Tag Archives: Movies (2019)

‘The Wild Pear Tree’: the texture of a novel, the freedom of good film

Films about writing tend toward the cloddish. Besides the challenge of presenting visually an internal process working itself out externally, the prose shared by the writer often isn’t worth the bother. The Wild Pear Tree avoids these missteps. By concentrating on the long simmering tensions between Sinan and his family, The Wild Pear Tree points to other material the would-be novelist can masticate and digest. Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s (Climates, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Winter Sleep) project has the texture of an Edward Yang or Arnaud Desplechin, two directors whose film had the delicious sprawl of novels and weren’t afraid of courting melodrama.

A recent college grad with few prospects except to pass a teaching exam, Sinan (Aydın Doğu Demirkol) returns to Çan as, in the words of critic Tomris Laffly, a literary Llewyn Davis who is unlikely to become Bob Dylan. Rumors about his father’s gambling hound him even before they’ve reunited — he owes this man three gold coins, that man suggests İdris trade a beloved hunting dog. When Idris (Murat Cemcir) finally appears, he’s a mild-mannered man with a faintly ironic sense of humor, a practical joker with whom Sinan has a joshing relationship. Idris seems immune to the damage in his wake; his wife Asuman (Bennu Yıldırımlar) at forty has taken up babysitting at forty. Their hopes rest on Sinan’s passing a nationwide teacher’s exam.

At the center of The Wild Pear Tree are a series of conversations between Sinan and Süleyman (Serkan Keskin), a literary novelist of reputation who hangs out a local bookstore. Surrounded by posters of Virginia Woolf and other personages, Süleyman exudes an oracular air as he endures Sinan’s lame defenses of his novel. “Mine is one of those books that can’t be described in two sentences,” he says without a shred of self-consciousness. Or shame: at one point he chides Süleyman for selling out, or something, while using phrases like “life culture” as if they meant anything. This commingling of envy, contempt, and mild affection animates their exchanges. A coterminous sorting out happens between Sinan and Idris too; rare is the film curious enough about the fraught ways in which fathers and sons assert themselves while being generous enough to let the other live his life.

Justly renowned for discursive explorations of modern Turkish life, Ceylan is incapable of filming static conversations. For all their chatter, movies like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia don’t sever characters from landscapes. That 2011 film, one of the century’s most patient and surprising police procedurals, was clear on how the flatness of the topography outside Keskin influences the conversations between doctor, prosecutor, and police officers about yogurt and philosophy. In The Wild Pear Tree, a similar fusion occurs in a leisurely sequence in which Gökhan Tiryaki’s tracking shots follow Sinan and his dead ender friends arguing about faith on dirt roads and crumbling wooden fences as mangy dogs scamper. In every Ceylan film a moment occurs irrelevant to the narrative that stops it cold with its mysterious beauty. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia has a scene in which the officers, having heard a mayor disparage his youngest daughter, watch in silent awe — a rebuke to her father — as she sets up lamps after a blackout; The Wild Pear Tree includes a shot of a baby covered in ants and another minutes later of the purported death of a certain character by hanging.

What do these scenes portend? Why should they “portend” a thing? Enthralled by an absorptive vision that assumes ephemera and events of consequence resonate on the same value scale, Ceylan continues to write and direct some of this decade’s best films. I can think of few directors with whose work I wouldn’t want to be stuck during this homebound chapter of our lives.

GRADE: A-

‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’: life depends on art

In the films she’s directed (Girlhood, Tomboy) and written with others (André Téchiné’s marvelous Being 17), Céline Sciamma has shown a fascination with the spaces that queer people can populate without the help of the larger world, thank you. As rigorous in its eroticism as its mise-en-scène, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is her most austere, most satisfying film. As Pauline Kael wrote about The Heiress, another period drama, it will have you drawing breaths.

