I LOVED reading your review of This is 40, Glenn. Especially as right before choosing This is 40 on OnDemand, I'd been watching Schindler's List on Sundance (and have to admit I had to turn it off to look for lighter fare) ! LOL in light of what you wrote.
It's been a great year for documentaries, and the Academy has nominated a very impressive roster of films this time out. From the war on terror (DIRTY WARS), the Arab Spring in Cairo (THE SQUARE), a surreal look at Indonesia's gangsters who killed millions of Communists (THE ACT OF KILLING), to a warm-hearted look at the struggles of background singers (20 FEET FROM STARDOM), these are four formidable entries. The fifth nominee, CUTIE AND THE BOXER, doesn't come with an easy logline, or with the commercial heft of the Weinsteins, but it has easily earned its place among the other nominees.
Directed, shot and co-produced by Zachary Heinzerling...and full disclosure, co-produced by a friend of mine for 25 years, Lydia Dean Pilcher, CUTIE AND THE BOXER is a strange hybrid of a documentary, playing more like a stunningly shot feature film but with the layers and hard truths of the best real-life portraits. Despite my existing relationship with the producer, I have no trouble in being honest and objective here.
It's ostensibly the story of 80-year-old struggling artist, Ushio Shinohara, who paints like a man 1/4 his age. Best known for his "Boxer" works, in which he dons boxing gloves, dips them in paint and punches the hell out of a giant canvas, Ushio is a larger-than-life personality whose drive for success is singular and focused. There's a LOT of ego packed into such a tiny frame.
His marriage to Noriko Sinohara, a woman 20 years his junior, however, overwhelms any singular examination of Ushio and his work. Relegated to second banana most of her life, but a wonderful artist in her own right, Noriko discovers her voice over the course of the film. Her "CUTIE" works depict her alter-ego, a nude, pig-tailed young girl who finds her way through a crazy world. It's a classic A STAR IS BORN story, with Ushio's star fading while Noriko's is on the rise. Unwilling or unable to cede the spotlight to a woman he's treated more like a secretary, Ushio does everything in his powers to hold onto his place in the art world.
It's a well-matched fight, complete with an always- compelling amount of bickering, quiet moments of, not so much love, as respect and tolerance. In a world of singular-minded self-involvement, the film gently asks you to contemplate a place for love in it. Heinzerling asks a lot of his audience. Always "on", Ushio is a tough read. Instead of showing his true self, he performs through much of the film. Late in the game, however, Heinzerling stuns us with archival footage which completely changes our view of this passionate yet tortured soul.
This is a hybrid film with its lovely animated sequences and beautifully composed shots. The title sequence is one unbroken shot of Ushio creating one of his works, and the use of sound makes it quite a visceral experience. This is a film that is fully alive and in tune with its subjects. Ushio is the loud "Roar" while Noriko is the quiet, stealthy sleeper. The last images of two people boxing is a great capper to what comes before.
This is a complicated film, not easy to sum up with pithy descriptions. It seems simple on the surface, yet it stuck with me long after the end credits rolled. The journey of an artist is something I hold near and dear to my heart. I can relate to Ushio's determination, while at the same time marvel at Noriko's inspiring discoveries. Is there a way for two talented artists to co-exist? After all of their decades of marriage, one would think there is, but the war just beneath the surface of this smart, fascinating, compelling film makes you wonder.
In 1994, I paid good money to see Rosie O'Donnell on Broadway in the revival of GREASE. Great source material...well, ok...if I'm being honest, about half of it is kinda terrible...but what prevented me from enjoying it was the DayGlo eyesore that was its production design. It literally burned my retinas.
I bring this up, because it's possible to have a similar reaction to THE LEGO MOVIE. It has a witty, fast-paced, over-packed script but damn if it isn't hard to look at in parts. Sensory overload is putting it mildly, but so much craft has gone into it, that I couldn't help but smile.
Imagine a Pokemon cartoon on speed, with all of its attending surreal flourishes, coupled with ten times the pop culture references of a SHREK film and you'll get a sense of this film's tone. Essentially a Hero Origin story, THE LEGO MOVIE focuses on Emmet (Chris Pratt), a ordinary guy who is thought to be "The Special One" who can save mankind (or is it Lego-kind?). His quest includes finding the cleverly named "Piece of Resistance" and assembling his group of fellow warriors to take on Lord Business (Will Farrell). Messages about conformity abound, most entertainingly with its ode to bright-eyed Communism, "Everything Is Awesome". This is an earworm of a tune which feels ripped straight from a Teletubbies episode.
