Monday, August 31, 2015

10 most anticipated movies (no, Star Wars is not one)

Michael Fassbender stars in Macbeth, one of Last Cinema Standing's 10 most anticipated movies of the fall.

We did it last year. We’ll do it this year. If we do it next year, that will make it a tradition. Last Cinema Standing’s 10 most anticipated movies of the fall actually falls in line with another annual tradition: the end of summer blockbuster season. It’s that time of year when Hollywood studios put away their superhero spandex and bust out their prestige pictures. That’s right – it’s Oscar-chasing time, which is just fine by me.

Before we get to the 10, a couple notes: First, merry Christmas to me as my two most anticipated movies both come out Dec. 25, so if you do not hear from me on Christmas Day, it is because I am at the movies. Second, if it seems these selections skew toward name recognition, they do. I love a good story, but what gets me excited about going to the theater is the idea of talented directors, actors, and craftspeople taking on interesting projects.

Last year, my most anticipated films provided an interesting dichotomy. That list included three films that wound up on my end-of-the-year top 10 list, including my No. 1 film of the year, Leviathan. However, it also included Interstellar and Unbroken, which I would call two of the worst films of last year. Hopefully, this year’s list will trend toward the former.

Finally, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (and may need a nap again after saying that whole title) will not appear below. The new Star Wars film will probably top many of your lists and may be the most anticipated movie since The Phantom Menace in 1999. My anticipation level hovers somewhere between curiosity and dread. If it floats your boat, more power to you, but it does nothing for me. Here are 10 movies that do:

10. The Walk, directed by Robert Zemeckis
Release date: Oct. 9

Zemeckis is a great stylist, but he has a tendency to use visual flair for its own sake. However, when he has a compelling story to tie his more whimsical flights of technical fancy to, few can compare (see: the plane crash in Flight). If you have seen the Academy Award-winning documentary this film shares its story with, Man on Wire, you know what to expect. The true story of a tightrope walker (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) attempting to walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center should be a perfect vehicle for Zemeckis’ particular gifts.

9. Trumbo, directed by Jay Roach
Release date: Nov. 6

As a film fan, I am also a nerd when it comes to old Hollywood. The history of film often reflects the history of America, and this is doubly true in one of this country’s darkest chapters – the era of McCarthyism and communist witch hunts. Trumbo is the story of writer Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), who as a result of government pressure, was blacklisted by Hollywood for socialist leanings and fought back the best way he knew how: by writing. This is one of the most interesting and troubling periods in our shared cultural experience, and I cannot wait to see it brought to life on screen.

8. Steve Jobs, directed by Danny Boyle
Release date: Oct. 9

Counting Steve Jobs, Oscar-winning director Boyle has made just 11 feature films. None is less than interesting, and several (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) are unimpeachably brilliant. Add to that Michael Fassbender – whom I consider the most exciting actor working today – and my favorite actress, Kate Winslet, and I will be there on day 1. I cannot say I am terribly intrigued by a biopic of the late Apple founder, but with Boyle, this cast, which also includes Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, and Michael Stuhlbarg, and an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, I think we have every right to expect something extraordinary.

7. Suffragette, directed by Sarah Gavron
Release date: Oct. 23

Led by a cast including Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep, and Helena Bonham Carter, Suffragette details the rise of the feminist movement and the push for women to gain the right to vote in the U.S. I will admit to being unfamiliar with Gavron’s previous work, though screenwriter Abi Morgan co-wrote one of my favorite films of the last few years, Steve McQueen’s excellent Shame, which also starred the fearless Mulligan. The story is timely and relevant, and it will be exciting to see one of the most important struggles of American democracy dramatized.

6. Crimson Peak, directed by Guillermo Del Toro
Release date: Oct. 16

Del Toro has a weird place in the Hollywood machine. He is the director of movies such as Blade II, Hellboy, and Pacific Rim, as well as a number of B-level horror films He also wrote the three Hobbit movies. There is nothing necessarily wrong with any of this work, uneven as some of it may be, but right in the middle of it all sits Pan’s Labyrinth, an absolute gem of a film. Crimson Peak, starring Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska, looks like a return to the gothic fairytale horror of that masterpiece, and if so, we are in for one hell of a ride.

5. The Lobster, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Release date: To be determined

Greek writer-director Lanthimos is incapable of making a boring film, and there is nothing about the romantic sci-fi comedy The Lobster that suggests it will be his first. It is, however, his first feature in the English language, and it stars an enticing, eclectic international cast, including Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, and John C. Reilly. About a futuristic society in which those who do not mate are turned into animals, Lanthimos does not appear to be dialing back the weirdness to appease the larger audience The Lobster seems likely to attract. For that, we should all be thankful.

4. Bridge of Spies, directed by Steven Spielberg
Release date: Oct. 16

Could anything feel more classic than a Spielberg-Tom Hanks war movie? Any Spielberg film is reason to be excited, and this one seems right up his alley, following an American lawyer (Hanks) who helps the CIA rescue an American pilot in the Soviet Union. The script is co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen, as well as by Matt Charman, and while the Coens have not had much luck handing over their writing to other directors (Unbroken; Gambit), this is Spielberg. For good, old-fashioned moviemaking, there simply is no one better.

