All posts by nyccritic

New on DVD: Irrational Man

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Emma Stone falls head over heels for Joaquin Phoenix in Woody Allen’s clunker Irrational Man, now on DVD.

Hooked on Film rating:

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

I’m going to go out on a limb and defend Woody Allen for having made this oddity of a film rife with potential but flat as Kansas in tone and overall delivery. Allen makes a movie a year, and has done so since the late 60s. Ever since he gained status as the giant he became in the late 70s and throughout most of the 80s, the quality of his output starting with 1993 (a year Allen would rather forget) has slowly morphed into what I call diminishing returns that on occasion hold a spark of the wit and cynicism the man’s movies once held. This is the man who, ever since Match Point –widely considered to be his comeback film after having been all but forgotten (even as he relentlessly forged ahead, movie after movie)– went back into something of a valley of creativity peaking with the sublime Blue Jasmine (and gave Cate Blanchett another gold statue while also bestowing Sally Hawkins her first nomination for supporting actress). Magic in the Moonlight was a delightful farce that revisited, to a degree, the magician sequence from Shadows and Fog, and not only gave Emma Stone and Colin Firth well-rounded, amoral characters, but also gave veteran British actress Eileen Atkins a juicy part to sink her teeth in, and boy, did she.

There’s the often quoted saying that after a while writers tend to tell the same story over and over again. That isn’t such a bad idea, but when it becomes so self-referential as to resemble parody, then it poses a problem of either storytelling or focus. But far from me to tell Allen how to direct and write a film. The man has, as I said, made a film for nearly every year since 1970 and has himself stated profound dissatisfaction with their results.

Irrational Man falls under this category, and I’ll tell you why. In this movie Allen presents Abe Lucas (who is almost always referred to by first and last name), a philosophy professor who seems to have lost his sense of purpose in the world. When he meets Jill Pollard, sparks don’t exactly fly, but she is smitten. Why, we don’t know. The movie won’t tell us, and here she begins to talk non-stop about Abe Lucas as if he were some sort of god that she’d encountered. While doing this, she estranges her boyfriend, but then again, I’d walk out of the beating of a dead horse, if at all to conserve the peace, and either do so permanently or let this folly play itself out and return once the crazy was back to normal.

Jill doesn’t return to normal. She and Abe initiate a relationship that seems as platonic as it s uncomfortable, and while he’s at it, he throws Heidegger, Dostoevsky, and other Allen go-to existentialists for good measure with the enthusiasm of a man wishing death would just come and take him away. Jill, of course, fawns.

And then — the moment the plot turns into high gear. I think. Jill overhears a conversation at a restaurant and has Abe come over to her side to listen in. The people in the booth behind them –a woman and some friends — are discussing a nasty custody battle. It’s here that Abe’s light-bulb goes off, and he gets an idea as dark as anything presented on Discovery ID. He decides to kill the judge that would rule against the woman.

This in itself under a director more accustomed to suspense stories would have made an excellent story about moral choices and people who look into the abyss. The problem with Allen presenting it, is that he continually leaves his story as casual as a car commercial featuring cool people. His constant use of Ramsey Lewis’ “The In Crowd” seems to punctuate this off-handedness. It’s appropriate during the opening part of the movie, but like a joke that gets told too often, it runs itself to the ground or morphs into a swinging cocktail party. And then, that voice-over narration. Talk about committing an act of self-mutilation: that in itself becomes a fatal blow to the movie. Car crash. Bodies all over the place. Bring in the yellow tape; we have a crime scene masquerading as a comedy-thriller. The part of Annie Hall Allen (wisely) left out. Remember that?

And while I’m at it, to call the second and last act Hitchcockian (as some reviewers have) is an insult to the Master of Suspense. You just don’t care enough for any of the characters and there is no sense of dread, of a darkening of the plot, of a man even aware that he is having a repressed breakdown and will rationalize taking a few with him. And on and on, Ramsey Lewis winks at the audience. The audience? Not so much.

Parker Posey makes her first appearance in Woody Allen's Irrational Man.
Parker Posey makes her first appearance in Woody Allen’s Irrational Man.

