Who was Professor Marvel, long before he met Dorothy in the sepia-toned opening of “The Wizard of Oz”? He is Oscar Diggs (James Franco) in “Oz The Great and Powerful,” directed by Sam Raimi (“Spider-Man,” “The Evil Dead”). Set in 1905, this delectable 3-D fantasy adventure starts in black-and-white. Oscar is a cad of a carnie magician who knows Dorothy’s future mother prior to her marrying Dorothy’s future father. To flee a furious circus strongman, Oscar boards a balloon and lands in a colorful widescreen Oz. (That’s the same balloon that Professor Marvel refurbished to leave Oz at the end of the 1939 film.) Three characters from Kansas are doubled in this new “Oz.” One is a girl in a wheelchair (Joey King) who implores Oscar: “Make me walk.” He cannot, blaming “a distemper in the ether tonight.” Later, in Oz he will succeed in gluing the broken leg of a plucky China doll voiced by King. Inhabitants see in Oscar’s name and descent from the sky a prophecy come true. “You are going to fix everything,” exclaim the oppressed of the kingdom. Read the rest of this entry »
“Take This Waltz” is a daringly ambivalent, emotionally rich drama about the shoals of a stagnant marriage, the crashing waves of new attraction. It’s also writer-director Sarah Polley’s love letter to a bedraggled Michelle Williams, who plays Margot, a drowsy young woman whose life hasn’t come into focus for herself. She’s been married five years to Lou (Seth Rogen), a cookbook writer forever testing chicken recipes, filling the house with scent if not savor. While on a distant writing assignment, she meets another man, Daniel (Luke Kirby), whom she thinks she won’t see again, then sees him on the plane, shares a cab, then finds out he lives directly across the street. Hiding his art, driving a pedicab, he keeps his distance: the middle distance. The tease of the improbable and the undesirable and the so undesirable plays out. As a screenwriter, Polley is as pointillist as a short-story writer and as bold as a signboard painter: big and little gestures mix in winning measure. (“Five-point-oh quakes in the Provinces,” the television news reports.) Read the rest of this entry »
In “My Week With Marilyn,” Michelle Williams astonishes in an otherwise routine film: the pixie-cut so-serious performer from “Blue Valentine,” “Shutter Island,” “Incendiary” and “Wendy And Lucy” finds her way easily, silkily, into Marilyn Monroe’s fragility but also her teasing intelligence. Set in 1956 during the shooting of “The Prince and the Showgirl,” directed by Laurence Olivier (doughy, plummy, hammy Kenneth Branagh), “My Week” posits a love affair of sorts between Monroe and the twenty-three-year-old director’s assistant Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) who later composed a pair of memoirs claiming intimacies with the then-biggest movie star in the world. Meanwhile, her “Method” dithering contrasts with Olivier’s stage-trained technique. Names are dropped and bits of behavior amuse, but it’s all set dressing for Williams’ work, almost like a heavily posed Vanity Fair feature dressed to the nines. Read the rest of this entry »
Rugged yet austere, the pioneer drama of “Meek’s Cutoff” is rich with rarefied satisfactions. Some audiences will get little from its apparent minimalism; others will find quiet, deep satisfactions. Like her earlier “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy” (also written by fiction writer Jon Raymond), Kelly Reichardt honors the impulses shown in even her earliest films like “River of Grass” (1994). Simplicity, framed, slowed, kept to a mysterious and somehow ominous tempo. A Sundance 2010 debut, “Meek’s Cutoff” is a Western both otherworldly and somehow ordinary-seeming, set on the Oregon trail in 1845. Things could go wrong, couldn’t they? Something about the landscape, food, water. The female characters’ faces are kempt, restrained by bonnets, the fashion of the time. There’s a tempo of faces, including the remarkable Michelle Williams, emerging from confinement. The film moves less like a dream or nightmare than a trance: a slowed hallucination. The instructions of a Cayuse Indian (Rod Rondeaux) are not translated; the settlers don’t know the language, so we don’t either. “Meek’s Cutoff” is an original, and brave simplicity combined with a reverential sense of mystery holds ample reward. The loving, lovely cinematography is by Christopher Blauvelt, shooting in clear-eyed style in the classic, square frame of the “Academy” ratio of 1:33. Jeff Grace’s wonderful score is better heard than described. With Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson. 104m. (Ray Pride)
“Meek’s Cutoff” opens Friday at the Music Box. A trailer is below.
“Blue Valentine” is a hotdog that thinks it’s a world-beating feast.
