Response Journal: Venus In Fur (2014)

Getting into character

Roman Polanski is a wanted man, has been since 1977. Yet he continues to make movies, especially ones that echo his clandestine existence. A fascinating adaptation of a Tony-winning play, Venus In Fur features just two cast members and one location, a perfect setup for the filmmaker’s brand of intimate malevolence. In an antiquated theater in Paris, a director (Mathieu Amalric) has about quit auditioning actresses for his latest production, when in enters one final candidate (Emmanuelle Seigner), an overeager, mysterious blonde whose name coincidentally is the same as the character’s. She reads with him substituting as her scene partner. Soon the text’s sadomasochistic chamber drama manifests itself anew as line-readings blur and overlap with directorial notes and creative interjections. Polanski always enjoyed setting his scenarios in claustrophobic places, and Venus In Fur is confined not merely to the playhouse but almost entirely to its stage, where the filmmaker can posit his philosophy that nothing—not even art—can protect people from themselves. Essentially a play-within-a-play-within-a-film (not to mention the original literary source and the props left onstage from an ill-advised iteration of Stagecoach), the film’s layers of artifice seep insidiously every which way. Lacing Polanski’s customary apprehension with doses of sexuality and wry humor, Venus In Fur is simultaneously good theater and intoxicating cinema.

Music by Alexandre Desplat.  Screenplay by David Ives and Roman Polanski.

Response Journal: Boyhood (2014)

In search of lost time…

Had Marcel Proust been a filmmaker from Texas, he might’ve directed Boyhood. Like any painstaking modernist opus, Richard Linklater’s remarkable coming-of-age drama had a notorious development. It was shot annually with the same cast for twelve years. Though the concept has existed in similar forms (Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series, to name one), none has in a single installment so acutely explored the spaces where life and art intersect. The story follows Mason (played throughout by Ellar Coltrane, the film’s other subject) as he ages on camera from a quizzical moppet to an artistic graduate, splitting time between his divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke). A dozen years of shifting fashions, fads, and Top-40 tunes repurpose Mason’s upbringing into a cultural artifact, a time capsule of America in the early 21st Century. His physical maturation (height, weight, hairstyle, clothing and inflection) indicates an ongoing spiritual conflict with social expectations and clueless authority figures. It’s clear his parents had children before they were even adults themselves. The conclusion insinuates not the end, but the dawn of many more transformative years. Boyhood shows that life, comprised of millions of character-shaping moments, is a continual process of growing up.

Editing by Sandra Adair.  Costarring Lorelei Linklater.

Response Journal: Night Moves (2014)

Crime and punishment; and organic vegetables.

Night Moves, director Kelly Reichardt’s unnerving eco-thriller, is more ominous than most horror movies. Three environmental terrorists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard) conspire to blow-up a hydro-electrical dam in Oregon. Sarsgaard is good as a mysterious former Marine; Fanning is great as a proselyte with the means and motivation for radicalism, but not the stomach; and Eisenberg stands out among them in a performance that rivals his Oscar-nominated one from The Social Network. His character, a subsistence-farmer named Josh, seethes from moment one with quiet fury and neurosis. In the aftermath, when the focus closes around him like prison walls, the movie becomes a character study of a creature so paranoid and desperate, so isolated and perpetually lost, and burning so painfully with ambivalent sorrow that he’s haunted by his own essential impotence. Reichardt uses her signature naturalistic severity throughout to set a tone of unrelenting anxiety. If her movie says little about the Green movement in general, it speaks volumes about the nature of violence with or without ostensible cause. Night Moves is an intense drama wherein young people who think they’re saving the world simply add more misery to it.

Editing by Kelly Reichardt.  Cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt.

Response Journal: Belle (2014)

The tragic mulatto gets her fairy tale.

Belle is an overly quixotic, occasionally pedantic, but engaging British costume-drama about marriage and bigotry in the 18th century. It recounts the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of an aristocratic Naval officer (Matthew Goode). As a child, she moves from Caribbean slums to an English estate to be reared by her blueblood relatives (Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson). As an adult, despite her exotic beauty and large inheritance, she remains something of an outsider in England’s matchmaking high-society. Painted in rather broad strokes, director Amma Assante’s movie exhibits the literary affectations of a BBC miniseries. Her cast—especially Mbatha-Raw—likewise play histrionic when more subdued emotions would seem more authentic. The heroine’s marital uncertainty parallels the incipient abolitionist movement, prompting harangues ad nauseam on England’s shifting moral standards. Pontificating as it is, Assante’s optimism resonates because of its unabashed sincerity—a refreshing sentiment in our cynical age. Eventually, in the second half as the dual narratives dovetail, Belle gains momentum and delivers on its promise of time-honored middlebrow melodrama.