3. Macbeth, directed by Justin Kurzel
Release date: December

Remember how I said Fassbender is the most exciting actor working in Hollywood today? Well, as neat as it will be to see his imitation of Steve Jobs, the idea of him playing one of William Shakespeare’s greatest creations is enough to make me shake in my seat. On top of that, Marion Cotillard is Lady Macbeth. If you cannot get excited about seeing two of the best actors of their generation play two of the best characters ever written, there is something wrong with you. Kurzel is a relatively untested director, but if he can balance the epic canvas of the story with the intimate drama of the characters, this has the chance to be something special.

2. The Hateful Eight, directed by Quentin Tarantino
Release date: Dec. 25

Yeah, I grew up in the ’90s, and yeah, Taratino is one of the main reasons I love film. Django Unchained was neither the best nor my favorite of his films (I humbly submit Inglourious Basterds and Reservoir Dogs for those respective titles), but any new film from Tarantino is more exciting and more interesting than almost any new film by almost any other director (see one spot below on this list for the exception to this rule).

The Hateful Eight finds Tarantino back in the Western mode he explored with Django Unchained, and for this one, he brings along a similarly star-studded cast, including Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Zoë Bell, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and many more. If you love movies, this is the kind of movie that is made for you.

1. The Revenant, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Release date: Dec. 25

Fresh off winning three Oscars as the director, producer, and co-writer of last year’s Birdman, Iñárritu returns with something wholly different. If you check out last year’s list of Last Cinema Standing’s most anticipated films, you will find Birdman in the No. 1 spot. That is not a coincidence. No director chooses more thrilling or intriguing stories to tell than Iñárritu.

He also brings along a crew of unrivaled skill: cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (back-to-back Oscars for Birdman and Gravity); editor Stephen Mirrione (Oscar winner for Traffic, nominee for Iñárritu’s Babel); production designer Jack Fisk (Oscar nominated for There Will Be Blood); and costume designer Jacqueline West (twice Oscar nominated for Quills and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). What I am saying is the movie has one hell of a pedigree.

That alone would be enough – and frankly is enough – to land at the top of this list, but there is more. The film stars my favorite actor, Leonardo Dicaprio, in what looks like the most physically demanding role of his life. There is a lot of talk about Dicaprio possibly finally winning an Academy Award for this part. That would be great, but in the grand scheme of things, it does not matter. What matters is that Dicaprio is nearly certain to turn in the performance of his career. All of these factors combined, I cannot imagine another film more deserving of the title “most anticipated.”

Sunday, August 30, 2015

R.I.P. Wes Craven

Writer-producer-director Wes Craven died Sunday at the age of 76.

It is late here on the East Coast, and I am in shock. It is about 11:15 p.m. as I write this, and I just learned of the death of Wes Craven. The horror master behind such great films as A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and Scream was 76. According to a release from his family, he died of complications related to brain cancer.

It does little justice to Craven to list his credits, though the films he worked on are nearly all exemplary of his particular genius. He was more than his films. He was the influence and impact his films had on a generation of filmmakers such as Sam Raimi, Frank Darabont, and Eli Roth, among many others. He was an absolute legend, and though his last film was 2011’s underrated Scream 4, his impact is felt still in a million places.

Craven on the set of Scream.
On a personal level, Craven’s work was formative for me. As a child who grew up watching way too many horror movies for my age, I loved Craven’s films above all others. I have vivid memories of being 9 years old and sitting in the den of a friend’s house, watching a taped copy of the Scream director’s cut. It was recorded off HBO onto a VHS I only replaced with a DVD last year. I was the Ghostface Killer for Halloween three years in a row. The first time I saw a movie on opening night was the release of Scream 3, and I took a first date to see Scream 4.

None of that, however, compares to my relationship to A Nightmare on Elm Street. To this day, I will argue Freddy Krueger is the perfect horror villain, a creation entirely of Craven’s own making. If one can have scars in a good way, the Nightmare films left them on me. My grandparents were convinced enough of my maturity when I was a child to let me rent the Nightmare on Elm Street films and watch them in the living room during the summer days at their house while my dad was at work.

Wes Craven's New Nightmare
I remember my grandmother taking me to the library, and I checked out a Freddy Krueger novella and a behind-the-scenes, making-of Nightmare on Elm Street book. I was convinced I could copy the formula for fake movie blood and tried, though I do not know now, nor was I probably certain then, just what I planned on using it for. All I knew was the Nightmare on Elm Street people used it, so I wanted to use it. I still cite that book as one of the reasons I have always wanted to be a filmmaker.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, well, there are your good scars. I was maybe 9 or 10. I was up late in an unfamiliar home and could not sleep, so I stayed up, pulled a VHS copy of New Nightmare off the shelf, and watched it all night. One of the clearest movie-related memories of my childhood is the babysitter in New Nightmare being dragged across the ceiling of a hospital room. I was not afraid, just quietly in awe. That image has stayed with me, and I hope it stays with me forever – a good scar.

Maybe I am rambling now. It is hard to put your thoughts together in times like these. The movie world is a worse place without Wes Craven in it, but we are all better for having had him in our world. I feel sorrow for his family, his friends, and anyone who knew him. And I feel shock. Be well friends.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

New movie review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Bel Powley stars in writer-director Marielle Heller's new film The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Never have I been a teenage girl. It is a flaw of mine that cannot be corrected. That being true, I am not the target audience for The Diary of a Teenage Girl, nor am I probably in a position to gauge its reality and emotional honesty. I can say this about first-time writer-director Marielle Heller’s new film, based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Phoebe Gloeckner: It is beautifully acted and lovingly crafted, and it certainly feels real.

