Sep 28, 2015

The Lobster: NYFF 2015

I am a big fan of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. Before he made the more expensive The Lobster, Lanthimos delivered elegant, deeply unsettling high-concept movies with very modest budgets (Dogtooth, Alps). You could not stop thinking about these movies. They are like a punch in the gut.
Now that he has a stab at more resources and an English-speaking cast, I'm sad to report the result is disappointing. It's not that he has sold out. The Lobster is still too hermetic and independent to be commercial, but it lacks the sharp brilliance of his other two films.
Still, it is far more original than most movies. Set in a dystopian world in which people who are not part of a couple are persecuted, it follows David, a chubby, miserable architect, (Colin Farrell) who after being dumped by his wife, ends up at a hotel where people go to find a significant other. If they don't succeed, they are relegated to a bizarre fate. Whereas Dogtooth and Alps were fables in which we discovered an alternate reality at odds with their commonplace surroundings, The Lobster takes place in the near future. Here we are squarely in a sci-fi fantasy world. The shocking contrast between what looks like reality and the surreal in people's minds is lost.
In essence, The Lobster is a one-joke movie that repeats itself way past the punchline. Lanthimos and his writing partner, Efthymis Filipou, imagine the rules of this society in great detail, but the movie remains an intellectual, conceptual game, rather than an emotionally compelling story.
The screenwriters observe how bizarrely we act, and take the absurd demands we place on others when we look to fall in love, and exaggerate our misguided expectations ad absurdum. They magnify our obsession with perfect compatibility to darkly comic results. The problem is that they get stuck defining the myriad rules of this universe and are hamstrung by their constraints. They are so busy setting up this world, and articulating the rules, they lack the imagination to liberate their story from them. And so, if the first third of the movie is exhilarating in its originality, the rest is explanation and repetition. Some of the rules seem arbitrary, some are forgotten along the way, and some seem unnecessary. Lanthimos has always had a knack for shocking, controlled violence, but here he uses it more liberally, and the shock is more vulgar. The movie is heavy-handed and literal and the late onset love story, which is supposed to move us seems trite and puny.
The Lobster is strangely lifeless. Still, it is gorgeously shot, it has a powerful classical music soundtrack, and it has the wonderful Rachel Weisz and Lanthimos' usual collaborator Ariane Labed, who bring as much life as they can to the forced tableaux. Colin Farrell does his best to disappear but brings no nuance to his role. Ben Whishaw is sharper, and the great John C. Reilly is wasted. The movie has flashes of beauty and brilliance, and a cool ending which neatly ties up the giant metaphor we've been watching for two long hours. But is this what happens when money comes knocking?
Say it isn't so.

Sep 21, 2015

Black Mass

Johnny Depp gives one of his best performances as James "Whitey" Bulger, the notorious Boston gangster who was an informant for the FBI.  Depp is chilling as a brutal criminal with a warm spot for those he loves. However, of all the people who could have played Bulger, why choose someone who looks nothing like him? We have to look past the solid make-up job, the receding hairline, the blondish hair, the distracting blue contact lenses that obscure Depp's expressiveness. Even though his performance is good, it seems encumbered by artifice. Depp fancies himself a modern-day Alec Guinness and loves physical transformations, but in this realistic movie this feels like an uphill battle. Ed Harris would have been spot-on in terms of looks. But so could have Matt Damon, who'd have no trouble with the Southie accent, or Edward Norton, or Ryan Gosling, or even Kevin Bacon, who is in the movie as an FBI agent, and who always rocks. Basically, any good actor who is also a blue-eyed blond could do. All the effort made to turn Depp into Bulger is distracting and it whacks the film out of balance.
The story is incredibly juicy. John Connolly (the excellent Joel Edgerton), is an FBI agent who was a childhood friend of Bulger's and he convinces Bulger to inform against the Boston Italian mafia. The brutal Bulger then uses the government's protection to run rampant and become the mafia kingpin of Boston. The movie is about testing loyalty, and about the good getting in bed with the very bad. The incestuous level of corruption between criminality and the government is the most interesting part, but the script by Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk seems a bit unfocused. I would have loved to know a little more about how it was possible for the most notorious gangster in Boston to have a brother (Cumberbatch) who was state senator for Massachusetts.
The direction by Scott Cooper is spotty. Some scenes are powerful but others smack of cliché. Who is really the main character? Bulger or Connolly, who starts out wanting to make a name for himself as the guy who brought the mafia down, and ends up sullying himself and the FBI for recklessly consorting with criminals?
I enjoyed the long, unwieldy movie because the cast is a dream (it also includes Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Julianne Nicholson, Dakota Johnson, and Rory Cochrane). While Depp is busy channelling the likes of Christopher Walken, Joel Edgerton brings a dark humor to Connolly, an excitable, ambitious, if crass, agent who gets comfortable playing outside the rules to accommodate Bulger, and then flails in hot water by watching him spin out of his control. Edgerton is an intellectually sexy actor; he brings surprising but coherent quirks to every part he plays. Here, he gives a very layered, rounded performance, swaying between his gratitude and admiration for Bulger, to a comic swagger that creeps in once he gets his way, to his deepening brazen, desperate denial about the terrible mess he has created.
This movie needs a director with a fiercer sense of irony and a stronger sense of outrage. Still, if you like gangster films, this one's a keeper. Even the good guys are thugs.