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On the dour, inchoate ‘Joker’

“All I have are negative thoughts, and you won’t listen!” Arthur Fleck cries in the second film in less than twelve years about Batman’s most indelible foe. An origin story subject to the whims of Hollywood notions of pathology, Todd Phillips’ Joker often unfolds like a series of imaginative renderings of self-help books piled up in the acres of Barnes & Noble’s remaindered section. Now that the film is ensconced as a billion-dollar global smash, with Joaquin Phoenix a safe bet to take home Best Actor, I wanted another look at Joker. My distracted viewing last fall didn’t keep me from responding with at best bored revulsion.

Because its cultural moment has receded, I saw no point in an exegesis unless a generous donor paid me or Film Comment comes calling. Continue reading

Soto’s piping hot 2019 Oscar predictions!

Rare indeed is the Oscar ceremony in which two nominees for Best Picture look likely to survive in the files of the collective memory. Joker continues to impress men and women of all ages who, understandably, confuse histrionics, spectacle, and doleful cello noise with Serious Art, while the more people watch Parasite the louder its claque.

So which film will Academy members coronate on Sunday night? Why, a reproduction of trench warfare politics by the director of Skyfall and American Beauty.

See below for more predictions.

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‘Judy’ prefers the star’s victimhood to her artistry

In 2001, Judy Davis put two decades of skill at playing observant women whose nerves rub against their considerable intelligence into her portrait of the title character in Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. This TV film has no magic except for the steady vibration of Davis at its core; critics have noted how Uncut Gems unsettles them, but the observation makes more sense watching Life with… The problem with Judy (2019) is how it lacks moviemaking fervor without offering a compensatory pleasure watching good actors. No dictum prevents screenwriters from returning to worn material, but in the case of Judy, director Rupert Goold approached Tom Edge’s script and asked, “How can I make yet another movie about Garland as below average as possible?” Continue reading

The worst films of 2019

As usual I avoid the obvious flops. Skewering prestige pictures strikes me as a more efficacious use of time.

5. Non-Fiction (Olivier Assayas)

Every good director tries farce. Most fail.

4. All is True (Kenneth Branagh)

Kenneth Branagh as Shakespeare. “I thought ‘do no harm’ applied to films about great artists,” I wrote last May. “Desecrate the legacy if you must. Desecration takes courage. But for god’s sake don’t banalize the legacy.”

3. The Two Popes (Fernando Meirelles)

In which we learn there’s nothing a phony liberal pope (Jonathan Pryce) and a radically conservative predecessor (Anthony Hopkins) can’t hash out over ABBA and futbol

2. Bombshell (Jay Roach)

“As Bombshell slouches toward its triumphant conclusion the weariness it induces courses through the bloodstream like lead poisoning,” I wrote in December. “These are loathsome people, and their loathsomeness is uninteresting: they’re well-coiffed slobbos whom you’re likely to hear echoed at Christmas dinner. I didn’t revel in their comeuppance, nor did I appreciate Roach’s attempts to jazz up his torpid material with inquisitional closeups and characters addressing the camera; it amounts to confetti tossed around the room. Kelly wasn’t a martyr: the network by whose rules she played eliminated her when she wouldn’t.”

1. Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi)

Hitler Youth member Johann “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) has an imaginary pal: Der Fuhrer himself, a buffoonish Adolf played by writer-director Taika Waititi. In the process of watching his country lose another world war He Learns About Himself. Obvious, patronizing, and ineptly staged, Jojo Rabbit isn’t offensive because it uses Nazis for comedy: it’s offensive because its jokes, performances, and situations use Nazism for sentimental purposes that an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences member would keep several boxes of Kleenex for.

The safeness of ‘Harriet’ and its biopic cliches

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Late into this film about the Underground Railroad’s most famous “worker,” the title hero turns to a group of frightened slaves she’s “stolen” and taken North and announces, “I’m Harriet Tubman, leader of this group. You do what I say!” Aglow in a sympathetic close-up, Cynthia Erivo projects determination. Yet this scene should feel more triumphant; instead, like most of Kasi Lemmons’ well-intentioned film, it plays like a Academy Award flashcard. Crippled by the inexorable momentum of the standard biopic’s rhythms, Harriet never startles: a movie about Tubman without a sense of danger.

