How can one of our finest living actors go from prestige pics like Howard’s End, Remains of the Day and Silence of the Lambs to straight to video (or,in this case, Netflix) dreck like Blackway in a few years?
That is the thought running through my mind as I watched Anthony Hopkins in Blackway as an aging sawmill worker (no, I don’t make this stuff up) who teams up with a young woman played by Julia Styles and a mentally slow but physically fiery young man (rising star Alexander Ludwig) to take down the town bully (Ray Liotta, who should be accustomed to playing villains in B-movies by now.)
What makes it even worse is that director Daniel Alfredson helmed Parts 2 & 3 of the original Swedish Lisbeth Salander trilogy (The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.)
So who is to blame for this almost lifeless wannabe thriller? Well, I could single out screenwriters Joe Gangemi and Gregory Jacobs who based their script on a novel called Go With Me ( by an author named Castle Freeman Jr.) and, according to website the playlist.net “we get all the plot beats of the novel, and none of the texture.” ( I haven’t read the book myself so I don’t wanna pretend I did.)
I could even assign part of the blame on Mr. Hopkins himself. He is listed as one of the producers, after all. and after working with Mr. Alfredson on the equally dismal The Kidnapping of Mr. Heineken he must have known what he was getting into. But I think the majority of the responsibility probably lies with the director.
After scanning the Internet Movie Database I notice Mr. Alfredson is back in Sweden filming a new trilogy. That is probably just as well since his adaptation of the Freeman novel, to quote a popular phrase, loses something in the translation.
But you already know that if you have seen Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cut-Off. If you are a newcomer to her highly personal and (some might say) idiosyncratic art Certain Women may not be the best introduction. See the two films above first and then see Certain Women and you should feel right at home.
You may have read about the slow food movement. Well, Reichardt’s films are what has been called “slow cinema”. And she determines the pace. (She has edited, written and directed all of the films listed above.)
Based on a series of short stories by Montana author Maile Meloy (sister of Colin Meloy of The Decemberists, by the way) Certain Women offers low key character studies of four women (Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern and Lily Gladstone), their humdrum existences, frustrations and small victories.
Reichardt’s films, like the slow food movement perhaps, are an acquired taste. The film recived a 92% per cent critical approval on the rottentomatoes.com site but fared less successfully among the audience reviewers (RT Audience Critic Phillip Price wrote in part “… There is a fine line between being understated and simply being uninteresting …. “
But as Ms. Reichardt told Nigel Smith of “theguardian.com”‘: “It all just seems everything is getting faster. Faster, faster, faster – we all want things faster. I guess there is a part of me that likes the pull against that … “
Mainstream websites such as philly.com, the online division of the “Philadelphia Inquirer” describes The Duke of Burgundy as “a straight-faced homage to 1970s European erotica, full of soft-focus nudity and soft-core kink.” Stephen Rea, in his review of UK auteur Peter Strickland’s film goes on to mention Italian soft-core king Jesus Franco and America’s Radley Metzger as influences on Strickland’s art and calls Duke a throwback to “more innocent times, when actresses with exotic names would strip off their costumes while embracing far-fetched scenarios – and one another.”
Since I nurse tender feelings towards French film-maker Just Jaeckin’s original 1974 Emmanuelle and its leading lady, Sylvia Kristel, I decided to add it to my Netflix list.
Go deeper – to hard-core cinephile sites like cinema-scope.com – and the dedicated viewer will unearth more complex (conservative viewers may call depraved) meanings. Control is a dominant theme – as in Sun Choke – but expressed in a much more subtle manner. The narrative revolves around a May- September lesbian couple (Sidse Babbet Knudsen, Chiara d’Anna), their S & M roleplay and lepidoptery. (The film’s title refers to a type of butterfly.) There are film references and metaphors galore oozing just under the surface But what a lush and sensual surface it is (cinematography by Nic Knowland).
Since I have not engaged in S & M roleplay personally, some of the references flew by me on the first viewing. (So that’s why the character portrayed by Ms. Knudsen drinks so much water.) Ms. Knudsen’s CV, incidentally, includes TV’s Westworld, Borgen (a Danish political drama in which she plays Denmark’s Prime Minister!) and a small role (opposite Tom Hanks) in the film A Hologram for the King. Ms. d’Anna (a former geologist, according to “Rolling Stone”, who called the film “the kinkiest arthouse film of the year“) is the younger half of the duo. Both actresses play their roles in refreshingly natural fashion , as writer/director Strickland intended.
