Tag Archives: Movies (2014)

Chopped suey: The Blue Room

Saucer-eyed and furtive, Mathieu Amalric is an excellent camera object. His okay directorial debut The Blue Room shows more debt to the shattered glass approach to chronology evinced by Alain Robbes-Grillet than the sardonic Georges Simenon novel on which it’s based, but the movie is sardonic and short too. This story about an adulterous couple accused of murdering the other’s spouse unfolds in intriguing semaphore until a boring trial sequence.

Amalric doesn’t stint on violence. Quick shots of a string of pearls and beads of sweat begin the movie. Off camera Esther (Stéphanie Cléau) asks, “Did I hurt you?” Although Julien (Amalric) says no, the question will gain resonance. A drop of blood, shown in closeup, stains the sheet. It’s not what you think: Julien did get hurt. Inflicting pain on the wife (Léa Drucker) and daughter is not on his mind. Amalric’s crosscutting underline how splashing in the green-dark Mediterranean and writhing on the bed with Esther are equally essential. Then scenes in which a deskbound judge interrogates a recently unhandcuffed Julien about a murder get interwoven, first tentatively but with increasing frequency. Esther’s ill pharmacist husband, the audience learns, is dead. The tropes of crime TV appear: forensic questions, the quiet politeness to the suspect, the murmuring lawyer.

I saw only one howler in The Blue Room: a cut from a closeup of Esther’s vagina to Julien’s daughter. An exercise in swank economy, The Blue Room is the kind of movie hard to screw up. It’s content to stay on the surface, registering as nothing more or less than an adaptation of Simenon. Had Claude Chabrol directed it, I would have gotten more than hints of malice; he would have used the malice as the means to delineate Julien and Esther’s sexual relationship. From his editing and compositional decisions I don’t know what Amalric thinks of the pair’s culpability. I do know what his composer thinks. Scoring Julien and Esther’s first woodland tryst, Grégoire Hetzel blasts them with so many lush passages that the squirrels and birds fall out of the trees. Complicity? Inevitability? Both? The Blue Room gets points for concision, and indeed, it puts a monstrosity like Gone Girl (also an adaptation of a best seller) to shame. David Thomson, also making the comparison, reviewed them the same week. He liked The Blue Room more than I did. Concision suggests lacuna. So do flourishes — any flourish.

The Blue Room is available on disc or for streaming on Netflix.

Imitation of life

Until American Sniper took up residence in conversation and box office in January, The Imitation Game was the highest grossing film nominated for Best Picture of 2014. It still took in an impressive haul: almost a hundred million dollars in the United States alone. Every Oscar season a couple of toothless films, suitable for the matinee crowd, do this well. I never got around to writing about it in January and would’ve let it slip to the bottom of the sea except I got into a conversation about it last weekend. It prompted a rewatch. The results were grim. Aware of the mechanics of its plot and not bowled away by compensatory pleasures like performance and script, I found The Imitation Game puzzling, meretricious, and often stupid. Worse, the movie is an example of good intentions creating terrible results. A movie about twitchy British code breaker Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), convicted of indecency at the height of early fifties paranoia about Soviet spies and queers, should tell us something about code and the travails of being homosexual — indeed, tell us how two essential components of Turing’s life depended on concealment; but The Imitation Game honors its title, a shadowplay in which Turing’s adolescence, World War II work, and subsequent arrest compete for a vacant space.

The three story lines create the illusion of movement, but The Imitation Game is one of the most static of recent pictures. A montage, undeserving of the term leitmotif, of Turing out for a run and staring at mathematical formula on the wall is director Morten Tyldum’s concession to movement. I’m not sure what this movie is about besides a Famous Person and its own Oscar buzz. The schoolboy plot could have been removed without a peep; other than notes and longing glances exchanged with Christopher, the consumptive youth after whom Turing will name the code breaking machine, it has the same effect on the audience’s understanding of Turing’s sexuality as a lit flashlight in a ballroom. As for the computer, Nick Davis had the best line: the filmmakers don’t have a clue about what to do with it. A movie about code breaking could demonstrate some acquaintance with the subject. But Christopher just hums, a tin MacGuffin, orbited by men with parted haircuts furiously smoking, idle until the eureka moment. When the end notes credit Turing for inventing the computer, it doesn’t mesh with what I’ve seen: a fine-boned man looking constipated in front of ENIAC (speaking of eureka lines, my favorite: “You’ve just stopped Nazism with a crossword puzzle!”).