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Good luck, America: Oscar nominations 2020

Even I gasped in my otherwise empty apartment when five white actresses, including Scarlet Johanssen and her mystifying accent in Jojo Rabbit, beat Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers, Park So-dam in Parasite, or Zhao Shuzhen in The Farewell to slots. In the category of Supporting Actor, as predicted, the Academy surrendered to the Slumming Stars. Worse, though, was shutting Greta Gerwig (Little Women) and Pedro Almodovar (Pain and Glory) from Best Director in favor of Sam Mendes (1917) and apparently somebody directed Joker. Because even I’m unable to resist dollar book Freud, I wonder if Kathy Bates replaced Lopez because the latter gives no fucks about white men except fleecing them out of money; to male Academy voters of a certain age, who’ve gone to a strip club or four in their lifetimes, she’s the most gruesome anti-hero.

The other news: Joker leads with eleven nomination; enough old Academy members thought The Two Popes a masterpiece of bipartisanship enough to grant Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce nominations; and Honeyland got Best Documentary and, uh, Best International Film nominations.

Finally, as much as my pedantic ear prefers the active voice construction “The branch nominates,” it sounds as if the Academy was engaging in politics, i.e. “Blame these people!”

Here the nominations through Best Documentary Feature:

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Beyond a filmmaking gimmick, ‘1917’ has no resonance

An ideological muddle has made World War I a blank slate for novelists (Pat Barker) and now directors. As there would be twenty-five years later, Allied powers fought a German-led coalition, but without a Hitler or Mussolini as bugaboo what remains is an abstracted horror, a senselessness that scarred a generation. If a series of accidents connected to alliances led to inevitabilities — historians remain divided — then the four years look like the most egregious spilling of blood in history. We remember the victims, not the men in power; Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Woodrow Wilson do not dwell in the public imagination, for better or worse (often worse), than FDR, Churchill, and Stalin do. The poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon remains as testaments to the terror of trench warfare, in which the machine gun felled thousands of young men like mowed wheat, all for the sake of gaining a few feet of ground. Continue reading

Art and ardor: ‘Little Women’

Film adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel reflect their decades. An air of making-do with genteel poverty suffuses George Cukor’s 1933 Depression-era version starring Katherine Hepburn as Jo March. The air of a proficient radio show melodrama characterizes the credible 1949 version directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Gilliam Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation glows as if the four sisters stoked a fire in their hearts. Not for Greta Gerwig gentility or stoicism. In the writer-director’s telling, the March sisters rush pell-mell through rooms and across each other’s sentences; the camera and editing can hardly keep up. It took a half hour to adjust to its rhythms before this Little Women charmed the hell out of me. It makes you work, like a worthwhile relationship. Continue reading

Ambition meets hysteria in ‘Uncut Gems’

Adam Sandler never stops acting in Uncut Gems; if he did, the film would collapse from angina. As Howard Ratner, a gem dealer in NYC’s Diamond District, Sandler plays a garrulous hustler familiar to fans of Richard Widmark in Night and the City and John Cassavetes’ early seventies work. He’s a liar, unable to keep wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) and lover Julia (Julia Fox) satisfied. He owes his brother-in-law money after gambling failures, but he keeps gambling anyway. High-handed, self-pitying, hobbled by a monstrous ego, Howard is among the most repulsive of modern film characters. Unlike Bombshell, Uncut Gems understands how to limn terrible people, thanks to directors Josh and Benny Safdie (Good Time), who find visual correlatives for Howard’s frenzy. Continue reading

Thirteen ways of looking at ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’

Readers know I don’t post traditional reviews of Star Wars flicks. Why expend energy on paragraph lengths and introductory clauses? But I’ve few remarks to share about The Rise of Skywalker, a film that reunites the unfortunately named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), the easily startled Finn (John Boyega), and the increasingly callow Rey (Daisy Ridley) against the First Order, helmed by Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, eyes haunted by the thought of Marriage Story publicity tours). As if chastened by fan reaction to 2017’s The Last Jedi, the first entry not to give a toss about tradition, Disney has brought back J.J. Abrams to direct. My readers can glean what I think. If not, I can post Keith Harris’ marvelous dismissal.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

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