5/23: The Joy of Looking

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Any real cook will tell you that the true tests of culinary skill are the simplest dishes. There is no room for error in a perfectly roasted chicken or a beautifully poached egg.

This Is Martin Bonner is the movie version of that concept. A nearly plotless 90 minutes or less, it focuses on the title character, a charming and understated Australian played by Paul Eenhorn, and his growing relationship with a recently released convict named Travis, played by Richmond Arquette (and yes, one of the famous clan). Director/writer Chuck Hartigan follows the two characters, whose paths subtly parallel each other. Divorced and in the “only job that would take me”—as a volunteer coordinator for a Christian program that attempts to reintegrate ex-prisoners into mainstream life—Martin has only recently moved to Reno, to an apartment that looks suspiciously like the hotel room where Travis finds himself upon his release. At the urging of his daughter, Martin tries speed dating. At the persistence of a very young and desperate prostitute, Travis hires her, even though they have to ride the bus to his room since he doesn’t have a car. Martin repeatedly leaves messages to a son who never picks up. Travis reunites with his daughter at a Denny’s type of restaurant, awkwardly sitting by her side as her eyes skitter everywhere but in his direction.

The movie bills itself as “quietly observational,” and it feels very much like eavesdropping. It’s to the credit of everyone involved, including cinematographer Paul McElwee, production designer Maggie Kaiser, and editor Julio Perez IV, that in a movie where very little happens, you are completely riveted. Perhaps remarkable is the way the movie deals with Christianity. Non-raving, kind people talk about the difference their faith has made in their lives, while Martin and Travis discuss, without rancor, what they don’t understand about it.

There is a charming diffidence to the entire thing, as well as refreshing honesty. In its stillness, it captures what life is like: avoiding confrontation if possible—of course, it isn’t always—accepting modest connections, keeping expectations in check, moving slowly. And yet, in the hands of so many other folks, this would be a depressing hour and a half, and it is just the opposite. Martin Bonner ends in literal and figurative sunshine. Joy, grace, and light are no less beautiful when they come in small packages—and are so much easier to grasp.

This Is Martin Bonner will play at Cinetopia, Ann Arbor’s upcoming film festival (info at link).

5/21: PYT

The perkiest nuclear destruction you’re likely to see is Ginger and Rosa, a slight coming of age movie from filmmaker Sally Potter (Orlando), notable mainly for Elle Fanning’s presence as the appropriately nicknamed Ginger.

I won’t call it a performance, despite all the raves. A.O. Scott gushes that she’s a young Meryl Streep; sometimes film critics say the silliest things when the latest It Girl rears her head. Fanning is extremely pretty and photogenic, handles the Brit accent with aplomb (the same cannot be said for poor Christina Hendricks, who proves with each movie performance how lucky she and Mad Men‘s Joan are to have found each other), and progresses from all smiles to all shook up over the movie’s 90 minutes. In a wonderful touch, we glimpse that she’s bitten her nails down to the quick, a real girl tic that works well for the character.

Like Jennifer Lawrence, Elle Fanning has tremendous talent and terrific screen presence; you want to watch either of them whenever they’re in a frame. This, though, isn’t acting. This is what young Julia Roberts had (Pretty Woman, a movie I detest but in which I must admit she’s eminently watchable), then lost (Mary Reilly), then came back to claim like gangbusters (Erin Brockovich). And THEN, in Charlie Wilson’s War and Duplicity, she was an actress, with deft comic timing and visible self-knowledge. I hope she does more stuff like those two movies and less Eat, Pray, Love. In fact, let’s just hope for as few Eat, Pray, Loves as possible.

Some actresses come out of the gate swinging at a very young age. Cary Mulligan is one, Saoirsie Ronan another. Jodie Foster was much more interesting as a kid than an adult, unless of course you count that weird coming out speech at that one awards show. Margaret O’Brien just absolutely rocked in Meet Me in St. Louis, but….is that acting? Time tells; Mulligan and Ronan definitely have plenty of interesting stuff ahead of them.

And from this movie, Rosa, played by Jane Campion’s daughter Alice Englert, will be an interesting show biz kid to watch. She doesn’t have Fanning’s kewpie doll adorableness, but rather smolders as much as such a wee bairn can; she reminded me quite a bit of the wonderful actress Mike Leigh has used often, Katrin Cartlidge. She provides the only real darkness in a movie that otherwise feels surprisingly weightless, not such a great thing when you’re dealing with the terror of an oncoming holocaust. Annette Bening is all earnest and dowdy, Oliver Platt is comfy queeny, Timothy Spall is his usual lovely bad-teeth self, and everyone tries to muddle through a script that isn’t quite as deep as your average teenage angst novel. I’m sorry, because I really wanted to like it.

