Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Broadway Review—Ayad Akhtar’s “Junk”

Written by Ayad Akhtar; directed by Doug Hughes
Performances through January 7, 2018
Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street, NY, NY

Steven Pasquale in Junk (photo by T. Charles Erickson)
Following his Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced, a critical self-examination of how Islam’s tenets fit into 21st century culture, and The Invisible Hand, which provocatively demonstrated how Islamic terrorism and today’s money-obsessed world converge, Ayad Akhtar returns with Junk, a sprawling but meticulously structured dramatization of the roots of our current financial predicament.

Set in 1985, Junk centers on Robert Merkin—based on the infamous Michael Milken, jailed for insider trading—wunderkind of the Reagan-era financial world, an L.A.-based whiz kid at the forefront of the new junk bond industry. Planning a hostile takeover of a successful family-owned steel company—his intended target, CEO Thomas Everson, doesn’t stand a chance against Merkin’s updated playbook—Merkin simply doesn’t care how he wins, as long as he wins.

That plot outline is just the tip of the iceberg, as Akhtar and his shrewd director Doug Hughes make Junk a wide-ranging, epically-scaled exploration of what money means in America and how we got to this point. With some two dozen characters and many plot strands intersecting, the play is unafraid to be complicated, even if it’s fairly easy to follow it through the crannies without having any insider Wall Street knowledge. A lively ensemble, John Lee Beatty’s imposing two-tiered set and Ben Stanton’s magisterial lighting contribute to that all-important fluidity.

Akhtar also shows how money infests everything: everyone is dragged down to Merkin’s level, even enterprising journalist Judy Chen (the poised Teresa Avia Lim), who is asked by Merkin’s crooked lawyer Raul Rivera (a perfectly slimy Matthew Saldivar) to junk the manuscript of a tell-all book she’s writing for a pile of hush money, or veteran financier Leo Tresler (a blustery, bellowing Michael Siberry), who sees what junk bonds will end up doing to Wall Street but who realizes he may have to play Merkin’s game himself to survive.

Admittedly, since Akhtar wrote Junk with the benefit of hindsight, there are moments that ring false or obvious. When Merkin (the roguish charming Steven Pasquale) asserts that the Dow might someday hit 15 or 20 thousand, an incredulous Chen retorts, “Yesterday’s close was 1300. The Dow at 20000 sounds absurd,” which is greeted with wink-wink nudge-nudge responses from the audience. And the Giuliani-like D.A. going after Merkin for insider trading, Giuseppi Addesso (a properly Rudy-esque Charlie Semine), says “nobody understands this shit—and nobody cares,” which elicits giggles of approval. Then there’s the entire dramatic arc of Merkin getting his comeuppance, which plays out as one would expect, with little suspense or even schadenfreude.

That said, Akhtar nails the persona of Merkin as a charismatic, unscrupulous “master of the universe”—he even lies to his financial whiz of a wife (a sober Amy Silverman) about a shady character he’s using for suspect trades, Boris Pronsky (a bedraggled Joey Slotnick), who’s eventually his Achilles’ heel. And Merkin is allowed to speak uncomfortable truths about American exceptionalism and how other countries are surpassing us, crystallized in a rousing act two speech that climaxes thus: “Let’s just set aside those lies. Those delusions. And let’s stick with the facts. Fact: They are winning. Fact: We need to understand why. Fact: We need to change. When you stay blind, you can’t change. When you can’t change, you die. And that is what is happening in this country right now.”

Junk ends with a sly zinger about the possible cause of the 2008 mortgage crisis that Akhtar smartly doesn’t telegraph; it’s a deliciously satisfying wrap-up to a bracingly serious play.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

November '17 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 
My Journey Through French Cinema
(Cohen Media)
Even at a staggering 190 minutes, Bertrand Tavernier’s personal chronicle of what most moved him onscreen since he became besotted with movies in his youth is done so beautifully, so charmingly, so admirably, that you wish it would go on for far longer (the end credits hint at a Part 2, and in the Blu-ray’s 12-minute bonus interview, the director admits he is currently making an eight-hour series follow-up, which I hope finds its way to Netflix or another streaming service). As always with Tavernier, there are marvelous anecdotes, brilliant insights, treasured observations: when he’s discussing Maurice Jaubert among the greats of ‘30s and ‘40s film composers, Tavernier’s passion comes through so forcefully that you feel his warmth, his embrace, his marvelously attuned personality to all things cinematic. The hi-def transfer is luminous.

