Saturday, December 13, 2014

Performances of the Year.... So Far (the guys)

As compared to the ladies so far this year, I have to admit its been lackluster for the guys. Still, here are five performances that caught my eye. This list excepts my favorite performance of the year (and hopeful Oscar winner) Michael Keaton in "Birdman".

Bill Hader in "The Skeleton Twins"

As a suicidal homosexual going home to reunite with his sister (an equally good Kristen Wiig), Hader avoids the pratfalls of indie quirkiness and creates a full bodied, conflicted presence. We all knew Hader could make us laugh, but who knew he had this performance in him?
JK Simmons in "Whiplash"

JK Simmons has long been one of my very favorite "character" actors and in "Whiplash", he finally gets the opportunity to take a bit of the center stage as a misogynistic, brutally honest and downright ferocious jazz music teacher who pushes one student a bit too far. It's a showy performance, yes, but one that Simmons inflects with every inch of his muscular arms and shaven head.
Benecio Del Toro in "Jimmy P."

It's encouraging to see Arnaud Desplechin's early year release "Jimmy P; Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian" popping up on a few best of lists. It's a wonderful little film, populated by a series of one-two discussions between Del Toro and doctor Matthieu Almaric. Del Toro gives a quiet, focused performance of a man struggling with PTSD before anyone really knew what it was, enhanced by his nondescript status as an American Indian. The final scene between Del Toro and his daughter is a knockout of internal acting and just shows how great Del Toro has been for so many years now.

 Mark Ruffalo in "Foxcatcher"

In a film where anyone of the three main performances could be cited as terrific, it's Ruffalo who resonated most profoundly with me. Another highly internal performance (seeing the common denominator with this list), Ruffalo acts with his eyes, body language and almost hushed sense of presence as the older brother to Channing Tatum. "Foxcatcher" builds to a violent finale, and its Ruffalo who made me care the most in this triangle of misplaced patriotism, jealousy and decaying sense of self importance.
Billy Bob Thornton in "The Judge"

All hail the return of Billy Bob! It feels like Thornton has been missing for so long on the silver screen, although IMDB shows he's just been pretty busy on the small screen (and "Fargo" the tv series feels like something major I've been missing). His role as the prosecuting attorney in "The Judge" is a small one, bookended by a peculiar water flask and deliberate tone of non empathy. Yet, anytime he was on-screen, the film felt infinitely more imprtant.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

The Alexei German Files: My Friend Ivan Lapshin

After "Trial On the Road" (1971) and "Twenty Days Without War" (1977), two films that dealt with the experience of war (or, more specifically the absence of it in one), filmmaker Alexei German's next project was delayed almost ten years. Filmed in 1985 but not debuted until two years later at a Moscow film festival, "My Friend Ivan Lapshin" may be his masterpiece. German's visual schematic of cluttered, claustrophobic interiors and snow-laden exteriors, both barely able to contain the perpetual movement of bodies and the thoughts that spew from them, again represents German's snapshot of a particular place and time. Set in the mid 30's just before the Stalin purge of Russian Jews and the onslaught of World War 2, "My Friend Ivan Lapshin" takes its time in eventually focusing on the titular character, choosing to embellish mood and atmosphere before real narrative sets in. Like all of German's films, they can be hard to penetrate sometimes.... full of political allegory and off-hand lines of dialogue that explode with hidden anger or poetic jealousy. While "My Friend Ivan Lapshin" has its share of obfuscated moments, it's German's most accessible and tangible work.

Playing out in a three part episode, half remembered by an off-screen voice over of a young child now grown into a man, "My Friend Ivan Lapshin" introduces us to its array of characters as a mixture of families and policemen living in a communal household. Boisterous and playful, we soon me Ivan Lapshin (Andrei Boltnev), the most respected and even tempered of the group. The middle section of the film introduces the relationships in Lapshin's life in Khanin (Andrey Mironov), a writer quietly reeling from the death of his wife and an actress named Natasha (Nina Ruslanova). Lapshin has a crush on Natasha, but is soon rebuffed by her when its discovered she's already started an affair with Khanin. One would imagine the potential for jealousy and third act retribution would kick into high gear after this revelation, but it's ignored by German and even has Lapshin and Khanin continuing their friendship into the final act where Lapshin invites Khanin with him on a manhunt for a group of wanted criminals. Its the final act, filmed in a staggering and tense-ridden long take, as the cops descend through a fog into a small village looking for the criminal that "My Friend Ivan Lapshin" coalesces into a prominent work. By this point, we care so deeply for Lapshin and the enveloping atmosphere of 1930's Russia that the spectre of "something big" lingers over the entire film. And even in that regard, German has a narrative surprise for us.