Derek Cianfrance’s second feature is a horror movie about American romance, steeped in blue-collar imagery and American flags, performed by two of the most gifted American actors in their thirties. It’s drenching, wrenching and false in almost every note not involving Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. Cianfrance shatters time: the goofy meet-cute of Cindy and Dean near a college campus leads six years later to the hate-brute of the death throes of their relationship in downcast rural Pennsylvania. With the two periods shot a month apart, the “past” is in a subdued Super 16mm and the “present” in a brighter, heavy-on-the-red high-definition video, but discontinuous slips between now and then create a warp and weave that suggests memory’s timelessness but also of destructive habits and deadly repetitions. Read the rest of this entry »
Top 5 Domestic Films
“The Social Network,” David Fincher
“Winter’s Bone,” Debra Granik
“Ghost Writer,” Roman Polanski
“Exit Through the Gift Shop,” Banksy
“Inception,” Christopher Nolan
— Ray Pride
Top 5 Foreign Films
“Carlos,” Olivier Assayas
“Everyone Else,” Maren Ade
“Dogtooth,” Yorgos Lanthimos
“Father of My Children,” Mia Hansen-Løve
“I Am Love,” Luca Guadagnino
— Ray Pride
Top 5 Films
“Animal Kingdom,” David Michôd
“Enter the Void,” Gaspar Noé
“Inception,” Christopher Nolan
“Lourdes,” Jessica Hausner
“Monsters,” Gareth Edwards
Top 5 Documentary Films
“Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno,” Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea
“Sweetgrass,” (no director credited) [Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor]
“The Oath,” Laura Poitras
“Videocracy,” Erik Gandini
“Rembrandt’s J’Accuse,” Peter Greenaway
—Bill Stamets Read the rest of this entry »
Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” a consummate genre exercise, is not—and this is for the best—another “Cape Fear.” Instead, it’s a thrill of form and function, a fully crafted exercise in visual style and classical genre legerdemain.
In some of Scorsese’s pictures of the past couple of decades, “Casino” being the example that comes quickest to mind, the effect of so much antic erudition turns claustrophobic, even out in the desert, an overlay of shimmering design and compacted footnoting of the film history that makes up the grey matter in Scorsese’s colorful brain. But even beyond its salute to myriad movies most of us would never have heard of, let alone seen, “Shutter Island”‘s asylum-set story is ideal for this treatment: claustrophobia, physical and mental, is made evident in every turn, fully, gloriously, inhabiting the haunted house of the mind.
An obvious and key inspiration that Scorsese cites is Robert Wiene’s 1924 “Caligari,” so it’s useful to consider “Shutter Island” as “The Cabinet of Teddy Daniels.” It’s 1954, and Teddy is a U. S. Marshal dispatched to Ashecliffe Hospital, an asylum on a rocky island offshore from Boston, to find the identity of a missing patient among the criminally insane. Teddy’s new partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), leads Teddy through an investigation that moves through the wards and across the rough island, but also its raft of ominous characters, including a trimly goateed Ben Kingsley as the hospital’s director and Max von Sydow as a German-accented doctor. The timeframe of Dennis Lehane’s novel (adapted by Laeta Kalogridis, who worked as a story editor on “Avatar” for James Cameron) means wounds from World War II are still raw, including Teddy’s memories of being one of the soldiers who liberated the Nazi’s Dachau concentration camp. It’s the era of the House Un-American Activities Committee, as well, and their witchhunts are invoked, and there’s more mental pain as well, with the migraine-prone Teddy also stricken with bad dreams about the death of his wife (Michelle Williams). (The resonance with the modern day is in how much of Teddy’s stress rests in what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder.)
“How do you believe a crazy person?” is a key line in the dialogue, suggesting as well, how do you believe a constructed narrative, or a seemingly unstable and thus unreliable narrator, or how does a marshal get viable testimony from a world that is only comprised of the mad and their controllers. Scorsese’s always been stronger on mood and character than plot-driven storytelling, but one of the great pleasures moment-by-moment in “Shutter Island” is how the mechanics of the story work: even when you think you’ve figured out one aspect of how subjective or objective a certain scene is, there’s another little bit that’s superbly crafted that fits right into the evolving mystery.
On the ferry to the island, the visual style is already off-kilter and disorienting, with a nauseated Teddy surrounded by chains and clamps and damp-mottled walls that provide nightmarish atmosphere, already the trappings of the charnel house. The first flashes we see of memories of his wife are typical, the first of two shots showing her barelegged in a summer dress, surrounded by sunlight, an apparition, golden, chiding, reaching to kiss Teddy, arch of foot and red-enameled toes, a gentle angelic smile; the second shot cuts abruptly, a half-second or more sooner than we expect: even memory is unreliable.
