2014: Part 3

Frank. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Fascinating movie? Sure. Great? No, I’m not certain that it is. Michael Fassbender might actually be an even better actor with the papier-mâché head than without it. He’s good, though, as is Maggie Gyllenhaal, who I liked better than usual because she actually has an interesting character, unlike other stuff I’ve seen her play like in The Dark Knight and Won’t Back Down (although, to be fair, she had some great moments in Secretary and I don’t remember whether or not her character had “character” in Stranger Than Fiction). Both actors succeed in their roles because they’re not always easy to understand. Gyllenhaal in particular makes the sex scene she’s in simultaneously hilarious and a little frightening. Domhnall Gleeson, on the other hand, has a more complicated character: he serves as our protagonist and yet he is ironically out of place and in some ways unlikeable because he is too “normal” and ready to sell out for success. As in another movie I saw this year, Chef, social media plays an important role in advancing the plot. (I’m waiting for the day when Twitter becomes passé and it looks even sillier than it already does to see Tweets onscreen.) At least in Frank there’s a sense of mocking in the ridiculousness of Gleeson’s Tweeting (“#livingthedream”). Other high points of the film: Scoot McNairy as the band’s disturbed manager, Tess Harper and Bruce McIntosh in their brief scene as Frank’s parents, Carla Azar as the drummer (clearly the most musically talented of any of them) and François Civil as the French bassist. Neither Azar nor Civil has much in the way of screenwritten substance, but Civil gets bonus points for being incredibly attractive, so at least he’s a draw for the eye. The film is let down by its third act, which I guess works out the only way it could have, but it kind of deflates the bubble of eccentric charm that the film had going for it. I understand why the film went where it went, and the ending does make sense in its strange way, but I still couldn’t help feeling disappointment. Frank is worth seeing, though, especially for the song that ought to be a hit single, “I Love You All.”

Miss Meadows. Directed by Karen Leigh Hopkins. I really enjoyed this weird little movie. The most common association made is that it’s a vigilante version of Mary Poppins (since Katie Holmes plays a prim-and-proper schoolteacher) but I think the better cinematic comparisons to make are Blue Velvet (violent and sexual tensions in a seemingly idyllic small town; dark comedy; stylized acting) and Taxi Driver (using violence to rid the world of other violent people; using your own rationales to determine who should be gotten rid of; a balance of naiveté and cynicism). I thought Katie Holmes did a really great job since she could portray both the innocent, childlike, stunted characterization and also the fragile, emotional, sexually aware woman in the process of emerging. I also enjoyed James Badge Dale’s performance as the sheriff who uneasily falls in love with Miss Meadows. Callan Mulvey is also memorable as the neighborhood sex offender, as are Ava Kolker as a student who takes a shine to Miss Meadows, Mary Kay Place as Miss Meadows’ next-door neighbor and Jean Smart as Miss Meadows’ mother. Some of Joan Sobel’s editing wasn’t to my liking, but Barry Markowitz’s cinematography was pretty good. (The film also has a fun cover of “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” by Katie Holmes.) There’s something fascinating about a female character who cannot be controlled by men, not to mention viewing the film as the product of a female writer-director; maybe the film will eventually gain a cult following that will create some discourse of its themes.

St. Vincent. Directed by Theodore Melfi. This dramedy’s screenplay shows its seams quite often, hitting expected notes and even a few too many obstacles for Bill Murray’s Vincent character. The film is enjoyable, but it’s not subtle in its writing. Murray does very good work in the moments when you see the emotion in his face and his actions rather than in the not-so-great dialogue. (The dancing scenes, particularly “Somebody to Love,” are terrific.) I was often reminded of what Roger Ebert wrote about Murray’s performance in Broken Flowers: “No actor is better than Bill Murray at doing nothing at all, and being fascinating while doing it.” Murray shines the most when he is allowed to just act instead of overdoing it with the spoken word. Murray has some great scenes in the film, when the screenplay doesn’t overpower you with the hitting-you-over-the-head verbiage. I also enjoyed Melissa McCarthy’s performance, which felt realistic and relatable, and Jaeden Lieberher as McCarthy’s precocious young son (who is the film’s other protagonist). Chris O’Dowd is very good too as Lieberher’s teacher at Catholic school, including some truly funny lines. Naomi Watts’ character has a pretty ridiculous Russian (?) accent, which doesn’t work for me, and other supporting performances by Terrence Howard and Ann Dowd are mere cameos which don’t allow for character development. On the other hand, there is good work by Kimberly Quinn, Lenny Venito, Nate Corddry, Dario Barosso, Donna Mitchell, Reg E. Cathey, Deirdre O’Connell and Ron McLarty, who don’t appear for long either but who leave good impressions. It’s nice to see what I think of as the real Brooklyn (Sheepshead Bay), so that’s good, but ultimately I don’t think that this is a great movie or an out-and-out comedy. See it for Murray, McCarthy, O’Dowd and young Lieberher most of all.

