never felt so gorgeously boring.

Adam lives in Detroit, while Eve lives in Tangiers. Chances are these are not their real names, though we never learn too much about their earlier lives. What we do know is that Adam is currently a secretive musician with a cult following, whose handler, Ian (Anton Yelchin, serviceable in an underwritten part), provides him with everything he needs but blood. Determined both to avoid attention and to hold on to a semblance of his former humanity, Adam gets his sustenance from bags of plasma, which he purchases under the table from a complicit doctor (Jeffrey Wright, quite fine, as always, even in a tiny part). Eve lives in Tangiers, similarly disdaining actual human hunting, and pals around with Christopher Marlowe (a wonderfully world-weary John Hurt) – that’s right, the Elizabethan poet and playwright, long undead – who is her black-market connection to her own blood supply. Adam and Eve are a couple, even if they live apart, and they communicate via videophone (she on an iPhone, he on a crazy contraption of his own invention). But Adam is in despair (what is a decent vampire to do with himself after centuries of existence?), and when Eve discovers that he may plan to kill himself (via a wooden bullet he orders from Ian), she flies to Detroit to console him (night flights only, of course).

Most of the film takes place in the shadows – these are not your Twilight vampires, able to survive in sunshine – which lends a sickly pallor to everyone’s skin tones, even that of the humans. Indeed, the world appears disease-ridden: another reason the vampires don’t suck blood directly from the carotid artery of just anyone is to avoid getting sick. HIV, drugs, alcohol and other assorted sicknesses abound, and being undead is no shield. Is Jarmusch saying something about the state of our planet, or just having fun layering detail upon detail, as he so often does? What I do know is that, from the opening vertigo-inducing overhead introductory spinning shots of both Adam and Eve in their respective lairs, I was hooked on the visuals, and didn’t much care what the film was about. Both Hiddleston and Swinton are beautiful to behold, and perfectly capture the desperate despondency of immortality. When they finally meet up, and lie on a bed together like heroin users after a fix, the utter splendor of the composition from cinematographer Yorick Le Saux almost makes the entire film worthwhile. If you can stay awake, that is. For a while, Mia Wasikowska, as Eve’s reckless sister, hungry for blood fresh from the source, shows up to liven things up, but otherwise the pace of the plot mirrors the pace of the main characters’ live.

So fortify yourself with a strong shot of caffeine – or O negative, if that’s your thing – and give the film a chance. It may work its magic on you, but even if it doesn’t, you should still appreciate the artistry in display.