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At Eternity's Gate (2018)
Great actors, great artist, great director - WHAT HAPPENED?
I'm a big Van Gogh fan and not only do I love Dafoe but his face is perfect for Van Gogh. Schnabel is a filmmaker I have come to trust. For extra credit, this was written by Bunuel's scenarist. On top of all this, it turns out an old friend of mine did the costumes.
What's not to like?
Well, long wordless walks through beautifully photographed landscapes with Elvira Madigan style piano providing the emotion (along with portentous close-ups of Dafoe's face). The type of story telling which provides episodic vignettes without either explaining them (I know some of the backstory only because I know the painter's life) or crafting them into a sustained narrative. Spme over-clever cinematographic tricks. Producer John Kilik said Schnabel didn't want to make a "forensic" biopic. Fair enough, but story doesn't have to grow out of dry biographical details. This approach was just too scattered to build any momentum - as opposed to Van Gogh's own letters, which start wandering and formless but develop intensity and momentum as he builds towards both success and self-destruction.
Years ago, Schnabel had thought of directing the novel "Perfume", which he would have done wonderfully. Unfortunately those who got there first produced a bloodless, precious piece which gave no taste of the novel's vigorous forward movement. Ironically, he has done something similar with Van Gogh's life.
I look forward to seeing work from everyone involved (including one surprise from Van Gogh.). But this was a wrong turn.
Otherwise, you might consider that David O. Russell - no slouch himself - was at the screening and LOVED the film. So there's that.
Top-notch talent, often violent, taut until... it isn't
It would be hard NOT to recommend this film simply based on the top of the line actors here. Seeing Viola Davis and Liam Neeson as passionate lovers might be worth the whole film. Michelle Rodriguez for once doesn't play the Michelle Rodriguez character (someone else does); you might almost mistake her for America Ferrara initially. Duval plays in a familiar register but he does it well; Farrell is workmanlike but in an unfamiliar role. Etc.
As for the story, it is wound tight for most of the film, including scenes of violence worthy of (and not always far from) Tarantino. There is also a theme - almost overdone these days - of women discovering themselves through transgression. And there are some very sexy scenes.
Strangely though, the film goes seriously off-track at the end, almost as if the screenwriters ended up in a hurry or just didn't care anymore. Except for one applause-worthy moment, the ending feels cursory and leaves some pretty obvious questions unanswered. Which is downright strange for such an otherwise tightly written film. To put it another way, for much of the film it's 8 or 9 star, then in the close it's 3 or 4.
I'm surprised honestly some of the high-powered talent here didn't demand some rewrites. As it is, you'll probably enjoy much of it (unless you can't stomach violence) and certainly if you're the kind of viewer who just lives for a few good moments between real pros, you've got them here. But it's an incomplete experience in the end.
Sweeping and engaging as a film, episodic and disconnected as history
When "2001: A Space Odyssey" came out, some of us spent long hours discussing the meaning of the disjointed ending. Then I read the novel and discovered that the ending made perfect, even banal, sense; it was just that Kubrick had cut away the connecting logic and left us with isolated images. Something similar happens in this attempt to transpose Bolivar's epic struggle to two hours on-screen; incidents appear with no clear reason or subsequent implication. Danny Huston, compelling and charming as always, appears initially as an Englishman whose role seems central, only to disappear for most of the film after a few scenes. And when he does reappear, it is implied (quite counter-historically) that he had something to do with a famous attack on Bolivar's life. Or maybe not, since transitions are not this film's strong point. The memorable Manuela Saenz appears all at once but is never even named and it is only AFTER the attack in question that we hear a brief mention of her courage - with no hint that she in fact may have saved Bolivar's life, earning her the nickname "The Liberator of the Liberator". We briefly see Sucre close-up before he gets lost in the subsequent crowd of faces, so that when news comes of his assassination (with no hint that it was probably one of Bolivar's own officers who arranged it) we see Bolivar upset, but with no clear idea of why (still less that Bolivar supposedly cried out, "They have slain Abel!" foreseeing the impact it would have on the movement's hopes). Basically, if you do not already know much of this story, you may be swept up in the panoramic battles, the personal conflicts and some very erotic moments, but you won't really follow what's going on. If you do know it, you will be frustrated by how key events are given equal weight with some which may not even have happened (notably the end, which corresponds to no documented reality I know of). It does not help that the film lingers early on on what is essentially back story, wasting valuable screen time on what is apparently meant to be character development, but ultimately slows and clutters a story that needs far more delineation. Will you enjoy the film? If you like pageantry and passion, very likely. Will you come away much more informed about important historical events, or a complex figure, than if you had watched a completely fictional costumed drama? Not really.
