Monday, April 21, 2014

Tribeca Review: Match

It’s strange to think that an actor as renowned as Sir Patrick Stewart has never found a big screen role to match his success in theater and television. Sure he has Professor X but that role is more about trading on his presence than any great acting demands and the Star Trek movies allowed only the faintest hint of the complexity he brought to Picard on the small screen. Compare that to Stewart’s fellow acting icon and BFF Sir Ian McKellen who has also done his share of blockbusters but has delivered memorable performances in movies ranging from Gods and Monsters to Apt Pupil to his own brilliant adaptation of Richard III.

Now with Stephen Belber’s Match, adapted from Belber’s own acclaimed stage play, Stewart has finally found a movie role that takes full advantage of his abilities: Tobi, a revered Juliard dance instructor confronted with long buried transgressions from his past. It is a showcase part and Sir Patrick responds by delivering far and away his best, most layered film work to date. 

Although its tiny cast and limited locations make Match’s theatrical roots transparent, the film is not hampered by its smallness of scope. The intimate story requires no great “opening up”, as they say, for the big screen. Belber's direction doesn’t suggest a brilliant new directorial voice, but it is straightforward and unfussy and serves the performances without lapsing into the overbearing "this is a movie!" camera angles of Doubt or the “just plant the camera in the fifth row” flatness of The Producers.

Match is a three-hander between Stewart’s Tobias and a married couple named Lisa and Mike, played by Carla Gugino and Matthew Lillard, who show up to interview Tobias about his life in dance for a dissertation she claims to be writing. Tobias wild youth is long behind him and lives a life of contented solitude teaching and knitting. He is both flustered by the disruption to his routine and grateful for the attention to once again be center stage. He makes a performance out of his recollections, preening and slipping in witty barbs at every opportunity. Stewart is so appealing in this opening section that audiences probably wouldn’t object if the film continued on in this fashion as a My Dinner With Andre style conversation piece, but of course there is more to it than that.

We immediately spot that something is off with this couple, especially Lillard’s Mike, who claims to be there as tech support but seems way too preoccupied with Tobi’s past despite admitting that he has no interest in the arts. I expect the big secret will be eagerly revealed by many critics, if not the film’s own ad campaign, but I will not reveal it here except to say that it is about the big secret you are expecting. The predictably doesn’t matter much because it is so well executed by the actors that the three-fold character study becomes more engrossing than guessing in which direction the plot may twist. Match is wise enough to know what matters is not whether or not the accusations are true so much as what the characters believed to be true when they made crucial decisions.

Gugino and Lillard supply able support - particularly Lillard who is well served by the added gravitas granted by crossing into middle age – but this is Stewart’s show all the way. It makes sense that it would take a theatrical adaptation for the great stage actor to finally have an opportunity to show the full range of his gifts on the big screen. Match's biggest flaw is its less than satisfying final movement, which ties up the story far too neatly considering the lines that are crossed, but is still a solid film, sincere and straightforward and ultimately moving. Stewart, however, is in a class above. His work suggests his status as an under-utilized treasure and should earn the film a wider audience than its otherwise modest successes might have landed it.

Verdict: 7 out of 10

Monday Morning Awesome

"It's a car wash, ladies and gentleman!"

Sunday, April 20, 2014


I've never forgotten the experience of seeing this chase scene on the big screen the first time. The editing leading up to the final, climactic "clang!" is sheer fucking perfection.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Tribeca Review: About Alex

As a rule one should approach with great wariness any film that promises to update a genre for the “Facebook Generation” or any such empty buzzwords. 

Jesse Zwick’s About Alex is such a movie. It is, according to the promotional material, a “Big Chill for our current social media moment”.  It earns this dubious distinction in the very first scene when the title character tweets Mercutio’s famous line “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man” before climbing fully dressed into a bathtub to open his wrists. In classic reunion film fashion, this attempted suicide causes Alex’s scattered group of college buddies to get together at his upstate New York house for a weekend of airing out all their collected fears, regrets and complaints as they approach 30. Mostly complaints.

Movies like About Alex live or die by the way the ensemble clicks and creates an unforced feeling of messy life ricocheting around the cast. Either that vibe comes together and you get a Robert Altman or Mike Leigh movie or it doesn’t and you get a bunch of actors waiting for their turn to cycle through their individual plot points. I’m sorry to say About Alex falls into the latter category. It never gets up to speed, never creates the feeling of these seven characters having a shared history or a much of life at all outside the meager characterization supplied by the screenplay. It’s a series of pat dilemmas, doled out and wrapped up in orderly succession. This character had success as a writer when they were younger, now they suffer from writer’s block. This character works in a dull legal office but has a flair for cooking. How will it all work out? Predictably.

