Tag Archives: 2012 Reviews

Having a wild weekend: Hyde Park on Hudson ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 8, 2012)

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Lister: (looking out a prison cell window) They’re all just lining up in some kind of firing squad. Whoa, whoa, hang on, someone’s being brought out. They’re tying him to a stake. It’s Winnie the Pooh.

The Cat: What!?

Lister: Winnie the Pooh, I swear. He’s refusing the blindfold.

The Cat: They’re tying Winnie the Pooh to the stake?

(Gunfire erupts from outside)

Lister: (sinks, looking shell shocked) That’s something no-one should ever have to see.

-from  Red Dwarf, written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor

Let me tell you something else that no-one should ever have to see: FDR getting a hand job. Even if it is tastefully photographed in a field of clover, in a long shot, accompanied by romantic music…that’s just something that no-one should ever have to see. I’m no prude, and I realize he was only human, and we’ve heard the rumors about the philandering, but still. I guess it’s the liberal idealist inside me that wants to have at least one progressive icon to truly believe in. Oh well. That being said, there’s still a lot to like about Notting Hill director Roger Michell’s Hyde Park on Hudson, an engaging (if lightweight) “fly on the wall” dramedy recounting events (documented and speculative) surrounding a 1939 visit by the British King and Queen to Roosevelt’s New York estate.

Rendered in the style of Upstairs, Downstairs (with echoes of Cold Comfort Farm), Michell and his screenwriter Richard Nelson (who adapted from his own play) filter their narrative through the situational observances of a peripheral participant. Her name is Daisy Suckley (Laura Linney), and she is the President’s sixth cousin. While historians still debate whether there ever really was anything nasty going on in the woodshed between the real-life Suckley (who died in 1991 at age 99) and FDR, for the purpose of the film the two are assumed as being romantically involved. Their relationship is loosely chronicled through her voice-over narration (Linney, a fine actress, is handed a thankless task at times, wrestling with breathless schoolgirl prose like, “…how I longed for him!”).

The film opens with Daisy being summoned by the President (Bill Murray) to Hyde Park, where aides, staffers and family members are all atwitter about the pending visit from the royal couple. FDR, however, is currently more focused on his stamp collection, and his cousin’s visit. Alone with her in his study, he invites Daisy to come closer to his desk, so she can better appreciate some of his, ah, collectibles (this must run a close second to “Would you like to come up and see some of my etchings?” as a seduction line). At any rate, it’s the genesis of a long-running love affair…at least according to the filmmakers. The affair, which takes up the first third of the 94 minute running time, is actually the film’s weakest element; luckily things pick up considerably in the second act, once King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) arrive for the weekend.

The tone of the film shifts at this juncture for the better, transforming it into more of a comedy of manners and of political protocols. West and Colman are charming as the royal couple. The Queen is quite appalled at the collection of vintage American political cartoons that hang on the wall of their guest room (dating from the War of 1812, the depictions put the British in, shall we say, a somewhat negative light), as well as the prospect of dining on hot dogs (the horror!) at an impending picnic luncheon. On the other hand, Bertie (being a good sport), is more bemused than bothered. In the film’s standout scene, the King and FDR loosen up and bond over drinks in the study. The scene is augmented by the best monologue in the screenplay, in which FDR assuages Bertie’s self-consciousness about his stutter by speaking in a self-deprecating manner about his own inability to walk. At once funny and moving, it’s wonderfully played by both actors.

Murray makes for a surprisingly credible FDR, likely bolstered by the fact that the script doesn’t require him to portray FDR the statesman. In a sense, by so convincingly channeling FDR’s celebrated personal charm, he does give us a fairly insightful glimpse of what made him such a successful politician. There are notable supporting performances from Olivia Williams as Eleanor Roosevelt (she’s so good that I wish they had written her a meatier part with more screen time) and from Elizabeth Marvel as FDR’s personal secretary, Missy Lehand. Political junkies and history buffs are forewarned to not expect Michell’s film to be in the same league as Sunrise at Campobello, or the 1976 TV series Eleanor and Franklin; if anything, it shares more in common with Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. You could do worse.