A relentless, resonant arc; a searing satire
Unique and specific as this film is, it has strong echoes of a number of others. The character's warped ambition and unapologetic viciousness is reminiscent of Travis Bickle; his relentlessness and the efficiency of his violence of Gosling's character in "Drive"; his slightly robotic, homicidal clarity of Cruise's in "Collateral". Other echoes are more literary and will be less familiar to the standard film- goer. He is in many ways very close to the perfume- obsessed psychopath in "Perfume", Süskind's unique novel set in eighteenth century France; substitute video production for perfume and you have a similar cold purity of inhuman intent. As it happens, a movie WAS made in 2012 of Maupassant's novel "Bel Ami", an expert portrait of an amoral arriviste in nineteenth century Paris. For the rare person who knows the novel or film, a strong argument could be made that this is a stream-lined, modern retelling of that Machiavellian tale of how to advance in the media of one's time. Which, as shown in both works, is already amoral enough. One strong theme here is how readily the low-life outsider using unscrupulous methods readily finds allies in more established, "reputable" media. (The film is at its least subtle when we are told that crime really doesn't matter if it affects minorities and the underprivileged; the "good" stories are about their problems seeping into the lives of the more privileged). Here the film's resonances include "Network" and other works which satirize or dissect how far people are willing to go to get good ratings. (While I doubt Harvey Levin's arc was anything like this one, it would have been fun to watch his reactions to what is largely a portrayal of TMZ's style of journalism.) As for the acting, Gyllenhaal has been compelling since "Donnie Darko" and just gets more so, especially with his under- weight look here, drawing the bones out in his face. Russo readily makes you forget she was once one of the world's top models and shows a combination of predatory ambition and resigned awareness of being an older (and over-made-up) woman that adds a surprisingly erotic tone to scenes which on the surface are about anything but sex. (With one notable and fleetingly crude exception.) Riz Ahmed brings multiple unspoken layers to a deceptively simple character. Overall, a strong, pure and uncompromising film and, almost incidentally, a searing satire of today's media.
Good episode, great acting
I think the whole "Law and Order" franchise is consistently a model of story-telling. So this is again a well-written episode. This said, I don't know that I would rate it overall one of the best (that's a high bar). But I certainly agree that Lou Taylor Pucci holds his own with d'Onofrio, and for similar reasons - a kind of controlled edginess that bespeaks a far more complex character beneath the surface. The scene where Goren is sitting on a small table with one leg folded under him is exquisite.
I'm surprised Pucci hasn't done more in recent years. But he's got time.
I also loved the thug who's always worried about his wife (couldn't track the name); really compelling in his anxious stupidity.
Some fine acting overall; but the series has had better stories.
Maverick: Poker Face (1962)
Surprisingly advanced within a formula
The story itself is a little reminiscent of De Maupassant's "Boule de Suif" - a bunch of swells in a coach who look down on a woman (here because she's Chinese), but find themselves dependent on her. And some of the plot points are glaringly predictable. But some of the themes here are breathtakingly advanced for the time - racial prejudice, economic oppression of indigenous peoples. Plus the main kidnapper has real power and nobility. A lot of the rest is boiler plate, including a comic set piece with a corrupt Mexican officer. But what's surprising here is not what's predictable, it's what isn't. As it happens, I watched this during the premier of "Crisis", also about the kidnapping of a group. This was far more compelling, even across the formulaic context.
