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December 21, 2012


Lee Toland Krieger's Celeste and Jesse Forever was not as chick-flicky as I feared it would be, but couldn't these people have some real problems? Written by its co-star Rashida Jones it's the story of a couple who have broken up but are "still friends" and annoy everyone around them with their repertoire of inside jokes. It takes way too long for them to figure out that they each need to move on. (Manohla Dargis's NYT review)

I first heard comedian Mike Birbiglia wryly recount his adventures in sleepwalking on This American Life. His film Sleepwalk with Me, a not even thinly disguised fictionalization of his story, succeeds on the same virtues that his stand-up succeeds. The man can talk exclusively about himself in a completely self-effacing manner. Adapted from his one-man stand-up show, the movie is, as the title suggests, about his sleepwalking. It's also about the tenacity required to elbow one's way into the world of stand-up comedy, and about navigating a romantic relationship in the face of real life. (Stephen Holden's NYT review)

Clint Eastwood seems to be working at creating his own brand of grumpy old man. In Trouble with the Curve, directed by Robert Lorenz, he plays long in the tooth baseball scout Gus.  His friend Pete (John Goodman), concerned about Gus's increasing eccentricities (and grumpiness), convinces Gus's big city lawyer daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) to come out to check on him. She ends up accompanying Gus on a scouting trip, where they run into an aspiring baseball announcer (Justin Timberlake), who -- no surprises here -- ends up pursuing Mickey. It's pretty predictable, yet a step above Hallmark fare. (A. O. Scott's NYT review)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a lovely movie, but it frustrated me more than once. It contains a handful of scenes that are what a friend of mine calls "movie moments," those magical frames of film when the story, the camera, the lights, the music, the actors conspire to transport us into the world of pure cinema. Problem is, almost before we can be swept into the moment, the director cuts away. More than once I wanted to say, "Whoa there!!" I'm not sure why this happened. Stephen Chbosky directed the movie, which he adapted from his very own book. So was it in the interest of keeping the movie short that the audience is cheated? Nonetheless, it is a touching story of three adolescent outcasts who find their way through their friendship. We experience their coming of age through the eyes of Charlie, sensitively portrayed by Logan Lerman. Sensing a sympathetic soul, ostentatiously gay Patrick (played beautifully over the top by Ezra Miller, who also played the Columbine-like assassin in We Need to Talk About Kevin) and his stepsister (played equally sensitively by Emma Watson) take Charlie under their wings. (Manohla Dargis's review)

I said that Wes Anderson makes a case that dysfunction doesn't look so dysfunctional if we are willing to embrace the dysfunction. David O. Russell's Silver Lining Playbook does exactly that. Its bipolar hero Pat and likewise bipolar heroine Tiffany -- revealed in remarkable performances by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence -- are simply human as are we, if, admittedly, more intense. That intensity and lack of filters allows for keener insights into human foibles than we usually witness. One is ever aware of Pat's mother's love and concern for her son in the countenance of Jacki Weaver, and Robert De Niro again demonstrates the depth of his craft as Pat's father and a man whose emotional responses have been shaped by his generation's idea of what it is to be a husband and a father. (Manohla Dargis's NYT review)

And for THE relationship movie of the year...  I know I've read Crime and Punishment, and I know the story of Anna Karenina, but for the life of me I can't remember if I've read it. Whether I did or not, I am convinced that there must be more to hang one's hat on than there is in Joe Wright's film version. For all of the inventive staging, I just wanted to know why she hadn't thrown herself under the train already. I also want to know what the deal is with the re-emergence of the hysterical woman, teeming with repressed sexuality, who has made a comeback in Black Swan, A Dangerous Method, Hysteria, and now Anna Karenina. Terrence Rafferty did an interesting article on this subject in the NYT when A Dangerous Method came out in 2011. (A. O. Scott's NYT review)