Bingo and porn: Starlet ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 1, 2012)

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As the Hollywood hype machine prepares to carpet bomb the multiplexes with hobbits and SEALs, it’s reassuring to know that even in the midst of  Oscar-bait season, it is still possible to unearth a small, no-budget gem like Starlet. An insightful, 1970s-style character study in the tradition of Harry and Tonto and Harold and Maude, it’s an episodic slice-of-life tale about an unlikely friendship between a 21 year-old porno actress and her misanthropic 85 year-old neighbor. Now…I know what you’re thinking; while this film is “unrated” , it is not as salacious as it might sound.

For example, it may surprise you to learn that the eponymous character is actually a Chihuahua (and again, get your mind out of the gutter). The adorable little scene-stealer is in the care of a sweet natured young woman named Jane (Dree Hemingway), who shares a house in the San Fernando Valley with her high-strung co-worker Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Melissa’s skuzzy drug-dealing boyfriend Mikey (James Ransone). It goes without saying that the roommates have, shall we say, non-traditional jobs. Consequently they enjoy quite a leisurely schedule (you know…get up at the crack of noon, fire up a couple bong hits for breakfast, and then while away the days zoning out on video games).

While she obviously shares some of the lifestyle trappings, there’s something that sets Jane apart from her comparatively dysfunctional roomies (Melissa is a drama queen, and Mikey is the type of guy whose idea of home improvement is to install a stripper pole in the living room). Jane, on the other hand, possesses a down-to-earth quality that makes you wonder how “a nice girl like that” wound up in the porn biz.

However, she isn’t necessarily incorruptible, as is evidenced when she buys a thermos at a neighborhood yard sale from a cranky widow named Sadie (Besedka Johnson) . Jane discovers $10,000 in rolled-up bills stashed inside. While her first instinct is to return the money, she does decide to “give it back”, but in her own unique way. Initially, she wants to sate her curiosity. But as we know-you can’t always go digging into other people’s secrets without getting your own hands dirty.

This is an impressive starring debut for the 25 year-old Hemingway (daughter of Mariel). At times (not surprisingly), her brave performance strongly evokes her mother’s role as Playboy model Dorothy Stratten in Bob Fosse’s 1983 film, Star 80 (Starlet is more sexually explicit, but it’s rendered in a relatively tasteful manner, and while it’s still enough to earn the film an “NR” rating, the brief scenes merely serve to establish what Jane does for a living). Johnson is equally impressive, perhaps even more so considering that she apparently has never acted before (at 87, she is likely the most mature “hot new talent” to keep an eye on). She and Hemingway have a lovely chemistry; both give warm, naturalistic performances.

I was surprised to discover that director Sean Baker and his writing partner Chris Bergoch were the same creative tag team behind the cult TV series Greg the Bunny (I never would have made a connection between a whacked out, puppetry-based satire like that and a thoughtful, beautifully acted art house drama like Starlet…but then again, Peter Jackson made Meet the Feebles and Heavenly Creatures…so anything’s possible).

Thematically, Baker’s film reminded me of two other L.A. based character studies-Adrian Lyne’s highly underrated Foxes, and Robert Altman’s 3 Women, in the way that it delicately sifts through the complexities of female friendships (inter-generational and otherwise). Also akin to Altman’s film, the cinematography (by Radium Cheung) utilizes the hazy, diffuse light of the sun-bleached L.A. environs to help create a languid, dreamy mood; providing the perfect canvas for a story that moves right about at the speed of life.

The voluptuous horror of mother earth: Chasing Ice ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  November 17, 2012)

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We’re down in the Poles: Chasing Ice

This is not a put down: Jeff Orlowski’s  Chasing Ice is glacially paced. Because  “glacial pacing” ain’t what it used to be. These days, glaciers are moving along (”retreating”, technically) at a pretty good clip. Unfortunately, this phenomenon does not portend well for the planet; as this ancient ice continues to dissipate at an alarmingly accelerating rate, leaving naught but barren rock in its wake, it is a red flag alert akin to Mother Earth experiencing a health-threatening hardening of the arteries. To put it in a less flowery way…we’re fucked. According to renowned nature photographer (and film subject) James Balog, “The story…is in the ice.”