Irrational Man is a colossal misfire that never  takes off or develop as a whole. Its schizophrenic scenario makes it seem like a disjointed, haphazard puzzle where all the pieces are there, but neither make an effort to try and fit.  Joaquin Phoenix is okay in his miserable character — at least he makes the part of Abe Lucas his own, kind of. Emma Stone and Parker Posey? They fare much worse, delivering two egregiously wasted  performances. They are interchangeable mannequins, stand-ins for the small roles that Shelly DuVall, Janet Margolis, and Carol Kane played in Annie Hall as women fawning head over heels over Allen the actor/director (who could be less interested in them, but morbidly fascinated with his own crumbling ruminations). Yes, they serve a purpose in the story, but seeing how Irrational Man took a backseat from entertaining to being on autopilot, the only question remains, what for? That, I will state, is a mystery this bland movie will not answer. Stick with Match Point for a good mystery. This, sadly, is throwable, recycled, half-baked, late-period Allen juggling for a plot.

The Top Ten Movies of 2015

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Carol, directed by Todd Haynes, with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt.

[Originally written in early January, 2016]

If you ask me how I spent the preceding year I would say that the bulk of it was siting in a dark room surrounded by strangers in total silence and various degrees of wonder, feasting on movies. I’d rather do that than go to the nearest bar and drink the night away; it’s also, much more fulfilling. Even then, at over 900 releases, it became impossible to see all of them. With the sheer volume of commercial and independent movies that get released week after week competing hand in hand (or eye to eye) for the audience’s and my attention alongside VOD releases, and adding to this the amount of film festivals taking place in New York it’s a wonder I haven’t gone blind. As such it’s inevitable that come December there were more than a handful that I haven’t gone around to see such as David O. Russell’s Joy, Ryan Coogler’s Creed, or Adam McKay’s The Big Short. And others. Heck, I haven’t even seen Diary of a Teenage Girl despite that it played for months on end at the Landmark Sunshine, and that again, is one of many quality films that got lost in the constant flood that comes out — and I only have a limited net. I only barely last week managed to see Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Look of Silence, which chilled me to the bone and Alejandro Inarritu’s relentless revenge film The Revenant.

Choosing from the pile which ones I believe to be the most salient of them all is a difficult task — and also, very personal. I try not to give in to the pressures of prestige films that on their own demand a special recognition all their own. Sometimes I will differ greatly with others in regards to a certain film — I’m looking at you, The Assassin; sorry, you are very pretty but also, grotesquely overrated. If a movie struck my emotions in a specific way — positive or negative — then it lingered enough to resonate in my self at the time of this writing. This is what I think should constitute the basis for appreciate film: stories that grip us, that move us, that horrify us, and that stay long past the credits and the bee-line to the front door.

Before I start, let me commence with an alphabetical list of films that I just had to include, only because there were so many, and in a list of ten, it’s impossible and would be a crime to leave these out:

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Anomalisa
Amy
Appropriate Behavior
Best of Enemies
Black Mass
Breathe (Respire)
Bridge of Spies
Brooklyn
Clouds of Sils Maria
The Duke of Burgundy
Ex-Machina
Experimenter
The Forbidden Room
Girlhood
Grandma
The Hateful Eight
Heaven Knows What
Hitchcock / Truffaut
Inside Out
It Follows
James White
Jauja
Junun
The Kindergarten Teacher
The Martian
The Measure of a Man*
Mia Madre*
Mississippi Grind
Mistress America
Mountains May Depart**
Mustang
Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart*
The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
Phoenix
Queen of Earth
The Revenant
Sand Dollars
Sicario
Slow West
Spotlight
Steve Jobs
Tangerine
Tangerines
Timbuktu
What Happened, Miss Simone?
White God
Wild Tales
The Wonders
World of Tomorrow

*release date TBA / Film Festival only
**released in 2016

So on we go with the list:

10. THE LOOK OF SILENCE, Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/Indonesia

Viewed by itself or as a companion piece to Joshua Oppenheimer’s chilling, surreal, and ultimately  horrifying documentary The Act of Killing. The Look of Silence centers on a mild mannered optician, Adi, who, while conducting eye exams on the men who killed his brother Ramli during the 1965-66 Indonesian genocide of alleged Communists, realizes that not a single one demonstrates an iota of remorse for their actions, and in one chilling sequence, gleefully recount how they committed the murder.

