2013: Part 6

August: Osage County. Directed by John Wells. If I might make an unorthodox statement on Her High Holiness, Meryl Streep: my favorite performances of hers are ones in which she does not wear makeup or wigs (well, except for Death Becomes Her) or speak in impressively-practiced accents. I’m talking about Manhattan (a small role, but effective), Heartburn, She-Devil, The River Wild and Marvin’s Room, to name a few. These are all movies that prove how good Streep can be without the fancy, theatrical add-ons that people usually applaud her for. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy her work in August: Osage County, but it is often so difficult – much more than it needs to be – to get past the fact that you are Watching Meryl Streep Act. As Violet Weston, the cancer-ridden matriarch of a highly dysfunctional Oklahoma family, Streep’s heavily-rehearsed mannerisms are too often as artificial as the dialogue (I’ll get to that point later). On the other hand, Julia Roberts, who plays one of Streep’s three daughters, is good in the film because I like Roberts any time she doesn’t play America’s Sweetheart. (For the best example of this, watch her performance in the “Law & Order” episode “Empire.”) I take pleasure in the rare opportunity to see Roberts play someone flawed, angry, uncertain and just plain tired of the problems in her life. Roberts is ably supported by Julianne Nicholson (a portrait of quiet desperation as the plain-Jane middle child) and Juliette Lewis as her sisters, Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale as their aunt and uncle, Sam Shepard as the family patriarch (Streep’s husband) whose disappearance sets the film’s plot in motion, and the late Misty Upham as the newly-hired housekeeper in the Weston home (like Nicholson, another quiet – actually, even quieter – but impressive performance). Where the film falters, however, is in the performances that don’t ring true: Ewan McGregor, whose American accent never sounds quite right, as Roberts’ estranged husband; Abigail Breslin as their extremely annoying daughter; Dermot Mulroney as Juliette Lewis’s rich, slimy fiancé; and Benedict Cumberbatch, who is appropriately tender yet somehow also disappointing (mostly because of the awkward attempt at an Oklahoma accent) as Cooper and Martindale’s sensitive, unemployed son. The especial trouble here, the cinematic icing on the lumpy stage-to-screen cake, is the dialogue adapted by Tracy Letts from his own stage play. Letts’ words always sound written, so much so that when you hear lines issue forth from characters’ mouths, you can see the typeface on the screenplay pages and imagine Letts composing his quips and jabs, thinking, “Oh, that will sound good.” You only believe in the dialogue’s so-called realism if it is spoken by a particularly talented actor like Chris Cooper or Sam Shepard – two performers whose literal voices and stylistic/artistic “voices” ring true to the spirit of the American Midwest and Southwest – or in Juliette Lewis’s last scene in the film (the content of which I don’t want to spoil). Maybe this is why another film with Shepard, Days of Heaven (1978), works so much better; so much of the dialogue and voiceovers were improvised, making the words feel real.

Enough Said. Directed by Nicole Holofcener. This sweet romantic dramedy is light years ahead of Holofcener’s debut, Walking and Talking (1996), which I personally do not care for. Enough Said’s warm and engaging leads, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini, have chemistry to spare as the middle-aged couple looking for second chances after they have each been divorced from their respective spouses for years. I also enjoyed the work done by Toni Collette and Ben Falcone as Louis-Dreyfus’s closest friends, Catherine Keener as Louis-Dreyfus’s poetry-writing client and friend, Tracey Fairaway as Louis-Dreyfus’s daughter, Tavi Gevinson as Fairaway’s friend/Louis-Dreyfus’s confidante and Anjelah Johnson-Reyes as Collette and Falcone’s maid. The film doesn’t have too many surprises once you figure out how the plot is going to go, but it’s pleasant enough and will leave you with a smile. It is a mature look at relationships, both the romantic one between Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini and the mother-daughter one between L-D and Fairaway. Most of all, though, you come away from the film aware of what a shame it is that Gandolfini passed away so soon. He shines as an unexpected, unconventional yet thoroughly delightful romantic lead.