The Theory of Everything. Directed by James Marsh. Overall this is a really good movie. The melodrama is a little heavy-handed at times, but Marsh knows how to handle emotion since he made the really affecting documentary Project Nim three years ago. Eddie Redmayne deserves so much awards love for his excellent and transformative performance as Stephen Hawking, including physical components that I’m sure were difficult to achieve. Felicity Jones also did a very good job as Jane Hawking, a role that showed the intense strain put on her character by the weight of having to take care of her husband. The ever-dependable David Thewlis does nicely as Stephen’s professor-mentor, while other good performances were given by Harry Lloyd as Stephen’s Cambridge roommate Brian, Simon McBurney as Stephen’s father, Emily Watson as Jane’s mother and Maxine Peake as Stephen’s caretaker Elaine. I didn’t have quite so positive a reaction to Charlie Cox, who plays choral director Jonathan (another of Stephen’s caretakers); I just didn’t get much of a sense of “acting” out of him. Otherwise, there was generally very good work from the actors, Redmayne and Jones obviously having the best showcases. Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography gives a warmth to the film, enhancing the look of certain scenes with a delicate glow that helps create a sense of the 60s and 70s. I definitely recommend the film, even if you’re like me and you have zero comprehension of physics; ultimately it is a film about love and the struggle to survive unimaginable obstacles.

20,000 Days on Earth. Directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. Put simply, this is my favorite film of the year so far. From the thrilling opening sequence fast-forwarding through Nick Cave’s life to the ferocious, life-affirming concert scene at the Sydney Opera House, the film totally changed my perspective on music, memory, writing and on my appreciation for how a documentary can blend the real and the unreal to create a unique narrative. The greatest benefits were not simply that I discovered Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds (although, admittedly, I had been peripherally aware of the band for nearly a decade, ever since seeing Wings of Desire – more on that in an upcoming post about that specific film), but also that I discovered Grinderman, The Birthday Party/The Boys Next Door, Rowland S. Howard (if you have never listened to his album Teenage Snuff Film, you have missed out on one of the finest solo efforts of the last 15 years), Mick Harvey, Blixa Bargeld and all the other extraordinarily talented musicians who have worked with Cave in the past forty years. In the two months since seeing the film (an experience so great that I went back to see it again two weeks later), my taste in music has undergone such a seismic shift… and I dig it. I also have to give a shout-out to Erik Wilson for such beautiful cinematography, especially in the shots of Brighton and the film’s last shot in Sydney.

Filmmaker Firsts: Cristi Puiu

#22: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) – dir. Cristi Puiu

Based on a true story, this dramatic satire – I think that that classification fits more than “dark comedy” – highlights some critical issues with the Romanian healthcare system, which is painted as a largely uncaring and harsh web of doctors who would rather pass the problems of the ailing Mr. Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) to whichever other hospital will take him. It is certainly an infernal journey, to refer back to the use of “Dante” as the main character’s name. The film’s international success, visible in the many awards it won (including the Un Certain Regard Award at the Cannes Film Festival), made it one of the catalysts for the Romanian New Wave of cinema in the mid-2000s and put director Cristi Puiu, then in his late 30s, on the moviemaking map. Lazarescu was my first time watching a Romanian film and although it was tough going at times, it was a mostly positive experience.

The film has many terrific supporting characters who drift in and out depending on where Mr. Lazarescu is (at home, at different hospitals, seeing different doctors). Dana Dogaru (on the right, top photo) and Doru Ana make a good impression as neighbors who reluctantly help Lazarescu when he falls ill, slowly revealing their concern when it becomes apparent that he is in need of professional medical assistance. Mihai Bratila (on the left, bottom photo), for example, is very funny as a sardonic CT technician who gives Lazarescu the cranial and hepatic scans that he needs. Later in the film, Mimi Branescu is memorable as Dr. Mirica, a man more interested in whether or not he can charge his cell phone and who refuses to operate on Lazarescu when the tired, addled patient refuses to sign the surgical disclaimer about possible paralysis.