This is a gut-wrenching documentary. To see Adi’s aged parents still living as if frozen in time, calling out to their dead son, and also capture the mixed emotions that surely dance underneath Adi’s glassy black eyes, I can’t but imagine what it’s like to live amongst your family’s killers who value nothing. This is a protracted cry of outrage, an open wound that will possibly only heal once the living dead are buried, and memory becomes a haze. The possibility of forgiveness comes in the form of the daughter of one of the killers, herself moved by these revelations, but this crushing movie offers no resolution whatsoever.

9. ROOM, Lenny Abrahamson, Ireland

Picture a woman, trapped inside a room with her son, counting the days and nights go by, aware only of the seasons by changes in the ambient temperature, or a stray leaf that lays tantalizingly on top of the room’s skylight — her only source of natural light. They’ve become a fierce little unit with her telling her son stories of how he came into the world, and occasionally, she ventures into glimpses of her own life Before.

Now, picture the man who comes visit them at night. She will not allow her son to face this man and hides him in a makeshift closet. The only way he can fall asleep is by the counting of the beats on the bed. Yes, that is as uncomfortable as it sounds.

Now, picture the moment when the mother realizes things are about to take a turn for the worse. It’s a dramatic switch into the unknown — after all, all her son has known is this tiny space. And now she has to do the unimaginable.

I’ll leave it there. You absolutely must view this picture.

8. JAFAR PANAHI’s TAXI, Jafar Panahi, Iran

Before you see this movie I’m going to direct you to please view Jafar Panahi’s 2011 documentary This is Not a Film. In that movie, filmed on both a hand-held camera and an iPhone 3GS, Panahi discusses his situation of a six-year house arrest at the hands of the Iranian government who also banned him to 20 years of self-censorship from making or writing or even being linked to film in any form. Panahi, who himself states that this is all he knows (He’s been directing films since the 80s), snuck this little documentary outside the country through a thumb-drive and it managed to play to a European audience who raved. It would wind up the recipient of several international awards and shortlisted for the 2012 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

Taxi, also known as Taxi Tehran, is cinema of the oppressed of the highest example. Already well into his ban, Panahi poses as a self-deprecating cab driver who simply drives people around Tehran and listens to their stories. At one point a debate between a female teacher and a male thief (who takes his time to reveal his occupation, mind you) becomes contentious as it exposes the injustices that occur in Iran. Another passenger, a man into video pirating, takes him into weird territory where Panahi lectures a young up and coming film enthusiast about movie-making. Then two women take Panahi on a very bizarre pilgrimage involving a fish in its bowl, and an injured man is thrown along his wife into the cab and Panahi’s universe. It’s the highlight of surreal absurdity — after Panahi drops the couple at the hospital, she calls him and asks for the footage in case her husband dies. Because, hey–you never know!

Yet another detour, and he’s picking up his very feisty daughter who can’t believe her father — her DIRECTOR father! — is showing up in a shabby cab car.

Panahi has a thing for directing children to act as natural on camera as they would behave off camera, and his spirited daughter almost walks away with the entire picture, engaging a boy thief into her own meta-film. However, nothing prepared me for a brief yet poignant interaction Panahi and a female lawyer also banned from practicing her profession, who leaves an object of pure beauty right on the camera.

This is a marvelous movie made by a man who loves movies and will not stoop to defeat and censorship.

7. MOMMY, Xavier Dolan, Canada

And now, we arrive at Xavier Dolan’s most accomplished work to date. Since his bold debut at the age of 20 with the remarkable, Almodovarian I Killed My Mother, Dolan has been on the rise, turning in impressive works with a bold stamp. He went a little overboard with 2012’s Laurence Anyways, but with Mommy, his fifth film, he found his voice.

Mommy recounts the story of Diane ‘Di’ Despres, a woman with scant education, loud, brash, perhaps even a floozy, who because of an incident at school where her volatile son Steve burned a classmate, now finds herself attempting to reconnect and raise her son at all costs. She gets offered an alternative, which is to hand Steve over to the government who would institutionalize him, but she will not accept that. Diane has hope.

