Category Archives: Film

Film: Hipsters

You know, I just can’t get enough of Russian musicals. Er, wait, no. Actually, Hipsters (2008) is the only Russian musical I’ve ever seen. Alas, despite a promising idea and an arresting look, this one didn’t exactly captivate me.

But it’s certainly interesting. Set in 1950s Soviet Russia, it’s a love story about Mels (Anton Shagin), a wavering member of a communist youth organization, who, following a raid on an underground jazz club, falls for a young woman named Polly (Oksana Akinshina). Mels’ infatuation with Polly quickly causes him to lose his grip on proper, drab Soviet behavior, and he crosses over into a politically risky, colorful subculture of jazz afficionados – the “hipsters.” These non-conforming free spirits, with their loud clothes and wild parties, transform Mels into the Americanized “Mel,” making him an outcast in his own country – but also a part of something else.

Hipsters was a mixed bag, for me. It has a rich, visually striking look and an infectious energy to it, but unfortunately it loses steam as it goes along – the structural polish isn’t quite there, nor is the pacing. The musical numbers are okay, but failed to charm me consistently – and the weird lyrical translations made it difficult to fit the music into the story. Indeed, I suspect much of the film’s theme and message just didn’t quite translate cleanly enough. It’s attractively produced, and culturally and politically intriguing, but ultimately Hipsters just didn’t flip my switch.

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Film: The Grand Budapest Hotel

For sheer visual artistry and comedic whimsy, there really isn’t a better director working today than Wes Anderson, whose latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), is another clever and wholly unique entertainment. It’s a story within a story within a story: a writer (Tom Wilkinson) recalls an encounter his younger self (Jude Law) has with a wealthy hotel owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who himself recounts the adventures of his younger self (Tony Revolori) as a young lobby boy at the Grand Budapest Hotel. For all that convoluted set-up, the narrative is really about how Mr. Moustafa became the owner of the grand, mountaintop resort, through his friendship with M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the hotel’s suave, civilized concierge. Gustave’s upper-crust pose, and his numerous romantic entanglements with wealthy, older women, lead to complications when an elderly dowager countess (Tilda Swinton) dies just as the First World War is breaking out. This entangles him in a madcap inheritance drama, pitting him against the countess’ ruthless family.

Anyone familiar with Anderson’s earlier films will immediately recognize the distinctive visual style: The Grand Budapest Hotel has it in spades, each shot a colorful, carefully composed canvas, all spliced together with humor and panache. The cast is basically a Wes Anderson Repertory Company, all the usual suspects: Swinton,  Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson, as well as a newcomer who fits in with the quirky style perfectly: Saoirse Ronan. But it’s Fiennes who owns the film, a comically sophisticated Old World fellow to whom Revolori plays straight man throughout their escapades. It’s his most interesting and fun role in years, and goes a long way to selling the complex tangle of a plot, which involves murder, mayhem, war, romance, prison breaks, and even the odd, ludicrous action setpieces, all against a stylish, rich historical backdrop. It’s another assured and visually engrossing triumph from a director that’s truly one-of-a-kind.

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Film: The Zero Theorem

The Zero Theorem (2013) is easily Terry Gilliam’s most accomplished film since 12 Monkeys, and it’s probably my favorite since Brazil – a film with which it bears a certain stylistic resemblance. The screen is busy with cockamamie, googly-eyed effects and set design, the usual visionary antics for which Gilliam has become famous, as fun to watch as ever…and this time, not at the expense of coherent narrative. Despite all these strengths, though, it’s still a qualified success, sadly disfigured by its unsophisticated gender politics.

Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is a number-crunching cog in the machine of Mancom, a nebulous megacorporation with a nebulous mission in a nebulous quasi-future. Qohen is, basically, an existential crisis in human form, a reclusive man who’s spent decades waiting for a mysterious phone call to give his life purpose. Qohen’s work-from-home request is finally granted when Management (Matt Damon) decides to assign him to solving the Zero Theorem, his job being to find incontrovertible proof of human existence’s meaninglessness. Qohen agrees to take the job, provided the company promises to help him receive his fateful Call. But in the course of working through the problem, he finds meaning in entirely unexpected ways.

While I’ve seen this film described as futuristic SF, I disagree that it’s even set in the future. Like Brazil, The Zero Theorem is a story out of time, pure metaphor; in fact I see it as something of a companion-piece to Brazil, its twenty-first century counterpart. Like much of Gilliam’s work there’s a lot of meta going on, the director inscribing his artistic dilemma into the fabric of his narrative. But for all the existential, if not nihilistic, philosophy underlying its core allegory, there are kernels of hope embedded in the tale, particulary through the human interaction. That’s what gives the film its crucial heart, and what makes the story cohere. Quite deliberately, Waltz is a central cipher, a stand-in for Gilliam and perhaps for the viewer. His personal journey is full of bleak revelations, but just enough hope is subtly encoded in his relationships to make the struggle bearable. Chiefly, there’s his awkward friendship with supervisor Joby (David Thewlis, enacting a role that Michael Palin probably would have played in the old days); a young hotshot computer hacker named Bob (Lucas Hedges); and a beautiful, somewhat over-friendly young woman named Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), with whom he embarks on a quirky relationship.