Oh, well.

In other news, my 16-year-old son LOVED Gatsby, deeming it perfectly cast, with enough departures from the book that he just plain ate it up. It was sheer delight to argue, in the true sense of the word, what we saw as the merits of the movie as well as debate why I liked most of it quite a bit less than he did. The experience of sharing art (or good craft) is so key to healthy relationships. Watch the same movie, together or separately, then talk about it. It’s a wonderful life, indeed.

5/16: The Adequate Gatsby

Here’s what Baz Luhrmann does better than anyone: crazy, chaotic party scenes and wonderful non-speaking sequences scored and edited in a way that shows a deep understanding of music. In these, what he delivers in this latest Gatsby is wonderful; restrained for him, just right in execution, and without the angina-inducing jitters of the same types of sequences in Moulin Rouge.

Here’s what he’s ok at: casting. Sometimes, he gets it just right. Here, it’s the wondrous discovery of Elizabeth Debicki, playing Jordan Baker. This Aussie beauty, with only one small role in a Down Under comedy under her belt, owns every frame she’s in; you can’t take your eyes off her. And it’s not just looks; she has a wonderful Uma-esque slinkiness combined, in this make-up, with the large, wanton eyes of an Edward Gorey flapper (I’m thinking “The Curious Sofa”). Next to her, Cary Mulligan’s Daisy fades into the background.

But that’s not a bad thing, and in fact, I think Mulligan’s casting is spot-on. Rich girls are blessed with impeccable grooming and good complexions from never, ever having to worry about money; more often than not, their gene pool is too crystal clear to produce the true beauties that come from shady ancestral mixes. Mulligan’s good in pretty much everything, always vulnerable, and here she brittles up her voice to nice effect. Her Daisy’s insubstantial, self-pitying, and continually distracted from her alligator tears by the shiniest available object.

In this case, that’s DiCaprio, another good casting choice, and for once the actor’s inability to convincingly do any accent makes sense. He’s a beautiful man, and no one can quite convey the belief in possibility the way he can as he gazes with undisguised confidence with those fine blue eyes. When Luhrmann introduces him, Rhapsody in Blue swelling in the background and fireworks literally bursting overhead, it’s a cinematic coup of rare, brassy nerve. The audience at my screening laughed with what sounded like joy, not derision, at the audacity, which somehow managed to have both a cornpone earnestness and a giddy delight in its corniness. Hard to imagine anyone but Luhrmann attempting it, and anyone but DiCaprio nailing the landing with such precision.

It’s neither of their faults, nor Mulligan’s, that the characters are cardboard, albeit nicely described cardboard; it’s Fitzgerald’s. In her essay in New York, Kathryn Scultz points out the book’s failings and her dislike of it. (Huzzah. I feel the same way about Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird. High school is the right place for all three of them.) One major reason is that the characters stand for things, but can’t stand on their own. There’s no there there, and zero reason to give a rat’s ass about any one of them. In one of the nicer lines of the book, quoted directly by Toby Maguire as a competent but uninteresting Nick Carroway, Fitzgerald calls Daisy and Tom “thoughtless people.” Do any of the characters have anything resembling a thought? Tom (Joel Edgerton has more swagger than Bruce Dern ever did, but he looks like Mr. Buchanan must’ve plucked him out of a gutter and shoved him into a polo game) is an asshole and doesn’t care who he hurts. Myrtle (Isla Fisher) looks good in torn stockings, and we don’t really give a shit about her. Jay and Daisy are ciphers. If we want them together, it’s simply because DiCaprio is so darn handsome and we’re still hoping we can help recover from the devastation he suffered in Gilbert Grape.

That leaves us with lovely Jordan and a party scene that gets chopped in half—it’s obviously the same party, because who could support the budget to film such a thing twice? Those are the fun parts, and the rest is a lot of earnest and reverent quoting of a book that moves well enough on paper, but stays paper flat when translated to the screen. And Luhrmann bizarrely repeats himself; having nicely condensed Gatsby’s back story into a quick flashback, he then has Maguire recount it toward the end of the movie. Maguire’s frequent voice over weighs down something that needs all the help it can get to fly.

Still, it’s not that big of a surprise. Luhrmann needs music. He makes spectacular, unparalleled, and emotionally powerful music videos, then strings them together into movies that are too long. If this one doesn’t produce the migraines of Moulin Rouge and R&J, it shows that beneath it all, Luhrmann has an old-fashioned, even stodgy sensibility when he’s not working with a soundtrack. His wonderful sense of humor, other than that awesome introduction of Gatsby, is sadly not on display.

