We’re getting to the point where anything produced by HBO is pretty much guaranteed to be a worthwhile watch. A history of cutting funding for the likes of Deadwood, Rome and even The Wire at one point shows the premium service isn’t afraid to ditch something they’re not 100% confident in, no matter how good the early episodes are. Olive Kitteridge, of course, isn’t really a show – the four-hour miniseries spanned two nights earlier this week and will probably play on a loop for the next week, but after that no más. Still, the HBO association is evident in a high production value and a deep care taken with the characters and material that few other channels can afford to provide.
Frances McDormand plays the titular Olive, aging middle-school teacher in smalltown Maine, mother of a bratty son and wife of an irrepressibly optimistic husband (played by the always-brilliant Richard Jenkins). We meet Olive as she walks through the forest, gray ratty hair stemming out from her pale skull, and she calmly lays out a picnic blanket and removes a loaded gun from her coat. We suddenly backtrack to twenty-five years earlier, but the tone is set in that initial sequence: Ollie is unhappy, gazing longingly at the gnarled branches reaching toward the hazy sky, and maybe we’re about to see why.
Continue reading Olive Kitteridge 1.1 – “Pharmacy”
With brand-new releases the tendency is usually to shy away from spoilers in reviews, and those potential spoilers can be especially sensitive with a long-anticipated film like Interstellar (“I waited two years for this and find out the night before that [censored] is really [censored] the whole time??”). I respect reviewers who are able to provide an accurate representation of a film without divulging any/many of its secrets, but I’ve never been one of them. I can tread lightly, sure, but to really talk about a movie like Interstellar there are important plot points that need to be laid out in the open. Just the fact that we have a three-hour movie with a two-minute trailer means that the film holds vast sequences, settings, and even actors that you couldn’t possibly expect, and it’s partly those revelatory realms that we’ll be dealing with here. Consider yourself warned.
Now: let’s talk about ghosts.
Continue reading Interstellar (2014)
The Judge looks like your typical ’90s courtroom drama, playing in the vein of The Rainmaker or The Firm, and looks aren’t deceiving in this particular instance. Starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall as estranged family brought together to face a potential injustice, the film ticks all the expected boxes on the checklist and rarely surprises. Still, The Judge survives on the strength of the performances of the two leads and manages to be a largely enjoyable family drama.
Downey Jr.’s Hank Palmer is a bigshot city lawyer who returns to his minuscule hometown when his mother passes away. Contact with his father, the county judge, has been minimal at best over the past years. But Hank is forced to stay when a murder investigation targets the judge and an implacable prosecutor (played by Billy Bob Thornton) arrives to put Judge Palmer behind bars for the rest of his life. Only Hank can defend his father and his the legacy of his family.
If you’ve seen the trailer for The Judge, the actual movie will probably just feel like an elongated version. Downey Jr. is absolutely perfect for the role, but I don’t mean that as a full compliment. This is a character he’s played over and over again: immoral, arrogant, power-hungry, never home to see his daughter, aces in the workplace at the expense of his real-world relationships, bound to see the error in his ways through the events of the film. He’s basically Tony Stark without the Iron Man suit (so The Judge is Iron Man 3, basically), and it just would have given the film a much-needed edge if the protagonist wasn’t exactly who we imagined him to be.
Continue reading The Judge (2014)
Foxcatcher is a strange and strangely true tale of wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz and their time with sponsor and “coach” John du Pont. Whether you know the shocking ending of the story or not hardly matters, as director Bennett Miller’s sense of pacing and tone heralds a dark and tragic end from the very first frame. This is Drama with a capital D, and there’s never any doubt that the relationship between these three men is hurtling to that inevitable conclusion.
But what makes Foxcatcher work so well is the willingness to find the motivations that drove these people in the years leading up to the horrific event. Even if you have a vague awareness or clear understanding of what will eventually come to pass, you won’t feel like you’re just waiting for it to actually go down onscreen. The stories of each man – especially Channing Tatum’s Mark – are captivating, and they’re beautifully displayed in some truly impressive performances. Tatum and Mark Ruffalo clearly push themselves physically and emotionally to portray the Schultz brothers. Steve Carell, turning in a rare dramatic performance, is unrecognizable as the toothy and manic John du Pont.