Of course, there are those who continue to dismiss the concept of man-made global warming, despite the tangible evidence (and nearly unanimous scientific consensus). Orlowski opens his film with a montage of the usual braying deniers (Hannity, Beck, & co.) including one that surprised me (Weather Channel creator John Coleman…really?) interspersed with news footage of some of the freakish and catastrophic weather events that have become an all too frequent occurrence (gosh, it almost seems like last week…I seem to recall a “Hurricane Sandy” making a bit of a splash). Luckily, their appearances are brief, because the story centers on Balog’s eye-opening “Extreme Ice Survey” project.

His journey began in 2005, while on assignment for National Geographic to document the effect of climate change on the Arctic. Previous to that trip, Balog had counted himself among the skeptics, candidly admitting that he “…didn’t think humans were capable” of affecting the Earth’s weather patterns in such a profound manner. His epiphany gave birth to a multi-year project that he pursued with missionary fervor. His goal was to utilize specially modified time-lapse cameras to capture irrefutable proof that affective global warming had transcended academic speculation. After strategically placing the cameras next to sizable glaciers like Solheim in Iceland, Store in Greenland and several more in Alaska and Montana, Balog and his team began their painstaking waiting game.

The resulting images are beautiful and mesmerizing, yet troubling. Orlowski’s film itself mirrors the dichotomy, being equal parts cautionary eco-doc and art installation. Balog’s stills and time-lapsed sequences are fantastical ice-wrought dioramas that look like they were imagined by Roger Dean and rendered by Dale Chihuly. Finding these diamonds in the rough of pending ecological disaster reminded me of Jennifer Baichwal’s 2007 documentary about photojournalist Edward Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes. The film also demonstrates the blood, sweat and tears that goes into professional photography (particularly in some hair-raising moments where Balog and a member of his team make a risky foray into a seemingly bottomless crevasse, just to grab a couple of shots).

While Balog makes a number of impassioned statements about the urgent need to get everyone on the same page regarding this issue, Orlowski stops just shy of taking  a strident polemical stance. This is wise, because he doesn’t need to hit us over the head to make his point about the  profound effects of global warming. This is best illustrated in the film’s money shot, where one of Balog’s teams captures the largest “calving” event ever so documented. The jaw-dropping sequence, depicting an ice peninsula equivalent in size to lower Manhattan (and twice the height of its tallest skyscrapers) sluicing off of Greenland’s massive Hulissat Glacier, handily trumps any amount of squawking that emits from  the bloviating gasbag deniers featured in the opening montage, and proves that the old adage will forever ring true: a picture is worth a thousand words.

Cockroaches, Cher, and 007: Skyfall ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 10, 2012)

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Anderson Cooper interviews Rip Taylor in Skyfall.

I’m sure you’ve heard the old chestnut about cockroaches and Cher surviving the Apocalypse? As the James Bond movie franchise celebrates its 50th year with the release of Skyfall, you might as well add “007” to that short list of indestructible life forms. Many of us have literally grown up watching six actors battle a gaggle of “Bond villains”, bed a bevy of “Bond girls”…and generally facilitate the audience’s expectation to see lots of cool shit blow up real good by the end of the film. We could argue all day about who was the best Bond (Sean Connery) Bond villain (Gert Frobe), or best Bond girl (Diana Rigg!), but that’s purely subjective. Love him or hate him, it’s a fact of life that as long as he continues to lay those gold-painted eggs for the studio execs, agent 007 is here to stay.

It might surprise you to learn that not only is the franchise still very much alive and well, but that I would rank Skyfall among the very best in the series. Assembled with great intelligence and verve by American Beauty director Sam Mendes, this tough, spare and relatively gadget-free Bond caper harkens back to the gritty, straightforward approach of From Russia with Love (the best of the early films). That being said, Mendes hasn’t forgotten his obligation to fulfill the franchise’s tradition of delivering a slam-bang, pull out all the stops opening sequence, which I daresay outdoes all previous. Interestingly, the film’s narrative owes more to Howard Hawks than it does to Ian Fleming; I gleaned a healthy infusion of Rio Bravo in Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan’s screenplay.