December 20, 2012


I'm guessing that with To Rome with Love Woody Allen was trying to recapture some of the charm of Paris at Midnight. Paris had to do with Paris, but Rome could have as easily been set anywhere. There we had two parallel stories; here we have, if memory serves, four? There's just a bit too much going on, especially considering no story is related to any other. At the center is the Woody Allen surrogate, the neurotic New York intellectual, an architect this time played by Jesse Eisenberg, who lives with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig), and who is shadowed by a sort of architect alter ego/doppelgänger (Alec Baldwin). Of the various story lines, I found the most interesting to be one involving Leopoldo, a married, low-level bureaucrat (Roberto Benigni) whose routine existence is interrupted when he is plucked from his front stoop and whisked to a television station, interviewed about the most banal aspects of his life, and thus becomes a celebrity craze hounded by paparazzi. We periodically return to his story – and the others – until, toward the end of the film, a new average Joe is similarly interviewed and Leopoldo slips back into oblivion. (A. O. Scott's NYT review)

I find Steve Carrell to be something of a screen phenomenon. No matter what character he plays, he exudes empathy, and the camera loves him. Not in the way that the camera loves, say, Marilyn Monroe, John Travolta, Al Pacino. It’s something else. As if the camera isn’t even there. Lorene Scafaria’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a sweet little road trip of a movie. Carrell plays Dodge, an insurance salesman who has been made redundant, as the British say, in the face of end of days. He encounters Penny (Keira Knightly, infinitely more enjoyable here than in Anna Karenina), who can’t get back to England to be with her parents for the apocalypse, and along the way they meet a Canterbury-style collection of characters. Unfortunately, just as imminent doom hovers over the movie, so does its romcom outline. (A. O. Scott's NYT review)

  The two big stars of David Frankel’s Hope Springs are Tommy Lee Jones, who does a wonderful job playing against type, and Meryl Streep, who has spent an entire career playing a veritable multitude of diverse roles. The fire went out of Kay and Arnold’s marriage long ago. She has become increasingly troubled by their estrangement, enough to do something about it. That something is to insist they seek the guidance of a therapist played by Steve Carrell, who nicely rounds out the ensemble. It is always a pleasure watching these actors work, but Frankel’s movie is ultimately a Hollywood vehicle when it could have been a more complex and rewarding narrative. (Manohla Dargis's NYT review)

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris's Ruby Sparks takes "meet cute" into another dimension, one that I found a little annoying. Zoe Kazan wrote the screenplay and stars along with Paul Dano, who seemed miscast to me as the struggling writer Calvin. In the midst of a novel, Calvin is suffering writer’s block when, one day, the manuscript’s heroine shows up in the flesh. Initial disbelief turns to romantic infatuation once he is a) certain she is incarnate, and b) certain that he can dictate her behavior by what he writes. When Calvin comes to fully realize that manipulation is the enemy of love, the idyll must be reconciled with reality. (Stephen Holden's NYT review, which gave the film a NYT Critics' Pick)

The blurbs for the DVD of Peter Hedges' The Odd Life of Timothy Green include “Brings enchantment home…”, “An inspiring, magical story…”, “Heartwarming…”, “A celebration of family….” I usually stay far away from anything described as “heartwarming,” but it must have been a really hot day or a very uneventful weekend. Jim and Cindy have been unable to have a child so, as a final act of acceptance, they write down everything they would wish their child to be on slips of paper that they place in a box and bury in the garden. After a storm of Biblical proportions, Timothy Green sprouts from the mud, complete with leaves growing from his legs. He is smart, adorable, kind, and wise beyond his years. Many Hallmark moments. (Did Hedges, who also wrote the script, avoid naming Jim "Jack" to avoid potential comparisons?) A. O. Scott's NYT review makes an interesting observation: "The Odd Life of Timothy Green is the third movie this summer featuring a magical, wish-created companion, the others being Ted, in which a child's toy becomes a foul-mouthed best buddy, and Ruby Sparks, in which a writer's imagination conjures the perfect girlfriend. Two may be a coincidence, but three is a trend, and these movies clearly represent a disturbing crisis in human relationships."