This is frenetic, kitchen sink entertainment. Jokes are piled on with references designed to please the adults while simultaneously allowing children to get caught up in the whiz-bang action. Seriously, when was the last time you've seen a children's film reference (hilariously) THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS?
The voice work is so light and breezy, giving us so many vivid characters. Morgan Freeman stands out as a sillier version of the Voice of God he usually plays, while Will Arnett practically steals the movie as Batman, his crazy deep voice making everything he says funny.
Unfortunately, the look of the film can get in the way. The characters are vivid enough that the backgrounds could have been simplified. Instead, they compete with the cast, giving us too much to absorb in any given frame. I'm sure it was intentional; the better to ensure repeat viewings, but at times it made my eyes water from the strain. Think the live action SPEED RACER meets TOY STORY meets the rudimentary animation of SOUTH PARK, and then add splashes of every Crayola color into each frame, and then keep adding dollops of everything else, and you'll get an idea of how much is happening here.
I suppose restraint isn't on the Studio Film menu anymore, so who am I to quibble with what sells? Regardless, THE LEGO MOVIE is a pure blast with a message about individual creativity triumphing over group-think....while still making us all salivate with anticipation of the certainly upcoming video game. Hollywood may be eating itself here, but a clever sensory assault is better than a flat pancake any day.
An award winner at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, STRANGER BY THE LAKE is the first film by acclaimed writer/director Alain Guiraudie to receive U.S. distribution, and I can see why. First, a word of caution: This is an extremely sexually explicit film with a somewhat plodding, repetitive structure, and thriller elements lacking in surface-level excitement. Friends of mine who went with me to see it hated every single minute, so take this rave with a grain of salt.
Utilizing a cold, formal aesthetic similar to that of Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Haneke, STRANGER BY THE LAKE is set entirely in and around a gay cruising spot. Although there is no identifiable time period indicated, the lack of cell phones, the vintage porn vibe, and the use of older model vehicles suggest early 90s. Our protagonist, Franck (Pierre de Ladonchamps) is a young, handsome man who spends his summer days cruising, chatting and having sex with the various men around him. Most are naked, like really naked...like ALL THE TIME. Let's just say this is a mostly gentile cast from the looks of it!
Franck initiates relationships with two key characters, Henri (Patrick D'Assumšao), an overweight middle-aged man who unhappily haunts the outskirts of the area, and Michel (Christophe Paou), a magnetic Tom Selleck lookalike (pornstache included) who becomes Franck's object of affection/obsession.
[CAUTION: MILD BUT SOMEWHAT OBTUSE SPOILERS AHEAD]
Once the repetitive, languid rhythms of the film are established, Franck witnesses a murder, which is presented in one stunning single take. It's a truly heartstopping moment which changes your perception of the rest of the film. It's Franck's reaction to this murder which highlights what Guiraudie is truly after. While the screws admittedly tighten around the aftermath of the killing, Guiraudie focuses instead on people who desire ephemeral relationships, on how we're willing to overlook deep, dangerous flaws in a person in order to find a connection. While looking at this through the prism of potentially closeted, marginalized gay members of a subculture, the themes are universal. Sure, the nudity and very explicit sex scenes may keep this from becoming a mainstream hit, and many will be put off by the slow pace and very open-ended, abrupt ending. For me, the stunning last moment forces the audience to ponder the lengths people are willing to go to in order to form a bond with someone.
What this film gets right is its clinical, almost anthropological look at the behaviors of a gay cruising spot, a relic from the past for those who have replaced beaches and woods with social apps and online sites. It presents a community who don't seem to care that a murder occurred when there's still sex to be had. Many may find this to be a regressive depiction of gay life, as my friends did, but the truth is, this world did exist, and still does in many places in the world where an openly gay life is impossible. It makes sense that an oppressed culture can't find the means to care for one another, although the character of Henri presents a glimmer of hope in that direction. His sacrifice seems to act as a wake-up call to the disastrous body count in which Franck becomes complicit.
