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Friday
Oct162015

Five Not to be Overlooked by Hadley Hury

Five Not to be Overlooked

Hadley Hury, Film Review Editor

 

 

Of Clouds Sils Maria (dir. Olivier Assayas, 2014)

 

Clouds of Sils Maria, released in Europe early last winter and in the U.S. in April, is invigorating—and not only because the film’s locations primarily include a cozy chalet and the mountains, forested valleys, and high meadow vistas of the Alps in southeastern Switzerland. Lead actors Juliet Binoche and Kristen Stewart give intelligent, layered performances, and Olivier Assayas directs his own screenplay with shrewd grace. Assayas’ 2008 film, L’Heure d’Ete (or Summer Hours), won the New York, Boston, Vancouver, Los Angeles, and National Society of Film Critics Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. Among other works he also directed 1996’s Irma Vep. Clouds of Sils Maria is his best work to date. How often do we see films that are psychologically engaging and emotionally affecting, that unfold like dreams with our never knowing—at any step of the way— what will happen next, and that rigorously refuse to insult our intelligence?

The film picks up with Maria Enders (Binoche), a celebrated screen and stage actor, on a train to Zurich to deliver a tribute to a playwright named Wilhelm Melchior. Accompanied by a canny personal assistant, Valentine (Stewart), she receives news enroute that Melchior has died. The tribute goes ahead, and afterward the two women meet with his widow at her house in the Swiss mountains. Years before, Melchior wrote a play, “Maloja Snake,” about a female corporate boss who has an affair with a young woman in her office—originally played by Maria. Now she has been asked to revisit the work, on the London stage, in the role of the older woman. And so—staying at the Melchior chalet while the widow is away—Maria runs lines with Valentine reading Maria’s former part in Melchior’s home.

The viewer is invited to explore the indistinct and porous borders of art and life—and the unique artfulness of those actors who live even closer to those fault lines than others of their peers—but Assayas, Bincohe, and Stewart refrain from allowing the “meta” framing to become precious, archly intrusive, or self-conscious. The viewer is pleasurably seduced into a mystery that is heady, unpredictable, slightly disorienting, and provocative. Clouds of Sils Maria is both rich and fresh, and even an unresolved development near the end proves to be neither careless nor contrived but stimulating and, in retrospect, expansive.

As Maria confronts her insecurities about playing the older character in the play—and eventually meets the young Hollywood celebrity (Chloe Grace Moretz) who will take her former, career-making role as the manipulative 20-something seductress—the interplay between life and art burgeons with more force in Maria and Val’s relationship. As they take long hikes and bathe in alpine tarns, we are drawn even more deeply into the film by the necessity of trying to discern line rehearsals from personal exchanges. Binoche (who appeared onstage in London earlier this year in “Antigone”) gives one of her most raw-boned and arresting screen performances to date, evincing Maria’s vulnerability and talent as well as her self-involvement, and Stewart meets her more than halfway—she need not worry about her career lingering in the penumbra of Twilight. (Both won France’s Cesar Awards for their performances this year, as did Assayas for his screenplay.)

The house and its pristine yet ethereal setting offer the film’s meditations an added redolence. Now a museum and study center, it was home to Friedrich Nietzsche during several productive summers. He wrote of it, “Here one can live well, in this strong, bright atmosphere, here where nature is amazingly mild and solemn and mysterious all at once.” Assayas powerfully evokes this atmosphere for his film. Here is the true high life, one that calls into question the media-frenzied model in which both celebrities and even more mundane folk are so often consumed.

Not only does Clouds of Sils Maria invite repeat viewings, I anticipate that it will reward them.

 

 

Ricki And The Flash (dir. Jonathan Demme, 2015)

 

To get one fairly minor cavil out of the way first: one or two scenes in Ricki and The Flash are unartfully staged—not mangled but, given the overarching appeal of the film, annoying—and there are one or two others in which the contextual tone is miscalculated. This is surprising with Jonathan Demme at the helm. His resume includes A Master Builder, Rachel Getting Married, Silence of the Lambs, and riveting concert films (most memorable, Stop Making Sense with the Talking Heads), but there you have it. The mistakes, if puzzling, are relatively small, and the more important news is that they do not seriously impede Ricki's overall dynamic and impact. It's a very pleasing entertainment, Meryl Streep proves yet again that she's not only a rare and astonishing talent but arguably the gutsiest screen actor in history, and many viewers are likely to find—more than may seem apparent at the time— that the film leaves them with a provocative welter of thoughts and emotions.