This is probably my favorite line in the film; patients in the nearby hallway are not welcome in this sick bay. Liver specialist Dr. Ardelean (Florin Zamfirescu) has the bedside manner of a cactus, besides looking like a surly Abraham Lincoln. Instead of acting kindly towards Mr. Lazarescu, he berates him for having the scent of booze on his breath and blames the patient for causing his own malady, purposely smacking the scar of an old ulcer surgery. The film is unrelenting in its process of breaking down Lazarescu’s bodily and mental faculties, stripping away his dignity with each futile visit to an ER or irritated groan from a medical assistant about him soiling himself, but it maintains a grim sense of humor. Puiu’s shaky handheld camera, operated by Andrei Butica, physicalizes a shaking of the head at the terrible state of medical practice in Romania.

Throughout the film the anchor is the sympathetic paramedic, Mioara, played by Luminita Gheorghiu (right), who dutifully lugs Mr. Lazarescu around in her ambulance all through the night to many different hospitals and endures all the nasty things said to her by degree-bearing doctors and nurses who sneer at her attempts to help diagnose Lazarescu’s illnesses. Gheorghiu has appeared in many of the most notable Romanian films of the past decade, including Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) and Beyond the Hills (2012) and a reprisal of the Mioara character in Cristi Puiu’s Aurora (2010), in addition to starring in the well-regarded Romanian drama Child’s Pose (directed by Calin Peter Netzer) last year. Gheorghiu also appeared in Puiu’s first feature, Stuff and Dough (2001), as well as in roles in two French-made films by the Austrian auteur Michael Haneke, Code Unknown (2000) and Time of the Wolf (2003). Gheorghiu’s performance in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu was noted internationally; she won the Best Supporting Actress Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the Best Actress Awards from the Namur International Festival of French-Speaking Film (in Belgium) and the Transilvania International Film Festival (a Romanian event).

Gheorghiu appears about thirty minutes into the film (which is two and a half hours in total) and she sticks with Fiscuteanu nearly to the story’s end. Gheorghiu gives my favorite performance in the film, a quietly effective study of a hard-working woman whose caring shines through even in an unfeeling work atmosphere. For her the film is absolutely worth watching; even though the running time can be a bit of a drag, the narrative picks up speed once she shows up.

Saturday Night Spotlight #15: Doris Wishman

Hailing from Manhattan and standing only 4′ 11″, the life of Doris Wishman (1912-2002) started innocuously enough: she spent her early years as an adult getting an education at Hunter College and working as a secretary and a movie booker. After she was widowed in 1958, she embarked on a career in independent film that put her at the forefront of the “sexploitation” movement along with Russ Meyer, Radley Metzger and Michael and Roberta Findlay. Wishman began her directorial career with “nudie cuties” like the lunar Nude on the Moon (1961, co-directed by Raymond Phelan) and Blaze Starr Goes Nudist (1962), the latter being the only film to star the burlesque queen. Wishman sometimes worked under male pseudonyms, directing Nude on the Moon in the guise of “Anthony Brooks” and also making a number of films as “Louis Silverman,” including Indecent Desires (1968), Too Much Too Often! (1968) and Love Toy (1973). Wishman even strayed into the territory of pornography with the features Satan Was a Lady (1975) and Come with Me My Love (1976). Doris Wishman’s career stalled for many years after the early 1980s, but her final two films came out in 2002 (the year she passed away) and 2007. Her filmography certainly begs the question: to whom do her movies’ collective gazes belong? Are they stereotypical products of the male gaze because of the usual audience for the sexploitation genre or are they films made with the unique vision of a female auteur?

Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965) – In one of her better-received B-movies, Wishman tackles some sensationalist themes: a young housewife (played by Gigi Darlene) is raped by her apartment building’s janitor and after she kills him, she flees and continues to encounter problems and more abusive men. The film contains less nudity than the usual Wishman product, focusing more on the injustices faced by the female protagonist and the unwelcoming New York atmosphere. As was often true throughout her career, Wishman also produced the film and wrote its screenplay.

