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Deux jours, une nuit (2014)
I went into this film expecting to like it much more than I did. Marion Cotillard is excellent, as always, but I just couldn't couldn't buy into the plot device driving the film. An employer at some type of small manufacturing firm where Cotillard works tells his employees to vote on either firing her from her job and keeping their annual bonuses, or else keeping her on and losing their bonuses. Although there are more than 16 employees shown working at the company, for some reason only 16 of her coworkers are voting on the matter. It seemed to me a bit far fetched that a management decision like that would be turned over to the workers in a divisive way likely to increase conflict within the company. Maybe they do stuff like that in Europe, I don't know. Other things felt forced and contrived to me as well, like the way she pops a Xanax every ten minutes while her husband continually nags her about it and she keeps replying "But I need it!" Or when she decides to commit suicide, then matter-of-factly changes her mind ninety seconds later, goes to the hospital to get her stomach pumped, then resumes running around town lobbying her coworkers later that same night, which drew some skeptical laughter from the audience at the screening I attended. Or when one of her coworkers, who she doesn't seem to be all that close to, decides out of the blue to leave her husband and move in with Cotillard and her family. And, as another reviewer here pointed out, the cringe-worthy "Gloria" sing-along in the car. I liked the humanistic theme, but for me the really stiff script undermined the verisimilitude of the film.
The most important documentary of the year
As I write this, a few days after the film's release, so far only three users have posted reviews about it on IMDb. Given that the film ends with the revelation that 1,200,000 people are on the US government's watchlist of people under surveillance, if you're contemplating adding a positive review, the first question that you have to ask yourself is: will this make me number 1,200,001? I've followed the media stories detailing the contents of the documents Snowden leaked, so that part of the film wasn't new to me, and in fact I felt some of Snowden's more serious disclosures were underexplored in the film, maybe because of their somewhat technical nature. If you're looking for a documentary that lays out in detail all the ins and outs of what the NSA is up to, this isn't it. The main strength of the film lies in its portrait of Snowden as a person. The filmmaker and other journalists basically meet Snowden in person for the first time with cameras running, and it's fascinating to watch them getting to know one another in such a highly charged, high stakes situation. Snowden is very articulate and precise, and obviously motivated by a very moral sense of right and wrong, in much the same way as Daniel Ellsberg. Whether or not you agree with Snowden, the film definitely undercuts criticism of him as being unpatriotic or mercenary. The documentary works well as an introduction to the Snowden story for those only casually aware of it, and also as a tense real world political thriller, sort of like Three Days Of The Condor come to life, but without the gunmen and Faye Dunaway. All in all, a very important film that everyone should see.
Jimi: All Is by My Side (2013)
great rock biopic
Man, I don't know what drugs some of these other reviewers are on. One person seems to be under the impression that the movie claims Jimi didn't play guitar before he came to England. WTF? Another person claims the film is racist because it accurately portrays white people helping Jimi move to London and start his own band. Yet another person claims Eric Clapton didn't walk off the stage when Jimi sat in with Cream because Clapton doesn't mention it when he's interviewed, but plenty of others remember it that way, and Clapton isn't going to go out of his way to bring up something that makes him look bad. Which brings us to Ms. Etchingham. You know, every time you watch a documentary about Hendrix there's an interview with a different woman whose only claim to fame in life is that she slept with Jimi, and they all seem to be self-appointed guardians of his legacy, every one of them was the real true love of his life, and none of them have a single negative word to say about him. But Hendrix was a famous womanizerhow he juggled jealous women is part of the focus of the filmand it is well known that he became angry and violent when he drank. So maybe Jimi beat her and maybe he didn't, but if he did I wouldn't really expect Ms. Etchingham to admit it, and if he didn't it doesn't really bother me that much because the episode can be viewed as a metaphor for a darker side of his personality that really did exist and wouldn't have been explored in the film without that scene.
Artistically I thought the film was a triumph and one of the best rock biopics I've seen. Andre Benjamin NAILS Jimi. He deserves an Oscar nomination for his performance. He obviously spent a lot of time listening to audio of Jimi speaking because he captured the rhythm and inflections of Jimi's speech perfectly. And acting-wise Benjamin was excellent, I thought he got inside Jimi's character even more than Jamie Foxx did in Ray. As an actor he was remarkably in the moment and very subtle. And the female leads are with him all the way, especially Imogen Poots as Linda Keith, she's soooo good. The reviewer who said that the "crazy cuts and directing style" gave him a headache would undoubtedly get a cerebral hemorrhage from a Godard film, the editing was artistically innovative and miles ahead of standard Hollywood flicks like Get On Up and Ray.