In the interview with cinema-scope. com’s Jose Teodoro, Mr. Strickland makes the remark ” …. I’m trying to embrace that disreputable or sleazy impulse, as the film we made clearly started as a Jess Franco tribute, though it ended up as something very different … ” You’ve been warned (or intrigued).
We know Janie (Sarah Hagan) has severe mental health issues, Irma (Barbara Crampton), the housekeeper/stepmother, may be trying to cure her with yoga, holistic exercises and New Age babble and that, in one of her rare forays out of doors (most of the film takes place in a lavish yet sterile Beverly Hills home complete with swimming pool) Janie becomes obsessed with a young woman named Savannah (Sara Malakul Lane) and begins to stalk her.
That’s it. The rest may be up to you. Writer/director Ben Cresciman supplies no backstories for any of the characters. He only hints that something very bad happened to Janie (perhaps dating back to her childhood), her mother has died and the father has been largely absent from the scene (in the film he is on an extended trip to Tokyo). Themes of parental neglect, personal control (or the lack of it) and the care and treatment of mental illness are hinted at. But like all works of art, the final interpretation is left up to the individual viewer.
All three actresses are committed to Cresciman’s vision. The cinematography (by Matthew Rudenberg) reflects the many moods of the characters and is exquisite and well thought out.
The problem, for the viewer, may be that, like Janie, you will have problems separating reality from what is going on in Janie’s feverish imagination. Most of the film seems to be from her deeply disturbed point of view. In literature, Janie’s POV is often referred to as “the unreliable narrator”.
If the idea of a film that entertains while it makes you work and if the concept of a film largely set in one environment and only featuring three main characters makes you as a viewer feel claustrophobic, then you are advised to choose something else.
For me, even though I couldn’t always figure out what was going on, the film held my attention to the bitter end (and the ending may be bitter to most viewers) and images from the film replayed themselves in my mind for several days after viewing, the mark of a film that grips and holds my imagination.
Yawn! Another coming-of-age tale about privileged white teen-aged suburbanites who drive gleaming new cars and vans to school (no second hand jalopies in this crowd), have pools in their backyard and all the latest technological gear at their disposal.
As usual, most of the actors in these films are too old to play high school students. 20 year old Hailee Steinfeld plays a high school junior!
Fortunately, for writer/director and co-producer Kelly Fremon Craig, it is Ms. Steinfeld’s remarkable performance as troubled teen Nadine that saves the movie. Striking an ironic pose to hide the confusion lurking just underneath, Ms. Steinfeld somehow makes her difficult character human and, um. likeable. If you ask me (and no one did) she should have been Oscar nominated for this role as well as the Academy nod for her performance in the Coen brothers’ version of True Grit. (She did earn a Golden Globe nomination for her work in Edge of Seventeen.)
Her exchanges with Woody Harrelson, as a deceptively sympathetic teacher, especially shine.
I’m not saying it’s dated. I just got the feeling director Roman Polanski read Beckett (I’m thinking here of Waiting for Godot) and watched a lot of Harold Pinter theatre pieces while co-writing the screenplay with Gerard Brach. (There were times when I felt I was back in my Film Studies class again. This film, by the way. was made prior to Mr. Polanski’s exposure to temptation and tragedy in Hollywood.
A brilliant cast of 1960s players navigate through the psychological mind games of the screenplay. Lionel Stander, a familiar face (and voice) in 1930s and 1940s movie and radio, was forced to flee to Europe after he ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He plays American gangster Dickey, who holes up in a castle after a botched robbery. The castle.on a bleak island, is inhabited by a retired English executive,George (Donald Pleasance) and his flirtatious (and much younger) French wife, Teresa (Francoise Dorleac). The cast also includes future star Jacqueline Bissett (billed here as Jackie Bissett) in one of her first film roles. (A pair of sunglasses hides those now famous eyes.) No one does humiliation better than Mr. Pleasance aided and abetted by the gorgeous Mlle. Dorleac (Catherine Deneuve’s sister, whose promising career was cut short by a fatal car accident at the age of 25). Mr. Stander, of course, is bullish and aggressive in the role of Dickey. Mix these personalities together, stir in Mr. Polanski’s caustic wit, and you have a combustible combination that is bound to blow up in your face at some point.