La fin du jour (1939)
A loving, multi-layered portrayal of the world of performers, seen in old age
It's been decades since I've seen this French classic, but I'm bemused by the description of it as "bitter". Like Dustin Hoffman's new "Quartet" (2012), it views aging performers both wistfully and lovingly and certainly not without humor. There is a harsher and more tragic incident at the heart of the chief conflict here, but ultimately the film is a loving portrayal of everyone from the truly great to the mediocre but devoted personalities that make up the theater. It is a homage in other words to the whole world of performing, which of course ranges from tragic to comic figures, from stars to failures, but, as stirringly presented in one speech here, is united, and set apart, by a shared passion. The climactic scene is expertly orchestrated and the words "We, the poor, the obscure" ("Nous, les pauvres, les obscures") from a classic play are re-purposed to devastating effect, so much so that they linger with me decades later. As does, not a bitter, but an uplifting sense of the nobility of living one's life in service to art, even if the rewards at "the end of the day" may be no more than bittersweet memories. -- Probably hard to find, but if you understand French (I doubt anyone's taken the trouble to sub-title this), worth the effort.
A sure-footed and moving debut.
There are two obvious reasons to see this film. One is that it's Dustin Hoffman's directing debut. The other is that any film with Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay, Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon is very unlikely to be less than very good.
As it turns out, the film - set in a retirement home for classical musicians - is simply perfect: touching and amusing from the start, with generous but judicious doses of lovely music, shifting gears in an in-obtrusively sure-footed way. Billy Connolly (who was once a presence in my local hang-out) is about as close to his real self here as in any part I've seen him play: ribald, mischievous and large-hearted; the shameless jokester and flirt you nonetheless know you can always depend on. Courtenay is heart-rendingly endearing from the start, in the most quiet, under-stated way. Maggie Smith shows far more range than her now- stock Grande Dame parts usually allow her, including an unaccustomed vulnerability and a charming exercise, at one moment, of calculated yet shy girlish charm.
As one would expect from a director who is a great actor himself, the palette of characters here is vividly and colorfully incarnated by actors who are often memorable even in the most minor parts.
The music is both respectfully and affectionately integrated throughout, moving from noble classical pieces to a cheerful bit of music hall. And is paid a surprising homage in the credits, which continue the film's nod to age and accomplishment well past its not very surprising but still satisfying end.
Very few viewers, by the way, will sense the echos here - but no more - of a lovely French film from 1935 about a retirement home for actors: "La Fin du Jour":
Ronald Harwood ("The Pianist", "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", etc) tells a very different story, but anyone who enjoys this one and understands enough French should certainly seek out the older film (with the great Michel Simon).
A film that transcends already promising material.
This is one of those stories that might have made a perfectly good movie of the week, given its inherent drama and interest. Instead, the tale has been transformed and heightened into something like poetry by skillful use of telling imagery and understated moments. The simple fact that it is set in Ethiopia - a country rarely seen on-screen - sets it apart and gives it a stark (and skillfully shot) beauty; details like a priest in his robes, home-bottled honey as an "unnecessary" bribe for soldiers at a barrier, a horse abandoned on a road, a traditional bard in a cheap bar, anchor it in a specific and intriguing reality. The looming tragedy of Ethiopia's later history is hinted at only by a confrontation with an arrogant cadet; this is still the essentially ancient Ethiopia of Haile Selassie, where the protagonist's car is an anomaly. The core of the movie lies in the latter's determined face as he looks beyond both the admiration and the disparagement of others towards his very personal desire to win, confronting one major unexpected obstacle with equally unexpected improvisation. We are aware throughout how very important the victories of one man were to a battered country - "It took 500,000 Italians to conquer Ethiopia; it took one Ethiopian to conquer Rome" - but the power of the film lies above all in the personal, as quietly and powerfully portrayed by newcomer Rasselas Lakew. In the near future, we should expect to hear more from both the writer/star and the director of this quietly wonderful film.