Relative newcomer Bel Powley plays Minnie, a 15-year-old girl growing up in ’70s San Francisco and exploring her burgeoning sexuality. Her mother is mostly absent from her life, her little sister is too young to understand her experiences, and her primary father figure no longer lives nearby. For all intents and purposes, she is alone, and the film does an expert job of depicting how Minnie conflates physical closeness with emotional connection.

At one point, she strips naked and looks herself over in her bedroom mirror. In voiceover, she says she desperately wants somebody to touch her body, but she fears no one will ever want to. The combination of desire, low self-esteem, and teenage hormones makes Minnie vulnerable, and the first person to pounce on that vulnerability is Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), her mother’s boyfriend.

There is no sugarcoating in the script, which opens with the line, “Today, I had sex for the first time. Holy shit.” Minnie loses her virginity to Monroe. They will have many more sexual liaisons, which are depicted explicitly but not luridly throughout the film. It is hard to say how a male director would have handled this material, but as forthright as Heller is with her lead’s sexuality, the scenes are photographed matter-of-factly, with little prurient interest.

We are not meant to be turned on by this love affair, but we should not be repulsed either. Like Minnie, the audience is on a journey of discovery. We have the benefit of distance and the knowledge that this relationship is damaging to her. Minnie does not have this benefit and must learn, as we all do, by trial and error.

Powley, who has appeared on a number of British television series and in one previous feature film, is the heart of the movie. Everything rests on her ability to convey the feeling of being aggressively sexual but too inexperienced to understand how that sexuality will affect her life and relationships. Powley carries this off with brightness and the kind of cock-eyed certainty youth affords.

Skarsgård is good enough as Monroe to make you almost forget the creepy, predatory nature of the character and feel sorry for this doofus who does only what is most convenient for him – almost. Kristen Wiig, who plays Minnie’s mom, is also solid in the mostly dramatic role of a woman whose life has not tuned out the way she hoped and which continues to spiral out of control.

Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgard also star.
The world needs more stories like this, preferably, as in this case, told by female storytellers. Heller, who spearheaded the effort to bring The Diary of a Teenage Girl to the screen, is a clearly gifted filmmaker. She and cinematographer Brandon Trost, known mostly for his work on action films, capture the gauzy feel of the early ’70s and deftly parallel that with the haze of being a teenager in a world for which you are not quite prepared.

Immediately after watching the film, I was troubled by the almost single-minded focus on Minnie’s sexuality. She has few other defining traits. She wants to be an artist and is often shown drawing. She has some correspondence with artist Aline Kominsky, who in the timeline of the film, is yet to become Robert Crumb’s wife but who is already a talented artist in her own right. That is about it, though. She is a wannabe artist who is obsessed with sex.

I wondered if this is a reductive view of teenagers in general and teenage girls in particular. Surely, teenage girls must have more on their minds than sex, having sex, and who will have sex with them. Minnie does not seem to think about anything more than sex and has conversations that always wrap back around to sex in some way. I initially considered this a failure on the part of the film, particularly as there are so few stories in theaters about teenage girls and their real lives – anyone living in a dystopian sci-fi future or who is in love with a vampire does not count.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I reconsidered this position. I made the mistake of asking Minnie to represent all teenage girls – again, due to their lack of representation in the marketplace, this was just my first instinct – but this is an unfair burden to place upon the film. Given the semi-autobiographical nature of the source material, it would be more fitting to view this as the story of one teenage girl. Minnie is a specific person. She is no one’s archetype, and her preoccupations are her own.

Seen in this light, the problem is less with the film and more with the Hollywood system that refuses to tell relatable stories about teenage girls. I promise teenage girls go to the movies just as much as teenage boys; however, it is doubtful the two demographics are served by the same films. The solution, then, is not to quibble over the story of Minnie, who has every right to be whomever she wants to be, but instead to push for more films about girls like Minnie but whose preoccupations may be different. That would be progress.

See it? Yes.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

New movie review: Grandma

Lily Tomlin plays Elle in the new independent comedy Grandma, from writer-director Paul Weitz.

In Grandma, Lily Tomlin plays an older lesbian who sets out to help her teenage granddaughter get the money she needs for an abortion. Some of you will have been offended by that simple plot description, and if you were, I promise this movie will do nothing to abate that offense. That is okay. Not all movies are for all people. For everyone else, filmmaker Paul Weitz has written and directed a riotously funny road movie with a ton of heart that also provides a wonderful showcase for Tomlin.

Elle (Tomlin) is a mostly retired poet living off the checks she receives for her past works. As the film opens, we see her and her girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer), breaking up. Elle says she knew the younger woman would eventually leave her, though it is debatable which of the two women truly instigates the breakup. Just as Olivia walks out of her life, granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up on her doorstep with a problem.

Sage is 11 weeks pregnant and looking to borrow money for an abortion. Elle does not have it as she is still waiting on her next check and cut up her credit cards to make a vague point to no one in particular. The nearby free clinic Elle remembers from her youth is now a coffee shop with terrible coffee, a fact Elle has no qualms about stating to anyone within ear shot, including the owner. So the pair hits the road in Elle’s 1955 Dodge Royal (Tomlin’s actual car) to see who might be able to loan them the money.