Desert Hearts
Donna Deitch made this low-key 1985 lesbian relationship drama about a Columbia professor who comes to Reno for a quickie divorce only to fall in love with a free-spirited local woman. What gives the film its flavor and staying power are the beautifully modulated portrayals by Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau, who make Deitch’s at times soapy story involving and revelatory. Criterion’s hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include interviews with Deitch, Shaver and Charbonneau; excerpts from a documentary about Jane Rule, who wrote the 1964 novel Desert of the Heart on which the film was based; a discussion between Deitch and actress Jane Lynch; and Deitch’s audio commentary.

Funeral Parade of Roses 
This giddily seductive, bizarre but brilliantly effective work by director Toshiro Matsumoto was supposedly an influence on Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (there’s a sardonic scene of women fighting in slo-mo that predates and anticipates Clockwork). But this scattershot film uses documentary-style interviews, heinous killings and gritty B&W photography to create an unsettling but very recognizable modern world. There’s a great hi-def transfer; extras include a commentary and a second disc of Matsumoto short films.

Humans 2.0
In the second—and apparently final—season of the British sci-fi series about a present-day world populated by synths (robots which have become indispensable to humans’ everyday lives), some of the synths are starting to have feelings and emotions. The show seems to run in place after introducing tantalizing concepts, but its variations on a theme are done convincingly enough to keep our attention. There’s a stellar hi-def transfer; extras comprise brief featurettes.

In Pursuit of Silence 
(Cinema Guild)
In Patrick Shen’s often mesmerizing documentary, the concept of silence in an increasingly noisy world is explored, even everyday decibel readings in cities like New York contributing to sickness and a less than optimum life expectancy. Gorgeous to look at—in lingering shots of soundless landscapes, silence speaks volumes—and featuring Alex Lu’s complementary score, Shen’s filmic meditation is a cautionary tale and cri de coeur. The visuals look spectacular on Blu; extras include deleted scenes, extended scenes and a Lu interview.

The Limehouse Golem
In Juan Carlos Medina’s stylish Jack the Ripper rip-off, Bill Nighy is a police inspector in Victorian London tasked with solving the case of a serial killer who is terrifying the locals while trying to save a young woman, accused of poisoning her husband, from the gallows. The movie moves swiftly and surely, even if its obvious denouement treats its twists like it’s some kind of shocking revelation. There’s a superb hi-def transfer; extras include several short featurettes.

DVDs of the Week 
Reiner Holzemer’s impressive behind-the-scenes documentary chronicles fashion designer Dries van Noten, a Belgian among the most notable of his generation. Following Dries while he designs his brand-new collections allows viewers to ponder his style and influence alongside many talking heads, set to a soundtrack by Radiohead’s Johnnie Greenwood that’s much less a pastiche of Krzysztof Penderecki’s dissonant music than usual.

Eight Films by Jean Rouch
(Icarus Films)
French ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch made several seminal films over the course of his long, storied career, and this invaluable collection collects eight of them, including several of the masterly full-length films that broke the boundaries of non-fiction ethnography and narrative fiction, such as The Human Pyramid (1961), The Lion Hunters (1965) and Little by Little (1969). Also included is an hour-long documentary, Jean Rouch, The Adventurous Filmmaker, by director Laurent Védrine, which takes the measure of the artist and his vast influence.

From the Land of the Moon 
(Sundance Selects)
In Nicole Garcia’s tragic romance, Marion Cotillard gives her usual committed performance as a mentally ill French woman who is married off to a solid, salt of the earth type but finds true love with an exuberantly “different” man she meets while in a sanitarium. It might be too much in its exploration of physical and mental intensity—how about a drinking game whenever Cotillard’s eyes well with tears?—but there’s no denying the artistry contained in this old-fashioned downer. The lone extra is a 25-minute making-of featurette.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

November '17 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
(Film Movement)
The great Polish director Andrzej Wajda's last film—completed before his death last year at age 90—is not up to hi many masterpieces, but it is an impassioned and probing study of Polish modernist painter Władysław Strzemiński. Bogusław Linda gives a bravura performance, and if Wajda dips into melodrama at times, his film is still a worthy epitaph. It looks superb on Blu-ray, there’s a film professor Stuart Liebman commentary, and there’s Wajda on Wajda, an in-depth interview before the master’s death in which he discusses his best and most important films, from his 1955 debut A Generation to his remarkably fertile final decade. Most impressive is that many clips from his classics are in HD, boding well for future releases.