In this outing, Bond (Daniel Craig) has gone into self-imposed exile and crawled inside of a bottle (not unlike Dean Martin’s drunken and dispirited lawman in Hawks’ film) after uncharacteristically blowing a mission and suffering a near-death experience. However, when a diabolical cyber-terrorist (Javier Bardem) with a very personal grudge against M (Dame Judi Dench) begins wreaking havoc directly on the MI6 HQ, the presumed-dead and barely fit for duty 007 reluctantly comes out of hiding to offer his help. Still, M doesn’t exactly greet the prodigal son with open arms; he must first prove that he can get his mojo back (the subtext of rebirth serves as a device for rebooting the mythology of a couple significant franchise characters, including a passing of the torch).

Craig has finally settled comfortably into the character; his Bond feels a little more “lived in” than in the previous installments, where he was a little stiff and unsure about where he should be at times.  I was glad to see one element return to 007’s personality: a mordant sense of humor. Bardem is a great Bond villain; his characterization mixes the cool intelligence and creepy charm of Hannibal Lecter with the nihilism and disconcerting cruelty of The Joker (topped off with a blonde fright wig). Ralph Fiennes is in fine form as a government overseer, and it’s always a treat to have the great Albert Finney on board. Naiome Harris is excellent as an MI6 agent.

This is one of the most beautifully photographed Bond films in recent memory, thanks to DP Roger Deakins (one particularly memorable fight scene, staged in a darkened high rise suite and silhouetted against the backdrop of Shanghai’s neon nightscape, approaches high art). I think the Bond geeks will be pleased; and anyone up for pure popcorn escapism will not be disappointed. Any way you look at it, this is a terrific entertainment.

Welcome to hell: Wake in Fright ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 27, 2012)

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There’s a great old Temptations song that goes “you make your own heaven and hell right here on earth.” That would have made a perfect tag line for a rarely seen, one-of-a-kind 1971 drama called Wake in Fright. Restored in 2009 for a successful revival in Australia and considered a great lost film from that country’s “new wave” of the early to mid-1970s, it was directed by the eclectic Ted Kotcheff (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Fun With Dick and Jane, North Dallas Forty), and is currently playing in select cities. As someone who is a huge fan of Aussie cinema from that era (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Walkabout, The Last Wave, etc.) I’m ashamed to admit that this film was under my radar until I was offered a DVD press screener a few weeks back (I don’t recall it ever showing on cable, and it’s never been available domestically on VHS or Region 1 DVD).

Here’s the film’s actual tag line: “Have a drink, mate? Have a fight, mate? Have some dust and sweat, mate? There’s nothing else out here.” That actually could work as a plot synopsis. Sort of a cross between Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and (speaking of the Australian new wave) Peter Weir’s The Cars That Ate Paris, it’s a relatively simple tale about a burned-out teacher (Gary Bond) who works in a one-room schoolhouse somewhere in the Outback.

Headed back to Sydney to visit his girlfriend over the school holiday, he takes the train to Bundanyabba (the nearest town with an airport) where he will need to lodge for one night. At least that’s his plan. “The Yabba” is one of those burgs where the clannish regulars at the local pub take an unhealthy interest in strangers, starting with the (too) friendly town cop (Chips Rafferty) who subtly bullies the teacher into getting  blotto. This kick starts a “lost weekend” that lasts for five days.

Without giving too much away, let’s just say that the ensuing booze-soaked debaucheries have to be seen to be believed; particularly an unnerving and surreal sequence involving a drunken nocturnal kangaroo hunt that I  guarantee no film before or since matches for sheer audacity (a strange, lengthy disclaimer in the credits may not assuage animal lovers’ worst fears, but at least acknowledges viewers’ potential sensitivities).

That aside, this is a unique and compelling film; dripping with an atmosphere of dread and tempered by sharp, blackly comic dialog (Evan Jones adapted the script from Kenneth Cook’s novel). Splendid performances abound, especially from Donald Pleasance as a boozy MD. One more thing. In all sincerity, I hope that no one is foolish enough to devise a drinking game based around the film, because somebody in the room will surely drop dead of alcohol poisoning long before credits roll.

You’re gonna burn: Hellbound? **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 27, 2012)

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God is a concept, by which we measure our pain.