One can only hope that this is termed the definitive Gatsby and that no one will try to make it again. There are, after all, many wonderful novels still waiting for their close-ups; Dawn Powell, Gore Vidal, Saul Bellow, Jeanette Winterson are just a few folks with grand stories just begging for cinematic breath. And please: cast Elizabeth Debicki in at least a few of them.

5/11: What Do Mothers Want?

As my mom says, we really don’t need a special day as long as our kids treat us well all year, and if your kids only treat you nicely one time a year, that kind of makes the day worse. Nonetheless, everyone loves a present (and if you don’t, well….I don’t know what to say). Here are a few alternatives if you’re stuck between the proverbial box of chocolates and a Funny Singing Card.

1. Put flowers in every room in the house. Including the laundry room.

(From the Laura Casey Interiors blog.)

2. Write a poem. It doesn’t have to be all rhyme-y and will probably be better if it isn’t, unless you know what you’re doing. Contrary to popular belief, rhyming poetry should only be attempted by a master, like Shakespeare, Auden, Dr. Seuss, or Chuck D.

3. One of my favorite presents ever was a flip book from my son that had a different saying on each page to make me laugh, about 50 in all. A lot of them were just movie quotes, but there were original ones, too. It comes with me on any trip I take and never fails to make me happy.

4. DO NOT under any circumstances take Mom to brunch. It’s a notoriously detested day in restaurants, and you’ll encounter crowds and extremely overworked and likely cranky wait and kitchen staff. Instead, make Mom coffee or tea in bed—breakfast is risky as most of us don’t like the crumbs, or really even eating in bed, which feels kinda hospital-ly—and then get everyone out of the house. You’d be amazed how rarely moms of young kids have the house entirely to themselves, and it’s pretty darn great.

5. Just love her. And thank her. Even a long life is a blip. Celebrate while you can.

I love you, Mom.

5/9: The Shining Moments

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Like another science-based tragedy, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go—the book, not the movie—David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense, from a script by Kim Fupz Aakeson, troubles with haunting grace. Both works deal with inexorable loss, made more frightening by its incremental nature.

But instead of Never‘s group of people in a hermetic circle, PS concerns a frightening pandemic, a disaster similar in scope to the approaching planet in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (the fact that both movies are penned by Danes is interesting, even if only coincidence).

It’s difficult to write about the story without spoiling, and I truly hope you’ll see the movie, particularly after the drubbing from the critics, who almost universally condemned it for being “too lyrical.” I dislike precious as much as anyone, so maybe it’s that I’m in a slightly melancholy mood of late. And condemning something based on its lyricism is, to me, like criticizing a poem for being “too poetic” or a ballet for being “too beautiful.” I could understand if the lyricism felt forced but it feels right (more on that under item 3 below). The movie’s not a masterpiece, but I still loved it.Here are a few reasons why:

1. Eva Green. I can’t imagine anyone who saw Bertolucci’s The Dreamers not developing a crush on this dark beauty, with her giant eyes and goofy grin. The last thing I saw her in was the David Hamilton-esque (aka, pretty awful) Cracks. It’s wonderful to see her in a grown-up lead, especially with…

2. Ewan MacGregor. This guy can’t be bad, even when stuck playing young Alec Guinness in those awful Star Wars movies. Here, he doesn’t have to clean up his lovely Scottish accent, and his character shifts beautifully from ace self-preservationist to a man most beautiful when he is broken.

3. The interstitials. Mackenzie and Aakeson took a huge risk with this aspect of the movie, which collages together photos and clips with voice over via Kelly-Macdonald sound-alike Katy Engels. I typically am not fond of voiceover, but it works here; the sequences ground the movie in the fact that the problems of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world, and that that world is a big, amazing place, and that people react to loss in similar ways, no matter where they are.

The critics rounded up on Wikipedia do not like this; like the singing sequence in Magnolia, you either go with it (the minority) or are afraid of it (I think fear, primarily of changing one’s ideas, motivates the most vociferous criticism). Tirdad Derakhshani of The Philadelphia Inquirer (same source) snarked, “The film loses its charm with annoying sequences that have a narrator explain to us ‘The Meaning of it All’ and then tell us ‘What Really Matters’ in life: Love. Love. Love’.”

YES. What is more important? That Love Love Love message can never be trite, never be repeated too often. Perfect Sense says it. And unlike most apocalyptic movies, it finds beauty and joy, fueled by people’s extraordinary resilience and refusal to deny the light, no matter what the circumstances.

5/6: Drive into Springtime

It’s gorgeous here in Michigan, and we feel, after a particularly long and tricksy cold season, like we’ve earned it. Here are a few picks to match my mood, which is light and fluffy and I hope matches yours.