Which brings us to Jake Schreier's Robot and Frank, where aging Frank, skillfully played by the wonderful Frank Langella, in a not too distant future, receives a robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard very much like Hal) from his son to serve as a surrogate companion for the senile senior. Frank is a former "two-story man" (who's done some time as a result), and warms to the robot when he realizes it's a quick study and would be useful in a heist Frank is planning of a rich, smarmy-mouthed yuppie who wants to remove the books from the town library. Susan Sarandon is the librarian Jennifer, on whom Frank has a crush. As Frank's fondness for the robot grows, the robot is careful to remind Frank on more than one occasion that  he is a robot and does not have feelings, but Frank can't help but rely on him more and more for emotional support. The film delivers its fair share of humor and high jinks, but slowly we learn more about Frank, and Jennifer, too. Proust it ain't, but it makes no pretensions to be anything more than what it is, which is a lovely little movie about the meaning of memory and love. (Manohla Dargis's NYT review)

December 19, 2012


That there were a plethora of these movies this year (and I did not see them all) speaks to the title of one: Hope most definitely must spring if we go to this many movies about relationships. The very best of these represent the diverse range of human relationships that make up our lives amidst lovers, family, friends, acquaintances, and the greater world around us.

Jennifer Westfeldt seems to be banking on the popularity of Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids in the romcom Friends with Kids, which pretty much recycles that movie’s cast. Platonic friends, each of whom wants children (she more than he – surprise), decide to have a baby and agree to share in its care. Fast forward to [spoiler] their realization that they really are meant for each other: happily ever after. (Jeannette Catsoulis's NYT review)

Robert De Niro did not get much attention for his turn in Kirk Jones’s family drama Everybody’s Fine (which, of course, everybody is not) in which he plays a recent widower making a late life attempt to come to terms with children from whom he has been emotionally distant and whom, he discovers, he knows little about. In Paul Weitz’s Being Flynn, he plays a different character, but is again a father who has been absent from his son Nick (Paul Dano), having left the young man’s mother years before. Jonathan Flynn's condition is not overtly described, but one imagines he suffers at the very least from bipolar disorder and certainly alcoholism, which have rendered him homeless and resorting to a shelter, where he is surprised to discover his son works. Nonetheless, he insists that he is a genius who has been working on a magnum opus for decades, a work that, he believes, will change the world. The part explodes with bluster, which to my mind, makes it an easier and less dimensional role than the quiet man he portrays in Everybody’s Fine, but in both De Niro captures the barely camouflaged confusion, the sadness for what his characters have missed, and their human longing to capture some small part of it before it is too late. Dano is also excellent as a writer who feels the sting of his father's disinterest in and dismissal of his own work. (A. O. Scott's NYT review)

I can't help but think that the character of Jonathan Flynn is in part based on the historical gadfly Joe Gould who inhabited the streets of Greenwich Village for almost 50 years, boasting of his life's work, An Oral History of Our Times. Joseph Mitchell wrote a two-part profile of Gould for the New Yorker, which provided the basis for the 2000 Stanley Tucci film Joe Gould's Secret in which Tucci portrays Mitchell and Ian Holm portrays Gould. On the occasion of the film's release, the Village Voice did an article, "Joe Gould's Secret History: The Diary of a Legendary Bohemian Surfaces at NYU."

My only thought as the credits began to roll on Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress was to ask, How on earth did this thing EVER GET MADE??? It struck me as a complete mess about nothing, but maybe the whole thing eluded me because A. O. Scott says in his NYT review that "this peculiar, uneven campus comedy would be worth seeing for the delightful felicity of its dialogue," and it's "...remarkable for feeling both exquisitely observant and completely untethered to any recognizable social reality." Well, I agree with the first part of that initial observation and with the last part of the latter. The damsels in question run the campus suicide prevention center and are part of a clique, headed up by Violet Wister, who is wistful for an earlier time. Violet (Greta Gerwig, who manages a striking performance despite the weaknesses of the film) works earnestly to lay a veneer of medieval ladyhood over the vulgarities of contemporary young adult life. (My spellcheck didn't like the word "ladyhood," so I googled to see if it is, in fact, a word. Apparently it last appeared in Webster's 1913 Revised Unabridged Dictionary.) The male sex is viewed in terms of categories instead of as people --  morons, playboys, operators -- which further undermines the film's efficacy.