In the Family (2011)
Touching, surprising, important - but way too long
This is a distinctive film with a distinctive lead actor/director/writer, one that will probably be cited in future years as his first imperfect effort. It addresses an important issue - the uncertain rights of gay survivors - head-on from an unexpected, very individual point of view. Joey Williams, the southern-accented, low-key Asian protagonist, is a tremendously loving person - loving not only to his partner and their son (strikingly and adorably played by Sebastian Brodziak), but to others around him. As we learn his back-story as a foster child, this understated readiness to love becomes all the more moving. When he finds himself alone and having to fight for his son, his dilemma is all the more moving because he is clearly a person who, without being weak, sidesteps confrontation. His manner throughout is endearing and very specific, even as he encounters, in the most off- handed way, chilling and heartless homophobia at one of the most difficult moments of his life. The "issue" is certainly front and center here, but we care about him first and foremost as a person - luckily, since we spend far more time with him than one usually would in a film. There are also unexpected gestures of kindness and concern all through the film, one on the part of a Wise Man who appears from the most unexpected corner and reminds us that, even as Joey struggles for the right to be a father, he remains a tender soul in need of a father figure himself; at different moments, a glass of whiskey and a glass of water, each quietly offered, make it clear that he has found one. The film's unhurried pace often serves it well - one of the most moving sequences involves methodically taking out a beer and opening it - but there are also moments that are plain slow and others which keep pushing at a point that has already been made or linger overmuch on history. The film overall should have been at least a third shorter. By being as long as it is, the film actually dilutes the very real intensity of its central contemplation of family and its meaning. But these are flaws in an overall excellent film, one which is rarely predictable and often quietly surprising, above all very warm and human all the way through. Its low-key quirkiness, by the way, includes one of the more off-the-wall bits of product placement to be seen in an indie film, one that will delight the handful of fans who know and care who wrote "Wild Thing". As gracefully integrated as this is, one gets the sense that the director/writer knew the songwriter and wanted, as much as anything else, to help him out; a gesture which sums up the fundamentally loving nature of this entire project.
Think of Me (2011)
True to life, hard to watch
Watching this slow-moving, quietly painful film, I had two things at the back of my mine. One was my own mother's struggles as an educated but not very practical single mother decades ago and the other was a recent news item about a judge who took a Guatemalan immigrant's child away from her on the grounds that she had "abandoned" the child by... being arrested as an illegal immigrant. In other words, watching this woman struggle to take care of her daughter while making a series of bad decisions all along the way was also watching the real story of innumerable women, some like her, some not so much, who find it almost impossible to do the one thing they most want to do: take care of their children. It is painful to watch, not least because some of the women in this situation will make all manner of damaging decisions out of desperation and the film just shows some of the issues that can prompt that desperation: not getting child support, trying to work two jobs, unexpected expenses which are catastrophic on a tight income, etc. It is easy to get impatient with this character in a number of cases, but it is also clear that, in her own sloppy and ill-prepared way, she is trying; trying and often being thwarted. There is one central developing dilemma which gives the story something of a spine, but really overall we're left with the sense that, rather than being this woman's main story, it is one episode out of many in what will always be a life of uncertainty and limited choices. The film is shot in a gloomy, unadorned way with no background music or other overt cinematographic touches and so it is overall an unsparing experience. Echoing after it is the awareness that some women will triumph in similar situations, others will end up overwhelmed and making all manner of bad decisions - if a choice made when boxed into a corner can be called a decision.