It’s in this relationship – and in its gender politics generally – that the film falls on its face. Bainsley is pretty much the quintessentially problematic female character: a token feminine presence, treated with immature male-gazey lust, who serves as a catalyst for, and is inexplicably interested in, a blasé leading man who never earns that interest. Fortunately Waltz and Thierry are both good enough to sell it, but even well played it’s glaring. The characters’ childish ogling of women, played for comic relief, is a marring problem in any case, but particularly in this kind of film, which tailors its elements to be vague and “universal” stand-ins for its philosophical discussion. By objectifying and marginalizing the tiny female portion of the cast, it conveys the impression that Qohen’s deep, intense, artistic struggle Does Not Apply to the female subset of humanity – it’s an Important Male Thing . Whether this is a failure of Gilliam the director or Pat Rushin the screenwriter isn’t entirely clear. But it makes for an uncomfortable stain on an otherwise fascinating and visually arresting film, and Gilliam’s most assured and interesting work in a long time.

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Spy 100, #10: Notorious

The top ten countdown begins with Alfred Hitchcock’s noir romance Notorious (1946), a dark and smoldering affair produced and set in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The title refers to the seedy reputation of Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), a Miami party girl with a penchant for too much drink and too many men. Alicia’s father is a German-American war criminal with connections to certain at-large Nazis in South America – a connection not lost on American intelligence. Enter Agent Devlin (Cary Grant), sent by his superiors to recruit Alicia as an undercover agent. Smeared by her father’s treachery and her own sordid past, Alicia lights up when Devlin shows faith in her patriotism, and agrees to the work for them – not knowing that the mission involves seducing an old family friend, Alexander Sebastien (Claude Rains). By the time the nature of the mission comes to light, alas, Alicia and Devlin have fallen in love, but he’s too buttoned-down and pig-headed to dissuade her from taking the assignment, and she’s too scarred by her past to walk away. Their tragic miscommunication plays out in a high-stakes love triangle, when Alicia goes above and beyond the call of duty to infiltrate Sebastien’s nefarious organization.

Notorious is an elegantly structured, low-key espionage caper that banks – smartly – on instant chemistry between the luminous Bergman and Grant. Indeed, the instant romance feels a little forced: Alicia is an emotional wreck, and Devlin is a perfect shit, and the icky gender politics of their early encounters don’t exactly grease the wheels of their attraction. In the end, though, sheer, charismatic star power sells it, and everything falls into place thereafter. Hardly a high-octane thriller, it positively boils with subtle tension and suspense, and while it lacks flashy setpieces it makes up for it with plenty of Hitchcock’s trademark visual story-telling. Beyond that, it lets Ben Hecht’s loaded dialogue do the heavy lifting. The fraught emotional baggage within the love triangle – which renders the dastardly Sebastien at least as sympathetic as his enemies – contrasts chillingly with the smiling, backpatting coldness of the intelligence officials overseeing the operation. Bergman is at her vulnerable best, here. Dated in places, but definitely a classic.

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Film: How I Live Now

“When you’re a teenager, falling in love feels like the end of the world…” Or so I imagine the pitch session for How I Live Now, a British indie that blends post-apocalyptic SF with fairly conventional YA romance. Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) is a bratty American kid, obsessed with the surface trivia of teenaged life, when she’s sent – against her will – to spend a summer with extended family in England. She’s determined not to enjoy her stay, but gradually she begins to find her new life charming – thanks to her fun-loving cousins Piper (Harley Bird), Isaac (Tom Holland), and especially Eddie (George MacKay), with whom she begins an intoxicating, forbidden romance. Her newfound happiness is short-lived, however, when terrorists detonate a nuclear device in London, triggering World War III. Left to their own devices, the kids hole up to survive the ensuing chaos, but when martial law is declared, the war soon encroaches on their peaceful corner of the universe – and separates the young lovers.

It’s a confidently made, perfectly watchable film thanks to high production values and Ronan’s impressive presence; she does have uncommon gravitas for an actor so young. Alas, Ronan’s charisma must make up for the character’s innate unlikeability – not a fatal flaw, since a coming-of-age transformation is part of her journey, but definitely a barrier. More problematic are the genre elements of the story, specifically the romance and the SF. The Daisy-Eddie relationship, so crucial to the plot, is rather rushed and ultimately sparkless. Similarly unconvincing is the apocalyptic war scenario, a vague and hand-wavy conflict that doesn’t ring authentic. Without being able to buy into either the romance or the SFnal world-building, all that’s left to carry the film are its pretty surfaces and, more importantly, its survival story aspects. Those go some distance to making the viewing moderately worthwhile…but not nearly far enough to warrant a more enthusiastic recommendation.