The cinematography is quite beautiful, using available light and pushing the boundaries of it to terrifying effect when night falls. Eschewing a score, Guiraudie focuses on the sounds of water, wind, and the heavy breathing of men. There's a seemingly throwaway motif of Franck parking his car every day that turns out to be an important benchmark for the comings and goings of various characters. Every shot, every point of view, every cut has been carefully controlled. Giraudie is a director with thoughtfulness and depth who joins the ranks of the masters with this strange, quiet but mesmerizing film.
Embarrassing, yes, but I am WAY behind in catching up to one of 2013's best films, BEFORE MIDNIGHT. Released last May, I was lucky enough to see it last week with co-star/co-writer (and now Academy Award nominee) Julie Delpy in attendance. For those unaware, BEFORE MIDNIGHT is the 3rd film in a series about a couple (played by Delpy and Ethan Hawke) which began with BEFORE SUNRISE (1995) and continued with BEFORE SUNSET (2004). Celine and Jesse meet on a train in Austria and spend a glorious evening walking and talking around Vienna. Pledging to meet up a year later but failing to do so, the 2nd film sees them reuniting under entirely different circumstances. The latest film catches up with the pair, adding many layers to their story.
Richard Linklater, who co-wrote the films with his leads, has essentially given the world his version of the Michael Apted documentary classic series which started with 7 UP. Reuniting with Celine and Jesse every 9 years feels like checking in on old friends, seeing if the blueprint of their relationship was mapped out on their very first day, or if they unexpectedly evolved. BEFORE MIDNIGHT gives us both. Believe me, these films are an acquired taste, but fans of intelligent dialogue, layered characters, and bold cinematic choices will find much to celebrate here.
I won't spoil any plot points in this review, but as an ardent fan of this now-trilogy, I can say that the deeper this trio goes, the more fulfilling the results. Deceptively simple and very talky, filled with beautiful vistas and people, it would be easy to dismiss BEFORE MIDNIGHT as a boring travelogue. Set in Greece, Celine and Jesse find themselves at a crossroads leading to one epic argument. After a beautiful prologue at an airport, in which we are shown an unexpected person who tugs at Jesse's heart, Linklater and co. give us a remarkable 14 minute single take scene of Celine and Jesse talking in a car. The breadth of their conversation, the narrative arc within the scene, the highly engaging acting left me stunned.
Yes, we experience the beauty of Greece, much like we saw Vienna and Paris in the previous installments, and yes, things grow more and more contained as the story moves along, but despite these schematics, our three filmmakers have wisely chosen to peel back the onion to reveal real pain and hurt feelings. Delpy and Hawke are so strong, I believed every moment. Delpy manages the tricky task of bridging the gap between rage and deep affection, while Hawke's character must recognize that being the voice of reason doesn't always make him right. Looking at Hawke, it's easy to dismiss him as an aging surfer dude, but I love how intelligent they've written his author character. Delpy, for her part, eschews all vanity and really lets us see the literal and figurative naked self. These are blazing, fully alive performances.
Like its predecessors, BEFORE MIDNIGHT ends on yet another sublime moment. As the camera pulls back on a scene, I cried, knowing I may not see them again until 2021. Celine and Jesse will be missed.
Their accomplishments have been grossly overlooked, but I'm thrilled they're finally being recognized as screenwriters. Their process surprised me. I figured Delpy and Hawke would improvise in front of Linklater, who would take all the notes. Instead, Delpy told us that all three wrote everything and not just their own parts. The film, in fact, was not improvised at all, sticking to every word, "down to every comma", said Delpy.
At the screening, one audience member asked Delpy why her character had to be so angry and bitter when Hawke's character is the perfect guy. Without missing a beat, Delpy responded, "I think you've seen too many Jennifer Aniston movies." She made me a fan for life.
It's almost impossible not to enjoy AMERICAN HUSTLE, while at the same time completely realizing that it doesn't quite hit it out of the park. Loosely based on the ABSCAM Scandal of the late 70s/80s but clearly more about wanting to be the little puppy dog offspring of a GOODFELLAS, CASINO, BOOGIE NIGHTS three-way, this over-directed, operatic film is a hugely entertaining, often hilarious, sensation overload with some fantastic performances, yet it left me slightly cold.
Opening with Christian Bale, who gained considerable weight for the role, gluing on his toupee, AMERICAN HUSTLE announces that appearances mean something. His Irving Rosenfeld is a con artist who meets his match in Sydney, another person who is a master of disguise. Reinventing herself as a terribly accented English woman named Lady Edith, the two pair up to scam investors yet find themselves on the wrong end of the con when Bradley Cooper's FBI Agent, Richie DiMaso, busts and blackmails them into helping him nab some bigger fish.