As for the lack of original Hendrix songs, in the end it didn't bother me much. In a way it might have worked to the film's advantage, because it forced the director to concentrate more on creating a character study based on dialogue and narrative instead of recreating one performance clip after another, as in Get On Up. And anyhow, two-thirds of the movie takes place before Jimi put together the Experience and started writing songs. I did wonder why they didn't use "Hey Joe" since Jimi didn't write it and he was playing it onstage when Chas Chandler saw him for the first time. But overall, I loved the movie and thought it rocked hard.
Blue Jasmine (2013)
best Woody Allen film in ages
I thought this was Woody Allen's best film in years. The script was better written than I expected from him at this point, given his more recent turns toward drama, and the laughs are often derived as much from the dark humor in the characters' situations as from snappy punch lines. Kudos to Cate Blanchett who turns in a stellar performance, actors sometimes broadly interpret Woody's neurotic characters for comedic effect, more the way Woody would play the role (think Judy Davis), but Cate very effectively plays it straight and my guess is she'll be taking home the next best actress Oscar. For me the biggest surprise was Andrew Dice Clay, who gives a surprising nuanced performance as a working class guy bitter about having been screwed over by big shots, and in some ways his character morally anchors the film. Good job, Woody.
more magic from Koreeda
If, as many have pointed out, Koreeda is Ozu's cinematic heir, then I Wish is Koreeda's take on Ozu's Good Morning. Both films focus on adorable young kids and Japanese family life, and I have no qualms about saying between the two films, Koreeda easily outdoes Ozu. Not only is Koreeda's depiction of children subtler and more intuitive (no fart jokes here), but he coaxes wonderfully naturalistic performances from his child actors. Is there a director alive who does better work with kids than Koreeda? The movie really takes flight once the kids hit the road on their quest, and I loved the Ozu-ish part where they meet an elderly couple that takes in all the children for a night. Just a wonderful movie with tons of heart. Puts the human in humanistic filmmaking.
Margaret is a well written coming of age drama, but the protagonist is not a sympathetic character, which is going to alienate a lot of the audience right off the bat. The girl behind me as I left the theater didn't like it, telling her friend, "I just couldn't stand Anna Paquin's character." The screenplay is deft at shorthanding idiosyncratic, complicated personalities with naturalistic dialogue. It also helps that every role in the film, including almost every minor part, is cast with a top notch actor. But for all the big Hollywood names, my props go to J. Smith-Cameron for a theater-grade performance scaled down to fit the intimacy of a close up shot. The movie explores the milieu of affluent teenagers attending an upscale school in New York City, and one of the other reviewers here is right in saying it resembles a French film in that it takes an mature approach to depicting adolescents, showing them as smart, complicated, sexual, uncertain. Most mainstream reviewers seem puzzled as to what they should think about it. I think it's over their heads, the elliptical, dialogue heavy, character driven narrative style, as well as the lack of an easy, simple take-away moral, seems to have befuddled them. Maybe we should rope in some theater critics' opinions instead.
Medicine for Melancholy (2008)
You couldn't make a movie that looks more like my day to day life in San Francisco than this. Telling the story of two black twenty-somethings who meet and have a one night stand, they start off the morning after in Bernal Heights, walk over to Noe Valley for breakfast, hop a cab to the Marina to drop her off, then he heads back to his studio on Geary at Hyde, two blocks from where I once rented a nearly identical apartment, down to the rotating walk-in closet door that once sported a Murphy bed. The couple meet again and head to the Museum of the African Diaspora on Mission and then over to Yerba Buena Gardens to ride the merry-go-round, both a block away from where I work. Later that night they buy stuff for dinner at Rainbow Grocery then head down to the Knockout to dance while my pal DJ Paul Paul spins 45s although his oldies singles are overdubbed on the film's soundtrack with obscure but cool indie rock. But aside from the pleasure of seeing all my usual haunts captured on on film, or digital video rather, Medicine For Melancholy is a smart movie that captures not only the vibe of life in downtown San Francisco, but also the subtleties of the changing ethnic and economic demographics of the second most expensive city in the country. The guyplayed by Wyatt Cenac, an occasional correspondent on John Stewart's Daily Showhas a deadpan quarrelsomeness that is occasionally hilarious, because not only is he concerned about the ongoing disenfranchisement of the black community in the city, he's also bugged about the pending disenfranchisement of himself from the girl's pants once her live-in boyfriend returns to town. Her boyfriend, by the way, is white, which Cenac's character tries to elevate to a political issue because of his looming romantic frustration, but she's not having it, which leads to one of the film's best exchanges as they argue about the role race plays in forming their sense of self-identity. Lots of clever relationship stuff, like surreptitiously scoping out each other's MySpace profiles and sharp naturalistic dialogue as they continually negotiate and renegotiate the emotional boundaries and ending point of their one day affair. And maybe the scene with the housing activists meeting was a digression, but you know what, if you live here that stuff is very important and on everybody's mind, and it fits nicely given the context of the film whether you like it or not. Highly recommended.
