Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Current Cinema 14.3


Jon Favreau’s low budget “Chef” is an unassuming, refreshingly real labor of love that hits all the right notes, both in its storytelling and its food porn. Starring Favreau as well, the film tells the mid-level rise and hard fall of a Los Angeles chef after a scathing food review sends his self esteem spiraling out of control. He loses his job and has to start over, both professionally and personally as he deals with an ex-wife (Sofia Vergera) and young son (Emjay Anthony). There are just enough starlet cameos (Dustin Hoffman…. Robert Downey Jr) and wish fulfillment girlfriends (Scarlet Johannson) to remind us that Favreau is still an A-list director, but “Chef” hooked me from the get-go. It feels honest and authentic, not only in its kitchen bantering between Favreau and co-stars John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale, but in its sprightly outlook on family and the tenuous bonds that often draw us back and forth from one another. Plus, it features one helluva great sequence in Austin that highlights both Franklin Barbeque and HomeSlice Pizza. This is a completely warm surprise and one of the year’s best films.

The German Doctor

Lucia Puenzo’s “The German Doctor” tackles a theme that’s always intrigued me…. That being the underground funneling of high Nazi commanders out of Germany after the end of World War 2 to foreign countries like Greece and Argentina. The library in my house is full of these tales. How was the Vatican involved? Detailed descriptions of Israeli and American forces whose sole purpose was to hunt down and exterminate (not capture) these men. And Hollywood has continually mined these exploits for fascinating films such as “The Odessa File” and especially the ludicrously framed “Boys From Brazil”. So, how is it that Puenzo’s take on this subject- fashioning a fictional tale around the real life hide and seek of dreaded Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele- comes off so safe and ineffectual? Part of the red flag was raised for me in the beginning as the film introduces us twelve year old Lilith (Florencia Bado) meeting the doctor (Alex Brendemuhl) and sensing a kinship with him. In perfect generic art-house instruction, the atrocities are refracted through the prism of a young girl whose voice over talks about the events after they’ve already happened, creating a safe point of view for the audience. The rest of the film deals with the doctor’s assimilation into Lilith and her family’s renovated mountain hotel. It’s only through the suspicions of a photographer in town that the doctor’s real plans are uncovered. “The German Doctor” plods along, at one moment trying to disturb through the doctor’s pointed curiosity towards Lilith and the next tracing metaphors through the introduction of Lilith’s father and his mechanical doll collection. The ideas of human cloning, experimentation and twisted bio genetic experiments Mengele was known for add little complexity to a story that flutters out well before its supposed thriller-like resolution.

The Immigrant


The themes of Catholic guilt, familial violence and moody Northeastern settings that have dotted the James Gray cinematic landscape for years now gets cross pollinated with 1920’s New York in “The Immigrant”. Marion Cotillard is splendid as Ewa, a Polish immigrant who’s immediately separated from her sickly sister at Ellis Island, then manipulated into a life of showmanship and prostitution by small time burlesque owner Joaquin Phoenix (in his fourth collaboration with filmmaker Gray). Glimpses of happiness appear when Phoenix’s cousin, magician Orlando (Jeremy Renner), enters the picture and Cotillard is pulled between her obligations for financial status and the potential for a normal life. “The Immigrant” succeeds in developing the three characters with depth and feeling. They are all flawed but acutely drawn people. Even the small roles of Ewa’s aunt and uncle, who make an uncompromising decision, resonate with honesty and moral ambiguity. Filmmaker Gray, so strong with each new passing effort, has crafted an intimate epic that not only gives Cotillard one astounding monologue in a confessional booth, but an ending that both devastates and uplifts its corresponding couple.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Last Few films I've Seen....April Edition

1. The Family Friend (2006)- My quest for more Paolo Sorrentino films continues, and this, his third effort, again confirms my belief that he's one of the most exciting international filmmakers working today. And no one uses the symmetry of image and music quite as stirring as he does... outside of maybe Scorsese. It takes a while for this film to find its groove- sleazy, cheap, old loan shark Geremia (Giacomo Rizzo) swaggers through his life collecting chocolate and taking care of his elderly mother. The only pleasure he derives from life is his ability to insinuate himself into the lives of the people who borrow money from him. Then he meets young, beautiful Rosalba (Laura Chiatti) when he funds the money to her father in order to pay for her wedding and a beauty-and-the-beast relationship forms between them. Several characters, including Geremia's henchman, circle the story without real definition, but as the film winds down, its serpentine themes begin to emerge.  Wildly ambitious, stylish and even a bit moving, "The Family Friend" is yet another fascinating cog in the Sorrentino universe of eccentric people and unique situations.

2. Dexter The Final Season- I know, this show wore out its welcome three or four years ago, but I still felt depressed and sad as I watched the final episode. I've been with this thing since its inception over a decade ago. As with all shows, it became incredibly ludicrous, verging on the soap operish, but its resolute sympathy for such an evil anti-hero continued to amamze. Adios Dexter.

3. The Invisible Woman (2013)- Ralp Fiennes' telling of Charles Dickens and his secret lover, expertly played by Felicity Jones. Fiennes wisely inverts the emotional center towards Nelly and away from himself, which creates an even more devastating portrait of unrequited love.