Double Agent 73 (1974) – Wishman worked for a while with one of the biggest (pun intended) sexploitation stars of the 70s, Chesty Morgan, including in this farcical send-up of spy movies. Once described as a “burlesque grotesque,” Morgan’s comically large bosom is the central plot device; one element of her character’s espionage tactics includes having a camera implanted in her sizable bust. Is the film different for having been produced and directed by a woman, not to mention the story being written by Judy J. Kushner (Doris Wishman’s niece) and scripted by Wishman? Incidentally, Chesty Morgan’s real-life backstory is compelling; before she was a stripper and actress she was a Polish-Jewish girl who grew up during World War II and whose parents were killed while they lived in the Warsaw Ghetto; Morgan later lived in Israel and then Brooklyn, widowed when she was only 27 (in 1965) after her husband was killed in a robbery at his store. Perhaps the common thread of widowhood bonded Wishman and Morgan.

Let Me Die a Woman (1977) – Filmed over several years, this quasi-documentary chronicles “sex-change specialist” Dr. Leo Wollman and his patients, men transitioning into lives as transgender women, exploring the meanings of femininity and what it means to identify with being a woman. Staged recreations of the stories being told as well as real footage of a sex-change operation made the film infamous for the perceived shock value, though the film also has interviews with the people whose lives were chronicled.

A Night to Dismember (1983) – Inspired by the “slasher” films that had become popular in the late 70s and early 80s, Wishman made her own entry into the violent horror genre with this tale of a woman (Samantha Fox) who is released from a mental institution, after which gory murders immediately begin happening. Doris Wishman cast the film herself and she contributed to the film’s editing (uncredited), though this time the story and screenplay were written solely by Judy J. Kushner.

Seven Days in Noirvember #7: Quai des Orfèvres

(This seven-part series focusing on film noir during what’s known as “Noirvember” will consist of 100-word pieces intended to be as punchy as any good noir screenplay.)

Quai des Orfèvres (1947) – Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

From the director of the suspenseful French classics The Wages of Fear (1953) and Diabolique (1955) comes this beguiling crime story starring such talented performers as Louis Jouvet, Simone Renant, Bernard Blier and the lovely Clouzot muse Suzy Delair (still alive now in her late 90s!), who has a standout scene singing “Danse avec moi.” Like all great film noir, Orfèvres has memorable cinematography: Armand Thirard, who later shot the aforementioned Clouzot films, was the man behind the camera here. Noir was not unique to American cinema; this particular film is proof of the first-rate filmmaking happening in postwar France.

Seven Days in Noirvember #6: The Big Sleep

(This seven-part series focusing on film noir during what’s known as “Noirvember” will consist of 100-word pieces intended to be as punchy as any good noir screenplay.)

The Big Sleep (1946) – Directed by Howard Hawks

I’m never 100% certain what’s going on in the plot (adapted from Raymond Chandler’s novel, scripted in part by William Faulkner), but what’s important is the chemistry between Humphrey Bogart and (recently late but eternally great) Lauren Bacall. How they interact onscreen is all that matters. Also get a kick out of Martha Vickers as Bacall’s kid sister who tries to seduce Bogie at every turn, Dorothy Malone as a bespectacled bookshop proprietress who transforms after removing her eyewear and Elisha Cook, Jr. in one of his typical roles as a fellow in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Seven Days in Noirvember #5: Deadline at Dawn

(This seven-part series focusing on film noir during what’s known as “Noirvember” will consist of 100-word pieces intended to be as punchy as any good noir screenplay.)

Deadline at Dawn (1946) – Directed by Harold Clurman

You can’t get more “film noir” than to be based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich and to have cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca (who shot Out of the Past the following year). In this frantic film set during one sweaty summer night Susan Hayward makes a lovely leading lady for Bill Williams, playing a dancehall girl and a sailor respectively, while excellent support is provided by Paul Lukas, Joseph Calleia, Lola Lane, Jerome Cowan and Marvin Miller. This was renowned theater director and critic Clurman’s only film; he was much better known for having cofounded the Group Theatre in 1931.

Seven Days in Noirvember #4: The Killing

(This seven-part series focusing on film noir during what’s known as “Noirvember” will consist of 100-word pieces intended to be as punchy as any good noir screenplay.)

The Killing (1956) – Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Q: Who would ever attempt to rob a racetrack? A: Sterling Hayden. He’s the architect of a scheme that, like all great film noir plans, is doomed to fail. Acting plaudits go to Elisha Cook, Jr. in perhaps his finest performance ever as one of Hayden’s partners and Marie Windsor – the ultimate B-movie bad girl – as Cook’s devious wife, plotting his downfall (and her payday) from the get-go. Lucien Ballard’s cinematography is a master class in black-and-white and most of the screenplay comes courtesy of Jim Thompson, famous for authoring hardboiled novels like The Killer Inside Me and The Grifters.