Viewed within the context of his larger body of work, "My Friend Ivan Lapshin" fits neatly into his themes of nationalism and scrapbook-like remembrances from his writer father Yuri. Two small portions of the film inexplicably turn into color stock, fashioned like old polaroid photographs burned into one's memory. Also, the dichotomy of society/war/lawfulness meeting the artificiality of a staged play was a large part of "Twenty Days Without War". Both films also posit a doomed relationship between the drifter/warrior and an actress.... almost as if the two columns of life can never fully mesh. And equally doomed is everyone in the film. With the sweeping changes we know from history on the horizon, "My Friend Ivan Lapshin", like Ingmar Bergman's "The Serpent's Egg" or Haneke's "The White Ribbon", is surepptitously about the passing of a generation... an observation made innocently by the final (color) image and a voice decrying the amount of traffic and tram lines encasing the city. There are no more Ivan Lapshins left.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

The Current Cinema 14.8


While simmering tension and dread is there right from the beginning in Bennett Miller’s true tale “Foxcatcher”, the resounding impact from the film remains its stillness. Many scenes are shrouded in quiet, almost hushed conversations, all of which makes the emotional explosion towards the end that much more shocking. Tracking the doomed relationship between wrestling brothers Mark and Dave Schultz (Canning Tatum and Mark Ruffalol) and wealthy Olympic supporter John E. DuPont (Steve Carell), “Foxcatcher” is a dense study in repressed emotions from all sides. While Carell undergoes the most physically transformative of the roles (and he is really, really good), the best acting comes from Tatum and Ruffalo. With statures like apes and lacking the ability to fully express their sentiments outside of casual positive reinforcement or the comfort of each other’s body in practice, “Foxcatcher” soon becomes a pointed attack on the ‘haves’ versus the ‘havenots’. This widening gulf eventually swallows everyone and director Miller orchestrates the quiet apocalypse with deft precision.


“Citizenfour”, directed by Laura Poitras, is a documentary of prescient timing. Not only was Poitras in the right place and time to document and record whistleblower Edward Snowden’s journey through the media minefield, but “Citizenfour” fits in snuggly with our current preoccupation of governmental distrust. I’m not saying it’s a perfect film, but I can’t imagine a more timely release for a real life paranoid expose like it. Receiving cryptic emails from Snowden almost eight months before coming out with his classified NSA documents concerning the level of privacy piracy by the government, Poitras builds her film around the hotel room conversations she and Snowden (and journalist Glenn Greenwald) recorded. These conversations- in which justification, anxiety and some doubt creep into Snowden- establish the beating pulse of the film. Less interesting are the bits of context mixed around the interviews, namely hearings on privacy invasion and talking head media conferences. Included, I’m sure, to educate the general viewer on the rampant encroachment of industry upon personal privacy like a visual Wikipedia, I felt them a bit redundant and ultimately a remedial effect for the film.

The Homesman

Back in the director-actor seat again, Tommy Lee Jones tackles the western with “The Homesman”, a genre that yielded strong results a few years ago with his “The Three Burial Of Melquidas Estrada”. Where that film was lean, savage and complex, “The Homesman” struggles to find and maintain a tone from the very beginning. Hilary Swank stars as Marry Cuddy, a woman alone in the Nebraska territory who takes on the mission of transporting three mentally unstable women to Iowa. Drifter and general malcontent Jones comes into the picture when Swank saves him from his impending death and charges him with helping her on the journey. The imbalance between the very dark, dream-like existence of the three crazy women and Swank and Jones’ almost cartoonish relationship continually makes “The Homesman” a puzzling effort. Like a character out of a Peckinpah western, Jones embodies his George Briggs as heartless, misanthropic and a bit cowardly, yet we’re expected to see the ultimate good in him as the credits roll. Equally schizophrenic is Swank’s Marry Cuddy… fiercely independent in the way she steps up into the role of woman’s savior but secretly yearning for nothing more than the modest subjugation of marriage. Sketching characters with these broad strokes of emotional complexity is never a bad thing, but “The Homesman” lacks any real depth in its exploration, especially in a third act twist that feels forced in its corn field journey of martyrdom.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

David Ehrlich kicks off the end of the year extravaganza with another of his beautifully composed and symbiotic Top 25 of the year in film. I so love these things.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Alexei German Files: Trial On the Road

Originally filmed in 1971 but not released until 1985 thanks to those awesome censors that the USSR had in place during this time, Alexei German's sophomore film deserves to be seen no matter when. Vladimir Zamanski is Lazarev, a Russian soldier who, at one point towards the end of the war, was captured by the Germans and forced to work with them. A unit of partisan soldiers- comprised partly of war weary veterans and fresh faced village boys- recapture Lazarev and place him under arrest, not sure whether he can still be trusted. It's only when the unit is faced with the huge task of re-routing a train supply line that they place their faith in Lazarev's new found patriotism. Filmed in German's usual method of stark black and white, "Trial On the Road" expresses both the physical and psychological pressures on men during World War 2. The dynamic between Lazarev and the partisans is presented from both vantage points. We can understand how each side is supremely distrusting of the other. And right up to the violent ending, we're never quite sure if Lazarev will be true to his intentions of helping the partisans or not.