Atomic Blonde
Charlize Theron is in rare form as a secret agent who kicks ass and takes names without a cape or anything resembling superhero paraphernalia in this loud, overlong but enjoyable action flick set in Cold War Berlin. The story makes absolutely no sense, but Theron is having so much fun as the sleek, sexy and extraordinarily lethal assassin that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to have a few sequels. The film looks splendid on Blu-ray; extras include director David Leitch commentary, deleted and extended scenes, and several featurettes.

J.D.’s Revenge 
This weirdly wacky 1973 thriller—part of the ‘70s Blaxploitation movement—concerns a young man who, after being hypnotized, is invaded by the spirit of a killer who murdered his girlfriend decades earlier. The energy of the cast overcomes the absolute insanity (not to mention inanity) of the script, making this the very definition of “guilty pleasure” for those so inclined. There’s a decent hi-def transfer; extras include The Killing Floor, a retrospective featurette on the film with interviews; and an audio interview with actor David McKnight.

Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait
(Cohen Media)
Director Pappi Corsicato presents one of the contemporary art world’s biggest names, in all his personal and professional glory, by interviewing wives, daughters, friends, colleagues and admirers (among them Al Pacino and Willem Dafoe), along with the man himself. Corsicato makes canny use of Schnabel’s own archive of home movies and photos, along with footage of his most recent works. But by saving Schnabel’s greatest achievement—his 2007 film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, for which he received a Best Director Oscar nomination—for last, Corsicato shows his subject’s artistic seriousness matches his self-promotion. The hi-def transfer is excellent.

Sissi Collection
(Film Movement Classics)
In the 1950s, a youthful and glamorous Romy Schneider played Austrian Princess Elisabeth (“Sissi”) in a series of colorful if dramatically cardboard films that got by on their leading lady’s star quality: Sissi (1955), Sissi: The Young Empress (1956), and Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (1957), as well as 1954’s Victoria in Dover, in which Schneider played Queen Victoria as a young princess. Along with these four films in both their original 1.33:1 ratio and widescreen versions on four Blu-ray discs, the set also contains a DVD with the English-dubbed Forever My Love, a condensed version of the Sissi films, and two featurettes.

Summer of ’42 
(Warner Archive)
1971’s Summer of ’42 was one of the most beloved movies of its time, not least because of Michel Legrand’s sentimental piano theme, which matches this teary but affecting look at the end of innocence, with winsomely beautiful Jennifer O’Neill the perfect fantasy woman for the horny but confused teen played by Gary Grimes. Co-winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow is a bumpy road movie that chronicles the lasting friendship between two drifters—on the plus side, this scattershot character study has powerhouse performances by Gene Hackman and Al Pacino. Both films have solid hi-def transfers; Scarecrow’s lone extra is a making-of featurette.

(Arrow Academy)
Ivan I. Tverdovsky’s bizarre drama is an allegory, a fable, a cautionary tale: but of what? A middle-aged zoo functionary sprouts a fleshy tail which only accentuates her distance from everybody—from relentlessly mocking co-workers to an overbearing, religious mother—except, improbably, the handsome young radiologist who took X-rays of her new growth. Natalya Pavlenkova’s emotionally naked portrayal of the heroine is the main reason to see Tverdovsky’s film, which stumbles as it attempts to be simultaneously realistic and fantastical. It looks great on Blu; extras are interviews with actor Dmitry Groshev and Tverdovsky enthusiast Peter Hames.

DVDs of the Week
Mira Sorvino—where has she been?—shines as the wife of a New Orleans politician with a nubile teenage daughter who has a short affair with a sexy sculptor, only to be at the mercy of his crazed wrath when she breaks it off. This latest variation of Fatal Attraction reverses genders and tosses in the daughter falling for the heartsick maniac for good measure; but Sorvino acts the hell out of it, even during the last reels’ risible reversals and reveals while the entire movie goes off the rails. The lone extra is an audio commentary.