The story is very much focused on Mark at first, following his life in the shadow of his older brother and his introduction to du Pont. Du Pont asks Mark to join him at Foxcatcher, a self-sustaining training ground at the du Pont estate where young wrestlers work together to achieve their goals, and Mark eventually agrees. “What does he [du Pont] get out of all of this?”, Dave asks Mark early on in the movie. This question, like much of du Pont’s character, is never nailed down for certain. While the Schultz brothers work for wrestling fame and glory, du Pont’s goals are a little more complicated.
Continue reading Foxcatcher (2014)
The script for Lisandro Alsonso’s latest film Jauja is reportedly only 20 pages long. Though I haven’t actually read it, that short length wouldn’t surprise me after last night’s NYFF screening. Starring Viggo Mortensen as a Danish military man stranded in a nameless South American desert, Jauja certainly isn’t your typical Main Slate festival offering. If anything, the film walks the tightrope between historical epic and surreal experiment, providing plenty of opportunity for reflection along the way. Unfortunately, the fact that the spaces in which we might take time for reflection vastly outweigh the moments that actually demand interpretation proves to be Jauja‘s downfall.
The film opens with a beautiful shot of Viggo’s Captain Dinesen sitting with his daughter, Ingeborg, and right away we get a taste of Alonso’s directorial style without so much as a hint of what may betide these characters. Mortensen, the only recognizable face in Jauja (or in any of Alonso’s films), is facing away from the camera for the entirety of the motionless opening shot. That’s essentially Jauja in a nutshell: the landscape, the framing, the aesthetic, the emotion generated by the imagery alone – all of this is much more important than the actors, or the characters they play, or the “plot” they partake in.
And make no mistake: Jauja, visually, is stunning. Every shot is carefully composed and lit, and the locations chosen provide Alonso’s camera with enough lush detail for consumption. Many shots seem to stretch on forever, and where most directors would probably work to keep the foreground characters in focus by blurring the backdrop, the reverse is true here. Rocks and clouds and figures far in the distance are as clear as the whiskers on Viggo’s face. Jauja‘s color palate is equally agreeable, and the blue dresses and bright red pants are captured beautifully aside the damp mossy terrain that makes up so much of the film. In this sense, we should admit, the narrative matters less and less.
Continue reading Jauja (2014)
Gone Girl had a lot to live up to in the David Fincher oeuvre. I may be alone in saying that nothing in his filmography of the past few years has totally astounded me; The Social Network and Zodiac – well acted and beautifully filmed though they were – just didn’t have enough plot to hold me for the entire runtime, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo had more than a few other problems. That said, there’s little doubt that Fincher is still to be considered among the few American masters of filmmaking. Not only does Gone Girl provide more proof of that, but it’s also a film with a much stronger plot than the aforementioned dramas.
Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, husband of Rosamund Pike’s Amy Dunne, who is forced to deal with the events following her sudden disappearance on their fifth anniversary. These events include police interrogations, candlelight vigils and family consolations – but the most jarring presence is the frenzy of media coverage that descends upon Nick’s life. As the first half of Gone Girl progresses, Nick’s behavior seems more and more suspicious, and even though we’ve been following his story since the very moment of his discovery of Amy’s disappearance, Nick still seems more and more guilty.
Continue reading Gone Girl (2014)
The New York Film Festival opened last week with David Fincher’s Gone Girl and continues until the New York premiere of Birdman to close the festival. In between those films fall a massive spectrum of features, short films, documentaries and retrospective screenings that include entries from some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry.
Whiplash isn’t one of those big huge premieres held up by the strength of name recognition and pre-release buzz. Technically the NYFF screening wasn’t even a premiere at all, as Whiplash first popped up at Sundance last winter. But if any “small” flick can surge through festivals like this and have a strong opening later this month, it’s this one. Less tangentially: Whiplash is one of the leanest and most intense films you’re likely to see this year.
Continue reading Whiplash (2014)