John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, based on Deborah Moggach’s novel These Foolish Things, is a sweet, geriatric ensemble piece, which the Brits do so well. Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup are all quite wonderful, but the two stand out performances are from Tom Wilkinson as a gay man who, because of the accident of time and circumstance, has been thwarted in love, and Bill Nighy as a hen pecked husband who endures an onslaught of humiliations while showing humor and good will toward his traveling companions. The only fly in the ointment is Dev Patel (who was fine in Slumdog Millionaire) whose insufferable, paroxysmal performance made me wish I could scream him off the screen and whose clumsy love storyline should have been written out of the script altogether. (Stephen Holden's NYT review)

Bruce Beresford's Peace, Love and Misunderstanding is a formulaic family comedy set in Woodstock, where an unreconstructed though well-heeled hippie grandma, who has apparently followed her bliss, lives in an idyllic farmhouse among an equally affluent community. (From whence that affluence comes we do not know, a Hollywood tic I cannot stand.) Jane Fonda plays the grandmother a little too flamboyantly for my taste, but the  film is redeemed by Catherine Keener as Grace, a New York City lawyer who is her daughter and comes home to deal with the death of her marriage. In addition to Keener are Elizabeth Olsen and Nat Wolff as Grace's children, and they hold their own with the veterans. With lessons learned about letting go and the important things in life (that affluent people can pursue without the consequences the rest of us are saddled with in our quotidian lives) everyone ends suitably paired up. (Stephen Holden's NYT review review)

I am a Wes Anderson fan and he charmed me again with Moonrise Kingdom. Anderson's casts of quirky characters demonstrate over and over that what we have come to call dysfunctional families are really not dysfunctional at all, if we're just willing to embrace the dysfunction. There are two soul mates at the center of Moonrise Kingdom. Sam and Suzy are 12-year-olds during the same era that I was twelve, and the film evokes many cultural artifacts from that mid-'60s era, from Sam's copy of Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra and the little portable record player he carries around to play it on to the strains of Françoise Hardy's "Le Temps de l'Amour" to the Boy Scout troop to the coonskin hat Sam dons for their elopement. Manohla Dargis's lovely NYT  review notes that "'Clever' is sometimes used as a cudgel against Mr. Anderson..., primarily, it seems, because he makes personal, rather than industrial, films that don't look, move or feel like anyone else's. The people in his work, their passions and dramas, are true and recognizable...but they exist in a world apart, one made with extraordinary detail, care and, I think, love by Mr. Anderson."


This is something of an intro to the next 2012 entry on Relationship Movies, movies about romantic entanglements, family relationships, friendships, and various other permutations of our lives together. The man-child character is a particularly persistent type in American movies and TV that figures into those relationships, and one to which Jay and Mark Duplass contributed considerably this year. Each of these movies revolves around a core trio of characters who ultimately learn something about their need for each other.

Jay and Mark Duplass wrote and directed Jeff Who Lives at Home. Jason Segel’s Jeff is a 30-year-old slacker who, well, still lives at home and has nothing better to do than obsess over M. Night Shyamalan’s movie Signs. He longs to find some deeper meaning behind quotidian events. His brother (Ed Helms) is the “practical” one, but his marriage is falling apart and he's smack in the midst of mid-life crisis. Jeff’s mother (Susan Sarandon) has one of those ball-and-chained-to-the-desk jobs and can't suppress her concern over a son who just won't grow up. I wanted more out of this movie by way of insight into human longing – a longing for something greater than ourselves, certainly something deeper than what passes for “success” in latter-day suburbia. Nevertheless, I give the filmmakers credit for making a stab at going there. Most movies don’t even try. (A. O. Scott's NYT review)

Safety Not Guaranteed, directed by Colin Treverrow, brings a little sci-fi into the Duplass mix. Mark Duplass plays a man -- again obsessed, this time with creating a time machine -- who is convinced that the FBI know what he is doing and is out to disappear him. He places an ad seeking a time-travel companion that catches the eye of a Seattle alternative newspaper editor who sets out with an intern to investigate. (Stephen Holden’s review provides a road map of the story’s genesis.) Safety not guaranteed, it turns out, is as true of life and love as it is of time travel. The film is more successful than Jeff in getting to the pith of what our human longing needs, which is essentially, each other.

