Asif Kapadia’s Amy played in theaters this summer to favorable notices and has since gone on to win the majority of this year’s critics’ awards for Best Documentary. I decided to catch up with it this week, and I’m very glad I did: the film is a devastating portrait of the late Amy Winehouse, the British jazz and R&B vocalist who recorded two hit albums and won four Grammys before dying of alcohol poisoning in 2011 at the age of twenty-seven.
Perhaps only Sofia Coppola could have convinced Bill Murray to star in an hour-long Christmas special—a throwback to television classics like The Judy Garland Christmas Show—let alone one that opens with Murray crooning “Christmas Blues” while wearing plastic reindeer antlers. It’s lucky that she has, though, because he makes a consummate host. Self-deprecating and crusty though he may be, he’s not above making himself look silly at times; he’s up for anything. Like its star, A Very Murray Christmas cloaks its soft heart in a veneer of gentle irony. It plays a cool game, but it’s warm and sweet underneath.
As the year draws to a close, I’ve been catching up with some of this year’s films that I missed the first time around. Here are two that I screened this week.
At 85, with almost fifty documentary features to his credit, Frederick Wiseman stands as one of the great unsung humanists in American cinema. His name is not well enough known (even among cinephiles) because his films are not easily available outside of university libraries, in spite of the fact that they are produced with money from public television and occasionally air on PBS. Audiences used to more traditional forms of documentary filmmaking are also likely to find Wiseman’s techniques disorganized or boring. That’s because Wiseman prefers expansiveness to concision and refuses to coddle the viewer with any underscoring, musical or otherwise. In his ethnographic films—Aspen; Belfast, Maine; At Berkeley; and now In Jackson Heights—his approach is rather to drop the viewer into a particular place and force them to use their observational and critical thinking skills to form their own conclusions. If you walk away from a Wiseman film thinking that you haven’t seen anything interesting, it’s because you weren’t paying attention—something that Wiseman uncompromisingly demands of his audience.
The title of John Crowley’s Brooklyn is somewhat misleading, as only the first half of the film takes place there. It opens in the summer of 1951, as young Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) leaves her economically depressed Irish village in hopes of making a better life in New York City. Over the course of the next year she battles homesickness, settles into a job as a shopgirl at a fashionable department store, and is courted by a good-natured Italian boy she meets at an Irish dance. (“Don’t they have Italian dances?” she asks him. “They do, but I like Irish girls,” he says.)
These days, movies about journalists have come to feel almost as quaint as newspapers themselves. So even though Spotlight takes place only fourteen years ago, when a team of crackerjack reporters at The Boston Globe first exposed the Catholic Church’s decades-long legacy of child abuse, it plays upon our nostalgia for the good old days before journalistic integrity came to be threatened by the blogosphere and the cable-TV circuit. As some awards pundits have already argued, Spotlight stands poised to win the Oscar this year because it extols the lost virtues of print culture and ethics-driven reporting, of chasing down leads and spending months to research a story. The Globe’s investigative team, led by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), are intrepid, hard-working, savvy, driven; they’re easy to like as well as to admire. We’re invited to cheer them on as they build their story brick by brick. In spite of the specter of sex abuse that looms over the film, Spotlight is essentially a feel-good movie. It insists that good journalism can correct injustice and bring evil to light—a corrective to so many movies and TV shows in which “the media” is itself evil.
Ridley Scott’s new film The Martian is a cheeky, wise-ass sci-fi adventure; as potential Oscar contenders go, it’s refreshingly light and breezy, and its 140 minutes pass quickly. Even as it barrels toward a conventional feel-good ending, it sidesteps the earnestness and the torpor that sink so many other Hollywood movies. The Martian is a feel-good movie for people who think they’re too cool for feel-good movies, in which screenwriter Drew Goddard undercuts big emotional moments with benign sarcasm. Goddard is a snarky writer—that much was clear in his foray into meta-horror The Cabin in the Woods—and the snarkiness of The Martian almost feels grating in spots. But it keeps the movie jumping along. Matt Damon, too, is well utilized here. Damon has always signified as something of a wise-ass himself; as Mark Watney, an astronaut who is left for dead during a mission to Mars and must devise a plan to sustain himself until NASA can come to his rescue, he’s smug even in the face of catastrophe. In a weird twist, the movie uses Damon’s (and Watney’s) pomposity to endear him to us. Watney is both an irritating know-it-all and a self-deprecating goof who comes to view his situation as an opportunity for adventure (forced to appropriate and repurpose NASA equipment in order to survive, he declares himself a “space pirate”). Damon’s Watney is just one of the film’s many lovably nerdy heroes. With its science-geek humor and campy disco soundtrack, The Martian is big-studio entertainment at its most pleasantly unpretentious.