Like the best war films of Russian cinema, "Trial On the Road" excels in presenting the elemental nature of war. Sight and sound are magnified aspects of the experience, such as the hissing noise a spent machine gun makes when it hits the snow covered ground or the completely terrifying image of a German death patrol suddenly emerging in front of a partisan soldier during white out conditions. Filmmaker German ensures these small details are etched into our memory and "Trial On the Road" creates a host of them.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

An Appreciation: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Fando and Lis  (1968) ***- The entry point to Jodorowsky’s cinema is a difficult one. Not too far removed from one of those awful looking student films of the late 60’s, there is something deeper in this parable about a man and paralyzed woman making an arduous journey over a dirty, barren, rock-filled landscape in search of the mythical city of tar. The dynamic between Fando (Sergio Klainer) and Lis (Diana Mariscal) begins as one of child-like affection and love between them, but before long, they become squabbling, pitiless partners. Along the way, they meet and interact with a host of unusual people in what I feel is Jodorowsky’s main theme of the film- the repercussions of external sources to ultimately sour a genuine relationship. If nothing else, this is a theme he’ll be chasing in his unique films for the next 40 plus years.

El Topo (1970) ***½ - A western of dazzling subversion, toying with the very nature of the genre through religious iconography and avant garde hallucinations. Jodorowsky himself stars as the unnamed gunslinger, traveling through the desert first as blood letter and then eventually as the savior to a village of under-privileged and deformed people.  While “Fando and Lis” wants to provoke and challenge, “El Topo is Jodorowsky maturing as a filmmaker, honing his distinctive eye and collapsing so many themes into a compact work. If I don’t like it quite as much as his other work, it’s only because the first half (where he meets and fights a successive group of master gunfighters) feels a bit redundant before hitting its perverse stride in the second half.

The Holy Mountain (1973) **- With “The Holy Mountain”, Jodorowsky’s mythological clap-trap begins to parody itself. A man, seemingly to be Christ, finds his way to a magical tower where its keeper (Jodorowsky himself) takes in the man and introduces him to nine other powerful individuals from each planet of the galaxy. Together, they embark on a journey to find immortality on the legendary holy mountain. Mordantly funny at times (especially in each vignette showcasing the history of the nine chosen) and downright bonkers at others, “The Holy Mountain” seems to be Jodorowsky at his most playfully contempt. The idea of modern greed and technology sullying our lives is well taken, and its probably the perfect film for the dying gasp of ‘hippie-dom’, but too much of it feels like provocation for the sake of LSD inspired intellectualism.

Tusk (1980) *- After his two midnight movies, Jodorowsky re-emerged eight years later with a much more accessible effort. Going in a new direction can be admirable at times, yet “Tusk” only reveals Jodorowsky’s shaky grasp on grounded acting and linear storytelling. The idea of dual nature between man and animal is seized upon at the very beginning when a baby elephant and girl Elise (Cyrielle Clair) are born on the same day. As they grow up, they both deal with various inhumanities, including a group of tusk traders wanting to kill the elephant and Elise’s moral contempt for her father’s empirical landowning practices as a British man in India. In typical Jodorowsky flair, there are elongated scenes of animal cruelty and over-the-top villainy that hammer home their message, but the film fails to elicit any real strong emotions for either man or beast. Not available on home video.

Santa Sangre (1989) ****- An art house slasher film populated by circus rejects. That twitter-like description of the film doesn’t do it’s underlying beating heart justice. Jodorowsky’s own son Axel stars as Fenix, the son of a circus couple who endures a nightmarish childhood when mom catches ringleader husband cheating. Mom is then murdered and dismembered by husband as son watches. It’s no surprise he has troubles adapting to a normal life. Underneath the sordid themes, “Santa Sangre” becomes a twisted love story as well when Alma (Sabrina Dennison), a childhood friend to Fenix, resurfaces and tries to help. Jodorowsky touches on universal themes of unrequited love and childhood psychosis to spin a macabre yet moving fairy tale of sorts. And for all his pop sensationalism, Jodorowsky still has the ability to aggressively comment on all things worldly such as the funeral of an elephant turning into a meat-filled scavenger hunt for the onlooker peasants.