Only Lovers Left Alive. Directed by Jim Jarmusch. Vampire romances are not for everyone, but if you love the work of Jim Jarmusch, which is probably a more important criterion for this film than whether or not you love tales of the undead, then you will probably love Only Lovers Left Alive too. It is not totally a drama, nor do I feel comfortable labeling it a comedy; it’s a romance, falling somewhere in between the two poles depending on the mood that each individual scene calls for. The plot is not heavily conflict-driven, which is not to say that there is no conflict, but every aspect of the narrative is handled in a slow-burning, sensuous way. Yes, the pacing is languid, but Jarmusch’s chosen speed is part of the film’s atmosphere of seduction. Leading lady Tilda Swinton is a one-of-a-kind performer, someone you are drawn to no matter who her character is, where she is from or what kind of (typically awesome) hair she has. Tom Hiddleston, draped in black clothing and with long black hair to match, has probably never been more sultry than here, spewing curses and dropping subtly droll lines in such a deadpan fashion you almost can’t believe that this is the same guy who chews and spits out the scenery as villainous Loki for Marvel’s Avengers franchise. Anton Yelchin is funny in an oddball-charmer way as Hiddleston’s connection to the real world, while Mia Wasikowska has a ball as Swinton’s wild, unpredictable little sister. There are also some enjoyable appearances put in by John Hurt as the vampire version of Christopher Marlowe, Jeffrey Wright as a (mortal) Detroit doctor who supplies Hiddleston with bags of blood to snack on, Slimane Dazi as one of Marlowe’s disciples and Yasmine Hamdan as an alluring singer. The film is tied together by music, including the original music by Jozef van Wissem and Carter Logan (the latter known as “SQÜRL,” responsible for eerie compositions like “The Taste of Blood” and “In Templum Dei”), as well as a dance scene set to Denise LaSalle’s “Trapped by a Thing Called Love” that makes for a nice companion scene to the “It’s Raining” dance in Down by Law (1986). With impressive cinematography by Yorick Le Saux, the whole package is a gorgeous series of images. (There is a shot of Swinton and Hiddleston lying in their bed which is so artfully composed that it is worth seeing the film just for that beautiful moment.) Only Lovers Left Alive is perhaps not quite in the league of the earlier Jarmusch films Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Down by Law and Broken Flowers (2005) but Lovers is still a worthwhile experience, especially if you can see it projected on the big screen.

Snowpiercer. Directed by Bong Joon-ho. This much-hyped apocalyptic action film released to theaters last summer is nowhere near as good as many critics have claimed, but the film is not completely without merit. Chris Evans is remarkably bland as our working-class, Spartacus-like hero (are we just supposed to root for Evans because of all the times we have seen him play Captain America in the Marvel universe?), but Tilda Swinton is especially good as the prime minister of these last remnants of humanity. (I feel it’s worth noting that her performance is extra interesting since it was originally intended to be played by a male actor.) I also appreciate Jamie Bell as one of Evans’ cohorts in the revolution, Kang-ho Song as a security expert, John Hurt as Evans’ elderly mentor and Alison Pill as a schoolteacher from hell (seriously, she totes a machine gun while class is in session aboard the train). Indeed, there is an abundance of murder on this Orient express (ba dum tsh!), but the violence is more often heard or implied than seen straight on. Some of the action sequences are well-conceived and pretty much anything showing the train moving through the snowy atmosphere is exciting but overall the film is underwhelming. The symbolism plugged into the story is desperately obvious, never handled with an ounce of subtlety. Then again, while dystopian dramas have been done better before, those other films didn’t feature Tilda Swinton with a Yorkshire accent and fake teeth.