4. Big Bad Wolves (2013)- I should have guessed that the film Tarantino praised as his favorite of the year would, basically, be a two hour extension of his Michael Madsen torture scene from "Reservoir Dogs". There's really no more depth than that, as a revengeful father and cop take out their anger and mistrust on the man suspected of the crime. This was all done with more panache and moral ambiguity in last year's "Prisoners".

5. Locke (2014)- If any current actor can maintain our attention for an hour and a half alone, driving in a car... it's Tom Hardy. And he does it well in "Locke", taking what could have been an uninteresting character and making into something real and honestly flawed. Juggling a huge job, the consequences of his wife and a decision in London over a car bluetooth phone, "Locke" reverberates with intensity. Hardy carries a wide array of emotions, displaying them all with ease. At 84 minutes, I simply didn't want it to end.

6. Beyond the Black Rainbow (2012)- Trippy man.. trippy. Like a sci-fi Jodorwosky, the colors and hallucinogenic tempo of this film are unique. Even if the story is half baked- something about a psychic girl trapped by a mad scientist in this futuristic greenhouse- I suspect it's limitations of narrative are dependent on the miniscule budget.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

The Current Cinema 14.2

Under the Skin

Filmmaker Jonathan Glazer only holds three credits to his name, but each one is a fiercely focused, genre-bending surprise. His latest film, “Under the Skin”, is just as polarizing. Starring Scarlett Johansson, “Under the Skin” is a minimalist science fiction thriller that could pass as an experimental avant garde film if one walked into it during the middle. Rapt attention is needed as Glazer plays with all sorts of nerve-inducing, shrill soundtrack cues and a perfectly realized mise-en-scene. Just watch as, in one brilliant scene, a red blinking tail light emanates just the right amount of light onto the obscured face of a passer-bye outside the van that Johansson spends a majority of her time driving. We know something isn’t quite right with the man, and the red tail light adds succinct mystery. Technical proficiency aside, “Under the Skin” also registers high with its narrative… oblique as it is. Johansson is some sort of alien being wandering the frigid wastelands of Scotland in a white van, picking up men and then leading them to a dark room where they mindlessly walk into a black ooze. Her only other interaction is with a motorcycle riding “handler” who supports her along the way, then becomes her hunter when things go awry. Not reading the novel the film is based on- though initial reviews describe the film as a complete “paring” of the novel- the force of “Under the Skin” is its complete tone and mood. This thing is entrancing from the beginning, and it only grows its spell as the narrative takes a few science fiction twists, namely the alien’s desire to be human. While “Under the Skin” may puzzle some, its downright adventurous attitude and brave refusal to play anything by the rules is breathtaking.

Only Lovers Left Alive

It’s becoming harder and harder to re-invent any genre, much less the vampire one. Indie director Jim Jarmusch has thrown his hat into the ring with “Only Lovers Left Alive”, a meditative, Velvet Underground type of film where the vampires look like aging punk rockers and the main attraction seems to be so Jarmusch and his crew can stone out to various obscure pop and soul tunes. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are the star-crossed centuries old lovers, feeding their habit not through violent bloodshed, but through the kindness of strangers and the local pharmacy or hospital. When Eve, living in Tangiers, can’t stand being away from her lover any more, she travels to him and they have to deal with pretty ordinary obstacles in life such as groupies (since Hiddleston is some type of obscure, underground artist) and the immature antics of Eve’s sister (Mia Waskowski) in from L.A. “Only Lovers Left Alive” fits perfectly into the deadpan Jarmusch canon, and if that’s your thing, then you will be pleased. I just wanted more from the effort. The strongest point of the ambling narrative is heightened due to its partial placement in Detroit… a landscape that adds tremendous mystery through Jarmusch’s nocturnal lateral pans through the shelled out city. They represent something scary, beautiful and sad at the same time. If only I felt this, or really anything, for the characters enduring this hardboiled scenery.


The opening of Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” finds a battered woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainesbourg) lying unconscious in an alleyway. Before we see her, his camera surveys the various awnings, openings and corners of the dank alley in much the same manner in which the film spends the next 4 hours analyzing this woman’s life long sexual appetite. This all sounds amorous, but its really not in the hands of von Trier, a filmmaker who constantly digresses and annihilates the subject into a methodical and even mythological survey of a woman’s general unhappiness. “Nymphomaniac” is also very humorous at times, flashing mathematical drawings over the screen as the woman tells her stories to the old man (Stellan Skarsgaard) who found her in the alley or comparing her sexual exploits to a piano overture. As the younger self told in flashback, Stacy Martin is especially good in a role that requires much more depth and bravery than that of Gainesbourg. One scene, in particular, involving a wife (Uma Thurman) confronting Joe and her unfaithful husband with kids in-tow is distinctly von Trier…. The anger of the world coming home to roost in nervy jump cuts. “Nympomaniac” does shock in its explicit content, yet there’s more than that salacious attitude in the more human moments of the film, especially in the second half as Joe struggles to understand and tame her addictions. Early provocative rumors aside, “Nymphomaniac” succeeds as an intelligent and engrossing character study of a damaged woman…. One that fits neatly into the canon of female von Trier analysis.