Cinematographer Robert Richardson’s palette is classical, heightened, burnished, with especial attention paid to eyes, capturing the flickers of thought expressed by DiCaprio, Ruffalo, Kingsley and the rest. It’s something missing from a lot of latter-day movies, especially those originating on high-definition video: concentration paid to the sculpting of light to express space, and to allow an audience to see the performers’ eyes. (These are not stained windows to the soul.) The other actors, not listed in the opening credits, walk a tightrope in what they reveal as well, but John Carroll Lynch, as one of the wardens of the asylum who’s on hand to lead Teddy and Chuck around the island, remains perhaps the most distinctive of little-recognized American character actors, who can indicate an entire character with a nod of chin, the slightest of basso intonation.
Operatic in many senses of the word, the score is assembled from existing music by Robbie Robertson, and leans very little on pop, instead drawing on needle-drops of exquisite gloom and bedlam from modern composers like Brian Eno, John Cage, Nam June Paik, Morton Feldman and especially a haunting end-title mix of Dinah Washington’s vocal for “This Bitter Earth” mixed with Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight,” from the movie “Pi” (another horror-of-the-mind movie). John Adams’ orchestral “Christian Zeal and Activity,” from the 1970s, dovetails nicely, too.
Terrible things happen within dream sequences that are boldly colored and inventively eruptive as the universe of Paul Schrader’s “Mishima,” and Scorsese’s evocation of movies from the era and from the noir-and-snakepit genres, as well as the superb Robert Mitchum mystery “Out of the Past” to the atmospheric work of producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur, never detracts or becomes top-heavy: going for baroque, Scorsese winds up with a rococo entertainment of glistening delirium. The claustrophobia is form and function: in the end, “Shutter Island” is about the life sentence everyone’s issued, until memory goes: sentenced to life in the mind.
“Shutter Island” opens Friday.
(Mammut) Lukas Moodysson worries for the world but not the chance of his own embarrassment: while “Mammoth” is at its weakest points of inspiration only so much Babel, the Swedish writer-director does strain with intermittent success toward the lyrical. Leo (Gael García Bernal) is a childish videogame designer about to seal a deal in Asia, leaving wife Ellen (Michelle Williams) in their New York City loft (crafted and shot in Sweden rather than above Soho streets) with their 8-year-old daughter and Gloria (Marife Necesito), their Filipino nanny. Moodysson intercuts New York life with Leo’s lollygagging in Bangkok and Gloria’s small boys back home, who long for their mother. Child endangerment, prostitution and the threat of child rape ensue. Actions have consequences. Screenplays have structure. Undercooked moralism thuds. Moodysson’s concern for the life of the child shines in movies like “Show Me Love” and even the grim “Lilja 4-Ever.” His themes are more forced here, and the surroundings of the characters, the production design of the rich couple’s pampered environs versus shanty life everywhere else speak more profoundly of a world of unequal opportuity. Bourgeois, beware! Moodysson’s English-language dialogue is overwrought, but Williams, especially, inhabits it. A doctor of children oblivious to the children of the world until they bleed out in her E/R! Still, that heavy-handedness lands with a soft thump alongside her capable features. The music score draws on songs by Ladytron and an oddly placed Cat Power tune. And, in a year of chilling, apt endings, the last line of “Mammoth” is in a class of its own: it’s perfectly demonstrated that someone has learned nothing. Then Chan Marshall plays. 125m. (Ray Pride)
“Mammoth” opens Friday at Facets.
In Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy,” Michelle Williams continues to astonish with her quiet range in a too-timely story of contemporary working-class despair. What is acting? When I read the best reviewers of theater, I feel less than suited for the task of describing performance, but watching Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy,” with the very alive Williams at its dead center, I understand, you understand: a centeredness, a beingness, a simple, elegant, understated, yet stated presence. There is a magnificent poem by William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming,” with the lines, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…” Mere anarchy. That’s this moment, suspended in history. That is also this film: bad things are visited upon a good person. Mere anarchy. “Wendy and Lucy” is about a girl and her dog. She’s traveling the Pacific Northwest toward a hoped-for job. She loses her dog. She is disadvantaged and lightly abused in all the common ways. She wants work; she wants dignity. She wants the return of Lucy. The world hardly notices. She whistles an almost tuneless tune to keep her breath in the air, her life in the world (written for Williams, in an inspired stroke by Reichardt, by Will Oldham). So much better than her fine “Old Joy,” “Wendy and Lucy” defines Reichardt as a poet of the overlooked American working class. 80m. (Ray Pride)
“Wendy and Lucy” opens Friday at the Music Box.
“A part that suggests the whole,” there’s the definition.