Your Sister’s Sister, directed by Lynn Shelton, co-stars Mark Duplass as Jack who gets romantically caught between two sisters on an island off Washington’s Pacific coast. Of the three movies, I liked this one the least. The characters are nice, but a bit too self-indulgent, and I found the plot, especially the final twist, a little much for even my very easily suspended disbelief. (A. O. Scott's NYT review notes that Lynn Shelton directed the 2009 Humpday, which he describes as an "impish, heartfelt romp." I could not stand Humpday, and said so in my 2009 reviews. See below.*)

Two straight guys, high on booze and pot, get rooked into agreeing to film themselves having sex with each other for an experimental film festival. Despite sober reconsideration, they decide this will be the “ultimate art project.” Pseudo-intellectual conversations ensue. They rent a motel room and keep their date, but all that transpires is more babble trotted out as philosophical dialectic purportedly about profound issues of gender – in one of the talkiest, most self-absorbed movies about absolutely nothing ever made. In all fairness to critical opinion, Stephen Holden, in the NYT, says Lynn Shelton’s film is an “unblinking observation of a friendship put to the test…amused, …kindhearted, and unfailingly truthful” – so what do I know?

December 18, 2012


Joe Carnahan’s The Grey rises above its action thriller surface and its survival of the fittest outline to pose the most fundamental existential question: in the face of indifferent nature, how will a given individual face survival alone in the wilderness. Liam Neeson’s nuanced performance takes the challenge head on. He’s one of those quiet loners with a past who end up on arctic oil rigs. His job: to shoot predators that get too close. After an airplane crash, he emerges as the voice of reason – and as the voice of solace to the dying. Finally, alone, the tables turn and prey becomes hunter, hunter prey. The ensemble that comprises the flight manifest is superb, revealing compellingly complex characters. In fact, The Grey is admirable in its respect for its audience and delivers a film that is at once a thriller yet dares to penetrate the surface of the genre to peer into moral questions regarding what it means to be human. (A. O. Scott's NYT review)

Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire is the polar opposite of The Grey. Gina Carano is a martial arts champion who brings those skills, but no others, to bear in Mallory Kane, special ops warrior. In his review for the NYT, A. O. Scott observes that “A large part of what we crave is action: running, jumping, fighting, driving, flying. Sometimes everything else — plot, character, emotion — can seem superfluous. This appears to be the working hypothesis behind Haywire….”

Can an action thriller be an action thriller if it is so predictable that you utterly fail to be thrilled? Such is the case with Daniel Espinosa’s Safe House. It’s more than competent: the actors are self-assured (Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds play well off of each other, and the supporting cast is impressive: Brendan Gleeson, who is always a joy to watch, Vera Farmiga, Robert Patrick, Rubén Blades); the cinematography is lovely; the fights are tight and well-choreographed. It’s just… (Manohla Dargis's NYT review)

Apparently there were more than a few crashes for the star and stunt players who make David Koepp’s Premium Rush a candidate for Best Movie Chase Scene. Joseph Gordon-Levitt did much of his own pedaling through the streets of New York, a decision that landed him on the pavement when an SUV drove into lanes closed for production. Rather than swerve into live traffic at 30 mph, Gordon-Levitt chose the alternative and smashed into a taxi, gashing his right forearm. Wilee (Is that like…? Yes.) is a bike messenger inadvertently entrusted with a valuable package that a NYC cop with a bad gambling habit and worse debts is determined to get. At first it’s Wilee’s professionalism that motivates him to protect the package, but with time he comes to understand the greater human significance of his charge. (Manohla Dargis's NYT review and Popular Mechanics article)

I wasn’t going to see David Ayer’s End of Watch until I read Manohla Dargis in the NYT. It’s an episodic, cop buddy movie that tries to go a little deeper than the genre usually goes, centering on partners Brian and Mike (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña, both quite good), their brotherhood in arms, and the challenges of patrolling South Los Angeles. In addition, Ayer is, if not making a commentary on, at least looking at the degree to which the camera mitigates our lives. Brian is taking classes in pre-law and fulfilling one of his assignments by filming their days with a hand-held camera and mini cameras clipped to their uniforms. But just about every other kind of camera figures into the movie – surveillance cameras, phone cameras, night vision, etc. It’s not Big Brother paranoia; it’s just an observation on the extent to which we live in an age in which the capturing of images is ubiquitous.