Now, while in theory, raising Steve sounds like a good idea, in reality, it proves to be everything but peaceful. Right at the point where she’s cornered into a closet following an argument that spiraled out of control, a new person enters the picture.

That person is the neighbor across the street. Kyla used to teach but for reasons unknown (and the script doesn’t disclose why), she has a speech impediment. Even so, Diane invites her over, makes her an offer to teach/babysit for her son while she works, and a growing sense of familial order starts to emerge among the three.

Dolan’s story takes some interesting turns here and there, offering all three of his lead actors ample screen time to present complete characters that look lived in. The aspect ratio here (1:1) becomes a visual device — it frames the performances to their bare essentials eschewing backgrounds — but also serves as a symbol of how limited, how little both Steve and Diane have to work with. At two key points in the movie, the ratio widens, and for a brief moment, there is only freedom.

In the clip above, the first time this happens when Steve, under Kyla’s tutelage, has made great strides and even spies s future in Julliard. This is a wonderful, poetic moment, and Dolan directs the young actor, Antoine-Olivier Pilon as if he were flying on camera. When he literally opens the screen to its fullest (as Oasis’ Wonderwall plays) you feel he’s broken down the walls that confined and cursed him to a mediocre life, and you cheer, the same way he cheers “Liberte! Liberte!”

The second clip is a little different. Set to the somber, dramatic music of Ludovico Einaudi’s Experience, it’s where the heart of the movie lies. During the sequence, you see the three of them are setting off to drive into the country, They’re seen laughing, telling jokes, feeling good . . . until you see Kyla turn her face away. The screen has opened to its maximum, and as Kyla and Steve run on the beach, you see Diane, smoking a cigarette, tiredly watching them. You then move to a magical sequence where Steve graduates, brings home a girlfriend, a baby, the echoes of him exclaiming “Liberte!” from the previous sequence lingers audibly, and then an older version of Steve dances with his new wife. The scene is vertiginous and escalating, bathed in gold. Diane and Kyla give each other a hug; after all, they’ve been through so much!

And then it’s over. Slowly, inexorably the screen shrinks back to its former frame, enclosing her, bringing her back to what follows.

Mommy is a film of furious energy carried by the three leads and is a powerful meditation on the power of hope even when that in itself may seem an impossible dream.

6. BOY AND THE WORLD, Ale Abreu, Brazil

In a world where animation follows mainly two paths: Studio Ghibli (anime) and clones of Pixar pictures, this little movie, alongside another much different — but no less potent — picture called World of Tomorrow, stand alone and distinguish themselves from the pile. The story of a family that gets torn apart when the father leaves to go work and the boy who sets out to find him, is in itself unusual, yet heartbreaking as it is also joyous. You may interpret it as you will, but I mainly see it as a loss of a that perfect, innocent time in a child’s life that will never return, and how one adapts to one’s own adulthood in a myriad of ways.

5. THE WALK, Robert Zemeckis, US

“My name is Philippe Petit, and I am a wire-walker!” That was the quote that made us stand and applaud when we viewed The Walk when it opened the 53rd New York Film at the Alice Tully Hall. Viewing it for the first time, Zemeckis’ film brings back not only the concept of the great, heroic deed, but also the archetype described in Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. Philippe Petit might be ingratiating and only reveal a hint of the mad genius that creeps into the film halfway through the night before he is to climb the World Trade Center, but he remains strictly in that canon of Campbellian heroes: this is a man in full command of his own prowess who is not just committing a act of boundless bravery — and possibly destroying the mythical dragon of one’s shadow existences — but also demonstrating the spectating world that life is a mountain worth climbing.

4. MAD MAX, FURY ROAD, George Miller, US

This film may as well discarded the character of Mad Max, since during the entire movie he is far from the center of the plot. Mad Max: Fury Road belongs to the women in the story — the five brides and Furiosa, played by a regal, gloriously masculine Charlize Theron who literally drives the entire story of escape and redemption against the hands of a tyrannical leader full circle. Perhaps George Miller will do a follow up to her character? I hope so.