We all know how some family members will, from time to time, say, "You're all grown up!" Other family members—the really wise and wonderful ones, and for all their indulgence—are more likely to say, "You're so grown up!" They have learned enough about living to know that pronouncements of ultimate maturity are neither inspiring nor true. Ricki and The Flash reminds us that growing up is a lifelong process, that in those lives most fully lived it never ends.

Written by Diablo Cody (Juno), Ricki and The Flash features Streep as Ricki Randazzo, who in her former life was Linda Brummell of Indianapolis, wife of Pete (Kevin Kline) and mother to three children she left behind when she set out for the coast with stars in her eyes. The stars did not materialize. Ricki works hard but her day job as a check-out person, ringing up expensive organic groceries, just manages to keep real poverty at bay. But five nights a week at a Tarzana dive called The Salt Well, Ricki fronts her band, The Flash, on the scuzzy stage and they rock out as if their lives depend on it. Her fellow guitarist and would-be soulmate Greg (Rick Springfield) quips, “She thinks this is Madison Square Garden”.  Out of the blue her ex-husband Pete calls her and asks for help with daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s own daughter)—because stepmother Maureen (Audra McDonald) is away looking after her ailing father. Pete is desperate. Julie has been blindsided by the discovery of her husband’s unfaithfulness and his abrupt and recent exit and is suffering from severe, nearly paralyzing depression, and Pete asks Ricki/Linda to come home and try to act like Julie’s mother again, if only for a couple of days. The prodigal mother isn’t warmly welcomed by her now-grown children (Julie has two brothers, Adam and Josh). Though some thawing begins, there are missteps, Maureen returns, and thus the tale unfolds.

Even among those who carp about her vaunted technique and cerebration, it will have to be acknowledged that this is one of Streep’s most naturalistic performances.  Ricki has somewhat limited intelligence but she has sharp animal instincts, a measure of bravery, and the soul and commitment of an impassioned musician. Streep learned to play electric guitar, quite impressively, for the role, and anyone who’s been paying attention knows she has the vocal chops. (Her voice here is husky but assured, with traces of Raitt and Ronstadt and perhaps the Mother Earth days of Tracy Nelson, but it is indelibly her own.) Streep’s vocals, stalwart and vulnerable, are the visceral grounding of both her characterization and, in the end, of the film itself.  Ricki can be at times unsympathetic, and though she can occasionally be savvy she’s no brain-trust and she is without deep powers of imagination. Lacking both physical and social grace, it is only when she plays guitar and sings that she achieves confidence, ease in her skin, a rugged handsomeness. This is no party trick—and there’s not a whit of patronization in Streep’s performance: it’s real and it’s credible. And Demme's direction is at its most certain in evincing this transformative aspect of the film's mis en scene.

If you've seen Mamie Gummer's running character gig on CBS’ "The Good Wife" you may be prepared for her turn here as Julie—but probably not quite. Let's put it this way: if you were a young actor called to a showdown competition in demonstrating concentration and force you wouldn't want to meet her in a dark alley. Gummer gives Julie's post-break-up shock and disoriented anger an unnerving ferocity. It's a cauterizing performance.

Kline does his always intelligent and deftly elegant work. His Pete has just the right mixture of strength, gentleness, and the slightly distracted self-effacement of a man who is at peace with having few delusions about his place in the scheme of things. We can see why Ricki must at once have attracted and confounded him and why he and the calmly efficient Roberta would have chosen one another for sanctuary. (The great Audra McDonald has little screen time but she gives us what we most need to know of Maureen.) And Springfield is just fine as Ricki's cool, steady, good-hearted singer-bandmate. When in his most demanding, emotionally naked scene, in which he professes his love, Ricki finally recognizes Greg’s full measure as a man. It's a genuine and moving epiphany and a vital key to the ongoing redemption of the film's other relationships.

Round Two brings Ricki—this time with Greg—back to Indianapolis for son Josh’s wedding, and the film moves toward an ending that may feel simultaneously a bit contrived but not unearned. (Many viewers are likely to perceive multiple dynamics of generosity palpably at work in this project and that no doubt evokes our own generosity in wanting to embrace it.)

Some criticism of the Ricki and The Flash may suggest that the psychological impacts the three young adults have sustained because of their parents’ divorce and Ricki's leaving to pursue her career are not fully explored. The focus of the film, however, is not on them—that would have been a wholly other film.  We see enough of their rocky rapprochement with their mother to understand that their maturity forces them to acknowledge what their earlier emotions have not: there is always more than one side to a story.