Another movie that pushes the envelope of its genre is the hard-boiled, mob vengeance of Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, based on the George V. Higgins novel Cogan’s Trade. The film is set against the backdrop of the 2008 financial meltdown and the final weeks of the presidential campaign in the mean streets of New Orleans. Car radios and bar TVs broadcast rhetoric from the candidates and Henry Paulson that defends the necessity of propping up criminally corrupt Wall Street. I usually like A. O. Scott’s NYT reviews, but on this one I have to disagree. Scott says of this parallel, “It’s a clumsy device, a feint toward significance that nothing else in the movie earns.” Brad Pitt plays the hit man Jackie Cogan, hired to kill off punks who have robbed a game. Richard Jenkins is wonderful as the mob’s middle-man who conducts business in his generic recent-model sedan. The mob, like the banks, has become modernized and decentralized, and leaves it to middle management to mediate with the riff raff. The analogy works for me and the ensemble is a joy to watch. Ray Liotta runs the game, and James Gandolfini does a turn as a washed up, self-pitying hit man. Another criticism I heard of Killing Them Softly was that it was slow-paced. To its credit, at times it is, which allows Gandolfini to deliver a wonderfully long, self-indulgent monologue to Cogan. Foreign directors are willing to give scenes time, but it rarely happens in an American movie. When Cogan’s payment for his hits is short, he leans in to the mob's go-between on the tails of campaign declarations issuing from the bar's TV to explain under his breath, “America isn’t a country; it’s a business. Now give me my money.”

2012: 2011 FILMS IN 2012

Steve McQueen’s Shame stars Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan in merciless performances. Fassbender’s Brandon is a Manhattan professional of some financial sector sort, pathologically addicted to anonymous sex, pornography, you name it. When his sister Sissy (Mulligan) arrives, the routine he has created to feed his habit is disrupted. She is a cutter whose emotional neediness contrasts with his emotional detachment, but they are two sides of the same coin. Their childhood is never touched upon, yet we feel the undertow of some long repressed experience that each has developed a compulsive mechanism to cope with. Finally, I was unable to decide just quite what I thought about these characters. Writing for the NYT, A. O. Scott says, “The movie, for all its displays of honesty (which is to say nudity), is also curiously coy. It presents Brandon for our titillation, our disapproval and perhaps our envy, but denies him access to our sympathy.” I cannot agree. There were other films throughout the year featuring people I cared absolutely nothing about. Something in both performances managed to allow me to call up some degree of empathy for these characters – despite their morbid behaviors – in the way one can understand an abused animal that persists in opening old wounds.

Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, adapted from Lionel Shriver's novel, traces a family whose son ends up committing a mass murder at his high school (using a high-powered bow and arrows). It wants to be an exploration of the incomprehensibility of what drives an individual to undertake such an act of carnage, and of the unease the boy has always elicited in his mother, who wonders whether he was born this way, which might then, having given him birth, make her complicit in his crime. I write this mere days after the Connecticut shooting, and though these are important questions to ponder, the film felt more gratuitous than insightful to me – closer to voyeurism than to keen psychological drama. A. O. Scott's review for the NYT argues that the film "is less a psychological or sociological case study than a horror movie...."

As any reviewer will mention, it is obvious why Ralph Fiennes chose Shakespeare’s Coriolanus at this particular historical moment. Fiennes directed and stars in this lean mean adaptation by John Logan. Martius, even before he has become Coriolanus, is transparent in his contempt for the 99% he is supposed to defend and equally transparent in his admiration for his blood enemy, the Volscian commander Aufidius. For those who enjoy experiencing anew Shakespeare’s timeless insights into the nature of the human, Fiennes’ Coriolanus will not disappoint.