Matthew Goode, who played the object of desire in another homosexual sad sack movie called A Single Man that also treated its “source material” with contempt, semaphores challenge and sexual insouciance as Hugh Alexander. To show Turing and Clarke lusting after him, each aware of the other, would have upended this pointless movie. Instead, the chilling fact that Turing chose hormone therapy over two years imprisonment in 1951 is tossed away in a final scene. He’s gay enough to be sobbed over and condescended to — producers love forcing audiences to feel superior to what’s onscreen, i.e. “look how times have changed!” — but not gay enough to show him sharing a cigarette with or winking at Hugh. Reviews praised Cumberbatch at the expense of the movie, but his one-dimensional acting compounds the problem; he plays screenwriter Graham Moore’s conception of Alan Turing as a T-1000 of math, no more, no less. In a movie dedicated to presenting Turing as a gaunt weirdo martyr, the decision makes sense: Turing is not a human being but a sales pitch, and to reveal more about the product might dissuade potential buyers.

The Imitation Game is available on DVD.

Disjecta membra: Goodbye to Language

It begins with a color-splattered scene from a war movie, followed by a cut to Jean Arthur (still looking miscast) in Only Angels Have Wings. Allusion, repetition, disjunction — it must be a Jean-Luc Godard film. With his fetish for the striking color abetted by 3-D technology that’s impossible to duplicate at home, Goodbye to Language is the most ravishing looking movie of 2014 and probably 2015. Even less tethered to narrative than his projects of the last quarter century, Goodbye to Language also says goodbye to anything resembling a coherent philosophy, unless the director’s fascination with entropy counts and it might. His ideas you can fit on the head of a pin, Orson Welles once said. But that’s taking him too seriously. For Godard, the glamor of ideas attracts him.

Although the film divides into “Nature” and “Metaphor” sections, Godard’s interest in superimposition means that both parts bleed into each other. There’s an infidelity, conducted in hotel rooms with the TV on and by a couple wearing cool matching fedoras because why not. At a street fair the curious hold copies of m>The Possessed, Levinas, and Ezra Pound’s treatise on usury (an exampmle of that Godard verisimilitude: book carts are the only places I’ve seen that misbegotten but fascinating book). Discussions about Hitler and the French civil code, formed at the height of the Terror in 1793, follow. “The law that denies its own violence cheats,” says the older man involved in the tryst. When the husband threaten to shoot the lover in a public space, Godard as hinted superimposes lover and husband. Sound will disappear. A mutt, a marvelous camera object, dominate the last third of this seventy-minute film.

Two viewings later Goodbye to Language looks like poppycock to me, but it’s Godard’s poppycock, and his determination to force the audience to imagine connections between the disjecta membra of his references and images is still charming and worth more viewings. If you watched Film Socialisme, Notre Musique, In Praise of Love, and his nineties films you’ve learned to get off on his hijinks. I’m aware, however, that Goodbye to Language is the sort of movie whose methods, failings, and failure to appreciate the methods amount to massive concession to the director — honor thy failure as thine hidden intention, said one of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies flashcards. Godard’s a smart guy who deserves smart exegesis. Because he likes allusions, I’ve got one too. Here’s what Geoffrey O’Brien said last fall:

Right at the beginning, Godard saw movies for what they were—a visionary apparatus for transforming and reexamining reality that had been coopted by corporations and turned into a commodified system of signs, a drug, a soma made up of glamour, narrative tension and placating resolutions. That’s what a mainstream movie functionally was: a formulaic emotional machine built toward a reassuring end. So like any good Brechtian, he began, in Breathless (1960), by adopting a rote genre plot-line and then for all orthodox intents and purposes ruining it, disrupting the diegesis and creating a self-conscious “movie-movie” world that was as charmingly realistic as it was obviously fake. Godard knew right away that the capitalistic form of movies—the shape of their narratives, always resolving and satisfying—was a lie. This transcendent lantern-light was being defined, by profit, as being an enveloping cataract of reassuring answers, like a bullshit religion. So, he decided his movies would not be answers, but questions. Experiments.