In Lenny Abrahamson’s Room—a film which might have just as easily been titled Womb—five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) lives with his mother (Brie Larson) in a state of symbiotic co-dependency. He has never seen the outside world, having spent his entire life within the confines of the toolshed-cum-prison where both he and “Ma” have been locked away by a sadistic redneck. For Ma, each day offers the same hellish routine, monotonous and soul-crushing, from which there appears to be no escape. For Jack, who has never known any other way of life, there is no place outside the four walls of “Room” to which to escape in the first place. Aside from their captor, whom Jack glimpses through the slats of a closet door, Ma is the only person he has ever seen: they share meals, baths, and a bed, and he still nurses at her breast.
Curious, moving, and brilliantly imagined, Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa is at once the least flagrantly surreal and the most formally ambitious film he has yet made. It’s an animated film, for one thing: the detailed, realistic human figures appear to have been molded out of wire, cardboard, and felt, and they move with lifelike precision. (The film’s co-director, Duke Johnson, is a veteran of several stop-motion shorts, most of them created for the Adult Swim series Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole.) The scope of Anomalisa’s plot, meanwhile, feels almost modest. Michael Stone, a disgruntled corporate guru who has literally written the book on customer service (How Can I Help You Help Them?), arrives in Cincinnati for a business conference, checks into his hotel, and finds himself overwhelmed with loneliness. After an unsuccessful attempt to re-connect with an ex-girlfriend, he is gripped by the sound of a female voice from down the hotel corridor. The voice belongs to Lisa, a mousy customer-service associate in town to attend the same conference at which Michael is scheduled to speak.
The Assassin, the new film by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, is set in ninth-century China, and in many ways it feels like an artifact from that era: finely wrought, obscure, inert. Ostensibly the story of a young and beautiful female assassin tasked with killing the cousin to whom she was betrothed as a child, the film is stripped of any modern narrative conventions or psychological motivation. The characters are rendered as flatly as those on a piece of pottery or a tapestry, and are acted out with the impassivity of the puppets from Hou’s own The Puppetmaster (1993). Where most narrative features take their cues from the realist novels that were popular in the late nineteenth century when cinema was invented, The Assassin models itself on a medieval romance or myth, in which a series of actions succeed one another without comment, emphasis, or inflection.
Above: an image from Georges Melies’ 1899 Cinderella, probably the first film adaptation of the fairy tale ever made. My boyfriend and I have been talking about the Cinderella story a lot lately, having recently watched the most recent film version together (which we both found disappointing). He’s convinced that the story is, inherently, a dud; I maintain that, when done well, film versions of “Cinderella” deliver romance and drama, a compelling heroine, and durable supporting characters. Here are five more Cinderellas, all of which are superior to Kenneth Branagh’s.
A classic family film in Europe (where I’m told it runs on television at Christmas), Vaclav Vorlicek’s Three Wishes for Cinderella (1973) is slightly cheesy and thoroughly charming. This Czech Cinderella (Libuse Safrankova) is something of a tomboy, having been taught to shoot and ride by her late father, but her assertiveness doesn’t feel like a calculation on the part of the filmmakers. In place of a fairy godmother, she’s helped by three magic hazelnuts and a pet owl named Rosie. Highly recommended.
Tom Davenport’s Ashpet (1990) is, like his Snow White re-telling Willa, sadly underseen. It moves the story to rural Virginia c. 1942, where instead of a ball Ashpet (Cinderella) attends a town dance for departing G.I.s. The Internet’s social justice contingent would no doubt condemn Louise Anderson’s “Dark Sally” as “problematic”—a variation of the Magical Negro stereotype. But she’s unquestionably the best thing about the film, a fairy godmother like none other.