Caution: Spoiler – Plot Outline: Rome has for years been at war with Volsci [or Iraq or Afghanistan]. Deputy to the Roman army commander, the celebrated General Martius, with contempt for the 99% protesting against him for denying them grain, declares them undeserving. After defeating the Volsci, Martius receives the cognomen of "Coriolanus” prompting his power hungry mother to press him to run for consul. He wins an overwhelming majority of a cynical senate, as well as the support of the 99% -- or so it seems…until Occupy schemers whip up a riot in opposition. Enraged, Coriolanus inveighs against popular rule, is condemned as a traitor, and banished. In exile, he seeks out Aufidius and his Skinhead lot, and offers to let Aufidius kill him to spite Rome. Moved, Aufidius embraces Coriolanus and asks him to lead a renewed assault on Rome. To show his camaraderie with the Volsci, Coriolanus has his head shaved and adopts their tattoos. When Rome fails to repel the vengeful attack, Corlionaus’ mother, now shamed, is sent, with Coriolanus' wife and son, to plead with him not to destroy Rome. He arranges a peace treaty and returns to the Volscian capital, where conspirators, organized by Aufidius, kill him for his betrayal.

I thought of putting Oren Moverman’s noir-ish Rampart into a new category I was toying with calling “Who Cares?” It has its story roots in the LAPD’s anti-gang Rampart Division, which was awash in corruption by the late ‘90s. Woody Harrelson plays the morally bereft Dave. There’s nothing to like about him, and though I read several admiring reviews of Harrelson’s performance, I never felt I was allowed to see Dave’s humanity – or that of most of the characters who surround him – albeit in an ever retreating circumference – with the notable exception of Ned Beatty who plays a crooked ex-cop and Dave’s lone friend. (Manohla Dargis's NTY review)

December 14, 2012

2012: 2011 FOREIGN FILMS

Unless one lives in New York or LA, it is often a long wait for most foreign films, if one is lucky enough to have the chance to see them at all, and that is lamentable. There are remarkable films being made around the globe, and they have much to teach us. We would all be better off were we to crawl out from under our cultural xenophobia, and come out to see the rest of the world. These 2011 foreign films did not make it to my neck of the woods until 2012.

Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation is about an Iranian family: about a couple’s relationship to each other and their long simmering resentments; her desire for a divorce the courts will not grant; his father, suffering from dementia, for whom they care; the woman they hire to watch him while they work; the needs of their daughter; the accidents of fate that grow out of the stresses of daily life; and, ultimately, about the problematic nature of reconstructing the truth of events once we have biased the narrative to our advantage, which the film is quite unblinking in demonstrating that we do. What we learn is that despite some differences, their lives and their worries are much the same as ours, more so than we might wish to admit. As A. O. Scott observes in his NYT review, “It also sketches a portrait — perhaps an unnervingly familiar picture for American audiences — of a society divided by sex, generation, religion and class.”

In Darkness is Agnieszka Holland’s telling of the story recounted in Robert Marshall’s book In the Sewers of Lov, which chronicles Leopold Socha and the group of Jews he abetted during WWII. A. O. Scott explains my reactions to this film better than I can:
In Darkness…provides the latest evidence that the Holocaust movie has become a genre in its own right. Even a true story can follow the familiar conventions of film narrative, and this tale of a righteous gentile selflessly assisting in the survival of a handful of persecuted Jews is no exception.
“This is not to say that there is anything wrong with the movie. It is suspenseful, horrifying and at times intensely moving. But the ease with which it elicits these responses from the audience feels more opportunistic than insightful. ….
“You do not go to a movie like this to learn, but rather to feel: to pity the victims, despise the villains, and identify with both the vulnerable and the brave. In Darkness…obligingly supplies the desired emotions, which means that, in spite of its grim setting, it is finally more comforting than troubling.”