To say the two are comically mismatched is an understatement. Sage is a typically shy, painfully awkward 16-year-old who is all too happy to be walked over if it means keeping the peace. Elle is a brusque, second-wave feminist still clinging to her punk rock ideals. In this premise, there is easy comedy, and Weitz, of American Pie fame, among other things, is not shy about going for the obvious jokes and sometimes coasts on Tomlin and Garner’s chemistry and performances.

The vulgar, mean grandma, who occasionally has a heart of gold, is a comedy cliché going back a long way. Weitz and Tomlin spend the first half of the film embracing this characterization and the second half subverting it. In the opening half-hour, Elle curses, yells, makes a mess, and hits a teenage boy in the groin with a hockey stick. This is all very funny, but it grows tiresome, and as soon as it does, Weitz is smart enough to shift gears.

Clocking in at a breezy hour and 19 minutes, Weitz stuffs his screenplay with character turns and revelations that do not so much change who these people are as serve to explain why they are that way. Grandma is the rare film in which there is no villain. The past, filled as it is with old wounds and simmering grievances, is the enemy. The characters who fare best are those who can learn, grow, and move on with their lives.

The centerpiece of the film is an extended two-hander between Elle and an old lover, Karl (Sam Elliott). They have not seen each other in nearly 40 years, and it is clear things did not end well. Karl has strong feelings about Elle, but it is hard to tell if the candle he keeps burning for her is one of passion or one he has waited a long time to burn her with.

Tomlin and Elliott perform a wondrous pas de deux throughout this sequence, with Karl shifting almost imperceptibly from charm to smarm and Elle necessarily contrite until she flips the switch and can hold her tongue no longer. Without wanting to be reductive or patronizing about it, it is great to see two older actors still on top of their game and with solid material to sink their teeth into.

Marcia Gay Harden, Tomlin, and Julia Garner in Grandma.
For Tomlin, especially, the part is a welcome change. Her Emmy-nominated work in the Netflix series Grace and Frankie notwithstanding, it has been years since Tomlin has had a lead role with this much substance and depth. She does not waste a moment of her time on screen, and as shopworn as the character of Elle could be, Tomlin never plays into the stereotypes. She portrays Elle as a complex woman whose pride has gotten in the way of her personal relationships. She can be bitter, and she can be sweet, but what she is always is herself.

If Grandma is not exactly groundbreaking material, it is at least refreshing in its exploration of the multigenerational effects our choices have. This point becomes clear when we finally meet Judy (a stellar Marcia Gay Harden), Sage’s mother and Elle’s daughter. She is a successful businesswoman who seems to have achieved her success by emulating her mother’s worst qualities. She is another stereotype – the pushy female boss – but once again, Weitz bucks convention and almost immediately opens the character up to warmth and humanity.

At the end, we are left with three generations of women struggling to stay true to the better angels of their nature. Each has experienced some pain or trauma that has caused them to retreat – Elle into misery; Judy into work; Sage into herself – but by connecting and opening up to each other, they have a chance to slay the demons of the past and work toward a brighter future.

See it? Yes.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Ha! Judd Apatow and Sick in the Head

Writer-producer-director Judd Apatow's book Sick in the Head is an essential read.

When you’re always picked last, you always get the worst position, like right field in baseball. Then, since you are always in the worst position, the ball never comes your way, so you never get a chance to show anyone that you are, in fact, good at this sport. But the truth is, you are not good at this sport because you are never involved in a play, because you are always in the worst position. When it is time to step up to bat, you feel so much pressure to do something incredible, like hit a home run, that you usually whiff. If you somehow manage to get a hit, your accomplishment is ignored by your peers, who chalk it up to luck … Then the kid who is picked last never gets a girl to like him, because he has been labeled a loser. Therefore, what else is there to do except decide that everyone else is the loser and you are the cool one?
– Judd Apatow, Sick in the Head, “Introduction: Why Comedy?”

I have a short list of celebrity idols – the people on whose careers I wish to model my own, whose work ethic I admire, and whose approach to life and philosophy either lines up with mine or more likely has directly informed mine. Roger Ebert, Woody Allen, Sam Raimi, Albert Brooks, Dan Harmon. In ways both large and small, these people have made me the person I am and give me targets for the person I want to be.

Recently, another prominent figure has cropped up whose views on work and life I find intoxicating. Much to my surprise, he comes from the world of comedy: Judd Apatow. Now, I enjoy comedies (see above: Allen, Brooks, Harmon), but it is not really what I do. I am drawn to the dark, the serious, and the macabre, but seen in that light, maybe it is not so surprising. The old cliché often seems true: There are few people darker or angrier than comedians.

Apatow discusses this topic at length in his recent collection of interviews with comedians, Sick in the Head. He is fascinated by what drives comedians to do what they do and how a few performers – notably, Jerry Seinfeld – pull off the trick of being funny and being happy. It is among the many themes running through the book, a New York Times bestseller released earlier this year.

My copy of Sick in the Head, signed by Apatow.
The premise of the book is simply that Apatow has spent his life in comedy and talking to comedians about their craft. At its most basic, Sick in the Head is a collection of this accumulated knowledge related through interviews with famous comedians at various points in their careers. However, beneath the surface, it is much more than that. It is a guide for overcoming fears and anxieties, for putting our troubled pasts behind us, and for carving out a better future for us and ours.