The Settlers 
(Film Movement)
Writer-director Shimon Dotan’s potent examination of Jewish settlements doesn’t pretend to be the most scrupulously evenhanded documentary, but it does provide necessary historical and political context for this seemingly untenable but at the same time unfixable situation. Interviews with Israelis who’ve chosen to live there—including some who are virulently anti-Palestinian—are balanced by glimpses of Palestinians whose own existence has been upset by the encroaching settlements. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

2017 DOC NYC Festival Roundup

DOC NYC Festival
IFC Center/SVA Theater/Cinepolis Cinema, New York, NY
November 9-16, 2017

This year’s DOC NYC Festival, comprising dozens of non-fiction features and shorts, opened with The Final Year, a fly-on-the-wall look at Obama’s last 12 months in office. Closing night’s Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars is directed by Lili Fini Zanuck, who made Rush in 1991, a movie highlighted by Clapton’s mournful “Tears in Heaven,” written after his young son Conor fell to his death from a midtown Manhattan high rise window. That incident looms large in this examination of Clapton’s life and career, which doesn’t skimp on the addictions, adultery and other sordid episodes. But it’s the glorious musicmaking that makes this 135-minute overview a must-see, even for those most familiar with Slowhand.

Another music doc, Ben Lewis’s The Beatles, Hippies and Hell’s Angels—Inside the Crazy World of Apple, looks at the latter half of the Beatles’ meteoric career through the rise and precipitous fall of the quartet’s company Apple, against a background of an increasingly fractured society. Again, there’s not much new here, but it’s related vigorously, with great anecdotes and background information. 

Love, Cecil
Cecil Beaton—certified dandy and prodigious visual artist—was a world-class photographer who designed the films My Fair Lady and Gigi. His dazzling life of barely-closeted homosexuality is presented in Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s vastly entertaining and touching account, Love Cecil. Comedian Hari Kondabolu, in Michael Melamedoff’s The Problem with Apu, takes a personal—and critical—look at how The Simpsons character who runs the Quik-E Mart (voiced by non-Indian actor Hank Azaria) is thought of by Asian performers like Kal Penn, who has sworn off the show, and others who feel conflicted about its stereotypical portrayal in a show that, after all, traffics in stereotypes.

A Murder in Mansfield
Barbara Kopple teamed with Collier Landry for A Murder in Mansfield, an intensely personal account of the aftermath of Collier’s mom Coleen Boyle’s killing, and his coming to terms, more than 20 years later, with his father being in prison for the murder (which he denied having committed). The fluctuating dynamic between father and son—and an absent mother looming large—playing out contributes to a gripping and tough story to watch. French actor Eric Caravaca directed Plot 35, a touching family puzzle in which Caravaca uncovers what happened to his sister Charlotte, who died before he and his brother were born.

The building of Manhattan Plaza—affordable housing on 9th Avenue for those in the theater community—is recounted in Miracle on 42nd Street, Alice Elliott’s incisive document about those who lived there then and now (including Larry David, Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Lansbury). Like Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, Brian Kaufman’s 12th and Clairmount returns to an incendiary era in that city’s history: the riots of 1967. This is eyewitness testimony at its most explosive, with lots of home-movie and other archival footage providing a greater sense of immediacy.

Ninety-three-year-old retired gynecologist Mahinder Watsa is the title character of Ask the Sexpert, Vaishali Sinha’s amusing but rigorous study of the man behind a helpful (if often maligned) sex advice column in a country that remains torn between extreme conservatism and halting attempts at modernism. Karin Jurschick’s Playing God introduces Ken Feinberg, the go-to arbitrator appointed to decide how to distribute the moneys of impossibly large funds like Sept. 11, among others. Jurschick shows Feinberg as a conscientious man well aware of the consequences of his decisions. The Iconoclast is King Adz’s lively portrait of art forger Michel van Rijn, who intimates at something more: there are suggestions that Michel (who claims he’s related to Rembrandt) may have been involved in the infamous Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist and Mossad’s killing of Nazi Josef Mengele.