The Kid with a Bike epitomizes why I go to the movies. Written and directed by the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, it tells the story of Cyril who escapes a foster home to try to find the father who has abandoned him only to find their dilapidated apartment empty. On he flees – to a doctor’s office where he crashes into an unwitting Samantha, and clings as only a twelve-year-old can. Manohla Dargis's wonderful review for the NYT cites an interview in Film Comment in which Jean-Pierre Dardenne describes Samantha's return embrace of the boy as a “reverse Pietà.” This unlikely event brings them together, and Samantha becomes Cyril’s guardian. Her responsibility is fraught with difficulty, for Cyrus has no way to deal with his raw emotional wounds and acts out his grief any way that he can. His bike is an extension of his child energy and the only object that links him to what he has lost. His furious pumping – up and down, up and down – propels the arc of the narrative as Samantha’s love slowly elicits Cyril’s trust, and he develops the maturity to accept not only his human need for love, but the reciprocity it demands of him

2012: Dance. Dance. Otherwise, we are lost.

“Dance. Dance. Otherwise, we are lost.” ~~Pina Bausch

I haven't been this passionate about anything since Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which I relentlessly hounded people to see for weeks. (I saw Forgotten Dreams in 3D but not Pina.) 2011’s Pina is PHENOMENAL! This film, of a suite of dances, is Wim Wenders' and her dance troupe's tribute to Pina Bausch, the German dancer and choreographer who died in 2009 -- an exploration of pain and joy, need and rejection, the cycle of human life within the cycle of nature, the insecurity of the child within each of us, our basest animal natures and raw animality, our profoundest spiritual essence and creative transcendence. It is, in short, about love.

“No, there was no hurricane that swept across the stage, there were just…people performing who moved differently than I knew and who moved me as I had never been moved before. After only a few moments I had a lump in my throat, and after a few minutes of unbelieving amazement I simply let go of my feelings and cried unrestrainedly. This had never happened to me before…maybe in life, sometimes in the cinema, but not when watching a rehearsed production, let alone choreography. This was not theatre, nor pantomime, nor ballet and not at all opera. Pina is, as you know, the creator of a new art. Dance theatre.

"…What treasure lies within the body, to be able to express itself without words, and how many stories can be told without saying a single sentence.” ~~Wim Wenders

Charlie Rose interviews Wim Wenders on Pina.
The interview will take a mere 15 minutes of your time. WATCH IT! Make EVERY EFFORT to see this profound masterpiece.

A.O. Scott’s NYT review contains a slide show, and a clip from the film, but nothing can compare to seeing the entirety in its glory.


It’s that time of year again. No, not the holidays. The end of year windup to the February Oscars. This year brought some good flicks, but there was an awful lot of rubbish, which there always has been, but this year seemed to have an abundance.

There's nothing inherently wrong with going to the movies for fun, but it's like a diet of Wonder Bread, deceivingly named being devoid of wonder and lacking even meager nourishment. I go to a lot of movies for a variety of reasons: to learn about other worlds/people/times through fictions and documentaries, to measure the zeitgeist, to ease a 100°+ summer day, but my primary desire is to experience the art of cinema, a remarkable art that, even more so than the stage, incorporates all arts.

My friend and film mentor Jerry Holt says, "Good movies are CHURCH." That's the point. Scorsese's Mean Streets opens with Harvey Keitel's Charlie in voiceover: "You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it." Then the Ronettes' Be My Baby kicks in as a home video reveals the first glimpses of the story's characters.

In Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, the elder in Angel's village explains to Pike Bishop, "We all dream of being a child again, even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all." That's grace. That's forgiveness. That's the redemptive, transformative power of art. No one – unless you're Oscar Wilde – talks like that in real life.

Art distills the chaos of lived experience – through structure, order, composition, sensual experience, poetry, rhythm – to teach us something about the human condition. It universalizes individual experience. As a culture, we seem to reject creative experience in favor of empty calories, entertainments, amusements, Pascal's divertissements. Rather than confront our condition we seek diversion at every turn.

I go to my dark, flickering church every Sunday. Sometimes the homily works for me, more often it does not, but that doesn't change the fact that I am always seeking something – call it salvation for lack of a better word.

Let’s begin with some of the best – foreign films – starting with a film that arrived here a year late…