I signed out this 1966 film because I was intrigued by the cast of characters, I have always been a fan of Mr. Polanski’s world view (Brrr!) and c) it was chosen for restoration by the Criterion Collection. If you are not already familiar with the brand (and most serious film buffs – and filmmakers – are), the Criterion Collection a) always shows great taste in cinematic art and b) lovingly restores films of its choice and packages them with interviews, booklets and other background material. So even if I am unfamiliar with a work, I know that any film, no matter how old (or obscure, to me) chosen by the Criterion folks for their distinctive and caring touch will be viewing time spent well.
If this is intended as an antidote to all those superhero flicks, count me in. Otherwise, well. my inner twelve year old enjoys watching Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.
The Nice Guys
Writer/director Shane Black’s follow-up to his cult film hit Kiss Kiss Bang Bang isn’t nearly as clever or original as his 2005 hit but stars Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe seemed to have a lot of fun making it.
This film isn’t a current release (I signed out the DVD at the local library) but it does make for provocative and insightful viewing – regardless of your ethnicity or whether you played cowboys’n’indians as an adolescent. Documentary film by Quebec-born Cree film-maker Neil Diamond examines how native Indians have been portrayed in North American movies using clips from silent films, John Wayne westerns, Billy Jack flicks and more modern examples like Smoke Signals, Dance Me Outside and Atanajuat: The Fast Runner ( to name a few.)
There are also video bites from Native Indian activist Russell Means, First Nations actors Adam Beach and Graham Greene, Professor Melinda Micco and film-maker Chris Eyre (among others).
Born to Be Blue
This is another film that has been out for a few months. I rented it on DVD because I have always been a big fan of Chet Baker’s music. There has been a Baker biopic in the works for over a decade (originally Brad Pitt was signed to star with Richard Linklater directing) but it took Canadian money, Ethan Hawke as Baker and Toronto-born filmmaker Robert Budreau to bring it to reality. Like Miles Ahead (a fictional reporter played by Ewan McGregor invades the home space of Miles Davis played by Don Cheadle to find out why the famed jazz trumpeter has not recorded or toured in seven years) Born to be Blue is a “reimagined” version of real events. It’s true that Baker was wired on heroin, served jail time, was beaten up and lost his teeth in the process. What isn’t true is that he was romantically involved with an actress named Jane (Carmen Ejego as Jane plays a composite character representing the women in Baker’s life) What’s true is that he was the “James Dean of Jazz”, the “Prince of Cool” just like the film says, a pop idol back in the early 50s when jazz still ruled the charts.
What isn’t true (to the best of my knowledge) is that Hollywood planned to make a documentary on his life (depicted in the film).
Writer/director Budreau skips over some of the more sordid aspects of the jazz legend’s life. (For that you will have to check out Bruce Weber’s riveting but ruthless Baker doc Let’s Get Lost).
Budreau prefers to think (as he says in a DVD extra) that Born to Be Blue is the kind of film folks might imagine while listening to Baker’s lightly swinging playing and dream-like vocals (“he sang with an innocent sweetness that made young girls fall right out of their saddle Oxfords,” Rex Reed once wrote. The film, on the other hand, has Dizzy Gillespie, portrayed by Kevin Hanchard, advising Baker not to try singing.)
The playing and vocalizing sounded effortless. And in the beginning, they were. That may have been part of the problem, the film seems to say.
Interestingly enough, some of the folks funding Born to Be Blue also shelled out money to produce this illuminating documentary on the famous (or infamous) shock rocker. The film itself was produced and directed by Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen who collectively have worked on rock docs about Rush and Iron Maiden (to name just two).
I signed this one out from the library (in other words, it’s not a new release) on the word of my little sister. I have never been a huge Alice fan (although I hafta admit “Under My Wheels” has a greasy kick to it) but I was attracted partly by my sister (who doesn’t recommend many films – especially docs) and by the reputation of Messrs Dunn and McFadyen.
Rent it for vintage photos and trivia (the band’s original name was The Earwigs),cameo appearances by his wife (he has had only one), his mom and dad and some true confessions on why the original band broke up.
Most of all, you will see and hear and why the character of Alice Cooper almost killed its creator, a nice, church-going, golf-loving family man from Phoenix, Arizona named Vincent Furnier.