Monday, September 29, 2014

New movie review: Pride

The members of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners roll into town in Pride.
The Margaret Thatcher effect was felt in every corner of the United Kingdom. There were few aspects of daily life over which the Iron Lady’s policies did not run roughshod. Civil rights were curtailed, labor unions were looked down upon, and a general mood of hostility toward “the others” persisted. Groups who stood outside the dominant culture were seen as a threat to the gentility to which the nation aspired. Enter the coal miners’ strike of 1984 and with it the advocacy group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners.

The new English-Welsh co-production Pride tells the true story of a band of queer activists in England who saw the striking miners and recognized in them a kindred spirit, another group fighting for its rights and drawing the ire of the mainstream. It is difficult to view films like this outside the context of the current American political climate, as the Supreme Court considers gay marriage and the gay rights movement gains traction in ways that would have been inconceivable just a decade ago.

In that context, the film delivers a vital message with positivity, energy, and an unwavering faith in the power of social justice, but a movie can only coast so far on audience good will. The filmmakers would like Pride to be a Full Monty­-style crowd-pleaser, and there is no doubt the film is capable of putting a smile on your face and perhaps bringing a tear to your eye. The story of working-class people of different backgrounds coming together to affect change is a tried and true cinematic formula, but what this movie lacks is any sense of struggle.

A generally upbeat mood and an atmosphere of hope and optimism directly conflict with what we know about the plight of the miners during their year-long strike, and apart from one militantly homophobic villager, the members of LGSM seemed to have lucked out in throwing their support behind the most open-minded mining community this side of a Simpsons gag.

As the miners come to accept the gay and lesbian group into their town, they dance and drink and host late-night slumber parties, and the whole thing looks like a load of fun. Even when the story takes a turn down one or two dark alleys, the narrative looks away before we discover what is at the end, blunting the impact of the blow and depriving the film of the emotional heft it desperately needs.

Director Matthew Warchus, making just his second film, and first-time screenwriter Stephen Beresford fail to imbue the story with any meaning beyond its surface themes of acceptance and solidarity. Warchus made his name directing theater and recently was at the helm of the critically lauded musical Matilda. Pride has the rhythm and structure of a musical, highlighting the flashy setpieces and sidelining the smaller moments that could have added much-needed depth to the story and its characters.

The cast is game, and Paddy Considine (Hot Fuzz, The World’s End) is a standout as a civic leader who brings the gay group to town, but so much of the story is told in either musical montages or big speeches that there is precious little room for character development. The film rarely stops to catch its breath, and while the actors are uniformly good, they struggle to keep pace with a story that seems intent on leaving them behind.

The film’s best scene is also its most quiet. After a night of self-discovery and growth, when he finally feels comfortable in his own skin, one of the activists returns home to find his mother and father have discovered his secret – he is gay. He is given a verbal dressing down by his father, which we see but mostly cannot hear. When next he appears, tears well in his eyes as he sits on his bed. Then, his mother comes in the room.

Like a protracted good-cop, bad-cop routine, she gently explains her disappointment in her son and her concerns for his future. “It is such a hard life,” she says, as though he is making a choice. She tells her 20-year-old son he is too young to know what he wants – again, implying choice – and that she did not know what she wanted when she was his age. She cries for him and probably not just a little for herself. The shamed son falls into her arms, the tears now flowing freely, and the message is clear. In being gay, he has made a poor decision, and his family will help him fix it, whether he wants that or not.

It is a painful, heartbreaking scene, full of the kind of raw emotion and deep wounds missing from the rest of the picture. Contrast it with another sequence in which a character goes to visit the conservative Christian mother to whom he has not spoken in 16 years. He arrives at her home, and when she opens the door, the film cuts away to the next scene, too afraid to show us what may follow. Time and again, the film shuts its eyes before things get too uncomfortable or offers a punchline and a laugh in place of true understanding.