“Synecdoche, New York” is also a dauntingly ambitious movie from a first-time director, even an Oscar-winner as idiosyncratic as Charlie Kaufman. And especially considering its mood and brood: “Synecdoche” is loss; “Synecdoche” is bruise; “Synecdoche” is forgetting; “Synecdoche” is not forgetting; “Synecdoche” is schematic yet oneiric; “Synecdoche” is an epic dream of never attaining your dreams. Of wanting wishing striving until you die.
Funny in parts, too. But the most important aspect is the aftertaste: what is bitter and brackish and dour in the watching lingers afterward. There’s a medical term for the dull, almost pleasurable ache after a solid bruising (or, for men, a kick in the balls): “exquisite tenderness.” That’s what ebbs days after witnessing this grandiloquent edifice, a tower of babbling characters who are trying to create a work of art over the course of a lifetime that just happens to resemble Kaufman’s very enterprise.
Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a shambling playwright of inchoate ambition. He’s mounted a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” with college-age actors, and his wife, Adele Lack (Catherine Keener), paints portraits in miniature: tiny as a postage stamp, best viewed with a magnifying glass. Writ large, writ small, doppelgangers for almost all the characters brood and multiply after Cotard gets a genius grant and proceeds to create a vision of his life in a vast warehouse, and begins never-ending rehearsals.
After “Synecdoche”‘s Chicago International screening, I moderated an hour-long Q&A with Kaufman, and it was one of the more rapt audiences in my experience. Everyone had questions. Some were about the actors—Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Weist, Hope Davis, Tom Noonan—and the roles they play, often taking up the roles of other characters in the aborning masterwork. A few questions were about how Caden suffers physical maladies from the opening scenes that then reach across the remainder of his life. Kaufman has other concerns as well, such as an inspired image to strike terror in any writer, where Caden has post-its reaching not only to a vast indoor horizon but likely the foreseeable future of his life that remains. With 200 or so scenes, twice the number of most contemporary movies, any note of distemper or echo of personal fears is quickly matched by another dart-jab, duck-weave of narrative feint.
But I bring up the subject of the characters’ increasing awareness of mortality, and we compare ages. At a certain point in life, phlegm takes on new meaning, I joke. “Various color phlegm,” Kaufman says. “How do you rate your phlegm? Which is the same as checking the color of your stools.” (Which Caden does.) “This isn’t new for me, it’s progressive, in a kind of way. And there are more aspects to it now. Maybe it’s even easier as I get older. I have lived with that kind of nervousness about my health for a very long time.”
“It made you uncomfortable. Because of your age. Or your health concerns,” Kaufman continues. I ask, would a 25-year-old respond differently? “I don’t know. I don’t know. That might be an issue. I’ve shown it to a lot of colleges, and there seems to be at least an appreciation of it being different, which comes a lot from college kids more than, y’know… I had an old guy in the audience wherever I was before here, D.C., and he came up to me, he asked me during the Q&A how autobiographical it was. I don’t answer that. He came up to me afterwards, and he said, the reason I asked that was because of the doctor stuff. He really related to the way doctors treat him. The way it was represented in the movie. That certainly is my experience with doctors.
If you express something that other people feel in their own lives, then that’s a good thing. Even if it’s a sad revelation. You know what I mean? I’ll tell you what it is. I have a lot of different doctors that I go to for a lot of different things. Occasionally, I’ll come across a doctor, very rarely who will talk about his or her own health problems. Not at length, but they’ll mention something. It’s such a relief. For some reason, I have in my head that doctors… that I’m this pathetic organism and they’re not. Then you find out they’ve got this, or they’ve got that. Then I’m not ashamed to be me. I think a lot of it is the shame of having… having a body. Having a less-than-perfect physical existence. I think that’s perpetuated by doctors, who want to present themselves as kind of a godlike entity. I guess maybe some people want that from their doctor. But I don’t want that. I want to know that there’s a common ground and I don’t have to be embarrassed being a person. I think, in a way, revealing myself in my work, then maybe I’m giving somebody the opportunity to feel that connection.”
However dogged and confounded Caden may be, it also seems he doesn’t have the energy for suicidal ideation. “Well, he’s a romantic. In a way. Maybe. Could be. I’m not going to say,” Kaufman says in his measured stop-start. He’s trying to create art to the exclusion of an unsatisfactory life. “Yeah. Yeah. But it is his life, though. I mean, the life he creates is his art. My writing, for example, my work, is my life. I mean, it’s not. It’s not all of my life, but it is a large part of it. I don’t think I’m not living when I’m working. It’s what I do.”
“Synecdoche, New York” opens Friday. Sin-EK-duh-kee. Sin-EK-duh-kee.