Costarring Sarah Gadon and Tom Felton.  Production design by Simon Bowles.

Response Journal: Palo Alto (2014)

Please, think of the children.

The niece of Sophia and granddaughter of Francis Ford, Gia Coppola made her auspicious, albeit nepotistic, directorial debut with the warmhearted Palo Alto. Adapted from an anthology written by costar James Franco, this teens-in-their-habitat drama follows would-be puppy lovers (Emma Roberts and Jack Kilmer) between hookups and smoke-outs as they negotiate their adolescent listlessness. While the former falls prey to her babysitter-fetishist coach (Franco), the latter dabbles in petty delinquency with his nutty accomplice (Nat Wolff). Coppola’s plotting drifts aimlessly like leaves in autumn, but since the subject is high school ennui, one can appreciate the felicitously moody form. (I now see why likeminded movies are so often set over a 24-hour period: it gives temporal shape to a shapeless existence). Cast members Roberts, who with each movie, for better or worse, passes for a miniature Anne Hathaway; Kilmer, who elicits the wayward hero of The 400 Blows; and Zoe Levin, as an alienated nymphet, rectify many narrative shortcomings as well. I admit the teenage wasteland was plumbed more astutely when aunt Sophia directed The Virgin Suicides years ago. By story’s end, however, as these kids went on their respective paths toward salvation and destruction, I worried dearly for them. Palo Alto comes from a place of tremendous empathy.

Music by Devonte Hynes. Cinematography by Autumn Durald.

Response Journal: The Immigrant (2014)

Our melting pot is really a cauldron.

The tedious but handsome period melodrama, The Immigrant, stars Marion Cotillard as an Eastern European refugee who disembarks in New York in 1921. With her sister quarantined upon arrival, she winds up employed by a troupe of lecherous vaudevillians, namely a manipulative pimp (Joaquin Phoenix) and a smarmy magician (Jeremy Renner). Ellis Island, presented here as a foggy citadel run by venal bureaucrats, could symbolize both a national and psychological purgatory, where newcomers relinquish the past before disappearing into America’s vast melting pot. Director James Gray’s talent was always atmospherics, not substance, however, so the photography hijacks its toasty brown hues from The Godfather (not to mention the many doorframes and musty leather furniture) while deeper meaning is overlooked. As to the cast, Cotillard uses the opportunity to practice her Polish, yet her desperate visage is assuredly more communicative, expressing a tired traveler encumbered  by emotional rather than physical baggage. Renner is fine in an underwritten role and Phoenix makes a good coward and brute, even if his shortage of charisma argues for his miscasting. Admirably old-fashioned as it may be, The Immigrant is at last disappointing. Gray’s mission to de-romanticize history breaks down even before the cozy Hollywood denouement.

Cinematography by Darius Khondji.  Production Design by Happy Massee.

Response Journal: Blue Ruin (2014)

Revenge is a dish best served… ineptly.

A bloody and suspenseful but ultimately disjointed revenge thriller, Blue Ruin chronicles the vendetta of a guileless vagrant who murders the parolee who wronged his family decades earlier. He then must withstand the retaliation from the dead man’s backwoods offspring. In the lead, Macon Blair gives a physically dexterous, semi-comical performance as a rampaging nitwit who leaves corpses behind more from ineptitude than intention. Alas, individual set pieces impress, though overall cohesion falters, and austerity is ditched on a whim, once tacit storytelling succumbs to obnoxious verbosity. Tonally scattered like buckshot, this viscera-splattered picaresque succeeds somewhat as an unconscious black comedy. Yet the solemn tragedy of interfamilial warfare director Jeremy Saulnier planned fails because he never bothers to humanize both belligerents. Thus the movie’s underlying morality play achieves little beyond vague audience’ bloodlust admonishment. Blue Ruin is no doubt borne of interesting ideas (notably the insinuation that the hero’s grudge originates more from bitter envy than any honorable code of justice). If only the fascinating fragments contributed to a sounder whole.

Costarring Amy Hargreaves and Eve Plumb (aka Jan Brady)