It is possible I am being overly harsh on a genuinely funny and entertaining movie that likely succeeds in most of its aspirations, but Pride is a missed opportunity. Its message of strength in solidarity is so vital that one wishes it had been shared with more honesty and forthrightness. Yet, if it takes a lighthearted approach to get more people to listen, then I will not begrudge the filmmakers that. I can forgive the medium to hear the message.

See it? Yes.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

In love with a feeling: A tribute to Gordon Willis and the warm embrace of the cinema

Mia Farrow goes to the movies in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo.
It is a feeling familiar to anyone with a deep and abiding love for cinema. When a movie hits you just right, it feels as though the characters are speaking right to you, and for a couple hours, your world and theirs are one and the same. But then, the lights come up to wash out the beauty of the fiction and bring back into focus the harshness of reality. There is not a movie lover alive who has not wished at one time or another to harness the fleeting moments before the credits roll and hold on to that sensation as long as possible.

This is the premise of Woody Allen’s stellar 1985 romantic fantasy The Purple Rose of Cairo. Mia Farrow plays a woman who trades the brutal realities of her life for the soothing embrace of the cinema, and for once, the cinema chooses her back. If you have not seen it, I will not say any more than that in order to preserve the mysteries and delights of the picture. Suffice it to say, the film is a lovely blend of classic cinema and modern anxieties with a truly touching core.

I was lucky enough Wednesday night to view a 35-millimeter print of the film at the IFC Center in lower Manhattan. The screening was followed by a panel discussion on the brilliant cinematographer Gordon Willis, who died earlier this year at the age of 82. Two of Willis’ assistant cameramen, Tibor Sands and Douglas C. Hart, were joined by former Willis camera operator Craig DiBona for a funny and touching tribute to one of the true artists of film.

Such was the respect Willis garnered in his craft that when shooting in Italy, the locals referred to him as Michelangelo, according to DiBona. The moniker was well earned. In addition to The Purple Rose of Cairo, Willis lensed seven other Allen pictures, including my pick for the most beautiful movie ever filmed, Manhattan. He also gained acclaim for his work with Francis Ford Coppola on all three Godfather films. DiBona picked The Godfather Part II as his personal choice for most beautiful film of all time.

The Godfather Part II was Willis' second collaboration with Francis Ford Coppola.
The evening was filled with the kind of great old Hollywood stories that are catnip for cinephiles such as the time Willis walked out of a dailies screening with Coppola because the projectionist had loaded the film wrong, causing it to run upside-down and backward. His workman-like process and dedication to quality were matched by an unparalleled technical prowess.

Hart related a story about Willis stopping a screening and calling in the film-processing lab technicians. From the briefest look at the dailies, he could tell the lab was not changing its chemicals often enough, resulting in a look he did not intend. And if there was one thing you could say about Willis, he always got the look he wanted. Lenses, film stocks, lighting, and color – his knowledge on these subjects could fill tomes, and he used all the tools at his disposal to great effect every time he stepped behind the camera.

Willis was a cinematographer who created images so beautiful, they blur the line between our world and his cinematic one. His work expanded the idea of what could be done with film. He shot fewer than 40 movies in his career and never worked as the director of photography on a picture after 1997, but the mark he left on the cinema will be forever emblazoned on the images viewers cannot forget. And, if we cannot always hold onto the feeling the theater inspires in us, thanks to Willis and others of his ilk, we can still close our eyes and remember the beauty we were fortunate enough to behold.

Craig DiBona (far left), Douglas C. Hart (second from right), and Tibor Sands (far right) spoke about their time working with Gordon Willis during a moderated panel discussion Wednesday night at the IFC Center in Manhattan.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

New movie review: Tracks

Mia Wasikowska leads a journey through the desert in Tracks.
In 1977, Robyn Davidson set out on a 1,700-mile trek from Alice Springs, Australia, to the ocean. She intended to walk the length of the journey, accompanied by her dog and the four wild camels she trained to carry her load. John Curran’s new film, Tracks, based on Davidson’s book of the same name, is a generally faithful retelling of this trip. Those familiar with the story will find little suspense in wondering about the outcome, but a mystery remains: Why has she chosen to do this?