Under the Skin. Directed by Jonathan Glazer. My film theory professor showed Under the Skin in class on May 4 – our assigned readings for that day were essays/book chapters by Eugenie Brinkema and Steven Shaviro – so Glazer’s film was a perfect companion piece, especially since at the beginning of class we watched Grace Jones’s “Corporate Cannibal” music video (which Shaviro wrote about in his book Post Cinematic Affect, one of the aforementioned texts that we had to read). I don’t know if I would have had the same reaction to Under the Skin if I had seen it on DVD at home – or even if I had seen it in a theater last year – because it was great to see it with my class (which was comprised of a rather small group) with the right theoretical background to make viewing/trying to understand the film an even richer and more complex endeavor. Bit by bit I find myself more drawn to Scarlett Johansson as an actress because what she does in Under the Skin is more than simply provide a pretty face; there are numerous layers folded inside her portrayal of an alien who infiltrates our world, including the consideration of her physical presence in every cinematic space and how her character interacts with people. (How exactly does one explain what it means to identify as a human, anyway?) Johansson’s character is not born of this planet, but there is a very real, “human” sense of character development as the plot progresses and Johansson absorbs and understands different characteristics associated with human beings. Mica Levi’s score (I particularly love “Lonely Void,” “Bedroom” and the mesmerizing synthesizer drone of “Love”) and Daniel Landin’s cinematography add immeasurably to the film’s impact – the shot of Johansson lying down and juxtaposed with the forest outside, having become so much a part of nature that she is almost indistinguishable from the landscape, is something I could write a lengthy essay about – but a large part of why the film works is because Johansson defies our expectations. She was cast because of what her name means to viewers as a kind of star-power/brand and based on what her physicality/sexualized body signifies, but after a while you stop thinking of her as Scarlett Johansson the Hollywood Sex Symbol and you think of the character as her own entity. There is more to the nameless character of “The Female” than the shape of her lips or the size of her bust, although the surface is certainly a source of interest for Johansson’s character as she explores the relationship of her human form to male bodies, minds and emotions. This is a film I definitely want to see again so that I can delve further into interpreting its meanings and suggestions.

Saturday Night Spotlight #27: Sólveig Anspach

Iceland-born, France-bred director Sólveig Anspach (1960-2015) was an internationally recognized director, the films either winners or nominees of awards given at the Cannes Film Festival, the César Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscars) and the Venice Film Festival, among others. Anspach passed away recently at the tragically young age of 54, having fought her battle with breast cancer for many years, but the legacy of her filmography lives on in her nuanced portraits of women who face all manner of personal and professional challenges.

Haut les coeurs! (aka Chin Up!) (1999) – This drama co-written by Anspach and Pierre-Erwan Guillaume tells a story of a woman (played by Karin Viard) who is diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after learning she is pregnant. Inspired by real events from Anspach’s own life. Two of the film’s three cinematographers were women, Mathilde Jaffre and Isabelle Razavet (the other DP being Lorenzo Weiss); Razavet also shot Queen of Montreuil (2012) and Lulu in the Nude (2013) for Anspach. Anne Riegel, who edited the film alongside Mathieu Blanc, later returned to work with Anspach on Made in the USA (2001), Stormy Weather (2003), Back Soon (2008) and Queen of Montreuil (2012). Both Razavet and Riegel were also employed for TV work that Anspach did in the 1990s and 2000s, as well as on Anspach’s final film, L’effet aquatique (2016), which was in the process of post-production when Anspach died. Haut les coeurs! was a success when it was released in France; Karin Viard won the César Award for Best Actress, Laurent Lucas was nominated for Most Promising Actor and Sólveig Anspach was nominated for Best First Work. The film also earned awards and nominations at the Chicago International Film Festival (New Directors Competition), the Ghent International Film Festival, the Lumiere Awards, the Molodist International Film Festival and the Valladolid International Film Festival.

Stormy Weather (2003) – Possibly Anspach’s most emotional film, this drama relates the story of a middle-aged, mentally ill wife and mother (played by Icelandic actress Didda Jónsdóttir) who is studied by a young, inexperienced psychiatrist (French actress Élodie Bouchez). By turns humorous and unsettling, depending on the mood Anspach goes for in the scene, the film is accompanied by a score composed by Alexandre Desplat.

Queen of Montreuil (2012) – Recipient of the Lina Mangiacapre Award at the Venice Film Festival, Anspach’s comedy stars Florence Loiret Caille as Agathe, a director whose husband has recently passed away, an event which has (understandably) put her life and career on hold. As Agathe tries to get herself back to normal, she runs into a series of bizarre obstacles, including a surprise encounter with some Icelandic tourists who have a sea lion in tow. Colorful cinematography by Isabelle Razavet gives the film a warm glow.

Lulu femme nue (aka Lulu in the Nude) (2013) – Playing like a Gallic version of the Italian comedy Bread and Tulips (2000), Lulu tells the tale of a wife and mother (Karin Viard) who makes a spur-of-the-moment decision not to return home to her husband after she takes a trip out of town for a job interview. Lulu’s ensuing odyssey gives her the opportunities to make new friends and rediscover her own identity and sense of self. Nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Claude Gensac) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Sólveig Anspach and Jean-Luc Gaget) at the 2015 César Awards, Lulu marks another collaboration between Anspach, lead actress Viard and cinematographer Isabelle Razavet.