The Off Hours (2011)
Well-acted, somewhat aimless; a slice of life
I saw this soon after seeing "Think of Me", another film about someone living at the less hopeful fringes of American life, so it was kind of a one-two punch, morale wise. Norman Mailer portrayed this lower class, small town life beautifully if more dramatically in "The Executioner's Song", showing how Gary Gilmore was just the poison flower of a whole weed-riddled garden. Here we see a waitress whose main pleasure seems to be having impromptu sex in bathrooms, whose closest relationship is an ambivalent one with her foster "brother" (drifting along on unemployment). Others around her have lazy sex, drink, generally just get by. To the degree that there's an inciting incident here, it's when she meets a slightly older man with more substance to him. But the real "story" is just the close-up view of these small-town down-and-outers going nowhere. There's a general mild hopelessness to this whole world which is certainly that of millions of Americans living get-by lives. It's never very compelling, which may be the point. Still, if one stays interested in these characters from the start, it is because they all have something engaging about them, whether it's a Serbian mail-order bride (now widow) showing a gruff sisterly concern for her younger colleague, a father yearning to re-connect with his daughter or the protagonist trying to live a life that is just a touch more responsible than the aimless one she's living here. The actors all do their jobs very well and the moody, slightly sordid texture of the film is a fair approximation of the small-town, off-the-main-road, atmosphere I know from some years in Upstate New York. So the film probably does what it is aiming for and is a worthwhile document of a certain slice of American life. But very little really happens and when it does it is, without being predictable exactly, not unexpected.
Le gamin au vélo (2011)
A Belgian take on a too-universal story
This film takes place in Europe (Belgium, apparently) so it has far less of the violence that would accompany the same story set in America. But otherwise the story is particularly painful to watch because the essential elements - a kid without a father, his self-hate and anger, the substitute father figures laying in wait - are directly relevant to the American context. In a lean, tough story, the film takes us through a broad tour of the issues and risks and even reasons for hope in these situations. Young Thomas Doret fiercely embodies the aching and the rage of a boy who wants a father at any price and is a near-force of nature in trying to obtain what should be his by right. Cécile De France's Samantha has numerous real-life counter-parts, credited by more than one survivor of these dilemmas, but not always successful in their roles as passionate rescuers. How this particular story turns out is not so important as the realization that all across the world children live in Cyril's situation; some make it, many don't.
Not your average misfits
The misfit in high school is a tried and true indie genre (were ANY indie filmmakers well-adjusted jocks in high school?). So one approaches yet another example of the breed with some weariness, expecting certain marks to be hit, especially when the protagonist is, as here, hugely overweight. And indeed he is unpopular with his phys ed teacher and gets more than one comment about his breasts. But all manner of subtle variations make this one unique from the start, starting with his mixed relationship with his uncle (a surprisingly touching turn by "The Office"'s Creed Bratton), whose condition - Alzheimer's? - makes him sometimes the one needing care, but whose age and fundamental compassion also make him the caretaker (in the never explained absence of Terri's parents). Perhaps because of this ambivalent situation, Terri has a strong sense of self which takes him from the start out of victim territory, prompting him, for instance, to defiantly wear pajamas to school. His relationship with John C. Reilly's assistant principal character is similarly ambivalent, since as a mentor the latter is both empowering and disappointing. The two other students who become his friends are similarly displaced yet defiant and the film is rich in both vulnerability and self-assertion. The quiet intrigues of the film are not the stuff of stirring plot, but do show Terri and his friends in their own messy, determined way becoming themselves in a way that is, almost unobtrusively, optimistic and uplifting.