Sep 18, 2015

The New Girlfriend

This movie by François Ozon is what no American movie about the topic of transsexuality will ever be: a nuanced and smart look into the infinite subtlety and fluidity of human sexuality.
Here in the US, people are busy policing pronouns and creating labels, categories and sub-categories of sexual orientation. This insistence on putting people in monolithically labeled sexuality boxes seems too literal and petty to encompass what each one of us desires in the privacy of our own selves.
The wonderful Romain Duris (in his best performance to date) is David, a young husband and father who loses his wife to illness. Her best friend Claire (the also wonderful Anaïs Demoustier), has promised to take care of David and his baby and one day, as she jogs by their house, she walks in to find David dressed as a woman. At first she is offended and adamant that he is a pervert (everybody in this film is an upper-class, suburban Catholic), but then she starts feeling the pull of attraction towards this man who loves to dress up as a woman. They bond over shopping and secrets, and Claire finds she has feelings and fantasies that she had never entertained before. To watch her go from judgment to confusion, to curiosity, to anger, to fantasy and tenderness is the lovely miracle of the movie.
The plot could play as farce, but Ozon prefers to keep things intimate and full of feeling. To see Duris burst with happiness as he walks through the mall as a woman in heels and later to watch him grieve for the fact that he will never be the woman he wants to be is very touching, as is seeing Claire gradually allowing herself to be moved and enlightened by his plight.
In this movie, everyone seems straight as a post, but the moment someone comes out with a different hankering, this creates ripples in everyone. Hence Claire's husband (Raphael Personaz) evinces a tiny spark of interest when Claire tells him that David likes men (it's easier than explaining to him that he likes women but loves to dress as one). To add to the confusion, Claire ends up being in love with the woman in David. In Ozon's gleeful, generous fantasy, it all works out in the end.
Ozon playfully and tactfully suggests that the symbiosis between human emotions and sexuality is endlessly complex and mysterious, and that this is part of the fun, as well as the tears.