We follow the action through the eyes of this trio, who alternate narrations in the first act. The setups are gorgeous, woozy pieces of cinema, especially our introduction of Adams at one of those decadent 70s parties. She turns toward Bale (and more importantly towards us) with this perfect, beautifully lit dewy-eyed gaze, her blue eyes shimmering. It's an indelible character introduction. As they fall head over heels in love, Russell chooses to place them inside the swirling dry cleaning racks of Bale's legit business front, resembling Eadweard Muybridge's galloping horse magic wheel, which inspired cinema.
Of course, their love story becomes more complicated when we discover Irving is unhappily married to the passive-aggressive Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence in a scene-stealing role) and has adopted her young son. However, the scam and the relationships move forward, including Adams seducing Cooper to ensure her safety in the ever-complicated con games circling our main characters. Eventually, everyone gets involved in catching some corrupt politicians in the act of taking bribes, including Jeremy Renner, as a New Jersey Mayor sporting the biggest pompadour this side of Brad Pitt's in JOHNNY SUEDE. Renner's Carmine Polito is a fascinating invention, since his character is probably the most sympathetic despite his being on the take. Your heart really goes out to him and his wife (expertly played by Elisabeth Rohm) as they're increasingly drawn into the scheme.
All of this should and does add up to an entertaining film, but after a while, the giddiness of the camera moves, the often umotivated dollying in on a particular character's face, the heavy usage of 70s songs on the soundtrack to underline a mood, and the abstract slo-mo shots of our cast walking down halls begins to feel too much like Scorsese-lite. While individual moments are thrilling, it eventually feels more like a pastiche than a heart-rending story. Perhaps it's because the stakes aren't as high as they are in its predecessors, but I wasn't particularly moved. You want heads to roll here, but what you get more often than not are different combos of two or three characters fighting in rooms. It's more contained than I had hoped. In one scene when Bale and Adams are crossing a New York street, I breathed a sigh of relief just because we were outside for a hot minute.
For the most part, the cast cannot be faulted. My favorite performance was that of Bradley Cooper's, whose manic, motor-mouthed, violent agent is a joy to watch as he unravels. His scenes with Louis C.K. have a wonderful comedic snap, and his imitation of C.K. at the end of one scene is Cooper at his loosest and most hilarious. He also has great chemistry with Adams, who stunningly portrays a heartless survivor, every conflicting emotion washing across her face. I'm in awe of her career and how this woman, who could have easily taken the rom-com route, has instead inhabited such a wide range of characters. Christian Bale, while completely submerged in his role, gives a rare audience-pleasing showturn, as opposed to his deep, method character work. He remains sympathetic throughout, because he values friendship, fatherhood, and loyalty, despite his crooked nature.
Unfortunately, I wasn't wholeheartedly in love with Jennifer Lawrence's performance. There's no question that she dominates every scene she's in, and her comic timing is impeccable. Try not to laugh out loud when she can't seem to keep her house from catching fire (HUNGER GAMES reference intended) or when she refers to microwaves as "science ovens". She's a shoo-in for another Oscar nomination, but I honestly felt she was too young for the part and often it felt like she was playing dress-up. I kept imagining how much Marisa Tomei would have ripped this role and our souls apart, whereas Lawrence merely goes for audaciously winning. It's a slight distinction, but in one distracting scene where she sings "Live And Let Die" while cleaning the house, I felt sorry for her having to act it instead of feeling empathy for her trapped character. In another scene, however, she's ferocious in an indelible bathroom scene with Adams. No matter how you see it, she's so talented and so vivid here, that her miscasting is a minor quibble.
By the end of the film, however, I was satisfied. There's a wonderful twist, and the destinies of our characters make perfect sense. I understand that David O. Russell wants to stretch himself cinematically, and on paper it makes sense to do it with this film, but an epic aesthetic papered over a narrative which is only mildly amped-up made the whole thing feel just a tad forced. Still, there was a time when every major filmmaker made his Vietnam movie (APOCALYPSE NOW, PLATOON, FULL METAL JACKET, etc.), and before that they made their farm movies (COUNTRY, THE RIVER, and PLACES IN THE HEART), so who am I to begrudge him his chance to crib from one of the more exciting time periods and genres around?