Indelible Film Images: Frida

Frida (2002) – dir. Julie Taymor

Starring: Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Geoffrey Rush, Mía Maestro, Ashley Judd, Antonio Banderas, Edward Norton, Roger Rees, Valeria Golino, Diego Luna

Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto

2015: Part 2

Ant-Man. Directed by Peyton Reed. Considering the fact that I shelled out $38 and change for my two tickets to see this summer blockbuster in 3D, I feel a little cheated. I realize that Guardians of the Galaxy set a really high bar for Marvel comic-book adaptations last summer but still, given all the talent involved in the making of Ant-Man, I thought that the end result would be looser and more fun than what I saw in the finished product. I don’t know how much of Edgar Wright’s original vision remains in Peyton Reed’s film (original writer-director Wright left the project last year, citing “creative differences”), but what I do know is that Paul Rudd does not have the golden spotlight that I was hoping for. He’s such a good actor – as well as being a handsome charmer ever since the teen comedy Clueless (1995) – and for most of Ant-Man it feels like he’s on cruise control. The audience is supposed to like Rudd because he has always been a likeable presence in front of the camera, but his character’s lack of personality and a dearth of funny lines hurt the narrative immeasurably. I was similarly unimpressed with supporting actors Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly, as well as with Corey Stoll’s totally colorless villain (ironically called “Yellowjacket”), who seems to be evil merely for the sake of being evil. The only truly admirable member of cast was Michael Peña, who consistently shone in and stole every scene he had as Rudd’s pal from prison, a guy who considers his history of burgling a plus on his résumé.

Fantastic Four. Directed by Josh Trank. Honestly, I like this movie. Swear to God. I had not actually intended on seeing it – that’s a long story – but anyway I sat through Fantastic Four and it was never less than entertaining. Sure, it wasn’t the best-thought-out story ever – Reed’s parents being totally out of the picture after the early scenes? Reed’s eyes being blue when he was a kid but brown when played, as a teenager, by Miles Teller? When Reed escapes the facility where he was held hostage after he developed his superpowers, how does he manage to find that sweet hideout shack with the high-powered computer tech stuff (but he could not, for some reason, procure a razor to get rid of his five-o’clock shadow)? Also, where did he get that cool superhero-type suit that he was wearing when he was later apprehended, since he was naked when he escaped the facility? How about the fact that Reed can magically see without his glasses (for the second half of the movie) after a brief dip in the Planet Zero energy pool (wish I could get some of that free, not-approved-by-human-science Lasik treatment)? What about Sue Storm never using her invisibility power, except to make another character, The Thing, invisible in the climactic showdown with Dr. Doom? And while we’re on the subject, did no one think that a character named “Victor Von Doom” would eventually become a villain?? Why did he feel the need to accessorize his evilness with such a shabby-looking cape??? – but despite all these issues, the film was still fun to watch. It’s brainless popcorn entertainment. The dialogue is often extremely cheesy, especially the pointless exposition that characters spout at the weirdest times, but all these problems create a campy aura that makes Fantastic Four into the Plan 9 of Marvel movies… but somehow in an acceptable way. I genuinely, without any irony, had a good time at this movie. Miles Teller, Reg E. Cathey (who’s great in everything), Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Bell did their best as actors to make the movie as OK as they could. This is not the zenith of 2015’s filmmaking, I’m sure, but I think it’s ridiculous that everyone jumped on the let’s-bash-this-movie band wagon when in fact it’s better than Ant-Man. It’s true that there have been some hairy stories about the production of this film (director Josh Trank supposedly destroying the house he was staying in, Trank and Teller almost getting into physical altercations), but in the end Fantastic Four is fine. Don’t let other people dictate what a movie’s going to be like before you’ve even seen it.