My single biggest takeaway from the book – which is as revealing about Apatow as it is about his interview subjects – is, to paraphrase Nike, just to do it. We all have problems. We all have concerns. We all have excuses. In the end, none of that matters. There is either action or inaction. Admittedly, this is the kind of moral shared elsewhere countless times, but for me, to hear it articulated by people I admire so much while learning of their personal struggles, well, it is invaluable.

Fellow writers will attest to this: Writing often is easy; sitting down to write is one of the hardest things in the world. Sick in the Head inspires me to write. It makes me want to sit down and fill blank page after blank page with ideas, and I cannot convey how empowering it is simply to have the will to write.

I recently returned from Hollywood, where I was in town for three days to pitch movie ideas to studios, agents, and managers, which is a draining and dispiriting process even when it goes well. I packed only the essentials – a change of clothes, some toiletries, and an autographed copy of Sick in the Head. I read it the whole flight there and the whole flight back. I read it in my hotel room. I read it at the bar. There is something essential in those pages, something that got me through times when I felt bad or exhausted or like packing it in and going home.

I don’t know that I can ask for more from a book than the will to carry on. I don’t know that I can ask for more from anything. So, thanks, Judd Apatow, and thanks to everybody who inspires anybody to do better.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

New movie review: Phoenix

Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld star in writer-director Christian Petzold's magnificent Phoenix.

Simply by titling his new film Phoenix, German filmmaker Christian Petzold is clueing his audience in to the story he wants to tell. As with the tale of the mythical bird that is devoured by flames only to rise again from the ashes, this film promises a story of destruction and resurrection, death and rebirth. Since the audience knows the basic structure of what must happen, the intrigue must be found in the process by which these mutually exclusive states are achieved.

Petzold and co-writer Harun Farocki, working from a story by Hubert Monteilhet, prove adept at detailing the process of their heroine’s transformation, moving the plot along at a breakneck pace and not for one moment sacrificing depth or nuance. Phoenix tells of Nelly (Nina Hoss), a Holocaust survivor who wanders post-war Berlin searching for her husband. She has suffered such severe trauma that her face has had to be reconstructed by a plastic surgeon. She is herself but not quite.

Nelly is a stranger in this new world, sifting through the rubble of a broken country. Her journey, per the film’s title, is to build something else and recognize that what once was is gone and can never be again. To do so, she must cut ties with her past, starting with a husband whose motives only get murkier the more she learns.

There are many ways for this story to step wrong. Allegory such as this, when done badly, can come off as cheap and unearned. Nelly is a stand-in for all Holocaust survivors, and her wounds are the scars of a people nearly wiped out by genocide who must now find meaning in their survival. A lesser film would leave it at that, content to use the main character as a cipher through which the audience might come to understand a larger moral.

The strength of Phoenix is that it understands Nelly is both a symbol and an individual. As viewers, we are so drawn in by the nature of this one woman’s struggle that we cannot help but better comprehend the greater struggle. Where other filmmakers might fall into heavy-handedness and lose themselves in metaphor, Petzold and his collaborators tease out a stunning mystery while drawing a complex character portrait, incorporating the setting as a backdrop rather than a purpose unto itself.

Among those collaborators, none is more important than Hoss. The film lives and dies with her ability to convey a series of often-contradictory emotions in a single glance, and Hoss proves more than up to the task. Hoss is a master reactor, and she moves from optimism to devastation so quickly and so fully that the audience can do nothing but be swept along on her emotional roller coaster.

In particular, Nelly’s scenes with her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), play like a great high-wire act. Hoss and Zehrfeld are magnificent together, balancing the tension of a lifetime of shared history with the betrayals of the present while neither can speak directly of their pains and desires. Hoss makes Nelly totally malleable, willing to be whatever Johnny needs her to be, and Zehrfeld plays Johnny as a cold manipulator, molding Nelly into the form and function that suits him.

The tragic irony is that what they both need is Nelly to be herself. He cannot see who she is through the surgery, thinking her a stranger he can pass off as his wife – though as the story unfolds, it becomes a fair point to wonder if Johnny could ever really see the person she was. She cannot tell him who she is because the deeper he draws her into his web of deception, the less she is able to trust him.

Johnny believes Nelly died in the war. He is after her inheritance, so he enlists Nelly – again, thinking she is someone else – to pretend to be his deceased wife on the pretense that he will split the money with her if their fraud succeeds. She agrees to the charade because the war has left her without bearings. The facsimile of her marriage is the only way she can connect to her old life, so she willingly subjects herself to the indignity of helping her husband defraud her of her own money.

The film has been compared to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, to which there are certain plot similarities, and there is certainly a Hitchcockian vibe to the proceedings, but it runs deeper than that as Phoenix reminds of a number of classic thrillers. It is vintage, Golden Era Hollywood-style moviemaking, dripping with style and intensity, but informed by a modern sensibility.

Phoenix has the mechanics of an old-school mystery, but it is not overly concerned with solving that mystery. There are secrets and revelations, but Petzold is not interested in milking these for big “gotcha” moments. From the beginning, the movie already has us. Instead, Petzold explores how what we know and don’t know can destroy us but also provide the foundation for our rebirth.