3. SON OF SAUL, Laszlo Nemes, Hungary

On the surface, Laszlo Nemes’ story of a Sonderkommando going through the hellish motions at a concentration camp during the final days of World War II seems like yet another entry into the topic of the Holocaust. If you look closer — and this is an excruciating film to watch because while the horror takes place just off-screen, or behind Geza Rohrig’s steely frame — you will see an archetype of karma taking place. Saul Auslander, our Everyman of whom we know practically nothing about, seems to be attempting a balancing of debt in his intent to find a burial for a boy he symbolizes as his son. Every shot finds Saul in a relentless quest to fulfill this small act of kindness among the Boschian landscape, the terror reflected in his eyes. He does manage to crack a smile — and it arrives a crucial moment, one filled with rich symbolism, and that in itself elevates this war piece into something greater.

2. 45 YEARS, Andrew Haigh, UK

Other than her co-starring roles in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (for those with long memories), Charlotte Rampling must seem a stranger to even British cinema, preferring French and Italian art-house productions that seem to catch her attention. She was the muse for Francois Ozon for the beginning of the aughties, turning in a spellbinding, heartbreaking performance in Sous le Sable (Under the Sand), where she played a wife mourning the loss of her husband. In Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years Rampling returns to a similar scenario.

The Mercers — Geoff and Anne — are soon to celebrate their anniversary when Geoff receives some tragic news. The body of Geoff’s former girlfriend from the 60s, Katya, has been spotted preserved in a glacier in the Swiss mountains where she fell while they were hiking. Geoff starts recollecting his time with her, and starts behaving rather strangely. Anne listens, sympathetic, until some doubt starts creeping in on her own status as a wife. And then she finds something Geoff kept hidden from her in the attic.

The question Haigh raises in this excellent movie is how much do we think we know of our loved ones? Worse, when they state their love, while a former lover’s memory still lingers, is it entirely possible they may be deluding themselves? Rampling’s slow realization that her life may have been a travesty this entire time is an actress at the peak of her abilities — restrained, yet aching, and ultimately, devastating.

  1. CAROL, Todd Haynes, US

If 45 Years reflects on the simmering tragedy of a marriage that starts to question itself after nearly half a century, then Todd Haynes’ Carol reflects on a relationship built on a foundation of repressed emotion laced with fragility at the height of the Commie scare where one false move could signify its death before it even had a chance. Haynes already explored a similar relationship in 2002 when he directed Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven. In it, she played a woman married to a  closeted man who falls for a black man (Dennis Haysbert) in the 50s, and in doing so, becomes the target for scrutiny.

In that film Haynes took a more Sirkian approach (and I’m surely not stating anything new here), with a visual and emotional delivery that felt manicured to perfection but telegraphing its artificiality at the same time. It was, in its own way, an ode to those over-wrought melodramas like Magnificent Obsession that peppered theaters in the late 40s and 50s. Carol, on the other hand, is as removed from sugar-coated manipulation and looks completely lived-in. You can almost savor the textures and color that dress up every scene and define it. Carol’s world, to name an example, is a series of browns and greys; she herself dresses in grey while with her family, but goes for a bolder use of red whenever she is around Therese. Therese on the other hand is defined in darker tones, perhaps as contrast to Carol’s chic sophistication, perhaps to give her a slow progression from the girl she is at the start of the movie to the woman she ends up being.

In a year of great lesbian movies — Appropriate Behavior, Grandma, Freeheld, and The Duke of Burgundy also rated highly — Carol is a remarkable standout because of the time in history its plot takes place. The seeds of Stonewall had been planted: The Mattachine Society was in full swing, and The Daughters of Bilitis would form in 1955. Even so, gay men and women had zero rights and could risk losing it all at the drop of a hat. Much of the women’s chemistry depends on body language and facial expressions only they could read. Carol’s and Therese’s attraction is clearly seen in their eyes — Carol’s smolder and burn intensely (while her body remains static in an upper-crust pose that she’s practiced, no doubt); Therese looks at her, quietly fascinated, but still an object out of reach. Carol remarks that for her Therese reminds her of a woman flung out of space; what she ignores is that this precisely is what Carol represents to Therese from the split second they meet at the toy store.