-John Lennon

Whenever I’m about to impart a smart ass observation (which is often), I tend to preface it with the disclaimer: “I’m already going to Hell anyway…” I’ve never contemplated why I feel compelled to say that. Is Hell merely a state of mind, or is it an actual travel destination? And if it is the latter, how do you get there? Spend your life committing unspeakable acts? Turn left at Greenland? Besides, don’t you first have to buy into the idea of “Heaven” to enable a “Hell” to co-exist? I have no religious affiliation to speak of, and I’m fairly convinced that any “afterlife” is, at best, a feast for the worms. However, while watching a new documentary called Hellbound? I found it particularly fascinating to learn that even among the “true believers”, there seems to be as many different interpretations of “Hell” as there are, oh I don’t know…denominations.

With the exception of the odd rabbi or token atheist, director Kevin Miller has assembled a bevy of (mostly) Christians to offer up  windy definitions. These are Christians of all stripes, from sober and scholarly (theologians) to  frothing and unhinged (members of the Westboro Baptist Church). To tell you the truth, my eyes began to glaze over  halfway through, but from what I was able to discern, interviewees seemed fairly evenly divided between three concepts.

There’s your Coke Classic, with Mother Teresa in the penthouse and Hitler in the basement (based on the assumption that evildoers will suffer “eternal torment” after they snuff it). “Annihilationists” believe that it’s their way…or the highway to you-know-where (how that differs from  “fundamentalism” is unclear to me). And lastly, there’s “universalism”, which is  what it sounds like…all sentient beings end up in God’s good graces, no matter how they act (another way of saying that the penalty for sin has an expiration date?).

Once this trio of theories is established, the film becomes somewhat redundant; and it ultimately raises more questions than it answers. For example, how do Muslims define Hell, I wonder? Buddhists? Hindus? It might have made for a more interesting exercise, had Miller approached one or two of those folks to toss in their two cents worth. Then again, I’m no theologian, so what do I know?

Besides, I’m already going to Hell anyway.

Will it go round in circles? – Looper ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 6, 2012)

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My dinner with me: Willis and Gordon-Levitt talking to themselves.

If there’s a cardinal rule of time-travel I’ve gleaned from watching sci-fi movies over the years, it’s this: make sure that you never, ever “meet” yourself. Why? Dunno, really, just that you’re not supposed to. I imagine it could be quite unnerving, in either direction. I mean, it’s traumatic enough looking at that dorky version of my younger self in that yearbook photo, and who in their right mind is chomping at the bit to get a sneak preview of themselves in drooling dotage?

In his stylish and ultra-violent sci-fi thriller Looper, writer-director Rian Johnson not only breaks the cardinal rule, but manages to violate a few that haven’t been invented yet (see what I did there?). Johnson has himself a jolly old time exploring the potential fluidity of the time-space continuum, toying with causality and paradox like a kitten batting a ball of yarn all about the room with gleeful abandon.

The year is 2044, and America is a dystopia (it took that long?). The economy has gone 2008 for good, crime is rampant and 1 out of every 10 people has a mutation that gives them the power to levitate objects at will (although for a majority of the afflicted, their abilities are limited to the occasional Uri Geller parlor trick). Jobs are scarce; the biggest “job creator” is organized crime (again…it took that long?).

And yes, they still have plenty of gigs for hit men in the future; especially for  “loopers”.  Loopers have a relatively easy time of it; unlike your standard assassin, who has to meticulously plan the right time and the right place to do a hit, the looper simply shows up for “work” at a designated spot, where the target-bound, hooded and festooned with a set of silver bars, is delivered to him like an overnight FedEx package…from 30 years in the future (don’t ask…just enjoy your delicious buttered popcorn and accept it).

Pretty easy job, wouldn’t you say? The hours are good, the wages are decent, and loopers party like rock stars when they go out on the town. However, there is a calculated risk every looper takes by choosing this career path. “Retirement” (at least in the traditional sense) isn’t necessarily part of the equation. Should your bosses (who can be a fickle lot) determine that for whatever reason your services will no longer be required, they send the older version of yourself back to the present so that your younger self can take you out. This is referred to by the higher-ups as “closing the loop”.