See it? Yes.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Kindergarten Teacher: First poetry, then anything else

Avi Shnaidman (left) and Sarit Larry star in Nadav Lapid's excellent new film The Kindergarten Teacher.

Parents probably do not ask themselves enough what they hope their children get out of going to school each day. It seems a pretty significant question to ask. For the most part, we agree it is important for children to attend school from a fairly young age, but we rarely identify the specific good scholarship is intended to promote.

This question is intrinsically linked to the function of school teachers in our society. These people devote their lives to the education of children, and they ask little in return for their investment, yet the question of what they are investing in still stands. Israeli writer-director Nadav Lapid’s sophomore feature The Kindergarten Teacher is a stunning exploration of the role teachers play in our culture and the lengths to which one woman will go to fulfill her perceived duty.

Lapid was in New York last week for a screening of his film, followed by a question-and-answer session at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Lapid was chatty, witty, and engaging throughout a half-hour discussion in which he touched on the need for art in society, the essential function of educators, and the importance of contradictions.

“I think there’s something in this position of kindergarten teacher,” said Lapid. “On one hand, kindergarten teachers, as we know, are real persons, private persons who have their private life, etc. On the other hand, they are the ones who are in charge of the transmission of social values, of state values, of moral values. They are the ones who meet the future citizens in their earliest stage in order to prepare them, to make them appropriate to become a part of society. They are also an incarnation of right and wrong, bad and good in the eyes of society, and I think that this specific kindergarten teacher – she’s in a kind of permanent rebellion.”

Nira, brilliantly played by Sarit Larry, is a middle-aged kindergarten teacher whose life lacks excitement and inspiration. Her husband is a loving man but a dolt. Her job often seems like nothing more than glorified babysitting until one day when her world changes and a new light shines down on her. She overhears one of her students, a 5-year-old boy, Yoav (Avi Shnaidman), dictate a poem to his nanny. The verse is beautiful, and Nira obsesses over the prodigiously insightful mind of this child.

The first thing she does is repurpose two of Yoav’s poems to impress the teacher and students of her night school creative writing class, claiming she has written them. We seem to be headed for a narrative in which the teacher steals the child’s poems in order to procure some form of glory for herself, but Lapid’s script is smarter than that. The Kindergarten Teacher veers into entirely different territory, portraying Nira as a person so moved by the glory of Yoav’s poetry that she absolutely must share his gift with the world, regardless of what rules or cultural norms she has to violate to do so.

“She’s doubting this right and wrong, the social, the moral values, and I think in a way she’s inventing an alternative moral system, which to make things short, it claims something like: first, words of poetry, and then anything else,” said Lapid. “I try to imagine our world ruled by such a kindergarten teacher … First poetry, then anything else – imagine that. Since her life was totally shaken, changed, turned upside down after she hears a 5-year-old kid mumble two or three lines of poetry, she believes in a way that each time this kid opens his mouth, the world should stop turning around. People should stop anything and listen. Maybe it’s not such a bad belief.”

The film positions Nira as a radical warrior, fighting for art and beauty in a world more concerned with the shallow and prosaic. It may seem like an extreme stance on her part, but as we watch Yoav’s nanny use his gift for her gain and his father decry the art of poetry, it becomes easier for us to understand Nira’s desire to strike back at the culture. Yoav’s father, a wealthy restauranteur, explicitly tells Nira not to encourage the child’s gift, but she refuses to contribute to a society that will not stop to recognize greatness when confronted with it.

“She’s aiming not only to save this kid, not only to save herself, not only to save this kid’s words but in a way to change the course of history,” said Lapid. “She aims to change the universe in the way she declares war against what most of us see as triviality, as banality. She claims a war against the man who’s sitting right now in front of his TV watching a quite-stupid TV show, even if this man is her husband.”

Adding another layer to the proceedings, however, is Yoav himself. He is not some perspicacious movie child like other preternaturally gifted kids in lesser films. He is a child – shy, uncoordinated, and simple but paradoxically capable of producing intensely beautiful words of poetry. It is this paradox that intrigues Nira, said Lapid. It is a mystery at the center of the film that she must follow through to its end, whether it leads to her destruction or redemption.

“At a certain moment, we understood there is something in this age, 5 years old, that combines huge, verbal capacity – very powerful imagination on one hand – and something very basic in the physical gestures,” said Lapid. “That’s why, for example, you can see the kid doing his ritual, his poetic ritual, walking from left to right, right to left, reciting sometimes very complicated words, and almost falling while he’s walking because there’s something basic about him. There was a moment when I think we understood that this is the essence because the kid is a contradiction.”

If Lapid’s script makes this point, then his direction and the jaw-dropping camerawork of cinematographer Shai Goldman drive the point home. Whole scenes will play out from Nira or Yoav’s point of view before the audience even realizes it is looking through the eyes of one of the characters. There are no boundaries between the camera and the action, forcing viewers to become a part of the story but depriving them of any agency, much like the children in Nira’s class.

“If I decide to make a film called The Kindergarten Teacher, which takes place in a kindergarten and there are kids and that talks in a way also about childhood and adults, childhood … should be present on the screen,” said Lapid. “For me, present on the screen means that it’s like a child. The characters on the screen will have their own independent way of thinking, while the camera will have different way of thinking, my way of thinking.