Jurassic World. Directed by Colin Trevorrow. My original intention had been to see the latest entry in the Jurassic Park franchise at my favorite IMAX theater in Manhattan (AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13, right across from Lincoln Center), but that didn’t pan out, so I ended up seeing it at the Strand Theater, in Schroon Lake, NY instead while I was on vacation. I still had a pretty good time, sitting in the front row so that I could get all the action and excitement of the Strand’s smallish screen, but the facts are just as I had assumed: Jurassic World is a movie that needs to be enjoyed for the visuals because you sure aren’t going to get good screenwriting or even good acting out of this experience. As many other critics have noted, the film is more of a remake of the first two Jurassic films than an addition to the franchise; despite the presence of park techie Jake Johnson as a “superfan” of the original park (and Johnson is one of the few bright spots in the film, adding some comic nuance to little physical gestures even when he is burdened with bad dialogue), the only difference between the different films’ stories is that there are shinier new gadgets here. Otherwise, characters do the exact things you would expect: dinosaurs are reborn, people are brought to see them, the dinos get out of control. There is little indication that filmmaker Colin Trevorrow was the right choice to direct this big-budget popcorn flick; his first feature, Safety Not Guaranteed, does not display any special skill that would suggest an ability to direct high-flying action. Gone is the strong, intelligent female lead that Laura Dern played in 1993; instead Bryce Dallas Howard plays a stereotype of a cold, bitchy businesswoman, which of course means that when she runs through the jungle, it’s in high heels and with her shirt opened to reveal cleavage. (Quelle surprise.) Chris Pratt is likeable enough for us to root for him to be a winning hero, but he’s awfully bland; any good feelings that we have for his character are leftovers from Guardians of the Galaxy, and since there’s very little in the way of actual humor in Jurassic World, the metaphoric leftover of Pratt’s performance isn’t reheated enough to be tasty. (Plus he never takes his shirt off – opportunity wasted.) Irrfan Khan and Vincent D’Onofrio, two of the best supporting actors you could potentially have in a movie, are misused by having to portray extremely dumb characters. Similarly, it seems like a waste to give Judy Greer such a “nothing” role, in which she can do little but look worried and/or cry. I liked Omar Sy (this is my first time seeing him in a movie) as one of the raptor trainers, though, and two other good scenes improved the atmosphere when a) Khan and BD Wong get into an argument about mad scientist-type quandaries and b) one of the film’s characters (I won’t reveal who) dies perhaps the most entertainingly violent and drawn-out death I have ever seen in mainstream American cinema. Is it worth sitting through the whole film for those tiny jewels, though? (P.S. For a movie set in Costa Rica, doesn’t it strike anyone as odd that there didn’t seem to be a single Hispanic character in the entire film?)