The  truth is that About Alex was doomed from the start because it is working from a screenplay that never should have made it into production. It remains at the point where Zwick should’ve really buckled down and workshopped this sucker until he breathed some honest to goodness life into the plot's sketchy outlines. It's harsh to say but About Alex gives the unmistakable impression that more time was spent on the exciting work of of filling out the cast with rising stars and selecting which fashionably hip indie songs should adorn the soundtrack than with the tedious heavy lifting of screenwriting.

Despite the flat writing the appealing cast at least succeeds in making About Alex a painless 96 minutes. Without fleshed out roles performers like Maggie Grace, Jason Ritter and Max Minghella mostly to their most comfortable performing grooves. Aubrey Plaza is sardonic and awkward. Nate Parker is sturdy and sharp. With his steamrolling hyper-verbal sarcasm, New Girl’s Max Greenfield all but tucks the movie under his arm and makes off with the whole shebang. Sure, most of the time his character is just a mouthpiece for the writer’s none-too-earth-shattering ideas (Are you sitting down? It turns out social media only gives us the illusion of connection) but just that smattering of personality gives him an edge on the rest of the cast and Greenfield makes a meal of it.

There is a void at the center of the film and that is the character of Alex himself, about whom we learn almost nothing. Suicide is a weighty topic to evoke but Alex’s attempt has no resonance to it. No dramatic juice. It just sits at the center of the film as an excuse to get everyone together and recycle movie plots we’ve seen many, many times before. If About Alex has any relevance to the social media age it is to remind us that we should only demand everyone’s attention when we have something original to say.

Verdict: 3 out of 10

Tribeca Snapshots

A few crappy pics from my first Tribeca Screenings:

The cast of Match, Matthew Lillard, Carla Gugino, Sir Patrick Stewart. The first few questions were for  Matthew Lillard referencing SLC Punk and Scooby Doo, prompting a Lillard to point to Sir Patrick and exclaim "You know he's a knight, right?" 

Match is far and away the best role Patrick Stewart has ever had on the big screen. 

Aubrey Plaza at the Q&A for About Alex. There are few types of awkwardness as exquisite as Aubrey Plaza Q&A awkwardness.

Cary Grant and Greta Garbo hovering over me on the ceiling of the theater at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Review: Noah

When we listen to the story of the Noah and the flood we tend to imagine ourselves safely on the Ark with the animals and not outside drowning with the masses. The odds clearly suggest the opposite would be the case, but this optimistic framing is understandable. Previous film versions have made no effort to shatter this comforting interpretation, choosing to focus on the grand spectacle of the animal parade and omitting the panicked mothers clutching their babies to their chest as the waters rise.

Now we have Darren Aronofsky epic new film version of Noah, which forces the viewer to grapple with the tale’s troubling implications by placing them right there on the surface. Floating face down on the surface, to be exact.

Aronofsky’s choice to imbue Noah with a level of psychological realism causes all manner of unexpected dimensions to reveal themselves, the most glaring of these being that Russell Crowe’s Noah comes off as an absolute barking lunatic. Not since Willy Wonka has a boat ride been captained by such a complete nutter. I sincerely feel for the Christian fundamentalists who buy tickets for Noah to enjoy the sight of, say, a pair of kangaroos walking hand in hand up a ramp, but are instead treated to the sight of Noah skulking around the storm-tossed Ark, his eyes ablaze with madness, threatening to personally murder any newborn babies that conflict with his interpretation of God’s will.

It makes no difference that in this case we know that his ravings are true, that Noah really is communicating with the Almighty. We reflexively recognize this behavior as that of the unhinged leader of a doomsday cult. And yet, as unsettling as he is, in context one can’t help but feel a strange sympathy for the man. When God asks a peaceful, unassuming man to assist in genocide, would it not be more disturbing if it didn’t have some kind of detrimental effect on his sanity?

Watching Noah one gets the feeling that Aronofsky wants to break free from plot altogether and let the poetry of his imagery carry the film to the heights of other grand cinematic gestures like Tree of Life or 2001 or the director’s own The Fountain. It is held Earthbound by the demands of its budget and the need to produce a film that is at least somewhat digestible by mass audiences. So instead of the sustained ambition of Aronofsky’s earlier work the director’s trademark fevered filmmaking zeal arrives in small doses like when the camera pulls back to see the entire globe engulfed in hurricanes, or when the creation myth is combined with the history of evolution in one stunning montage that zips breathlessly through the birth of life. Between these epiphanies we get padding and pandering for action audiences like battles scenes between an army of invaders and 50-foot rock monsters.