Gun Hill Road (2011)
Great film, terrible title
The title has so little to do with what actually happens in this film and is so suggestive of some kind of rural drama that I just have to say: "WHAT were they thinking?". (I'm a native New Yorker, by the way, and even I didn't know this was a key neighborhood in the Bronx.) Otherwise, this is a powerful, sure-footed film which very often leaves things not quite spoken, down to the precise, powerful ending. It is, in its way, a pendant to "Pariah", though more specifically about transgender issues. Above all, what makes it work is the tremendous love one feels between all the characters here, well beyond any stereotypes. Harmony Santana has arrived. plain and simple, and arrived with a multi- colored splash. Esai Morales (who gets credit right off as one executive producer) does a marvelous job of showing a father who loves his son with all his heart but has a constellation of reasons for not being able to accept the changes he was not there to see. Judy Reyes shows passionate ambivalence as her character tries to balance love for several different people in inherently conflictual relationships. Everybody, including his prison nemesis (Robert Salzman) and his parole officer ((Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), is perfectly cast (by Sig de Miguel and Stephen Vincent). Its subject and its subtlety make this an indie film in spirit, but it retains all the best techniques of strong, straight-ahead story-telling.
Excellent, but hard to watch
My problems with this film had absolutely nothing to do with the filmmakers who have done an excellent job of recording both an individual and a national story, not, I would think, without some risk, if only because they spent a a great deal of time with their subject in a country where he has good reason to be hated. Just below the surface of the story of the evangelist/former genocidal soldier General Butt Naked, lies the whole anguished story of numerous countries trying to recover from hideous tragedy by confronting the truth and even rendering some justice, but not so much that old wounds are torn open. Moral ambivalence is all over this film and it is very personal as the former General goes about seeking forgiveness from people to whom he or his have done unspeakable things. Do they really forgive him, or does the camera call forth a certain desire to play the role called for? The question lingers all through the meetings in question (some with people living with striking nobility in the most abject of circumstances). And the newly minted evangelist does do some admirable things and have some admirable effects, but his personal courage is also fitful and another question that necessarily lingers is the degree to which he has remained a wily manipulator. This was not an easy film to watch, not least because it keeps its sickening contradictions clearly in view. I'm glad I saw it, but I wouldn't want to watch many like it in a week or even a year.
Hello Lonesome (2010)
Some things are better in song
I'm thinking of writing a book called "Everything You Really Need to Know is in Some Beatles Song". In this case, the song would be "Eleanor Rigby", though here all the lonely people - whose portrayal seems to be the main point of this film - find at least some company. But the portrayal of loneliness is also a popular indie film theme and here it is very much given the indie film treatment: self-conscious quirkiness, studious poignancy, at least one out of the ordinary pairing. And largely aimless development, alas. Aimless, yet predictable in its aimlessness. As so often in first films (and this done on a very small budget), there is a lot to like here, notably the acting, which is alive and natural throughout. And there may come a time when this is mainly remembered as this promising director's early effort. What is more, the success this film has had award-wise show that indie juries at least still like the essentially formulaic approach of this sort of film. Me, I was watching four indie films in a row and hoping for that one you usually get that awakes and surprises you and goes beyond anything you expected. This wasn't it.
What's really shocking about this film....
...is how boring it is. OK. I took with a grain of salt claims of how in-your-face the sex scenes in this film would be, but I was prepared for an intense emotional experience beyond that. Nope. A lot of long, slow, stylish shots of the character letting you know how unhappy he is. A David Lynchish version of "New York, New York". Carey Mulligan naked (nope, nothing). Her character being predictably if not terribly intensely unhappy. Some ever so mild tension between brother and sister. A few - and I really do mean a few - actual plot turns (you can't call them twists), the biggest pretty predictable. Some suitably brooding photography. And, oh yeah, sex. Enthusiastic if not terribly compelling sex. Disturbing sex? Maybe if you don't get out much. (And I mean out to movie theaters.) To the degree that there is something engaging here it's the relationship between a wounded brother and sister. But if you really want to see that subject done right, find John Cassavetes' "Love Streams"; less sex, far more life. Otherwise, if you really want shocking, find Cronenburg's "Crash" (watch for Deborah Unger's monologue, done while James Spader is, uh, spooning her).