“In part of the film, there will be sometimes a collision between the camera and the characters, between the borders of the frame and the character in the middle of the frame. For example, they don’t keep distance from the camera. They don’t respect the autonomy, the independence of the camera. They don’t respect the objectivity of the camera. They force the camera to be subjective, to take a position, so in a way, it’s a combination between order and concept and arbitrary things and freedom.”

The clash between order and freedom drives much of The Kindergarten Teacher and gives it power. Poetry is no parent’s idea of a stable career path, least of all Yoav’s father, but must that be a consideration? In Yoav’s words, Nira sees beauty, freedom, and expression, and she determines to encourage and nurture these traits. The society she lives in would rather she not. If she cannot transcend, she will be crushed, leaving us still with the question: If not the devotion and dedication of someone like Nira, what do we really want from our teachers?

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

New movie review: Irrational Man

Joaquin Phoenix stars in Woody Allen's Irrational Man.

There is a barely perceptible line between theory and reality. Most of us walk right up to it every day without even knowing it. It is the line that separates our beliefs from our actions, and stepping over it represents a decision to act on our feelings – for good or bad. The whole concept of morality is based on the underlying idea that what we do reflects who we are. The culture lionizes those who stand on the strength of their convictions and decries those who do not, but it is that same culture that decides what convictions are worth celebrating and when.

Take murder, for example. That seems like an easy one, but if we recontextualize it just a bit, the waters quickly get murky. As a moral maxim, let us say it is wrong to take a life. Now you are a solider. Does that hold true? Now you are a policeman. Does that hold true? Now, the life you have taken was that of an evil-doer, and the world is a better place without him. Does that hold true? Who decides any of this?

Irrational Man finds writer-director Woody Allen in thought-provoking, philosophical mode as he tells the story of a university philosophy professor who grapples with the question of what actions he is allowed to take in a moral universe. This is my favorite mode for Allen to work in, and his latest film reminds of masterworks such as Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point. However, whereas the characters in those earlier films were debating how to handle immediately life-altering problems, the professor in Irrational Man is dealing with a far more existential crisis.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe, a middle-aged college professor with a reputation for radical thinking but who has lost the will to live. This is a classic Allen character – the person who is too smart for his own good; too morose to find satisfaction; distraught, despairing, and suicidal but too self-important to carry out the act. Phoenix is an interesting choice for the part, and he does not allow himself to drift into the Allen impersonation so many of the director’s other leading men have tried. Phoenix is more restrained, more inside himself, and seemingly more dangerous.

Phoenix and Emma Stone in Irrational Man.
Parker Posey plays Rita, another teacher at the school who sees Abe as her ticket out of the drab life in which she finds herself trapped. Emma Stone is Jill, the student who inevitably develops a crush on Phoenix’s character. He does his best to keep his relationship with Jill platonic as he carries on an affair with the married Rita, but as one might expect, complications ensue.

If that had been the end of it, Irrational Man would have had the makings of a light-weight romantic comedy romp leavened by solid performances, particularly from Phoenix and Posey, and Allen’s usual flair for effortlessly witty dialogue. It should be noted as well that cinematographer Darius Khondji’s work makes for the best-looking Allen film since Midnight in Paris, which Khondji also lensed. There is a lot to like in the bare bones of the film, but Allen has his sights on something else entirely.

Abe’s problems are not merely romantic. They are philosophical. He is in crisis. He is impotent, creatively blocked, and lacking the will to change. As several characters observe, including Abe himself, he has no lust for life. Allen drives this point home marvelously as Abe engages in a game of Russian roulette in front of Jill and her shocked college friends at a party. This is a man teetering on the edge.

Then, by a stroke of luck, everything changes. He and Jill are sitting across from one another at a diner when she beckons him to her side of the table to listen to the conversation going on behind them. A woman, whom neither Jill nor Abe knows, laments to her friends that she is on the verge of losing her children to her lout of an ex-husband seemingly due to her having drawn a particularly corrupt family court judge. The woman wishes cancer on the judge, and Abe observes in voiceover that he will not get cancer and that wishing will not make it so. That is when everything clicks into place for him.

Jill later confesses to Abe she thought about the judge and also wished him dead of a heart attack or some other unfortunate incident. Abe has something more direct in mind: the perfect murder. This idea takes hold in him, and his life is saved by the simple notion he could end another’s. The thought alone is enough to get his juices flowing, as he says at one point. He is sexually reinvigorated, creatively inspired, and infused with a love of life he thought he had long forgotten.

There is nothing to say whether he will carry out his plan, and opinions among his friends vary as to whether Abe is capable of committing such a heinous act. One thing is certain, though. He would have no trouble justifying himself if he did. Abe is a philosophy professor. He knows the ins and outs of moral reasoning, and he is well acquainted with the line between theory and reality. The question is: Will he step over it?

Early in the film, the first time we see Abe in the classroom, he lectures on this very subject. He asks his students if in a moral universe in which lying is never justifiable they would have given up Anne Frank and her family to the Nazis. Believing in a moral universe and that lying is wrong is all well and good, but Abe argues such theoretical beliefs mean nothing in the face of real-world atrocities.