Oh, did I forget to mention the 50-foot rock monsters? They are called "watchers" and they are eventually persuaded by divine intervention to help our hero build the Ark. It’s a bold flourish, but not an entirely successful one. They often come across as CGI distractions that wandered in from Michael Bay’s version of the Bible: “The Exploding-est Story Ever Told”.  It’s worth noting that Aronofsky and cowriter Ari Handel have Biblical precedent for these creatures. Genesis 6:4: “There were giants in the earth in those days”. So Aronofsky is open to charges of going over-the-top, but not of inaccuracy to the source material. And I say if you are going to do giants, why settle for half-measures?

Even if I question how successful Noah is in cramming a Biblical story into the Blockbuster template I can’t deny he has engaged in a sincere attempt to grapple with a cultural touchstone that most everyone else is satisfied to regard with either blind acceptance or glib mockery. (For the record, that grappling does not extend to the film’s unavoidable implications of incest, which it would be grateful if the audience politely ignored) That Noah has upset a number of religious groups is predictable news. Isn’t always the thoughtful takes on religion that draw the protesters? Just once I’d like to see a religious film picketed for being too trite or insipid or intellectually lazy.

Verdict: 6 out of 10

Monday, April 14, 2014


The seventh and final season opened with an allusion to the iconic opening shot of Mike Nichols' The Graduate with Don Draper drifting along on a moving airport walkway just like the one that dragged Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock reluctantly towards his future. 

The Graduate is a movie that would have been highly visible on the radar of a pop culture savvy guy like Don at the time of this episode. The Graduate was released in December of 1967 and this season of Mad Men kicks off in January 1969. It was a box office smash. Adjusting for inflation Mike Nichols' film grossed more than films like The Godfather or Forrest Gump, so the film dominated the culture for the better part of 1968.

Despite being separated by a generation, the two characters share a fair amount of similarities. At this point of the story both men are drifting, unemployed and uncertain about their futures. They are both just arrived in California, and since this season of Mad Men is clearly going to emphasize California not just as a location  but as a frame of mind, Matthew Weiner couldn't have picked a more quintessentially Californian movie to reference. Most telling of all, Benjamin Braddock is about to spend a Summer hiding from his troubles in a dysfunctional affair, which is a most Draper-esque thing to do.  

All that said, maybe the most significant thing about the reference is not a similarity but a difference. Mad Men has Don Draper traveling left to right, the reverse of Benjamin Braddock. Dustin Hoffman's character represented a new generation stumbling forward. Don Draper is forever stubbornly stuck in his past. He certainly is in this episode, going through the motions in a marriage he knows to be over and refusing to acknowledge that the business he helped build has rejected him.

Or maybe it just means that Don has become one of those middle-aged fuddle-duddies that so baffled Benjamin. Don seems to have no clue what a hippie even is, identifying the most unhippie-ish Pete Campbell as one. It's not too much of a stretch to imagine Don Draper pulling Ben aside and laying the "plastics" pitch on him. Although Don's pitch would probably have a bit more elegance:

Monday Morning Awesome

"Shh. You'll wake the monkey."

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Denzel On The Racist Role He Turned Down

"I could just see the poster with me with a rope around my neck."

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Languid Bloody Vampire Chic

Reminder that Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive arrives this weekend. It's essential 2014 movie viewing and Jarmusch's best film since… what? 2005's Broken Flowers? This one is a touch touch or two better. Dead Man? This is more thought through. Down by Law?

Only Lovers hasn't diminished a bit in my mind since I saw it a few months back at Sundance. If anything it's gained a little. It's not a film that is going to knock you on your ass. It's a mood piece, a film you lay back and let wash over you. It's like getting slowly, pleasantly drunk on some high end , expensive booze.

Here's what I said back in my Sundance Review:

...Only Lovers barely touches on the tropes of the vampire mythology. Bats, crosses and wooden stakes are nowhere to be found. Rather, Jarmusch’s film is interested in vampires as a state of mind. What becomes of a being when life has no meaning because it never ends? The film doesn’t stack up urgent plot points so much as it sinks slowly into its atmosphere of sexy gloom. Whether or not you like the film depends on if you can meet it on its wavelength. Personally, I had no trouble getting into the proper groove right from the start... 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Ballot: 10 Greatest Working Cinematographers

I have once again participated in a poll of film bloggers over at The Film Experience. The topic chosen this month was the 10 greatest working cinematographers. This means I was choosing from cinematographers who are still in their prime. If I was choosing from all living candidates, a legend like Gordon Willis would surely top this list, but Willis, for example, hasn't actually lensed a film since The Devil's Own in 1997.