Like Crazy (2011)
Standard model relationship indie movie with excellent actors
I almost walked out at the screening of this (even though I vaguely remembered it being a hit at Sundance) until I saw Alex Kingston. Then I thought, "Well, if she chose to be in it, it must have SOMETHING going for it." (Honestly, I didn't even recognize Jennifer Lawrence, but then part of her charm is that she looks like a certain kind of all-American down-to-earth woman.) I could say I almost walked out because nothing was really happening besides some entirely predictable plot points and equally predictable developments in their relationship. But in fairness, plot is really not the point of this kind of film. It is more a form of portraiture, a portrait of a relationship's ups and downs. If you see a lot of indie films, you've seen this sort of thing numerous times before: long, slow loving takes; piano music filling in for emotion; quirky playful moments between the lovers. Rather flimsy and predictable obstacles along the way. But of course some people love this kind of thing; they eat it up. Many (I suspect and IMDb's stats confirm) are women. Me, if I hadn't seen it numerous times before, I might be charmed - now it just fills a familiar slot. Not to say the film isn't filled with real accomplishment. The actors are uniformly excellent. The (ultra low budget) photography is very nice. The music, predictably indie as it is in every way (a mix of sentimental piano and heartfelt rock), is perfect for the film. And, unlike most films which look improvised, this one really was. It certainly feels it in many places, but there are also brilliant moments (one of several proposals, in particular) and emotionally it's excellent work. So for that alone I'm glad I stuck around long enough to hear the actors talk about their process. I'm sure all concerned will go on to do great things and films with more compelling plots. I'm also sure that if you like relationship movies, you will love this one. If you're a hardcore fan of indie movies, ditto (this is a garden variety example of the genre - and of why some people aren't). But if you just want to see a strong, engaging movie with a meaningful plot, or a film that breaks any new ground, not so much.
The Fighter (2010)
Lean, taut, moving, with some powerful performances
Among the many excellent things about this film, the first one that struck me is just how taut the structure is. It moves hard and fast all the way through, even in the most emotional movements. This alone should make it one to study for any would-be screenwriter who would like to learn about pacing (some judiciously chosen hard-driving rock doesn't hurt). This does not in the least prevent the film from exploring some issues that go well beyond the boxing struggles that are its surface subject. This is very much about how your family can hold you back (a bit in this way like "Million Dollar Baby"), but remain vital as your anchor nonetheless and also about negotiating competing emotional demands (demands from people who all truly love you) while eking out a clear view of your own individuality and needs. All of which could be very touch-feely and "deep" in another kind of film but is simply a central fact here in a narrative that never stops moving. Wahlberg does a solid, even excellent, job as the protagonist, and Amy Adams is working class tough and sexy in a way we rarely get to see, but the memorable acting here comes from Christian Bale - virtually unrecognizable even when you know who he is - and Melissa Leo, whose star has been rising so nicely since "Frozen River" but who has never so far as I know transformed herself so entirely as she does here to play a fierce but vulnerable working class matriarch - to the extent that I was wondering who this excellent unknown was until I saw the credits. Kudos too to the actresses playing the five sisters (not to mention wardrobe and make-up) for creating a combination Greek chorus/sight gag that is one of the film's lighter but more wonderful touches. Otherwise, to the degree that this is a boxing movie, it is an excellent one. The fight scenes are visceral and authentic, yet retain the gladiatorial nobility that lets us understand why the main characters here feel that this violent, even vicious sport offers a worthy arena for meaningful, even heroic, achievement.
The Vicious Kind (2009)
Your basic confronting old family issues indie movie
Ah, the art of the indie movie... A slightly quirky (in this case sometimes cruel quirky) character, some complicated family relationships (with back story, of course, meted out at the usual pace), a lot of long slow shots of someone lost in thought while melancholy music plays, moody chiaroscuro close-ups, the inevitable acoustic guitar with a soft, almost whispered voice over it, a central, often ritualistic event (this time it's Thanksgiving - it could have been a funeral or a wedding) that brings long-separated characters together, an entirely predictable if not always believable mating dance, a few touches of self-consciously crass humor (just enough to show we're dealing with a rebel)...