Carol, quite frankly, is one of the most romantic, most sensual movies I’ve witnessed in a long time. At a time when sex is flung full-force at the screen like a heated argument involving throw-able objects intended to leave a burning trail of carnage, Carol presents it naturally, yet with incredible tenderness and nascent love. It never goes overboard, and yet it is brimming. It is a haunting piece of work that will live long after the credits have rolled and will be studied as a capsule of a time gone by when people lived and loved in fear.

The First Post…

…is always the most difficult. How do you begin? Welcome to my blog, hope you like what I have to say, grab a coffee, take a sip and peruse through? I don’t know. I barely even know my name at the end of a long day and it’s still Monday evening in New York. Winter seems to be thawing prematurely but as is its wont, December holdovers are all over the place. Even films that have no nominations in any award show are still going strong (I’m talking to you, Lady in the Van. I loved your wit and that thing you did with Alex Jennings playing playwright Alan Bennett, twice, as if he had an invisible twin, or the voice of his own conscience. I thought that there was room in the Best Actress category for Dame Maggie Smith but the academy, it seems, disagreed.)

the-lady-in-the-van
Dame Maggie Smith in The Lady in the Van

Youth is still playing. One theater, a few showings, which tells me it will probably exit come Thursday. If the  Quad Cinema were open that is where it would go for a second run among tinier indies. However, I’m afraid this is the last NYC will see of it. Next stop: Netflix, Amazon, et. al.

In a way, all these holdovers aren’t a bad thing: many movie goers don’t want until they know a film is “Oscar Nominated” to go see it and be the judge for themselves if it deserved its accolades or not. They also want and need to be fresh in people’s minds so that cancels any significant new entry. I personally long outgrew that phase. I can’t recall when was the last time I saw a movie for awards it received. Now, its participation in certain film festivals can’t hurt–quite the contrary, the sole mention of Cannes  (in its main or tangential lineups), Venice, Locarno, SXSW, Tribeca, Sundance, Berlinale, New York Film Festival, or New Directors/New Films is more than enough to spark an interest.

Even so, I totally get it. The vast majority seeks out only what has been recognized. That’s where they measure a movie’s quality, an actor’s performance, a director’s choice in light, shadow, and camera movement (or lack thereof). And that’s perfectly fine.

For me, it goes much deeper than that. Year after year I see tiny movies that go completely unnoticed or play under the radar of “what’s hot” in arthouse theaters for months on end. Those are the pictures that I like. Those are the pictures that move me. Sometimes I will be disgusted, or left somewhat perplexed, but seeing an indie or a foreign or a documentary is akin to venturing into another man’s skin. Another time and place. Yes the story may be archetypal, or it might not possess the flair that a 300 million dollar budget would allow, but for me, it’s the journey. Seeing a story told in a smaller scale, reaching the same emotional impact a larger enterprise can give with enough retouching.

Phillippe Garrel's In the Shadow of Women
Phillippe Garrel’s In the Shadow of Women

January saw a couple of good releases –nothing mind-blowing–but smaller events that still carry a big punch. Both IFC and Lincoln Center played two New York Film Festival selections: Philippe Garrel’s In the Shadow of Women, and Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Treasure. Both films couldn’t be more different: the former is a story about a couple in trouble, the latter about a man who gets an offer he can ‘t refuse. While I could see both of them in one sitting (combined, both movies total  about 165 minutes), the stories proper are told with so much restraint and deadpan humor i found them somewhat heavy  to endure, even when the end result leaned towards a positive outcome. Perhaps a second view on DVD will bring the scale closer to home. That of,  course, remains to be seen. Both directors have a rather droll visual style, but exert a certain pull for the fabric that composes their stories and I enjoy that very much.

At the moment, I’m looking forward to this lull, then catching up with last week’s premiere of Aferim!  (Romania’s entry to the 88th Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture), and upcoming releases like Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato, Pablo Larrain’s El Club (Chile), and Atom Egoyan’s Remember, followed by the February festival Film Comment Selects which runs February17  – 24 at the Lincoln Center.