Have at it.

Goodbye to Language is available on demand.

So few come back!

I won’t write an Oscar night recap because I’m not paid to (I can post my Paypal account number though!) and I spent a good portion of last night’s 346-hour telecast on Twitter, where my ratio of zingers to duds wasn’t as low as Neil Patrick Harris’ but better than Sean Penn’s. Anyway, during Hour Four I recognized the expression in Harris’ eyes: the terror of a man realizing the Madonna song he has chosen to karaoke has defeated him but he’s got 4:10 left of it (OK, fine, I know the feeling). A nimble, feather-light charmer, Harris has twice been defeated in the last year: by Ben Affleck and David Fincher and now by the Motion Picture Academy. You’d think he’d take the hint and burrow into Broadway. “So few come back!” Eve Harrington says in disgust to Bill Sampson in All About Eve – disgusted because he’s doing what she wants to do and eventually does. Waiting until 11:15 EST to deposit Lady Gaga among the birches so that she can vaporize the orchestra with a Julie Andrews homage unfolded as the ultimate camp gesture (her dress!), worth Rob Lowe and Snow White joining her for “Proud Mary.”

As for the Birdman sweep in Director and Picture, well, nobody’s perfect except James Mason. I’ve never hated Birdman like some of my colleagues. Execrable denouement, mauling of Raymond Carver, and cluelessness about persons of the female gender aside, it does self-regard as well as All That Jazz (and Michael Keaton was as forceful as Roy Scheider). At best an OK film written and directed by people who know award bait like I do Henry James’ fiction. Mark Harris, who knows his film history, offers these points regarding What The Win Means:

There are stretches in which the Oscars seem to go into hibernation; think of the 1980s, when Chariots of Fire and Gandhi and Amadeus and Out of Africa and The Last Emperor won and it was hard to discern how much curiosity, or much of anything other than a desire to retreat from the world and the country into a kind of pictorial/historical splendor, the Academy had. In retrospect, I think those movies won not because Academy voters didn’t care about what was going on in America, but because they didn’t know what was going on with American movies. The 1980s — post–Raging Bull, pre–indie boom that began with 1989’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape — were a decade of uncertainty and trepidation about what American films were supposed to be, other than blockbusters.

Back then, the Academy coped with that anxiety — the threat of a scary and bewildering future — by looking backward. Thirty years later, it is coping with it by looking inward with The Artist, Argo, and Birdman.

. Fine. But how don’t The Silence of the Lambs, Forrest Gump, Titanic, and Shakespeare in Love signal a retreat from the world into a kind of pictorial/historical splendor? How is 2010’s winner The King’s Speech not a return to the antiseptic eighties prestige picture? Or the nomination of The Imitation Game, addled representation of the truth and all?

Ach. It means what it always means. Self-congratulation gets hipper, ceremonies get longer.

Oscar Picks, Part 3

Best Foreign Language Film

Wild Tales

Wild Tales, one of the year’s best unintentionally uproarious pictures, won’t get it. The contest is between Ida and Leviathan. Like Boyhood, Ida‘s been beloved for months and was released last summer. It plays well on DVD. It’s short. Leviathan does not; I’ll ignore its Golden Globe win.

SHOULD WIN: Leviathan

Best Achievement in Cinematography

– Emmanuel Lubezki
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Robert Yeoman
Ida – Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski
Mr. Turner – Dick Pope
Unbroken – Roger Deakins

Emmanuel Lubezki’s got this locked. Easy virtuosity, meet appropriate subject. These people think they know cinematography? Watch them ignore Mr. Turner.