The focus of the film is Ricki—it’s an exploration of whoever and whatever she is at the core—whatever she is and is not, and what her newly recalibrated relationships with her adult children and with Greg may help her realize about life.

After the mixed-to-poor results of the initial familial visit, Ricki tells Greg that her children don't love her. Rather than dispute this—and speaking of his own adult children and the mistakes he made with them early on—he judiciously advises, "It's not their job to love you, but it's your job to love them". Though this seems indisputable, the strength of the film, and the wisdom of it keeping its sights on Ricki, is that these children are no longer children and it is indeed now a part of their job to continue growing as adults.

That’s what Ricki is learning as the credits roll. An unexceptional human being of average intelligence who has been directed by her own insecurities, strengths only partially understood and inconsistently tapped, and some degree of talent—she learns to offer her children, as well as Greg, only what she has and who she is. No longer driven by a fear of not being perfect at anything, she will try to be as whole as possible with what she is, and she is beginning to understand that just fully showing up—in whatever degree and quality the new normal with Greg and her children may be—is the only way to play it.

Whether with the young, partners, or anyone else in our proximity, the struggle toward honest self-awareness may be one of the most useful models any of us can share.

 

Woman In Gold (dir. Simon Curtis, 2015)

 

Woman in Gold received largely tepid reviews and, in some cases, actual savaging. Some of us may have gone to see it for Helen Mirren, hoping with some reason that she would be enough to raise it at least to the level of “a decent small film”. After seeing it, many viewers might agree that the word "small" doesn't really come to mind.

In scale and tone, Woman in Gold operates on something of a par with 2013’s Philomena in which Judi Dench gave a superbly graceful performance. Neither is a large canvas and in each a great actor chooses to etch character with very fine— almost inward rather than vivid—strokes, yet both films manage to leave us with a sense of capaciousness.

Is it not all it might have been? Yes. Is it at times a bit formulaic? Yes. However, it manages to accrue a subtle power and—if you’ve read only the majority-opinion reviews—you may be, as I was, surprised at being so engaged by it. The Woman in Gold has no memorable originality or sense of verve in its construction. It is rather workmanlike and quiet, but it is grounded in Helen Mirren’s deceptively restrained and delicately absorbing performance, and it is certainly something more than the sum of its parts.

Directed by Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) with a screenplay by Alexi Kaye Campbell, the film is based on the true story of Maria Altmann, an Austrian Jewish woman who escaped the Nazis and found a home in the US, where, fifty years later, she began a sensational legal campaign to reclaim from the Austrian government several paintings stolen from her family by the Nazis—chiefly Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the dazzling woman in gold of the title. She did so not just to regain this portrait of her beloved aunt which was rightfully hers, but also to obtain some measure of justice for the death, destruction, and massive art theft perpetrated by the Nazis. When Altmann’s last surviving sister dies, she finds letters linked to the Nazi theft, and hires a young lawyer (an appealing Ryan Reynolds) to seek art restitution.

The film is an intimate weaving of two stories—the contemporary development of the case eventually struggling all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, with its odd-couple pairing of Altmann and her callow attorney, and the collapse of the young Maria’s well-to-do and highly cultured family under the horror of Hitler’s Anschluss in Austria in 1938. The younger Maria is played beautifully by Tatiana Maslany, a Canadian, who is riveting. The production design by Jack Clay and art direction by Dominic Masters (particularly for the 1938 scenes) are wonderfully evocative in both texture and palette. Mirren plays Altmann with understated but kaleidoscopic shrewdness: this is a woman who in her long life has known, simultaneously in any moment, joy, horror, depravity, humor, courage. Her strength can sometimes manifest itself with peremptory saltiness—she can be edgy and difficult—but often she evinces generous compassion and enlivening humor. (Her influence in helping her young attorney achieve new realizations about his own sense of purpose and family history lends added dimension to the narrative.) At every moment Mirren’s gently multifaceted portrayal of Altmann has an ineffable dignity.

After one stage early in the public hearings in Vienna, Altmann leaves the building and starts down the steps. She is momentarily accosted by a man enraged by her efforts to gain restitution for the famed Klimt painting that has become “the Mona Lisa of Austria”. He sneers at her: “You people. You know—EVERYTHING isn’t about The Holocaust!”