Magic Mike XXL. Directed by Gregory Jacobs. While the narrative structure may not be as sound as in the first Magic Mike film – purposes/goals/details are hazier here, opting instead for a “hey let’s just do this and see what happens and maybe we’ll talk more about it later!” vibe – the comedy is better in this film. (The previous installment had too much melodrama in the subplot about male strippers who sell drugs to supplement their income.) I also enjoy the fact that the male supporting characters (anyone other than Mike) talk more about themselves and that they were generally, collectively, an active part of the plot. I don’t remember Joe Manganiello doing much in the first film besides the dance routines, but here his character seems to have a personality, say and do things that are actually funny – and the “Cheetos and water” dance is, to say the least, memorable. Magic Mike XXL is certainly more feminist than its predecessor. Male characters (particularly Donald Glover’s) discuss the importance of talking to women – and listening to them – to find out what they want. Jada Pinkett Smith’s “Rome” character is probably the campiest thing seen in a mainstream movie in a long, long time, a lady who empowers women to enjoy the visual pleasure of gazing at (and touching, and at times more) these “male entertainers” (as they call themselves) who work in Rome’s “empire.” I’m not as pleased with Amber Heard’s character, which is a combination of underdevelopment and bad acting, but I guess she’s not as pointless as Olivia Munn’s character from the first film. (As I recall, Munn’s main narrative purpose was to look “hot” in sexual scenes and be topless.) Women in Magic Mike XXL are encouraged to look, to enjoy interacting with men and not to be ashamed of discussing sexuality. In this regard the best scene is the one with Andie MacDowell and her friends, women of a “certain age” who would not usually be given that kind of platform for discussion in other Hollywood narratives. (They would still be playing moms, but the subject of their sex drives would probably not be acceptable for living room chatter.) This is not to say that Magic Mike XXL is a perfect film, but I was entertained and that’s about all anyone needs out of a summer movie. If nothing else, having Steven Soderbergh on board as cinematographer and editor never disappoints.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. Directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Tom Terrific is at it again, running and jumping and carrying this movie through its many exciting stunts and set pieces, ably aided by editor Eddie Hamilton and good (if not especially special or stylish) directing by Christopher McQuarrie. My main quibble with the cinematography, done by Robert Elswit (who also shot Ghost Protocol), is that it seems a little bit below the expected IMAX resolution; I suspect that the reason is because the film was not shot with IMAX cameras and has been stretched out to fill the bigger-than-normal screen. (Again, I’m reeeeally kicking myself for not seeing Ghost Protocol in IMAX because that would have been the tops.) Indeed, none of the action scenes in Rogue Nation is as thrilling to me as the Burj Khalifa scene in Ghost Protocol, but that’s hardly a fault when you consider just how exciting so much of Rogue Nation’s stunt work and chase scenes are. As usual, Simon Pegg’s humor helps diffuse tension and Jeremy Renner and Ving Rhames are good as Tom Cruise’s other partners in crime. Sean Harris is a fairly scary villain (more so than some of the guys from previous M:I films), while Simon McBurney gives easily my favorite performance in the film as bespectacled British intelligence man Atlee. Nice to see Tom Hollander too, playing the British Prime Minister. Rebecca Ferguson was alright as Cruise’s leading lady, and I’m glad that the movie didn’t force her into being anyone’s love interest, but you do have to deal with a lot of the same old sexualization of ladies (unnecessary shots of Ferguson’s lower body and legs in the Maggie-Q-in-M:I3-esque dress that Ferguson wears to the Vienna State Opera, unnecessary bikini scene, unnecessary dressing scene with partial nudity). Speaking of the opera: the Turandot scenes were probably my favorites in the film, especially thanks to the glorious voice of tenor Gregory Kunde. The scene shamelessly lifts its plan from the Royal Albert Hall assassination attempt in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) – how fitting that I saw Rogue Nation on Hitchcock’s birthday! – and it also reminds me of the similar Mikado scene in Foul Play (1978), but I enjoy the homage all the same. Rogue Nation doesn’t break new cinematic ground, but it’s still a lot of fun and you are constantly and consistently entertained.

Five Times I Was Amazed by the Films of Wim Wenders

As I did in yesterday’s post, today I am commemorating the birthday of a genius in the history of world cinema: German writer-director Wim Wenders turns 70 today. For nearly half a century Wenders has dazzled viewers with drama, comedy, romance and adventure presented in both fiction and nonfiction filmmaking. Here, to give you some samples of his craft, are five scenes that I love – it goes without saying that these films are all highly recommended.

Kings of the Road (1976) is perhaps Wenders’ definitive German “road movie,” the crown jewel of the genre that made him famous in the 1970s. This scene, in which the two main characters (played by Rüdiger Vogler and Hanns Zischler) listen to a record of Improved Sound Limited’s “If I Could Read Her Mind,” exhibits a combination of music/no dialogue that allows the audience to focus on the winding road, the stark landscape (photographed by co-cinematographers Robby Müller and Martin Schäfer) and the open sky above. The scene also reminds us of Wenders’ sublime ear for which kinds of rock music sound best on the highway, an element that he has incorporated into his features and short films since the late 60s.

When Paris, Texas (1984) starts, these first images exemplify the spectacle of the great American nowhere, as I like to think of it, which showcases the loneliness of the wide expanse that rolls on and on for who-knows-how-many miles. Our introduction to the film’s main character, Travis Henderson (played by the wonderful Harry Dean Stanton), tells us little except for one crucial point: he is a man of few words. Even once he finally begins to open up and talk in the film, his words come out with the sound of a man who is unsure about whether he is saying the right things. In the first few minutes, though, all we know is that our protagonist is a most unusual fellow. Robby Müller’s cinematography and the blues twang of Ry Cooder’s guitar complete Wenders’ unique picture.

In Wenders’ magnum opus Wings of Desire (1987), Peter Falk, who plays himself, boils the beauty of human existence down to the essentials when he extrasensorily perceives the presence of angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz) on the street. For a wandering immortal, the advice of a man who does not take little pleasures like coffee and cigarettes for granted means a lot; later on in the film, Damiel will “take the plunge” and become human. Falk’s lines underscore the strange, unexpected joys of what it means to live on Earth.