First, an excerpt from Jerome Robbins’ lighter than air Dances at a Gathering.

If you haven’t seen Agnieszka Holland’s exquisite version of The Secret Garden, well, it’s time.

Yes, Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehly are divoon in their version, but I still love Joe Wright’s P&P best.

I always think An American in Paris is one of the spring-timiest movies around. Here’s the lovely Leslie Caron.

Of course, Cook and Moore bring us some fine DAFFiness. Yes, you get it, whether you want it or not.

Ending with this little gem from vimeo.

4/29: Always, Light

Always, light.

Since his first feature, Badlands, through Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, and Tree of Life, Terrence Malick been bewitched by, and bewitched us in turn with, light: gleaming, harsh, merciless, tender, beautiful light.

In his latest movie, To the Wonder, light, almost but not always from the sun, caresses the faces of Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, and Ben Affleck, and is consistently kinder to them than any of them are to each other. But it also shines down on an America decidedly un-dreamlike, a post-modern Grant Wood suburbia of pointed roofs and fruitless plains. Just down the road, it illuminates beat-up houses with eviction notices tacked to their front doors, battered chairs and ruined carpets jumbled together in front, broken, scarred people asking, with the shredded dignity they’ve been able to retain, for some sort of meaning.

Providing that meaning falls to Javier Bardem, playing a character that, in another movie, would shed his priestly robes to ravish the ravishing Kurylenko as her marriage to Affleck disintegrates. Bardem instead walks quietly through the different landscapes before him. His parish nearly empty—the sun pierces through the jewel hues of magnificent stained glass on a handful of mass attendees—he attempts to provide a solace that he, himself, does not know. His eyes speak a language of desolation. How, in this soulless terrain, can God or grace exist?

That quest for absolution that leads to peace served as the foundation of Tree of Life, and in many ways To the Wonder feels like a continuation of that movie, as if Malick, like Bardem’s character, wants to assure us of the existence of grace in order to accept it himself. For its unapologetic spiritual exploration, Wonder has received reviews nowhere near the ecstatic reception of Tree; you can get all God-y once, but don’t do it a second time and not expect the American film elite to get a tad squicked.

For the viewer, professional or non, uncomfortable with any metaphysical debate that might end up acknowledging the existence of God, Wonder will be cause for unease and its logical offshoot, derision. Critics have indeed jeered, whining that the movie doesn’t move. If you listen to them and skip it, you will miss some extraordinary filmmaking, which, whether or not you agree with Malick, should blow your bloody doors off. Early in the movie, Affleck and Kurylenko play on the beach of Mont St. Michel, the sand sucking precariously at their feet; later, as their relationship founders, Affleck’s job site provides a similar surface, but this time the downward pull nearly defeats him. Kurylenko dances and spins through a radiant Paris, barren American fields, a grocery store; she’s a woman who will simply dance through life, often in sorrow, but also because it’s the best way to take in the tremendous beauty that she is able to see everywhere. Rachel McAdams, painfully misused in Midnight in Paris, here shows with her bottomless eyes love, loss, and bewilderment, in a brief middle movement that is all the more powerful for its lack of resolution. Because of her scenes, “What happened?” hangs over the rest of the movie like Charles Ives’ unanswered question, haunting and familiar; we’ve all asked it, and not received any kind of satisfying answer.

Wonder has an ambitious structure, like a Mahler symphony, within which images flash like ribbons, or half-remembered musical phrases snatched out of the air like fireflies. Surrounding that is a framework as carefully and symmetrically composed as a Greek temple. There is no waste, and neither is there any rush. The ultimate aim is God, or light, which in the vocabulary of this movie seem to be interchangeable. The three principals seek it in each other; Bardem, on his parallel track, tries to find it in the people he meets on his rounds, an increasingly futile and depressing task as they face ever-larger obstacles. Interactions with literal prisoners are strategically placed throughout the movie, a deft comment on those who are only technically free.

To not spoil, the movie ends on a resolute note of where the light is. It’s a bold statement in times when the mere mention of belief in God or anything resembling God is belittled, when prominent atheists limb out the world in terms as black and white as any that their zealot fundamentalist enemies use.

One can take Malick’s thesis literally, and that choice will leave you disappointed. Take it instead as a door similar to the one at the end of Tree of Life. You can see that door, which is open, as a challenge. Or you can see it as an invitation. Malick provides a gateway to see something beautiful, a truth that transcends our human limitations, that maybe will provide peace. It’s worth a shot.

Light, in the end, is a kind of a miracle. Yet it surrounds us at all times, there for us to seize, unfraid. That is, indeed, a wonder.