In a very real sense, Woman in Gold becomes more than a film about international art restitution precisely because—in its quiet thoughtfulness and personal framing— it disproves that statement: actually, everything IS about the Holocaust. In its refusal to take us beyond the scope of its modest cinematic ambitions, this film drills deep with a sharp focus and, in the end, resonant strength. It is the story of Maria Altmann, but it could be the story of any one of us, in any place, on any day of any year. The film moves and provokes us with some fundamental truths about the ongoing necessity of facing personal and cultural histories at their most unimaginably inhumane if we are ever to imagine, or resolve to live, anything like our better selves.

 

The Scapegoat (dir. Charles Sturridge, 2012)

 

The Scapegoat is not great cinema, but it is far more entertaining than the inert version of 1959 which, despite featuring Alec Guinness and Bette Davis, managed to be memorably torpid and sank like a stone even at art houses. This 2012 version, starring Matthew Rhys, with Eileen Atkins in the small but vital role of the mother, is adapted from the Daphne Du Maurier novel and directed by Charles Sturridge (A Handful of Dust, Where Angels Fear to Tread). It, too, has gained little notice, but it has a slow fuse of elegant edginess and proves to be a rather nifty and engagingly watchable suspense piece.

Set in 1952-53 during the coronation season of Elizabeth II, The Scapegoat opens with teacher John Standing (Rhys), who has just lost his job and is at loose ends, meeting his doppelganger Johnny Spence (also Rhys), a patrician roue and failed businessman, in a hotel. Standing is encouraged by Spence to get drunk and finds himself the next morning without his clothes and wallet and with Spence gone. Collected by George, the chauffeur to the Spence family, he has difficulty explaining himself and is taken to the family's country house. He is quickly drawn into family and business affairs and is forced to deal with Spence's business problems and the women in his life: his wife (Alice Orr-Ewing), mother (Atkins), sister (Jodhi May), young daughter, and two mistresses.

The premise is, of course, completely absurd. Is it really possible that any two unrelated strangers could look so much alike that not even a mistress, wife, or mother could spot the difference? Well, no. But the feeling here is not of absurdity, but rather whimsy. (Du Maurier’s 1957 novel mines a more tragic vein.) The story maintains a pose of realism even as it verges into the fantastic, but is ultimately a story about wish-fulfillment and the freedom of discovering in yourself a whole new set of possibilities. It's also about thinking of your life as it might look from the outside.

Where Du Maurier left her story open-ended, Sturridge opts for a more sanguine tidying-up, ending with a vision of a restored happiness, as everyone settles down to watch the coronation on the telly. The Scapegoat is built on a fantasy that may have a grain of truth to it–that it's easier to mend the messes other people make of their lives than the mess you make of your own.

Matthew Rhys’ graceful performance(s) strikes just the right tone to help bridge the gap between the story’s rather outlandish conceit and a kind of seductively engaging plausibility. Eileen Atkins does one of the things she does best—weary deprecation gleaming with mordant humor; she may not have much screen time but her performance is vivid and incisive.

 

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (dir. John Madden, 2014)

 

Contrary to the condescension of some reviews it is entirely possible and really quite safe to see and enjoy The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel without having to abjure all your more discerning sensibilities and critical faculties.

If you saw the first installment your expectations of John Madden's sequel will be reasonable, and some are likely to find that the material here—though again tracking more toward the mediocre than the bracing—even has the edge. Most important, returnees Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Ronald Pickup, Penelope Wilton, Tina Desai, and Celia Imrie constantly prove that there are no small parts, only small actors: they simply are not capable of phoning it in and characteristically inform the busy, sometimes glancing, script with the flesh of specific humanity. Dev Patel's feverish performance might perhaps have used a bit of directorial shaping and calibration, but his essential charm remains intact. Newcomers include Richard Gere in a sveltely modest turn and, in what amounts to a cameo, the always effective David Straithairn.

Yes, there are a few forced plot contrivances and too-cute drolleries, and senior romance is pretty thick on the ground, but the film is never embarrassing, frequently enjoyable, and has an undeniable warmth. The colors are giddy, and Thomas Newman's score is not redundant to his previous outing but builds upon and transcends it. Interwoven with traditional instrumentations and Bollywood bounce, his music makes it difficult not to leap up and join the dance sequences.

If you're inclined to go see it, don't be deterred by the snarkier reviews. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not only neither sappy nor shallow, it has—in the hands of some of our greatest actors—moments you will savor, remember, and reconsider.

 

 



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