Let’s revisit what we said at the top. It is wrong to take a life. Now you are Abe with the chance to rid the world of a corrupt judge and help a good woman keep custody of her children. Does that hold true? Does Abe get to decide? Whether or not Abe goes through with his plan to commit the perfect murder, the fact he would he would consider it is scary enough. As Irrational Man argues, it seems you can only stare at the line so long before you are tempted to cross it.

See it? Yes.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Something Wild: Greta Gerwig on dangerous women

Melanie Griffith stars in Jonathan Demme's 1986 comedy Something Wild.

Bear with me a moment. I am going to get a little geeky. Of course, if this site is evidence of anything, it is of my ability to be geeky when it comes to films. Last Cinema Standing was founded on the idea that seeing a movie in the theater is the best way to see a movie. Nothing matches the experience of a room full of people awed into silence when the lights go out. No matter what shines up on the screen next, that beautiful moment of darkness before the movie starts is full of possibilities. I love it.

Everything is digital now – the projection, the sound, hell, sometimes most of a movie. I am no purist. I understand how and why we have moved in this direction. That is fine, but there is just something about hearing the pop of a real soundtrack while watching celluloid projected, warts and all, on the big screen. I like the scratches. I like the dirt. It is tangible. You can feel it. You can sense it. It makes the experience more real.

Each month, the IFC Center in New York City dusts off the projector and shows a classic film the way it is meant to be seen. I wrote last year about the inaugural screening in the Celluloid Dreams series, Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo and a tribute to cinematographer Gordon Willis. Last Tuesday, I attended the latest screening in the series, Jonathan Demme’s screwball comedy ode Something Wild (1986).

The film was followed by a question-and-answer session with actress-writer Greta Gerwig, who was there to promote her upcoming film Mistress America, of which the audience was then treated to a sneak preview. Gerwig talked at length about Something Wild and other films of its ilk and the inspiration she drew from them in writing her newest paean to Generation Y’s search for purpose. The discussion was a fascinating look into the process of a gifted young writer and performer.

Greta Gerwig speaks at the IFC Center.
“In some ways, your impression of [the movies you’re inspired by] is more useful than what the thing actually is,” she said. “I thought about that a lot when I saw Mr. Turner. It starts when he’s coming back from Amsterdam, and the shopkeeper asks him what he was doing, and I think he says, ‘I was looking at the Rembrandts.’ And it placed you so much in that time when you wouldn’t have access to those paintings. You’d have to go to the place, look at the paintings, and do your best to remember what was great about them. It’s such a different experience of art than having it be accessible to you all the time. So while we would watch things, also sometimes our memory of things would be the feeling we were looking to recreate.”

Among the many influences Gerwig named were Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose, Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan, and of course Something Wild, as well as the films of George Cukor, Ernst Lubitsch, and Howard Hawks and novels by Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth. It is an eclectic list, to say the least, but the common thread seems to be people trying to find where they belong or figuring out how to fit in once they have found a place.

Something Wild – which I highly recommend; it is on Netflix if you cannot find a 35-millimeter screening near you – follows yuppie Charles (Jeff Daniels) on a weekend fling with wild girl Lulu (Melanie Griffith), who, for all intents and purposes, kidnaps him and coerces him into an odyssey of drinking, fighting, and law breaking. It is the most fun Charles has had in a long time, breaking free of the shackles of his mundane life and letting his hair down, albeit by force mostly.

If that basic description sounds familiar, it is because modern romantic comedies have taken the trope of the free-spirited girl who teaches the uptight guy to have fun and turned it into a formula. However, modern films of this type are almost exclusively about the man. The girl is usually perfect, if a bit peppy, and the boy realizes maybe he needs more of that in his life – both pep and perfection. Something Wild and other like-minded films concern themselves with the stories of their women. Lulu is a complex person with goals and desires of her own, a fully developed female character, which Gerwig lamented the lack of in modern cinema.

“Melanie Griffith in [Something Wild] and Patricia Arquette in After Hours and even Mia Farrow in Broadway Danny Rose – it’s a kind of female character that I feel really disappeared from movies,” said Gerwig. “They’re dangerous women. They’re not just being delightful for you. They could maybe get you into something that might get you killed, or you’re not fully sure their morality. Every third thing that comes out of their mouths is a lie. They put on lots of costumes. They’re amazing characters.”

Lola Kirke and Greta Gerwig star in Mistress America.
Gerwig’s Mistress America character, Brooke, is descended from this line of dangerous women. She is a screw-up overflowing with self-confidence and a failure who senses success is always right around the corner. She is no role model, but she fancies herself one when she takes her soon-to-be step-sister (a fabulous Lola Kirke) under her wing.

Even the dangerous woman, however, is a bit of a trope, but the beauty of Gerwig and director-co-writer Noah Baumbach’s script is that it deepens the character and subverts the cliché. Ultimately, the person to whom Brooke is most dangerous is herself. Others will recover from her actions and move on, but she has to live with herself every day.

In Something Wild, Lulu faces the same dilemma. She does not like who she is or who she was, and she has no idea who she should be. She lies. She puts on costumes. She goes by fake names. No one in the world has to know the real her – but she does. The audience may see the film through Charlie’s eyes, but he is not the protagonist. That would be Lulu, and the movie hinges on her feelings and her choices. For an ’80s throwback to the comedies of the ‘40s, it is a pretty radical idea, but if we really take a hard look at the current cinema landscape, it might be even more radical now.