That the film makes explicit in voiceover her reasoning is no help in answering the central question. The decision to ditch the world at large would be vexing to most, but it is absolutely baffling to the family and friends left behind. In these matters, there are generally two kinds of people – those who find comfort, stability, and joy among their loved ones and those who bristle at such tethers – and the latter will never make sense to the former.

From the start, it is clear Davidson has family and friends who love her. She loves them, as well, in the ways she is able, but they cannot offer her what she seeks: the solemnity and introspection in being alone. Before she leaves, several friends visit to see her off and, if they can, try to talk her out of this. They sit around the fire in her makeshift shelter and drink and smoke and chatter about the world, while she sits off to the side and observes.

These interactions mean little to Davidson, and their conversations register only as white noise. She escapes the trappings of the hut and steps out under the stars to be with her camels. Only in the wild is she truly at home, and only with her beasts is she at peace. The concerns and protestations of her family and friends do not move her because those are the very precepts from which she is escaping.

As she says later in the film, when she is in the wilderness in the company of her camels and her dog, she is free – free from the expectations, disappointments, and obligations that often define our relationships with the people in our lives. Whether she achieves this freedom, this enlightenment in solitude, will largely depend on the kind of person the viewer is.

If you believe there are reasons we live in communities and that the connections we make with others make life worth living, then there is not much in this film to dissuade you from that belief. However, if you are the kind of person who sees the boundlessness of nature and desires to explore that which lies beyond the strictures of our society, you will likely find enough here to confirm that view, as well.

Mia Wasikowska, whom you will no doubt recognize from Tim Burton’s recent Alice in Wonderland, is fantastic as Davidson. The role calls for the actress to be at once hardened by the events of her past and open to the possibilities of the future. Wasikowska embodies this duality with grace and skill, masterfully portraying the kind of woman who has enough charisma to peak the curiosity and admiration of readers the world over but who shies away from the attention she draws.

The emotional deftness of the performance is matched by its bruising physicality. Davidson hiked 1,700 miles across some of the harshest terrain Mother Nature has seen fit to produce, and Curran and Wasikowska combine to make sure the audience feels every inch of that walk. She is blistered and bloodied but remains tenacious and resilient.

To fund her journey, Davidson accepted sponsorship from National Geographic magazine, and as a condition of this support, she was required to allow a photographer to record portions of her journey. Adam Driver (HBO’s Girls) plays Rick Smolan, who ventures into the unknown on several occasions to meet Davidson along the way. Driver is good as the affable outsider on Davidson’s spiritual quest.

He is intrigued by her but respectful of her process enough to keep his distance. As a journalist who travels to all corners of the globe to document whatever he finds, there may be no one better equipped to understand the appeal in choosing the life of a nomad. But kindred spirits or not, the film never loses sight of the fact that this is the story of Davidson’s solo journey across the Outback.

And what a gorgeous journey it is. Inspired by the real-life photos Smolan took for National Geographic, the cinematography throughout the film is awe-inspiring. Mandy Walker, who also lensed Baz Luhrman’s Australia, brings that same eye for the local scenery but is gifted a richer color palette by Curran and makes full use of it. The oranges and whites pop brilliantly against an endless expanse of blue sky, and the heat of the desert practically radiates off the screen.

Several months into her journey, Davidson arrives at a white-sand desert. Curran and Walker choose to shoot her entry into this territory from a distant overhead vantage point, like a vulture eyeing a potential next meal. The pristine white sand, which suggests nothing living has ever ventured to these lands, gives the eerie feeling that Davidson and her beasts have walked off the edge of the film and into the blankness beyond.

And then we see the tracks they make with every slow and shaky step. Whatever she comes away with from this journey, in this moment, the footsteps she leaves behind seem to say, “I am Robyn Davidson, and in this place, I was free.”