WILL WIN: Emmanuel Lubezki

Best Achievement in Directing

Wes Anderson – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Alejandro Iñnaritu – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Richard Linklater – Boyhood
Bennett Miller – Foxcatcher
Morte Tydlum – The Imitation Game

Bennett Miller’s nod is funnier and gruesomer than Foxcatcher itself. I’ve heard chatter about a Birdman sweep. It won’t happen. Not in this category. It’s still Richard Linklater’s to lose, and if he does, expect henceforth to see him imprisoned in the screenplay category. While I’m not an Anderson aficionado, I’m OK with The Grand Budapest Hotel joining Fantastic Mr. Fox and Rushmore as his singular achievements. Honoring him saves me the embarrassment of sitting through his The Departed.

WILL WIN: Richard Linklater
SHOULD WIN: Wes Anderson or Richard Linklater

Disorder and early sorrow: Lilting

Lilting opens with a conversation in Mandarin between Kai and Junn. As played by Andrew Leung and Cheng Pei-pei, this mother and son show deeper reservoirs of affection than usual, in large part because she’s a widow. They’re evenly matched: when the jabs come they’re parried with equal skill. After a few minutes it’s clear that writer-director Hong Khaou has shown a flashback. Kai is dead. Junn lives in a London retirement home with hideous wallpaper. Then Richard (Ben Whishaw) visits. She has never liked Richard, blaming him for interfering with her plans: she was going to move in with Kai until he took her place. And of course Richard should have interfered — he and Kai have been lovers for four years.

In his debut film, which premiered at Sundance last January but recently released on DVD and Blu-Ray, Hong wants to show how the survivors get on when obligations force them to commiserate. At the home Jenn entertains the possibility that she might hook up with Alan, played by Peter Bowles as a pip-pip-cheerio stereotype of a Brit whose insouciance about how little he cares about his children and grandchildren is its own kind of charm. But Richard keeps appearing, this time with a friend, Vann (Naomi Christie), whom he has persuaded to do the translating. With each subsequent meeting, tensions rise, for Kai hadn’t yet come out to his mother before his death. Quiet revelations come over tea and bacon sandwiches (Whishaw demonstrates serious chopstick skills).

When Ben Whishaw is on screen, the movie acquires a patina of sorrow and, gratifyingly, steel; “lilting” defines his acting. His is one of the more accurate portrayals of grief in recent movies, with not a concession to audience expectations. He suggests a guy whose considerable emotional resources require challenges, and Junn is the most formidable. He and Christie’s teamwork help; it also flouts expectations by never conceding a romantic frisson even as she necessarily gets more absorbed in this psychodrama. But for all its modesty Lilting is maladroit. Ordinarily I encourage flashbacks in student writing to remind them that our stories don’t resolve themselves in chronological order: we interpret the present by adducing experiences and guessing the future. Crisscrossing scenes between Kai and Richard, and Richard and Junn, and contemporaneous events is a drag on such a short film. They underline ambiguities and dispel mysteries; there’s nothing left to think about when the movie ends. Cheng’s halting relationship with Bowles unfolds like a continuous distraction. The obvious point, to which none of Hong’s setups allude, is how Junn has lived in perpetual mourning for most of her life; she thrives on grief, finding fulfillment in manipulating people to pity her. Hong could use a less heavy hand with the dialogue too. As much as I relish the image of Whishaw’s placing a bare foot on a chest belonging to a man of the male gender, the script can’t handle pillow talk. Kai: “For some reason she thinks you’re a dick.” Richard: “I love this dick *smooch on mouth*.

The other oddness about Lilting: what an uninhabited movie! No one has a job. They don’t drink or walk. To go by the incessant shots of interiors and overstuffed rooms you’d think this foursome lived in an abandoned London — in fact, it’s impossible to tell whether the movie isn’t set in Taipei, Hong Kong, or Fort Lauderdale. Hong loads more back story on Junn than his movie is prepared to show. The terrors of moving to London with a half-white Chinese French husband get aired and dismissed in classic show-don’t-tell fashion. As Lilting shuffles towards unearned pathos, it nevertheless keeps its good will — a tribute to Whishaw, Cheng to a lesser extent (American audiences will recognize her from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and its brevity.