After that I leaned towards cinematographers with substantial bodies of work. Somebody like Wally Pfister could have made the list for The Prestige alone, but he fell to people with deeper filmographies.

I was disappointed that there wasn't a greater selection of women to from which to choose. Eternal Sunshine's Ellen Kuras came closest, but it would have been dishonest of me to rank her above some of the men below. Is there a more male-dominated field in Hollywood? Has there ever even been a woman nominated in this Oscar category? None leap to mind. Here's hoping in 5 years time I can adjust this list to include some women.

Ellen Kuras Credits Include- Eternal Sunshine, Away We Go, Blow

Needless to say this list was tough to narrow down. As I ran out of room I was shocked to find names like Dion Beebe (Collateral), Greig Fraser (Bright Star) and Jeff Cronenweth (The Social Network) falling by the wayside. All told there was probably over two dozen candidates who would look just as at home on this list as the selections I went with. But enough second guessing on to my ballot…

The 10 Best Working Cinematographers
Honorary Mention: Harris Savides
I included an honorary mention for Harris Savides, who would have surely taken a prime spot on my ballot if not for his recent untimely death. It appears I was not the only voter who made such a citation. 
Career High Points: Birth, Zodiac, Gerry
Oscar Tally: Zero Nominations

10) Lance Acord  
Career High Points: Marie Antionette, Where the Wild Things Are, Lost in Translation
Oscar Tally: Zero Nominations

9) Darius Khondji
Career High Points: Se7en, Amour, Delicatessen
Oscar Tally: 1 Nominations, 0 Wins

8) Seamus McGarvey
Career High Points: Atonement, Anna Karenina, The Hours
Oscar Tally: 2 Nominations, 0 Wins

7) Robert Richardson
Career High PointsJFK, Inglourious Basterds, Snow Falling on Cedars 
Oscar Tally: 8 Nominations, 3 Wins

6) Bruno Delbonnel
Career High Points: Amelie, Inside Llewyn Davis, A Very Long Engagement
Oscar Tally: 4 Nominations, 0 Wins

5) Christopher Doyle
Career High Points: In the Mood For Love, 2046, Paranoid Park
Oscar Tally: Zero Nominations

4) Robert Elswit
Career High Points: There Will Blood, Good Night and Good Luck, Michael Clayton
Oscar Tally: 2 Nominations, 1 Win (There Will Be Blood)

3) Hoyte Van Hoytema
Career High Points: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Her, Let the Right One In
Oscar Tally: Zero Nominations

2) Emmanuel Lubezki
Career High Points: Tree of Life, Sleepy Hollow, Children of Men
Oscar Tally: 6 Nominations, 1 Win (Gravity)

1) Roger Deakins
Career High Points: The Assassination of Jesse James, Fargo, Skyfall, The Shawshank Redemption
Oscar Tally: 11 Nominations, 0 Wins

And, as usual, to read all the terrific writing on these artists by the Film Experience team of writers. I contributed the write up for Roger Deakins.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review: Nymphomaniac

It’s tough to think of a recent film more resistant to review than Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. Not only to does it vacillate wildly in quality between brilliant and dreadful, but it also feels redundant to review a movie so thoroughly engaged in the act of reviewing itself.

We are first introduced to Charlotte Gainsborg’s Joe laying beaten and unconscious in an alley. When Stellan Skarsgård’s Seligman picks her up off the ground and gives her a place to rest, she narrates her lifelong saga of sexual exploration to him by way of lengthy explanation for her current state.

An asexual virgin, Seligman plays like a preemptive parody of the critical response to the film. His first instinct is to interrupt Joe’s story at every turn with scholarly digressions that reduce Joe’s pain and suffering to intellectual masturbation. Yet even here von Trier is one step ahead, having Skarsgård’s character protest this reading of his character. “Are you mocking me?” he demands after Joe spins a loopy tale involving a spontaneous orgasm that results in a vision of the Whore of Babylon. Joe responds that it's probably best if he just accepts the story at face value. She is surely correct. Unpacking Nymphomaniac’s dense tangle of irony and references is so daunting that direct engagement with the story isn’t just borderline impossible, it’s irrelevant...