The actors are all good, and it's a joy to see J. K. Simmons move in this particular territory. Very nice photography, too. But it's way too long and almost a parody of slow indie pacing. Not a bad film, if you haven't seen too many indies. If you have, and are waiting for the wonderful surprises the best of these can bring, in this case I fear you'll end up feeling, "Here we go again...."
Good actors, blah film
(Possible very vague spoiler)
This film is way below its actors, most of whom have been superb in one or more other films, and all of whom are good here (biggest surprise may be Blake Lively, who gets to do some real range here). But the story is yet another falling-apart-to-find-yourself, self-consciously quirky sort-of-redemption tale. More than a little predictable, sometimes telegraphically so, and even the clever quips or sight-gags are a little too soft, a little too slow in coming.
Not a bad film, just not one that left me feeling like I'd lived any new or meaningful bit of life. A genre piece, even if the genre in this case is an indie one.
Slow, but confident
I took a while to trust this film, since it is one of many new indies to start very slowly, with much that is unexplained and not only minimal sound effects, but in fact even minimal ambient sound. There's a number of new films that start this way and never get anywhere after that. Here however there's a slow but inevitable build, and much of what's unexplained becomes intuitively clear as the film progresses. The uncle's first few encounters with his nephew are beautifully set up and played, with their undercurrents clear early on. The story at one point becomes a bit predictable, but nonetheless engaging. The characters are very rich without any surface effort or telegraphing. I'm iffy on the ending, and I don't know that I'd want to watch a number of films like this in a row. But it has definite authority, and shows immense promise.
Couldn't finish it (honest, I tried)
OK. I've tried to finish this exercise in audience alienation twice. First I stopped after half an hour of watching admittedly realistic, if over-familiar and desultory, dialog, and trying to stay interested in people I only half-saw, or saw from a distance, or from the back of their heads, all going through what looked very much like what innumerable prep school students go through regularly. Having decided there really wasn't a point to this, I came here and discovered... there is a Major Dramatic Event in the movie! Somewhere. So I put in the DVD again and watched for about ten minutes past said Major Dramatic Event. Only to find more perfectly believable, probably emotionally rich, scenes shown at a numbing distance and presented at a tortuously slow pace. Yes, this film is like "Elephant" - and a number of other punishingly self-indulgent Gus Van Sant films. Not to mention various low-budget French films I saw in Paris in the Eighties (I mainly remember long shots of people walking down hallways, the echo of their footsteps the only soundtrack). This is, in other words, a parody of many people's worst fantasy of an independent film. It's not exaggerated to say I got to the point where I was actually resenting the film's abuse of my (not overly available) time. As for being "innovative".... if you loved "Last Year at Mariendbad" (1961), this kind of film-making will be right up your alley.
Sita Sings the Blues (2008)
Good eclectic fun
While I still prefer "Les Triplettes de Belleville" for absolutely off-the-wall animated fun, this film rates high in the same nuttiness-meets-cultural-erudition category. The use of (mainly) Gus Kahn's early standards set against the Ramayana - and, then, just enough to create some counterpoint, the disintegration of a relationship - stretches the viewer's mind out of set categories, and makes for a lot of wit en route. The fact that the Indians discussing the epic make a fair number of factual mistakes (at once corrected) is amusing in itself - kind of like listening to nominal Christians confuse incidents from the New Testament. There's a gentle but clear thread of feminist indignation implied in the satire along the way. And many of the images are simply beautiful. - I do have to wonder, though, how this would (will?) be accepted in India, where, as the credits note, one satirical work on the Ramayana is already banned.