The Rainbow Thief (1990) **½- Virtually disowned by Jodorowsky, “The Rainbow Thief” was his shot at mainstream filmmaking with a modest budget and a name cast. The results are far from disastrous- in fact some of Jodorowsky’s personal touches remain on the film even through his restrictions- and “The Rainbow Thief” emerges as a unique fable with a dash of magic realism for its finale. Starring Omar Sharif as a vagrant and petty thief, he meets Meleagre (Peter O Toole)… a man who has walked away from his family’s fortune and chosen to live without propriety since he overhead the petty squabbles of his family over the comatose body of their patriarch (Christopher Lee, glimpsed only in the wild and excessive opening). The two men form a bond and live underground together, plotting to one day re-emerge and lay claim to the family’s fortune. But the vagrant’s mixed dealings with various lowlifes, pimps and of course midgets, continually gets in the way of that. A bit tone deaf at times, with certain scenes carrying on far too long, the weaknesses of Jodorowsky are glaring. But there’s a weird sweetness to the whole film, never venturing into dark territory or avant garde malaise. Never even released in American theaters and given only a marginal European release, “The Rainbow Thief” deserved a much better fate than that. Not available on DVD.

The Dance of Reality (2013) **- Autobiographical and intensely personal, perhaps “The Dance of Reality” is Jodorowsky’s version of “8 ½”. Split into two distinct portions, the first half deals with a young man’s strict childhood with his father. Since the father is played by Jodorowsky’s own son, Brontis, and features himself in certain ghost-like monologues, the levels of ‘meta’ increase rapidly. The second half follows the father as he embarks on a journey to find himself after he realizes the totalitarian regime that controls his life and his unhappy relationship with his family. How Jodorowsky chooses to fictionalize his obviously painful childhood is interpretative… and looking over his long career, its no surprise “The Dance of Reality” is an amplified excursion of half awake dreams, weird characters (including his mother who sings all her dialogue in opera) and allegorical sight gags. But, the episodic nature of the film continually works against the momentum it occasionally establishes and never fully engaged me. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Performances of the Year...So Far (the women)

With a month or so to go, I know they'll still be one or two performances that knock me over. Yet, for the sake of numerous other year end lists, here are a few roles from the ladies that really shook me up this year. In no order:

Tatiana Pauhofova in "Burning Bush"

As the lawyer fighting against the dynamics of a Communist regime in late 60's Poland, Pauhofova exerts so much with her eyes and guarded body language. The story of Agnieszka Holland's "Burning Bush" is powerful enough, but Pauhofova adds a steely justice fighter to the mix.
Jessica Chastain in "Interstellar"
Christopher Nolan's ambitious but heartfelt epic (one of my very very faves of the year) can make one's head spin with its loopy science and bouncing time lines, but its the performances of all involved that transcend the large-scale ideas. Jessica Chastain- also getting huge buzz for two other films this year, the still largely unseen "A Most Violent Year" and "Miss Julie"- nails her role as the daughter of Matthew McConaughey struggling to put together the pieces on Earth. Her first confessional scene to daddy in space breaks me apart every time... and I saw the film three times in one week, each time knowing what was coming and still succumbing to her pain.
Ah-sung Ko in "Snowpiercer"

In a largely wordless performance, Ah-sung Ko is my fanboy pick of the year for kickass chick. Regardless of the more athletic nature of her role, something clicked with me. Her large, expressive eyes and her ability to telegraph emotion through body language was a revelation.
Chloe-Grace Moretz in "Laggies"

Despite taking a back seat to the precocious relationship between Sam Rockwell and Keira Knightley, Moretz shined as the daughter caught between the adults' arrested development. Still able to hone the uncomfortable silences of a teenager (such as the great scene when she finally visits her estranged mom) while balancing the believable poise of a girl approaching womanhood, Moretz saves "Laggies" from being a colossal bore.
Felicity Jones in "The Theory of Everything"

Felicity Jones has been garnering attention since earlier this year in "The Invisible Woman". In "The Theory of Everything", she plays the wife of Stephen Hawking (whose memoirs the film is based upon) and not only, IMO, out-acts Redmayne, but is the beating heart of the entire affair. Just watch as she strides across a croquet court to steal the mallet from young Hawking or the tremors of resolve that swirl across her face as she makes a decision late in the film.
Marion Cotillard in "The Immigrant"

I love how one early review compared Cotillard in "The Immigrant" to Ingrid Bergman in Rosselini's films. The comparison is apt, not only because of the early 20th century aura (and lighting) of the film, but in the way director Gray frames her face and eyes. It's a flagellate role... manipualted, abused and confined by the realities of a harsh New York City, but Cotillard creates a brave and soulful portrait within the callowness.

Andrea Riseborough in "Birdman"

In a film full of snazzy performances, Riseborough's is the least amplified but the one that's stuck with me the most. It may be Michael Keaton's breakdown, but she inhabits a small portion of his unverse with depth and precise reaction shots.