Contemporary racism is further revealed in Spiral, Laura Fairrie’s powerful dive into today’s burgeoning anti-Semitic movement in Europe. We hear from Jews who take refuge by returning to Israel and others deciding to stay in what are after all their original homelands, even if Holocaust deniers and other bigots are in their midst, often very publicly. And Talya Tibbon and Joshua Bennett’s Sky and Ground follows several members of the Kurdish Nabi family in its seemingly endless quest of leaving their own war-ravaged Syrian home to a new life in Europe. The refugees’ plight is shown with insight, sympathy and even occasional humor, but never heavy-handed polemics. When the family finally reunites, perhaps not even Steve Barron would remain unmoved.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

2017 New York Film Festival Roundup

55th New York Film Festival
Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York, NY
September 28-October 15, 2017

JR and Agnes Varda in Faces Places
An unusually strong lineup of documentaries was front and center at this year’s New York Film Festival, led by the two-week event’s best film, Faces Places (now playing), which shows that, at age 88, French director Agnes Varda continues to make beautiful, humanistic films that display real people. Varda has been joined by 33-year-old photographer and provocateur JR, who shares her indomitable spirit, and the result is a joyful, lovely valentine to humanity. The movie is funny, thoughtful, touching, and makes viewers yearn for more from these kindred souls.

There were several other notable documentaries, like The Rape of Recy Taylor, about the brutal assault in 1944 Mississippi on a young black mother by several white teenage boys who were never brought to trial. The horrible crime and its aftermath are recounted by director Nancy Buirski in her incisive and non-polemical (but justifiably angry) film that displays an America anything but enlightened, and virulently racist. Stanley Kubrick’s famously obsessive personality dominates Tony Zierra’s Filmworker, an engaging portrait of Leon Vitali, who gave up an acting career—he was in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon in 1975—to become the director’s closest and most trusted assistant, famously discovering little Danny Lloyd for The Shining. Vitali comes across as ingratiating and unquestionably loyal to Kubrick’s vision for a quarter century—even after his boss’s death, as Vitali ensures how the films look onscreen, on DVD and Blu-ray.

Leon Vitali in Filmworker
In Hall of Mirrors, sister directors Ena Talakic and Ines Talakic have a fascinating subject in legendary reporter Edward Jay Epstein, who has intrepidly worked on a half-century of investigations into such subjects as the Warren Commission and Edward Snowden. Epstein comes off as resolutely non-partisan, and although he might go to extremes, the Talakics definitively show that, more than ever, America needs someone of his fearlessness to dig for dirt others won’t. Myles Kane and Josh Koury’s Voyeur (on Netflix December 1) shows how veteran writer Gay Talese—who wrote a book about a man who spied on his hotel visitors for decades—discovered that his reporting and writing are brought into question when it’s revealed on the eve of the book’s publication that it contains untruths. In recounting the 85-year-old’s storied but checkered career, Voyeur allows Talese to give his side of what’s become an increasingly sordid story.

Cramming the 45-year career of Hollywood’s most successful director into 2-1/2 hours isn’t easy, so credit Susan Lacy—director of Spielberg (on HBO)—for not making a banal overview of the artist who began with Duel and The Sugarland Express and continues today with Bridge of Spies and The BFG. An in-depth interview with the man himself provides pertinent details about how his difficulties growing up informed several of his films. Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (on Netflix) is actor Griffin Dunne’s personal and touching portrait of his aunt, writer Joan Didion, tracking her career as essayist and novelist along with her tragic personal life, which saw the premature deaths of her husband and adopted daughter (which begat her most intimate books, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights). We hear from literary colleagues like the always amusing Calvin Trillin and family members who discuss her personal and professional legacy.

Too bad the features making up the main slate were, with a few exceptions, disappointments. The Other Side of Hope (opening December 1) by Finnish prankster Aki Kaurismaki is—even by his hit-or-miss standards—forgettable fluff. Riffing on the topical theme of refugees flooding Europe, Kaurismaki’s hero, Syrian refugee Khlaed, deals with Finnish bureaucracy and, through a series of extraordinarily lazy coincidences, finds a good job, thanks to an altruistic gambler turned restaurant owner. The director’s usual deadpan comedy fails here, with clunky performances matching the overarching pointlessness. Even the usually reliable Isabelle Huppert can’t save Serge Bozun’s Mrs. Hyde, a ham-fisted update of Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde with Huppert as a mousy teacher who becomes a brand new, (literally) fiery woman. Huppert maintains her usual flair, but Bozun telegraphs everything—she teaches mainly foreign and minority students, helping a handicapped one reach his potential despite his own insults toward her—and the scenes of Mrs. Hyde’s otherworldly powers soon become risible, infecting the entire film.