Naturally, they don’t give you a heads up; it’s just another anonymous hooded victim who appears out of thin air in the middle of a cornfield somewhere in Kansas. Either way, you never see it coming. Ergo, as looper Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) confides with self-effacing irony in voice-over, this is not a profession that attracts “forward-thinkers”. Joe does have plans; he’s stashing all his silver bars and learning to speak French. Everything is going swimmingly for young Joe until that one fateful day in the cornfield, when his Victim du jour turns out to be… “old” Joe (Bruce Willis), who manages to flee. Uh-oh.

I’ll leave it there, and let you discover and enjoy the surprising twists and turns in your own time (in a manner of speaking). While there are some obvious touchstones here (primarily 12 Monkeys, The Terminator and Logan’s Run, with a few echoes of Groundhog Day) Johnson has fashioned a clever and original thriller that’s smarter than your average modern sci-fi action flick, yet not so self-consciously “meaningful” as to drown in its own self-importance (i.e., the director remembers to entertain the audience along the way).

Most notably, there’s an emphasis on character development (remember that?) and a palpable focus on the quality of the writing that is sorely lacking in most genre entries these days. The production design, special effects and atmospheric flourishes are “futuristic” without going over the top. It’s the little touches I especially enjoyed, like the fact that the time travel device is clearly modeled after George Pal’s design for his 1960 version of The Time Machine. Gordon-Levitt and Willis are terrific, and there are strong supporting performances from Jeff Daniels and Emily Blunt. See it now. See it later. It doesn’t really matter…time being relative and all.

New York, Nouveau York: 2 Days in New York ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 15, 2012)

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As Woody Allen continues gallivanting around Europe, leaving his home kingdom of Manhattan vulnerable to incursion by Visigoths and Vandals, the inevitable has occurred. In fact (and as if to prove that turnabout is fair play), it is likely that around the same time the quirky NYC native’s ode to the City of Light, Midnight in Paris was opening in theaters, a quirky Parisian-born filmmaker was quietly invading Allen’s beloved Big Apple, churning out precisely the type of oft-lamented “earlier, funny” movie that his most ardent fans have been wishing (in vain) he would someday resume making. So who is this usurper, boldly laying claim to the Sacred Throne of Neurotica? Julie Delpy, perhaps best known to American audiences for her work in Richard Linklater’s popular diptych Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, began tasting the whine in 2007 by writing, directing and co-starring in 2 Days in Paris; she’s made a sequel called 2 Days in New York…and it’s one of the funniest films I’ve seen in 2012.

Delpy again casts herself as Marion, a French ex-pat living in Manhattan. In the 2007 film, we joined her and her neurotic American boyfriend (Adam Goldberg) on a trip to Paris, where they found themselves reassessing a tempestuous relationship. Five years have passed;  in a cleverly staged preamble, we discern that while they ended up having a child together, they amicably decided it would be best for their mutual sanity if they went their separate ways. Marion has a new man in her life, a long-time pal turned lover named Mingus (Chris Rock) who has a tween daughter from a previous relationship. The four all live together in a cozy Manhattan loft. Marion and Mingus are the quintessential NY urban hipster movie couple; she’s a photo-journalist/conceptual artist; and he’s a radio talk show host who also writes for the Village Voice.

The already high-strung Marion is on edge. She has an important gallery show coming up. Then there’s her family, who have just flown in from France for a visit and to get acquainted with her new Significant Other. The relatively buttoned-down Mingus is in for a bit of culture shock. Right off the bat, he finds that Marion’s father (real-life dad Alpert Delpy, reprising his role from the previous film) reeks of imported sausages and cheeses, which he unsuccessfully attempted to smuggle through airport security.  Marion’s exhibitionist sister (Alexia Landeau) parades around the apartment in various stages of undress, and her perpetually baked boyfriend Manu (Alex Nahon) is nothing, if not eccentric . And yes…much Franco-American culture-clash comic mayhem does ensue.