Best films of 2014 – End of Cinema


5. Child’s Pose, dir. Călin Peter Netzer

Movie moms are the easiest to render, easier than garrulous sidekicks who get killed in buddy movies. The trick is to direct and act them so that they don’t turn into gargoyles. Child’s Pose flirts with gargoyle poses but its devotion to the procedural mechanics of the new Romanian cinema wipes the snarls from their faces. With functional dialogue and improvisatory air, Child’s Pose has the same inexorable pace as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, in both of which Gheorghiu also played crucial roles. It also has less of a point to prove, which makes for more satisfying watching; critics aren’t conscripted by the material to pontificate about “life in post-Communist Romania” or something. But from the argument over the clean needle or a later scene of Cornelia counting cash at her dinner table, Netzer’s fascination with process and bureaucracy is of a piece with its forebears of the last ten years.

4. Abuse of Weakness, dir. Catherine Breillat.

That least sentimental of actresses Isabelle Huppert plays a director whose left side is paralyzed by stroke. During casting sessions she meets Vilko, released from prison after serving time for check fraud. Do his graceful movements arouse her? Or do comments like “My master is Nietzsche”? Before long she is writing him check after check; in return he serves as dinner companion, occasional crutch, and object of derision. They even share a bed, sexlessly. It’s during these moments when Huppert and Shen act like snapping turtles that Abuse of Weakness turns into one of the odder movies of 2014. Lit in refrigerator white tones, it imposes the sterility of a sick room. It’s as if Maud’s using herself as a test model for a theory about relationships.

3. Norte, The End of History, dir. Lav Diaz.

This Filipino take on Dostoyevsky is many things: a patient movie about full-of-shit young intellectuals gabbing and gabbing; a prison picture that unfolds like it understands the master-servant power dynamics therein; a social realist picture about belonging to the working poor, no hope, no recourse. It’s four hours long. I wanted eight or ten.

2. The Immigrant, dir. James Gray.

If in Little Odessa and We Own The Night James Gray demonstrated he understood how ethnic politics complicate family relationships such that affection looks like wine on Sunday, The Immigrant‘s alertness to smells and looks and the degree to which actions muddy preconceptions about people represents a new peak. The late Gordon Willis could not have asked for a more nuanced appreciation than Darius Khondji’s grainy and blue- and gold-hued compositions (a fade to darkness as the sissy boy stretches a tentative hand towards a recoiling Ewa is a blemish). There are scenes so well-staged and resonant that they could serve as drafts for a next set of films about New York in the twenties: scenes with the middle-class men at the speakeasy; the Russian woman, Rosie, who runs the Bandit’s Roost; the tough but surprisingly fair police who work at Ellis Island, even the ones on the take; the casual racism of the others. Twice while watching The Immigrant I wondered what the hell it was about, what the hell I was watching; devoting space here to synopsis is an attempt to clarify what I saw. The currents of loathing, pity, and gratitude flowing between Phoenix and Cotillard were like nothing I’d seen in ages, the kind of ineluctable pulses that mirror the batshit patterns of our own lives. Even noting the melodramatics of the Jeremy Renner subplot doesn’t account for his warmth and Cotillard’s response to it; he’s like Robert Walker in The Clock, carried aloft on his own sensuousness.

1. Stranger by the Lake, dir. Alain Guiraudie.

To remind the audience that Stranger By the Lake is a movie about movement, Alain Guiraudie makes every crunch of sneaker on gravel resounds like a cathedral bell; we haven’t heard a sound mix in a French film this loud since Robert Bresson’s L’Argent. The other obvious forebear is Jean Renoir’s great short A Day in the Country (1936), in which two women get seduced by weather so delectable that it’s more irresistible than the two peasants who seduce them. As part of Guiraudie’s attempt at an erotic democracy for gay men of every weight and color, Stranger By the Lake shoves buttholes and scrota in viewer’s faces. It’s a murder mystery, a masterful exercise in showing the ties between love and death. When it opened more than a year ago, I knew I’d love it another year.