Trying to make a sequel to Wings of Desire sounds impossible, doesn’t it? And yet Faraway, So Close! (1993) achieves so many moments of grace, even if the product as a whole does not measure up to its predecessor. Take, for instance, this scene when the angel Cassiel (Otto Sander) invisibly observes Lou Reed in his hotel room. Reed sings about the city of Berlin as only he can in that gravelly baritone of his, reflecting on the loss of a memory as he tries to reconnect the fragments of his recent actions and retrieve a forgotten lyric. When you watch Faraway, So Close! with an audience, particularly now that Reed is no longer with us, you can feel a ripple of awe pass through the crowd. There is something undeniably magic – whether movie-magic or music-magic or both – in this brief segment.

The documentary The Salt of the Earth (2014), which Wenders co-directed with Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, profiles the life and career of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado (father of the film’s co-director). The film opens with this montage of images shot by the film’s subject, images which resonated with Wenders so much when he discovered them that he was immediately inspired to learn more about the man behind the camera. In Wenders’ hushed narration we come to understand why he was so moved to make this film; Salgado’s photographs are aesthetically pleasing but they also capture the many plights of the human condition, literally shedding light on warfare and genocide as well as providing ethnographic studies of cultures from all over the world.

25 Memorable Moments from Hitchcock’s Filmography

Today marks the birthday of film director Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980), who revolutionized cinema with his peerless style. Here are 25 images from his films, moments that have continued to stay with me even after many years.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)

Blackmail (1929)

Murder! (1930)

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

The 39 Steps (1935)

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Rebecca (1940)

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

Saboteur (1942)

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Lifeboat (1944)

Spellbound (1945)

Notorious (1946)

Rope (1948)

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Dial M for Murder (1954)

Rear Window (1954)

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Vertigo (1958)

North by Northwest (1959)

Psycho (1960)

The Birds (1963)

Marnie (1964)

Frenzy (1972)

Family Plot (1976)

2011: Part 10

Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard. Directed by Richard Lowenstein and Lynn-Marie Milburn. This is a documentary that desperately needed to be made, and I’m so glad that it was. Rowland S. Howard, one of Australia’s most colorful rock-and-roll characters, was – and continues to be – an icon whose thirty-plus years in music led to the creation of what I consider some of the greatest songs in rock history. To paraphrase his frequent collaborator and co-conspirator, Nick Cave, from one of the many talking head segments: you know from the first two notes that it is Howard who is playing the guitar. That was perhaps never more obvious than with the Boys Next Door song “Shivers,” a song that morphed from Howard’s originally sarcastic punk mockery of love songs into the ne plus ultra of tragic-teen ballads, possibly “the closest approximation we may ever get to the slow dance at a prom in Hell,” as PopMatters writer Maria Schurr once wrote. But even though that particular cult hit was considered a defining moment for Howard, he went on to do so much more in his career. Some parts of Autoluminescent are ponderously paced – a little too much time spent musing on why “Shivers” should not have been sung by Nick Cave when the Boys Next Door recorded the song, for example – and I’m not sure that all of the film’s moody shots of stray cats and cemeteries are necessary, even though the images provide a fitting backdrop for J.P. Shilo’s voiceovers of passages from Howard’s unpublished manuscript, Etceteracide. Towards the end the film gets emotional, but never maudlin, although the filmmakers include some heartbreaking scenes of Howard in the hospital near the end of his life. The entire documentary is a must-see both for longtime fans of RSH and for those who have yet to be formally introduced to the oeuvre of this complex and otherworldly musician extraordinaire. If this film encourages you to try out the wildness of the Birthday Party’s Prayers on Fire, to watch Crime & the City Solution perform in Wim Wenders’ romantic fantasy Wings of Desire, to check out These Immortal Souls’ brief but brilliant output or to discover the two richly textured solo albums that Howard made in his last decade (this 1999 TV appearance might be a good starting point for his solo work), then therein lies the film’s greatest accomplishment.