See it? Yes.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

New movie review: The Skeleton Twins

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader play siblings in the new comedy-drama The Skeleton Twins.

There are bonds that can never be broken, and there are bonds that must be broken. As The Skeleton Twins progresses, it becomes clear which are which. It is undeniable that twins Maggie and Milo share the former, but as the movie begins, they have not spoken in 10 years. The intrigue comes less from the dawning realization of what drove this wedge between them and more from the careful mending of the wounds it left.

When we meet Milo, he is living in a cluttered apartment in Los Angeles and seems to be reeling from a breakup with his most recent boyfriend. He blasts his stereo, hops in the bathtub, and slashes his wrists. Across the country in upstate New York, Maggie stares at herself in the mirror, then looks down at a handful of pills. She, too, is going to end it, but moments before she does, she gets a call that her brother is in the hospital. She picks him up and invites him to stay with her and her new husband. He accepts the invitation, and everything else flows from there.

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader play the titular siblings. Every scene between the two resonates with depth, warmth, and humor, and despite the movie’s dark tone, the pairing of Wiig and Hader cannot help but bring light to the proceedings. Though not portraying solely dramatic or tragic characters, the actors are afforded the opportunity to show new sides to their well-known comic personae.

In particular, Hader infuses Milo with the energy and wit so often indicative of the characters he plays in his films or on Saturday Night Live, but The Skeleton Twins allows him to show what happens to the smartass when the door closes and there is no else left in the room. His go-to tactic of making jokes even in the darkest times reveals a person who wants to make others happy despite his own happiness remaining elusive.

As Milo is released from the hospital, he is reading “Marley and Me.” Maggie arrives and accidentally spoils the ending. He plays the victim, and she feels bad, before he reveals that he already knew how it ends, that everyone knows how it ends. She says, “I see you’ve still got your sense of humor.” He responds, “They can’t take that away from me.” This is another joke, but it also is a moment of raw vulnerability. He is a struggling actor who waits tables and keeps only the company of his fish. All he may have left are his wisecracks.

Maggie is so mired in her rut that even her humor escapes her. Her job is uninspiring, and though her marriage to Lance (Luke Wilson) tethers her to reality, it also causes her no end of guilt. We never see what her days were like before Milo showed up, but Wiig’s performance makes it clear Maggie checked out of her life a long time ago.

The ways she tries to shake herself out of her depression are observational of the limited options she sees for herself and the passive role she plays in her day-to-day interactions. But the more she lies to herself, the deeper into the muck she sinks. Milo comes back into her life at her lowest moment, but it is just the nadir of a low ebb that has gone on since before we can know. She did not get here overnight. She got here over years.

Wilson’s scene-stealing turn as the husband who may be the nicest guy in the world is both hilarious and sad. A genuinely good, generally happy person who plays fantasy football and enjoys The Deadliest Catch, Lance does not belong among these people. His light-hearted optimism is the antithesis of what Milo and Maggie experience, and his persistent upbeat attitude has the effect of rubbing the siblings’ noses in a state of being they could never enjoy.

Though there is some family backstory, including a father who battled depression and lost, the script relies too much on “The Big Event” in their lives that brought Milo and Maggie to this point. Writer-director Craig Johnson and co-writer Mark Heyman seem to understand what it is like to suffer from depression and the difficult process of recovery, but they seem at a loss to explain its origins.

Depression is an impossibly multifaceted disease caused by myriad genetic and environmental factors, and it would be a lot to ask for a movie to explain. But by pinning so much of the siblings’ current state to one major event from their teenage years, the movie undermines its potential for exploration and growth, instead settling for deep characters defined by shallow circumstance.

That Hader and Wiig are great in these roles in undeniable, but one gets the feeling that given more incisive material, their performances could have been transcendent. At the same time, the filmmakers clearly set out to make an affecting comedy split evenly between pathos and humor. At that, they have succeeded, and no one can take that away from them.

See it? Yes.