Disney’s 1950 animated film remains the best-known and most divisive adaptation. Most of its critics complain that this Cinderella is too chirpy and passive; my issues have more to do with the animation of the human characters (which looks too obviously Rotoscoped) and the preponderance of Looney-Tunes style comic gags (parodied hilariously in Tex Avery's The Peachy Cobbler). The settings, however, are beautifully evoked: Cinderella’s house is drenched in Gothic shadows, and the middle sequences of the film sparkle with lush 1950s glamour. And, as always with Disney, it’s got a villain who will haunt your dreams long into adulthood.
Steve Jobs is about two men who are too clever for their own good. The first is Steve Jobs, who, as played by Michael Fassbender in a witty, sharp, slightly campy performance, is a man you love to hate—vain, uncompromising, egomaniacal, cold. He makes unreasonable demands on his staff, takes credit for other people’s work, and generally drives everyone around him crazy. Over the course of the film he’s compared to Napoleon, William Randolph Hearst, and both God and the devil. His tragic flaws are misappropriation and the refusal to acknowledge others: he’s haunted (and hunted) throughout the film by his former collaborator Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan), who pleads with Jobs to publicly credit his contributions to Jobs’ work, and by his tightly-wound ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), who demands that he assume responsibility for their daughter Lisa. The film takes place at three different points in Jobs’ career, as he prepares to unveil the Macintosh (1984), the NeXT (1988), and the iMac (1998), and has the feel of a backstage drama.
Beasts of No Nation, which opened in select theaters and on Netflix this past weekend, is a coming-of-age saga of uncommon brutality. Set in an African country that is never named, it concerns Agu (Abraham Attah), a boy of about twelve who, in the wake of a violent insurgency, is conscripted into a rebel army of child soldiers led by the fearsome, charismatic Commandant (Idris Elba). If the general contours of the story seem familiar (a young hero learns to make his way alone in a dangerous and chaotic world), they’re effectively re-interpreted within the bracing context of a war-torn Africa. Imagine Oliver Twist as crossed with The Last King of Scotland and you have some idea of what Beasts of No Nation is going for.
It wasn’t until I was a senior in college that I first heard the name Chantal Akerman. Her films didn’t play on cable TV when I was growing up and were not easily available on video, nor do I ever remember seeing them mentioned in any of my books on European cinema. She never seemed to be listed among the ranks of great European filmmakers. Then, when I was twenty-one, I listened to Todd Haynes’ audio commentary for [Safe], in which he names Akerman and Kubrick as two influences on that film. I had seen all of Kubrick’s films; I had never seen a single film by Akerman.
“Have courage and be kind.” These are the dying words of Cinderella’s mother in Kenneth Branagh’s live-action mounting of the classic fairy tale (which takes most of its cues from Disney’s 1950 animated version). As platitudes go, it’s not bad; God knows it could have been worse. But it’s repeated so many times and in so many different contexts over the course of the film that it comes to feel less like a notion and more like a bludgeon. It’s typical of the film’s determination to leave no point un-emphasized, no moment un-underscored. This is a Cinderella so crammed full of costume changes, set pieces, plot devices, in-jokes, music cues, special effects, Motivating Factors and Meaningful Gestures that it has no room left for the one thing the story needs: a light touch.
Somehow, seemingly overnight, Noah Baumbach has become one of the cinema’s finest observers of young people. At a time when theaters are flooded with adaptations of YA novels about teenagers suffering from terminal illnesses or trapped within hellish dystopias (all of which seem to star Shailene Woodley), Baumbach’s films quietly and efficiently nail the experience of young adulthood—the frustration of not yet knowing what your place in the world will be, and the exuberance of discovering the people, things, and ideas that turn you on. His new film Mistress America is an unofficial companion piece to 2013’s beguiling Frances Ha, both of which form a loose trilogy with 2005’s The Squid and the Whale as films about brainy kids lost in a New York City ripped from the pages of E. L. Konigsberg and Louise Fitzhugh.