Sep 11, 2015

Time Out Of Mind

In Time Out Of Mind, Richard Gere plays a homeless man. This must be a feather in the actoral cap, as coveted as roles that call for drunks or geniuses with disabilities. Gere may very well get a nomination for his troubles, because these are the kinds of roles the Academy voters like. He has always been a very charismatic movie star, if not the most versatile actor. Here, grizzled and made to look bad (an impossible task) he has some good moments, but his limitations as an actor are also evident. He tends to mug a bit.
Written and directed by Oren Moverman, the movie explores what daily life is like for the homeless in New York City. It shows us that these people have pasts, and lives, and are trying hard to belong, at the very least to be seen. Moverman uses well known actors (in particular a great Ben Vereen and Kyra Sedgwick) and he has written a story, not just decided to ape reality. He does not pretend to speak or dream for the homeless. He is trying to get into their experience. We get a glimpse into life in the homeless shelters and a dispiriting, if fleeting, view of what it is like to live on the streets. Although it succeeds in moving us in spurts, the movie is bogged down by cursory writing and too much style.
Moverman and his cinematographer Billy Bukowski make some conceptual choices that they can't easily get out of. In order to express how the homeless are like ghosts among the living, they resort to shooting everything through panes of glass, windows, doors, frames within frames. This is a powerful device, but when deployed in almost every scene, it distracts from the story and robs presence to the actors, who are giving their all only to be shot through fifteen layers of glass. The sound design is also supposed to imitate New York, but instead of summoning reality, it sounds completely artificial. Every tangential conversation is heard at the same blistering level. The entire movie sounds like the opening of The Conversation; not necessarily a good thing. It is a fact of life in New York that we learn to ignore the sonic onslaught (just as we learn to ignore the rats and the homeless), so that we don't all go insane. It's not as if every single person on the street is screaming in our ear. Again, as an introduction to the disorientation of the main character it is a powerful device, but used all through the movie, it becomes highly annoying. In this movie, there seems to be more concern for trying to replicate the experience of homelessness than for telling a compelling, coherent story.
I never understood what was wrong with Gere's character. Did he suffer from amnesia, was he damaged by drugs and alcohol, was he in denial? What happened to him?  It is valid not to give us a glimpse of his former sheltered life. We see many homeless people on the street we don't know anything about, though we surmise that they had a home and a family once. His powerlessness and invisibility are sobering enough for all of us to think "there but for the grace of God...", but it is a problem in terms of clarity. There is also a business with his bartender daughter (a self-conscious Jena Malone) who is sore over his abandonment that has been seen before (in The Wrestler, for example, where it doesn't work either). Moverman has been more direct and precise with the story in films like The Messenger and Rampart. In Time Out Of Mind there lies a better movie buried beneath all the artifice.

Sep 1, 2015

Queen Of Earth

Elizabeth Moss is the only reason to see this derivative, dysfunctional movie by Alex Ross Perry. Queen of Earth is a witless imitation (the precious may prefer to call it "homage") of Bergman's Persona, but don't be fooled by the name-dropping. You wish.
Moss and the mystifyingly employed Katherine Waterston play Catherine and Virginia, two close friends who spend lots of time together although they hate each other, for reasons no one cares to explain.
Virginia's parents have a nice home somewhere in the woods in upstate New York where Virginia invites Catherine (Moss) to recover from her divorce and her father's death. There she has an epic nervous breakdown, being rather impossible and refusing to bathe and leave her room.
Virginia, who is unimpressed with the dissolution of Catherine's self, makes her a salad which ends up festering on her friend's bedstand for days, like the rotting rabbit in Polanski's Repulsion (the mother of female mental breakdown movies, and a much better use of your time).
If you are going to trot out references to the superior works of your cinematic heroes, you might as well give them a valiant twist. A wilted salad is a sad replacement for a decomposing rabbit, and two surly actresses do not Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson make. It's like watching someone imitate Woody Allen imitating Bergman, except Allen's mimetism is much more proficient.
Moss, however, gives it her all. She is scarily transparent, fearless and excellent. Except for one truly creepy moment, when we fear the chaos that Catherine's unhinged state of mind might unleash, the movie is both drab and pretentious. A retelling of Persona which includes a cipher of an ex-husband and a nasty metrosexual neighbor who has the hots for Virginia and hates Catherine turns into a faux-profound thing about Catherine being a failed artist and living in the shadow of her father's success. This feels as tired as it sounds.
At times, the two women remind one vaguely of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, without the fabulous diva hysteria.
Perry plays around with the timeframe of the story, going back and forth for no reason that I could discern other than a wish to impress. Everything is arty with a capital A, but beats me if this film is meant to be a psychological thriller or a drama, or a parody so dark, you can't find the laughs.
Queen of Earth is like a first-year film student's wet dream. It's only exciting to the film student in question. Ross Perry did much better with his far sharper Listen Up, Philip.