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.