Compared to the previous film, there is some unevenness in the script; this could be attributable to the addition of co-writers Landeau and Nahon this time out. But still, for the most part, it works nicely, thanks to the charming Delpy’s ability to elicit consistent belly laughs, despite her tendency to vacillate from high-brow to low-brow (first rule of comedy: whatever works). It’s interesting to see Rock essentially play the straight man (although he still fires off some of the film’s funniest lines). While I think he is brilliant as a stand-up performer, I’ve found much of his previous film work off-putting (I suspect it was not so much a reflection on his abilities as it was his choice of projects). He’s very good here, projecting a more appealing screen presence by just reining it in a bit. Vincent Gallo has a hilarious cameo (playing himself…and parodying himself) that doubles as a satirical jab at art poseurs. OK, so it isn’t Annie Hall, but this is about as close as you’ll get in 2012.

You’re gonna have to serve somebody: The Master ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 29, 2012)

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Starring Montgomery Clift and Charles Laughton (?)

The characters and events depicted in this photoplay are fictitious. Any similarities to actual persons, living or dead are purely coincidental

(Standard end of film disclaimer)

“Comparisons are not invariably odious, but they are often misleading,” Orson Welles once wrote, in reference to the debate over whether or not the many parallels in his film Citizen Kane to the real life story of William Randolph Hearst and the rise of his powerful publishing empire were purely coincidental. It is quite possible that current and future generations of critics and audiences will engage in similar debate regarding the parallels in writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Master to the  life of L. Ron Hubbard and the founding of his Church of Scientology. Neither the church nor Anderson have  confirmed or denied.

Despite the number of  “coincidences”, the answer to the most obvious question is, “no”. This is neither a hagiography nor a smack down of any specific doyen or belief system (thinly disguised or otherwise). Anyone who would pigeonhole the film with such a shallow reading likely has not seen it (or is perhaps unfamiliar with certain  themes running through all of Anderson’s ilms). What he has crafted is a thought-provoking and original examination of why human beings in general are so prone to kowtow to a burning bush, or an emperor with no clothes. Is it a spiritual need? Is it an emotional need? Or is it a lizard brain response, deep in our DNA?

As Inspector Clouseau once ruminated, “Well you know, there are leaders…and there are followers.” At its most rudimentary level, The Master is a two-character study about a leader and a follower (and metaphorically, all leaders and followers). It’s also a story about a complex surrogate father-son relationship (one of those aforementioned recurring themes in Anderson’s oeuvre; more on that in a moment). Anderson frames his narrative using the zeitgeist of America’s existential post-war malaise, in the person of ex-sailor Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix).

Socially withdrawn, prone to dipsomania, odd sexual compulsions and unpredictable fits of rage, Freddie’s transition back to civilian life has not been a smooth one. His character embodies many traits of the quintessential “disillusioned vet” protagonist that fueled post-war noirs like Act of Violence, Thieves’ Highway, The Blue Dahlia, Ride the Pink Horse and High Wall (in fact, The Master vibes overall with the verisimilitude of some great lost genre film of the late 40s or early 50s).

Freddie’s laundry list of personality disorders has not endeared him to the 5 o’clock world; he drifts from job to job. He hits rock bottom after his indirect responsibility for a tragic mishap has him literally fleeing for his life from a work site. Desperate to get out of Dodge and headed for a meltdown, Freddy skulks in the shadows of a San Francisco marina, where he crashes a shipboard wedding party, hoping to blend in with the revelers and then stow away.

The ship, a converted cattle trawler rechristened the Aletheia, is captained by the father of the bride, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is a self-described writer/doctor/nuclear physicist/ philosopher and “hopelessly inquisitive man.” (if he were to take up guitar and form a rock band, he’d be Buckaroo Banzai). He is also a burgeoning cult leader; the boat is chock-a-block with devotees in thrall with Dodd and his philosophy, referred to as The Cause (the tenets have been laid out in Dodd’s eponymous book).

Initially, the paranoid Dodd admonishes his uninvited guest (suspecting him to be some manner of government spook assigned to infiltrate and/or sabotage his organization); but instead of giving him the heave-ho, “something” compels him to do a sudden 180 and invite the twitchy and troubled Freddie along for an imminent (Homeric?) ocean voyage with his family and followers to New York (some shades of The Stuntman).

And so begins the life-altering relationship between the two men, which vacillates tenuously between master/servant, mentor/apprentice, and father/son (the latter recalling Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly in Hard Eight, Burt Reynolds and Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights, Tom Cruise and Jason Robards in Magnolia, and Daniel Day-Lewis and Dillon Freasier/Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood). It’s also the catalyst for two of the most fearless and extraordinary performances that I have seen  this year.