Juliette Binoche in Let the Sunshine In
Juliette Binoche: that’s all you need to know about Let the Sunshine In, Claire Denis’ thin melodrama masquerading as an incisive character study of a middle-aged woman looking for love in all the wrong places. Denis’ usual cinematographer Agnes Godard shoots with her typical finesse, but the script and characterizations are banal, especially when the camera holds on faces for long, arid stretches. Even so, Binoche holds the screen like the movie star she is. The Square (now playing), Ruben Ostlund’s excruciatingly repetitive and meretricious farrago, somehow won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Ostensibly an assault on political correctness and liberalism’s failure, it’s just a collection of visual, verbal and narrative non-sequiturs piled up as haphazardly as the gravel in one of the film’s trendy modern-art exhibits at a museum which is the film’s main locale. Ludicrous happenings with no rhyme, reason or context are seen and forgotten about as the film stumbles on, singlemindedly trying to be cool and detached simultaneously. The Square is the most obnoxiously self-satisfied film I’ve seen since Toni Erdmann, which is saying a lot.

Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s A Gentle Creature shares a title with Dostoyevsky’s short story but little else in this snail’s-paced, occasionally astonishing but often hellishly tedious account of a young wife—looking for her husband, jailed for a murder he didn’t commit—who finds that corruption taints both government bureaucrats and regular citizens who have become inured to its effects. Nearly 2-1/2 gorgeously directed but meandering hours are climaxed by a colossal miscalculation of a dream sequence that must be seen to be disbelieved. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (on Netflix) is the latest portrait of self-absorbed Manhattan lives from Noah Baumbach, who has parlayed his third-rate Woody Allen forgeries into a career. This is the kind of movie where Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Elizabeth Marvel and Adam Sandler, as members of the same family, recite their dialogue as if they’ve just met for the first time. Only Grace Van Patten as Sandler’s precocious daughter has the presence and vitality of a real person.

Ravishingly shot in the Polish countryside, Spoor—which veteran Agnieszka Holland co-directed with Kasia Adamik—is an allegorical environmental thriller in which heartless hunters are being offed in the local woods, and the culprits might just be the animals themselves. For much of its two-hour length, the movie is cracklingly good, goofy fun, but by the time of the big reveal, it becomes unfortunately mundane. Holland’s eye never wavers, however; even when the drama is sidetracked, there’s continuous visual ravishment. Thelma (opens Nov. 10), the latest from Danish director Joachim Trier, is an often dazzling dramatization of an ultra-religious family’s bizarre history, following a young woman (a transfixing Eili Harboe) whose seizures are a manifestation of her own supernatural powers which come to the fore when she finds herself attracted to another young woman, which horrifies her sense of morality and of God. Trier’s intelligently realized thriller cruises brilliantly for over an hour until cracks begin to show—when it suddenly lurches and drags itself to an inevitable, if predictable, conclusion.

If it wasn’t for Saoirse Ronan, Greta Gerwig’s lumpy writing-directing debut, Lady Bird (now playing) would seem even more like a barely competent vanity project. Based on Gerwig’s own teenage years in central California, Lady Bird follows a high school senior through the usual travails—teachers, boys, family, herself—with navel-gazing and self-absorption typical of millenial studies. It’s the kind of movie whose references to Sept. 11 and the Iraq War appear shoehorned in, as if someone said to Gerwig, “why doesn’t anyone acknowledge what’s happening outside of their little community?” Ronan, unsurprisingly, is magnificent, investing her underwritten character with the false bravado, massive insecurity and empathy that her writer-director forgot to give her.  