Shine a Light (2008)
Over their careers Martin Scorsese and the Rolling Stones have been responsible for so many brilliant pop culture explosions that I'm happy to allow them fluffy vanity projects in their autumn years. This film has like a bazillion edits, Scorsese rarely holds one shot for more than two or three seconds, very few wide shots, lots of tight close-ups on the faces of the band, mostly close-ups of Mick, because Scorsese is trying to create a sense of kinetic energy with all the quick edits and Mick runs around the most. And of course the cinematography and lighting is top-notch, and the Stones still play okay, so that stuff is all good. My big problem with it is that as a musician I like to watch the instrumentalists play, and this film is 90% shots of Mick jumping about and singing while Charlie Watts is almost never seen. And the music sounds muddy, the guitars are way down in the mix except when there's a close up of Keith or Ronnie playing a riff, then the volume on that instrument shoots up to emphasize that shot, and suddenly the guitar sounds bright the way it should, but then drops back down in the mix three seconds later. Scorsese is shooting for personality, and watching Mick run the band and cue the musicians is fun, but I would always rather be watching Keith instead, and while my favorite moment was when Keith walked out in his black vampire coat and stood there without a guitar and sang "You Got The Silver," I was bugged at Scorsese for running over Keith doing "Connection" by inserting interview clips in the middle of the song. Buddy Guy stole the show on "Champagne and Reefer" with the coolest guitar lick of the evening. Jack White sang badly and was annoying, and I'd never seen Christina Aguilera sing live before but she kind of rocked, doing her best Tina Turner, singing loud in a deep register and keeping a growl in her voice the whole way. Watching Bill and Hillary enjoying their celebrity status by bringing scores of friends and family to shake hands with the band was ironically entertaining (especially given their recent temper tantrums during the Democratic primaries), but Scorsese enjoying his celebrity status in the bits at the beginning and end a little less so.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
great but not awesome
It seems one should state where they stand on previous Paul Thomas Anderson films, so let me preface this by saying I enjoyed "Boogie Nights," walked out of "Magnolia" after about thirty minutes, and thought "Punch Drunk Love" was stylistically his most consistent, least flawed movie. This film is very loosely based on Upton Sinclair's novel "Oil!" I like the broad liberal social criticism of Sinclair's writing and was hoping for a more faithful adaptation, but those expecting to find that political dimension in "There Will Be Blood" will be disappointed. The film strips the story down to a rather narrow character study of a greedy power-mad oil man named Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, who seems to be channeling John Huston's performance as Noah Cross in "Chinatown." Day-Lewis is, as always, flawless and a joy to watch. The last part of the movie, with Plainview living rich, mad and alone in his mansion, invites a comparison to "Citizen Kane," but unlike Kane, Plainview is a much more static, one dimensional character who hasn't changed much over the course of the film, except to get even meaner and more misanthropic. His foil throughout the film is Eli Sunday, a young evangelist played by Paul Dano, who struck me as not having quite enough gravitas for the role, but then again the relationship between Plainview and Sunday is increasingly played for laughs as the movie draws to an end, spinning toward a final scene that ends the film on a note of farcical Grand Guignol that represents an abrupt shift of tone from the austere beginning and middle of the film and threatens to thematically undermine what has preceded it, leaving the viewer to wonder about the ultimate meaning of the film's portrayal of Plainview. The picture is beautifully shot with gorgeous cinematography, and the musical score is effective although it's mixed painfully too loud into the soundtrack. A masterfully executed film, but one that in the end simply revels in its depiction of an entertaining psychopath without taking advantage of the broader social and political context inherent in the source material of the story, which could have elevated it to the status of a more meaningful work of art.
The Good German (2006)
Much has been made about how Steven Soderbergh shot this film with old cameras and lighting equipment to achieve a modern day take on grainy high contrast black and white retro cinematography. But to expect some type of homage to old Hollywood classics like Casablanca and The Third Man and Chinatown would miss the point. The Good German rather obviously alludes to all those films, but is not interested in creating sympathetic characters or wallowing in hardboiled unrequited romance. Soderbergh is crafting an anti-classic, a film that looks and feels like those old movies but stands them on their head to mock their underlying sentimentality. In a way it sort of reminds me of a humorless cousin of Robert Altman's revisionist take on Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye, in which Elliot Gould reinvents tough guy Philip Marlow as a sort of wisecracking goofball who gets beaten up all the time. George Clooney's performance in The Good German seems off somehow until you realize that he embodies not so much a charismatic leading man as a blustery dumbbell who's letting himself be taken for a ride despite repeated (and accurate) admonitions from everyone in the movie that he's being an idiot. If, say, Brian De Palma had made this movie the acting and plot would have been so over the top and campy that it would have been hard to miss the intentional irony (The Black Dahlia), but Soderbergh goes to such great lengths to make his film look feel and move like an older film that one is tempted to keep looking for that cornball emotional payoff at the end that just isn't going to happen.