Not to denigrate Hoffman, who is mesmerizing as always; nor fine supporting performances from Amy Adams (as Dodd’s subtly controlling wife, who plays a sort of  Livia to his Augustus), Laura Dern, or Breaking Bad’s Jesse Plemons , but Phoenix in particular has really hit one out of the park, achieving an Oscar-worthy transformation. I don’t know if this was by accident or by design, but I swear he is channeling Montgomery Clift, not only replicating his acting tics and vocal inflection, but his physicality (right down to the hunched shoulders and sunken chest-it is downright eerie).

The film is beautifully shot in 65mm by DP Mihai Malainare, Jr. (try to catch it in a 70mm presentation if you can), and nicely scored by Jonny Greenwood. Those with short attention spans are warned: This film demands your full attention (and begs repeated viewings). It’s exhilarating, audacious, and while at times a bit baffling, it is never dull.

Le grande chill: Little White Lies **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 22, 2012)

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In 1976, a Swiss ensemble piece called Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 unwittingly kick-started a Boomer-centric “midlife crisis” movie subgenre that I call The Group Therapy Weekend (similar to, but not to be conflated with, the venerable Dinner Party Gone Awry). The story usually centers on a coterie of long-time friends (some married with kids, others perennially single) who converge for a (reunion, wedding, funeral) at someone’s (beach house, villa, country spread) to catch up, reminisce, wine and dine, revel…and re-open old wounds (always the most entertaining part).

It’s usually accompanied by a nostalgic soundtrack spotlighting all your favorite hits from the (60s, 70s or 80s). Like any film genre, the entries range from memorable (The Return of the Secaucus 7, The Big Chill) to so-so yet watchable (The Decline of the American Empire) to the downright execrable (last year’s I Melt With You). The latest, Guillaume Canet’s Little White Lies (Les petits mouchoirs) lies somewhere in the middle.

Which is a shame, because writer-director Canet has assembled a fabulous cast; the problem is that somewhere around the 90-minute mark of this 2 ½ hour dramedy, he seems to run out of interesting things for his actors to do or say. It begins intriguingly enough; a happy-go-lucky fellow named Ludo (Jean Dujardin) hops on his motorcycle after a night of drugs and debauchery at a Parisian club, and promptly gets T-boned at an intersection by a truck when he runs a light.

As his friends gather at the ICU, we are introduced to our principal players: Max (Francois Cluzet, star of the director’s terrific 2006 mystery-thriller, Tell No One) and his wife Veronique (Valerie Bonneton), Antoine (Laurent Lafitte), Marie (Marion Cotillard), Vincent (Benoit Magimel) and his wife Isabelle (Pascale Arbillot) and Eric (Gilles Lellouche). This unfortunate event has occurred on the eve of an annual vacation getaway for the gang, hosted by well-to-do restaurateur Max and Veronique at their beach house. After a powwow, they decide that while it’s a bummer that Ludo can’t join them, they should nonetheless plow ahead.

As events unfold at the beach, each player shows their colors as an archetype (the free-spirit with commitment issues, the aging Lothario, the recently dumped single carrying the torch, the harried husband, the sexually frustrated wife, the substance abuser, the sexually conflicted character, etc). However, despite a script overstuffed with clichés and stereotypes, the talented and well-directed ensemble shines with genuine chemistry and great performances. The tepid third act deflates most of the dramatic tension with one too many self-pity parties and a subplot that has two characters running around in a sputtering state of gay panic.

Still, there are enough compelling reasons to recommend the film; besides the appealing cast, DP Christophe Offenstein nicely captures the sun-dappled beauty of Gironde’s Atlantic coast, and there’s a well-selected soundtrack ranging from contemporary (The Jets, Damien Rice, Ben Harper) to nostalgic (David Bowie, Janis Joplin, CCR). Singer-songwriter Maxim Nucci (in a small role as Cotillard’s latest boy toy) performs a poignant original called “Talk to Me”. While Canet may not necessarily have anything new to say, he at least talks to us like we’re grownups.