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Film: Seven Days in May

John Frankenheimer’s conspiracy thriller Seven Days in May (1964) is considered the middle chapter in his “paranoia trilogy,” a thematically linked sequence that begins with The Manchurian Candidate and ends with Seconds. The former is more famous, the latter perhaps more accomplished, but Seven Days in May is also a worthy, politically charged affair. The specific subject here is nuclear proliferation, and the apocalyptic dread it engendered at the height of the Cold War. While aspects of its political dialogue about the military-industrial complex are dated, the gist is still quite relevant.

It’s a male-dominated ensemble film with multiple viewpoint characters, but the pivotal one is Colonel Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas), a principled Marines Corps colonel who works at the Pentagon. Casey is a hawk who opposes a recent nuclear disarmament treaty advocated by left wing president Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) – but he’s also a firm believer in the Constitution and the democratic process that made that treaty a political reality. The intrigue escalates when he pieces together that his superior, General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster), isn’t nearly as respectful of American institutions. Scott is a charistmatic right-wing firebrand who believes the Russians won’t hold up their end of the bargain…and much to Casey’s shock and concern, Scott seems willing to go to treasonous extremes to make sure the disarmament treaty doesn’t take effect, even if it means a forcible military coup.

Penned by none other than Rod Serling, who flavors the proceedings with his distinctive voice and memorable turns of phrase, Seven Days in May is probably the least visually arresting of the films in this thematic trilogy. Serling’s deliberate writing favors dialogue to visual story-telling, and Frankenheimer follows the script’s lead. It’s still a compelling film, cleverly and patiently structured, building the drama and intrigue in a manner that doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence. If the message is a bit politically strident, it’s also – much like Seconds – chillingly prescient. The cast is terrific across the board, bolstered by the likes of Martin Balsam, Ava Gardner, and Edmond O’Brien in key supporting roles. It might be too deliberate and talky by contemporary standards, but I found it a rewarding, historically interesting watch.

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Film: Carve Her Name with Pride

Netflix spent months convincing me I should watch Carve Her Name with Pride (1958), so I finally obliged…and indeed, it is my kind of movie. Hardly among the top rank of World War II spy thrillers, it’s nonetheless an effective and occasionally moving one, rendered noteworthy as an unusual early action vehicle for a female star.

At the height of World War II, Violette Szabo (Virginia McKenna) falls in love with a dashing soldier of the French foreign legion, only to lose him to the war shortly after their marriage. A child of a British father and a French mother, Violette – fluent in French, athletic, fearless, and uncommonly motivated – is given a unique opportunity to aid the war effort. Despite having a young child by her short-lived marriage, she agrees to become a spy, jumping behind enemy lines to aid the French resistance.

Based on true events, this film is almost identical structurally to another one I watched recently, Decision Before Dawn, showing the origin, the training, and finally the missions of an unlikely spy. Carve Her Name with Pride isn’t nearly as accomplished, however, at least partially because it’s a much more modest production. While it is a vehicle for a female action hero, the feminist subtext is dated: Violette isn’t characterized much beyond her gender, and her story skews toward the home front, family, and marriage. But McKenna is an accessible lead, and the action scenes late in the film, when the going gets tough, are bracing – with Violette right in the thick of it. Carve Her Name with Pride is an uneven and occasionally slow wartime drama, but for me it was a diverting weekend matinee, quietly rewarding.

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Film: Blue Ruin

Revenge movies generally aren’t my cup of tea, perhaps because they’re inherently thin thematically; how many ways can you say “revenge is bad?” For some reason my recent viewings are putting this aversion to the test, though, for just as Munich proved that context can make a revenge plot worth watching, Blue Ruin (2013) proves that exceptional execution can do the same.

Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) is clearly a man with a dark past, which has left him broken, eating out of dumpsters and living out of a defunct car. When he learns that a mysterious figure from his past has been released from prison, it activates Dwight like a sleeper agent: he heads back to his hometown in Virginia to track the man down. His plan: simple revenge, an act he’s been waiting years to carry out. But Dwight, for all his resourcefulness, is a neophyte to violence, and even as his plan succeeds, there are angles he can’t see in time to keep the situation from spiraling out of control.

Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, Blue Ruin is a riveting suspense film, full of classic, visual story-telling that lets the action do the talking. The message is simple enough, but the narrative escalates crisply and logically from one effective setpiece to the next. A no-name cast does a convincing job, and in fact the players’ unrecognizability lends an air of authenticity to the proceedings. It’s all led by Blair, who does an exceptional job bringing his unlikely antihero to life: an unremarkable man raising his game to face the extraordinary, catastrophic circumstances he’s brought upon himself. He’s easy to get invested in, even as the story condemns his every fateful decision.

Is there a point beyond the obvious moral: that an eye for an eye never solves anything? Perhaps not. But Blue Ruin is smart, well oiled, and assured, with just enough surprises and subtly built character to ensure the journey transcends its expected destination.

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Film: Nymphomaniac (Parts I & II)

So now I’ve seen the notorious Nymphomaniac (2013). Perhaps my past experience with von Trier’s provacative shock tactics has inured me, but I didn’t find it as outrageous as I was expecting, despite its frank discussions and graphic depictions of sex and violence – which, since this is von Trier, are intertwined. But really, most of the film involves two articulate actors having a long philosophical conversation, and it’s emblematic of von Trier’s genius that the viewer is gradually, painstakingly seduced into listening. I felt as if I was peeking behind the curtain at a very private story, and the effect is characteristically thought-provoking.

Long suffering von Trier muse Charlotte Gainsbourg stars as Joe, the title character: a woman found beaten and bloody in an alley by a kindly old gentleman named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). Seligman takes Joe into his home, and when he finds her morose and self-critical, she decides to tell him her life story: a lengthy, tragic account of her lifelong, destructive addiction to sex. Joe’s tale is both a cathartic exercise, and an impromptu therapy session, as the two character’s viewpoints provide differing angles of interpretation on Joe’s singular experience.

As usual with von Trier, I came away both dazzled and bemused, with a conflicted impression. His visual style is unrelentingly grim, but also darkly beautiful at times; his subject matter is unforgiving and explicit. He pushes buttons to provoke reactions, in this case challenging preconceived notions about sexuality and gender – and, through shock and awe, forcing the viewer to confront questions they might not otherwise have asked. It’s hard not to imagine Skarsgaard’s character as the von Trier stand-in: the manipulative auteur, happy to speculatively mansplain his heroine’s reactions to her own life story. This is discomfiting, but also kind of the point. And at the same time, Seligman struggles to be the objective sounding board, morbidly fascinated by the salacious and sordid details. Seligman, like von Trier, enjoys talking about the things society might not find polite.

For me, the message managed to be both a muddle and ballpeen hammer to the forehead – my primary gut reaction was repulsion, and yet I still watched with rapt attention, mesmerized by the craft and contemplating the artistic intent. The acting, especially from the ever fearless Gainsbourg and game-for-anything Skarsgard, is first rate. There are some particularly good supporting turns as well, most notably from Uma Thurman, whose emotional performance is raw and cringe-inducing. Unfortunately, Shia LaBeouf is along as a major love interest for Joe; his character, Jerome, serves as Joe’s Achilles’ heel. Perhaps it’s LaBeouf’s performance, or maybe it’s his weird celebrity reputation proceeding him, but Jerome hardly seems worth the fuss.

Unsurprisingly, one must leave one’s inhibitions and squeamishness at the door for Nymphomaniac, and it takes some work to appreciate it. As von Trier movies go it’s no  Melancholia, but it is an interesting film in the disturbing manner of Antichrist or The Idiots: an awkward watch through slitted eyes, from which you can’t quite turn away.

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Film: Europa Report

It was only a matter of time: the “found footage” craze meets the SF space mission in Europa Report (2013), an uneven affair that can’t quite reconcile its inherent sense of wonder with its obligatory terror-in-space plot. It’s about a six-person team of astronaut-scientists who journey to Jupiter’s icy moon of Europa, to try and confirm whether the watery planet harbors any life. Half archival footage, half documentary, the film recounts in alinear, mystery-building fashion the terrifying experiences of the crew, and their ultimate scientific discoveries.

The film possesses effective science fictional moments, and the international (if mostly white) cast – Christian Camargo, Sharlto Copley, Anamaria Marinca, Michael Nyqvist, Karolina Wydra, and Daniel Wu – does a fine job enacting its dramas in the claustrophobic, bottle-showy interiors. When it ventures outside the ship, there are eye-widening visuals and effects, and some classic “Cold Equations” SFnal dilemmas. In general, it’s a respectable effort.

Unfortunately, it’s also beset by an ungainly pace – for a ninety-minute film, it sure feels long – and the scientific mysteries ultimately revealed are not terribly surprising. It could just be that I’m inured to the familiar tropes of the “horror-in-space” subgenre, but I think the real problem is that this movie seems more interested in its form than its substance…like maybe the filmmakers are so focused on the techniques they’re using that they lose sight of the narrative, bringing things to a flat, underwhelming stop. It’s certainly not without merit, but ultimately disappointing.

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