Captain America: The First Avenger. Directed by Joe Johnston. This Marvel actioner features good, if unremarkable, acting by Chris Evans as the title superhero whose body and life are genetically modified to turn him from a short, skinny underdog into a muscular demigod. The rest of the cast, which has a nicely varied mix of veterans and up-and-comers, includes Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Dominic Cooper, Richard Armitage, Stanley Tucci, Samuel L. Jackson, Toby Jones, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Kenneth Choi, JJ Feild (ah, that marvelously plummy voice!) and Natalie Dormer. The movie suffers when Evans romances leading lady Hayley Atwell, an actress who is pretty but unaffecting in her role. Nevertheless, the film’s costumes, designed by Anna B. Sheppard, are quite nice, so at least Atwell and the other cast members are always good to look at. This first “Cap” film isn’t exactly a masterpiece, but it was necessary viewing since I was then able to move onto the franchise’s 2014 sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which co-stars an amusingly scenery-chewing Robert Redford as the chief villain.

Carnage. Directed by Roman Polanski. There are some clever lines here and there in Carnage, but ultimately this “comedy” does not hold a candle to the other Roman Polanski films I have seen: Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Chinatown (1974) and The Pianist (2002), although like the first two films, Carnage is restricted to the claustrophobic confines of a single apartment. The four mega-watt stars – Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly – strain to turn the narrative into something worthwhile and cinematic but the dialogue, which Polanski and Yasmina Reza adapted from Reza’s play, is critically injured by its too-theatrical style. The lines display the sound of a playwright more invested in big words than in realism. Pawel Edelman’s camerawork is good and the actors do plenty of stentorian emoting – and Kate Winslet displays some impressive vomiting and burping – but I was glad when the movie was over. It’s worth seeing once, but I can’t imagine ever wanting to see it again. It’s just too draining.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Directed by Brad Bird. Is it weird that this is my favorite Mission: Impossible of the series, rather than the Brian De Palma-directed first installment of the rebooted franchise from 1996? I wish so, so hard that I had seen it in IMAX because the Burj Khalifa climbing scene is amazing. Beyond the physical component in the stunt work, Tom Cruise does some of his best acting I’ve seen from him in M:I4, particularly in the poignant ending scene in Seattle with a certain character from his character, Ethan Hunt’s, past. I enjoyed the team of Jeremy Renner (unexpectedly funny, especially in the scene when he’s about to jump into the “oven”), Simon Pegg and Paula Patton, and while Michael Nyqvist didn’t have quite as much to do as the villain as I’d hoped, he was still pretty effective. I also enjoyed the supporting roles played by Anil Kapoor, Léa Seydoux, Josh Holloway (such as it was) and Miraj Grbic (really funny as Ethan Hunt’s prison friend Bogdan). As is often the case in an M:I film, the plot loses coherence very quickly, but so long as the action stays entertaining and exciting, I’m all for it. I thought Brad Bird did a very good job directing, especially since this was his first live-action film. You also get cinematography from Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood), so the whole film looks even better than usual from a photographic point of view. Thumbs up from me!

Unknown. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Like Non-Stop (2014) and Run All Night (2015), two other collaborations between director Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson, Unknown is an entertaining thriller that only asks for you to shut your brain off in order to enjoy it. Neeson does his resolute tough hero thing, which is always great (especially here because he’s battling amnesia and there’s probably nothing tougher than trying to beat up the bad guys when you know neither them nor yourself), but the really admirable performance in the film belongs to Bruno Ganz as an ex-Stasi detective who does what he can to aid Neeson. Blonde iceberg January Jones, however, is 100% terrible in her performance as Neeson’s wife, while Diane Kruger is passable but bland as an immigrant taxi driver who is forced to tag along with Neeson as he attempts to reclaim his identity. Are the actresses at fault or is the screenplay the bigger issue? Aidan Quinn is, like Jones, a boring villain and Frank Langella does OK in his few scenes as Neeson’s coworker and mentor, but neither man is given a well-written role. Sebastian Koch is sort of good as a German professor of bioengineering, though, a man who is one of the few unquestionably likeable characters in the film. If nothing else, the film is worth seeing for Ganz’s scenes. And I like to think that the shot in the opening credits, an aerial view of the Berlin Victory Column, served as a nod to Ganz’s role in the German film Wings of Desire (1987) as much as being a basic establishing shot for the city at the beginning of the film.