Queen of Earth, a thoroughly nerve-wracking new film by Alex Ross Perry, takes place at a secluded lake house where Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) has come to stay with her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston). In flashbacks set during the previous summer, Catherine appears happily coupled and Virginia is anxious and testy. But now their roles seem to have reversed: Virginia has become quieter, more distant, and Catherine, who has since lost her boyfriend to a former lover and her artist father to suicide, teeters on the brink of sanity. The presence of Virginia’s new boyfriend Rich drives a wedge between the two women, whose relationship has already begun to fray. The film might otherwise have been a prickly comedy about a passive-aggressive friendship; instead, Perry makes Catherine so paranoid and resentful, and Virginia so enigmatic, that it comes to feel like a psychological thriller.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a film full of first times. Set in San Francisco in 1976, it begins with fifteen-year-old narrator Minnie Goetz announcing with pride and wonderment that she has just had lost her virginity…to her mother’s boyfriend Monroe. Their affair, which goes on for what seems to be the next several months, begins innocently enough: sitting on the couch in front of the TV, Monroe puts his arm around Minnie and his hand lands on her breast. It’s not made clear whether this is an accident or a calculated move on Monroe’s part. Either way, it serves to kickstart Minnie’s raging hormones. She finds herself obsessed with thoughts of Monroe, onto whom she impulsively projects her desires for sexual pleasure, love, and attention. When she finally propositions Monroe and he complies, she explains in voice-over that she wanted to seize the opportunity to lose her virginity because she wasn’t sure she would ever get another one.
Christian Petzold’s Phoenix falls short of being a truly great film, but it has some wonderful things to recommend it—chief among them being a final scene that is as cleverly deployed as it is poignant. It also sports a quietly intense performance by Nina Hoss as Nelly, a German Jew who, when the film opens, is being brought back to Berlin from Auschwitz after the war by her friend Lene. Nelly’s face has been so badly damaged that her doctor tells her she will never look exactly the same as she once did. While Lene responds to the trauma of the Holocaust methodically and logically—she researches the whereabouts of other prisoners, offers to help Nelly settle her finances, and looks forward to resettling in Palestine—Nelly is haunted by the wish to re-inhabit her former life. She longs to track down her husband Johnny, a pianist, even after learning that he was responsible for her arrest by the Nazis. And when, after she finds Johnny working as a janitor at a cabaret, he fails to recognize her, Nelly agrees to pose as herself in order to help him collect her restitution money.
I watched John Boorman’s 1967 classic Point Blank for the first time this week, primarily because it was one of the two hundred or so films on this list that I’ve never seen. Working my way through the list I’ve made some happy discoveries and met with some disappointments. Point Blank was more of a disappointment than a happy discovery. I don’t know much about the foundation on which this film’s reputation as a classic rests. (Had I more time, I might have listened to the audio commentary by Boorman in conversation with Steven Soderbergh, who I assume is a fan of the film.)
Thursday night I had the privilege of attending a 70mm screening of The Master at the Somerville Theatre. It’s actually the third time I’ve seen the film in 70; I was lucky enough to see it projected in that format twice during its original theatrical run at Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theater. Those screenings ended up being the high points of the 2012 film season for me. Until last night, I hadn’t seen The Master again, in spite of the fact that I own a copy of the Blu-ray.
Because I live with a professional musician I get to listen to a lot of music (as well as a lot of conversations about music). A couple of weeks ago my boyfriend was talking to me about Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and playing a bit of it on our piano. Somehow we go to talking about Bach’s music being used in films. Joe didn’t seem to be aware of many films that had made use of this particular piece. The only one I could think of was the opening sequence of Martin Scorsese’s Casino. So I was particularly surprised when I began watching Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accattone (1961) for the first time this week and heard, over the opening credits, the strains of (what else?) the final movement of the St. Matthew Passion. (From the other room Joe’s antennae went up, as they do whenever Bach is played within a radius of a mile.)
In addition to attending the Somerville Theatre’s Paul Thomas Anderson retrospective, I’ve been spending this summer catching up with various other films I’ve never seen before—everything from the four-hour political documentary The Hour of the Furnaces and Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic 1900 to Le Cercle Rouge and The Hustler. I just finished Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli (1949), which, in addition to being a great film, is noteworthy for having occasioned Rossellini’s scandalous affair with Ingrid Bergman.
I remember when the trailer for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood dropped in the fall of 2007. It had been approximately five years since Anderson’s last movie, but it felt like an eternity ago, long enough that I wondered if something had happened to him, and whether he would still know what he was doing. I watched the trailer and my heart sank further. What was this Oscar-bait prestige-picture costume drama supposed to be? Frankly, it looked boring—the last word that I thought would ever have to use to describe a PTA movie.