Marion Cotillard and Matthew Amalric in Ismael's Ghosts
I’ve saved the festival’s best features for last. Ismael’s Ghosts (opening in 2018) is the latest from French director Arnaud Desplechin, whose films are so crammed with detail, incident, characterization and location that they resemble cinematic versions of long novels. But they’re not simply visualizations of literature; instead, they are gloriously filmic (his two-plus hour-long films fly by faster than anything by most other directors). Ghosts centers on a director making a film about his estranged—and politically shady—brother, and brilliantly and effortlessly moves along separate but equally absorbing paths, both real or fake. The intrigue is especially delicious, especially when it’s served up by a formidable cast headed by Mathieu Amalric, Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg—who gives what may be her best screen performance.

BPM—Beats Per Minute
Finally, there’s BPM—Beats Per Minute (now playing), a galvanizing, vital docudrama by director Robin Campillo, which explosively re-examines the early days of the French chapter of ACT UP—the AIDS advocacy group whose protests included physical mayhem and disruption—through an unabashedly emotional look at the close relationships among those who made it their life’s work to ensure the future of those suffering from the disease. Sometimes intentionally difficult to watch, BPM is a full-on fuck-off to anyone and any organization that stood in the way. Nearly 2-1/2 hours long, there is not a sequence, line of dialogue or frame that’s superfluous; incendiary performances by a mainly unknown cast contribute to the ultra-realistic atmosphere.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

November '17 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 
Poldark—Complete 3rd Season
(PBS Masterpiece)
The hit series’ third season finds eponymous hero Ross grasping defeat from the jaws of victory again and again, refusing to do anything that would help him—and others—and stop his hated adversary George in his tracks. The men’s adversarial relationship—which also brings in their wives Demelza and Elizabeth—is the engine that drives the series; there’s also whip-smart acting by Aidan Turner (Ross), Eleanor Tomlinson (Demelza), Heida Reed (Elizabeth) and Jack Farthing (George). The hi-def transfer is gorgeous; extras are short featurettes and interviews.

Gun Shy
This surprisingly sprightly comedy relates the troubles of a retired but pompous rock star (the amusing Antonio Banderas) whose gorgeous supermodel wife (the typecast Olga Kurylenko) is kidnaped while they are vacationing in Chile. Although director Simon Grey pushes things too far with jokey killings and needless crassness, there’s enough genuine humor in the writing and performances to make this an agreeably nutty 90 minutes. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras are a making-of featurette and music montage.

Hans Zimmer—Live in Prague 
(Eagle Vision)
Hans Zimmer is the pre-eminent film-score composer among buffs and nerds thanks to his association with overrated director Christopher Nolan on Interstellar, The Dark Night and Inception. This concert before an adoring audience in Prague presents Zimmer and his flashy, talented ensemble—including scantily clad string players and even Johnny Mars on guitar—in an entertaining overview of the man’s career, which even includes subtle work on underrated gems as The Thin Red Line. Hi-def video and audio are excellent.

Land of the Dead
Dawn of the Dead
(Scream Factory)
Zombie legend George A. Romero recently died at 77, so these collector’s editions are in their way posthumous tributes. Romero’s own Land of the Dead (2005), while not up to earlier series entries, contains the usual dry humor amid gory entrails. Dawn of the Dead is Zach Snyder’s unfortunate 2004 remake, not Romero’s original, even though there are eerie scenes and a clever if downbeat end-credit sequence. Both releases—which have first-rate hi-def transfers—include the R-rated theatrical and unrated director’s cuts, commentaries, featurettes, interviews and deleted scenes.

DVDs of the Week
Gray Matters
(First Run)
Irish architect and designer Eileen Gray lived to be 98 (she died in 1976) and was a towering figure of modernism all but erased from art history thanks to men like Le Corbusier who took a lot of credit for her original designs. Marco Orisni’s documentary returns Gray to her proper place in the echelon of the greats of 20th century architecture and design, and the many talking heads buttress that argument, returning Gray to her rightful place in the firmament.

The Journey
In this engrossing reenactment of a seminal event in the history of the Northern Ireland troubles, two splendid actors—Colm Meaney and an unrecognizable Timothy Spall—play, respectively, ex-IRA leader Martin McGuinness and conservative British pol Ian Paisley, who shared a car for a 2006 meeting about the age-old conflict in the Scottish countryside. Meaney and Spall, onscreen together for nearly the entire movie, are delightfully ornery as they creep to the edge of caricature but never overstep; their outsized portrayals make Nick Hamm’s earnest but light-footed speculative drama work handily.