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Friday
Apr102015

Five for Summer

Five For Summer

Reviewed by Hadley Hury

 

Our film coverage in this Spring Issue offers our readers an opportunity to consider some recent films they may not have seen and to reconsider some older films. In hopes of piquing a variety of interests the five films have been selected to represent a range of social history and aesthetic styles. They include: a documentary focusing on the recent discovery of the work of a major 20th Century street photographer; the second, and less frequently seen, of the Astaire-Rogers films;  the first English language film by a celebrated South Korean filmmaker whose work is attracting worldwide attention; a small film set in Paris and featuring two of the finest mature actors working in film today; and the mystery/legal drama—based on a famous trial for attempted murder involving Newport socialites—for which Jeremy Irons won the 1990 Academy Award for Best Actor.

 

 

LE WEEKEND (2014, Directed by Roger Michell)

 

The evenhanded comments of some thoughtful film critics last year regarding Le Weekend were popularly reduced to a meme along the lines of “dispiritingly prickly” or “a bitter pill”.  For those of you who may yet be wondering if perhaps whatever rankled or seemed wanting about Roger Michell’s film might not be offset by Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent, wonder no more: you have the right idea.

It’s a small film, but its tight focus on a long-married British couple’s pivotal getaway to Paris has nuanced intelligence and wit. Michell (Hyde Park on Hudson, Notting Hill) uses a deft, unobtrusive hand in directing Hanef Kureishi’s quicksilver screenplay, and Duncan and Broadbent bring their characters to such idiosyncratic life that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the roles.

Meg, a schoolteacher, and Nick, a philosophy professor at a provincial university, return on their thirtieth anniversary to the quaint hotel in Paris where they once enjoyed a romantic interlude. When they find that the hotel has not aged well and Meg books them into tony accommodations far beyond their means, grumpy discontents and deep veins of antagonism begin to seethe.

In the Montparnasse Cemetery Nick visits his heroes: “That was fun!” he says after paying his respects at Beckett’s grave. “Let’s go see Sartre!” Later, as they savor supper in a fine restaurant, he enthusiastically brings up a subject he feels is important to both of them—the new tiles for the bathroom back home. Meg wants to discuss the possibility of divorce.

The old fault lines crack open, new secrets emerge, and the world of a marriage hangs by a thread.

Whatever universal recognitions and connections may be forged will depend on the individual viewer’s experience. When it tries to generalize Le Weekend makes a few missteps, but they are mercifully brief. The film is on its surest, most emotionally valid, footing when it trusts these two superb actors with illuminating the delicacies and ellipses of a particular marriage—not all marriages—and when it succeeds, there is hard-earned humor and a wistful, wry authenticity.

Jeff Goldblum (who is very good) enters the scene as an old college friend of Nick’s—a smoothly self-aware economics pundit who now lives in Paris. He invites the couple to a celebratory soiree, and it is at the dinner table that the critical and defining moment occurs for them.

It’s a subtle epiphany, the kind that might take thirty years to distill and evoke.

 

FINDING VIVIAN MAIER   (2013, Directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel)   

 

            The Work  of photographer Vivian Maier is on a fast-track to critical respect and widespread popularity as a social media sensation, but almost no one knew of it until seven years ago, and the few people who knew the artist herself were acquainted with the elusive and enigmatic woman only very minimally, very obliquely. Finding Vivian Maier opens with some of these people being asked to offer a one-word description of her; clearly the assignment does not come easily. After prolonged pauses of perplexed, searching consideration, each interviewee speaks: private, bold, mysterious, eccentric, paradoxical.

Maier was a willfully private person who took more than 100,000 pictures, very few of which were seen by anyone in her lifetime. Biographical research has turned-up few details of her early life. She was born in New York in 1926; lived with her mother in her native village in the French Alps in the ‘30s; took up work in 1951 as a nanny and soon settled in Chicago. In her free time, or even with her wards in tow, she roamed the city with a Rolleiflex camera, taking shots of people, situations, scapes, and events. The archive of her work that has come to come to light— totally by chance—is now considered by many to be among the best street photography of the 20th century.

Finding Vivian Maier is a fascinating documentary that pulls us in with a charged current of discovery; even the fact that it leaves the viewer wanting more is to its advantage—it’s a tantalizing introduction to both the artist and her canon. Many of her acquaintances when she was taking some of her impactful images were the children for whom she cared. Later, when Maier was virtually destitute, some of those children took care of her, paying first for an apartment and later a nursing home, where she died at 83, in 2009, on the verge of being discovered.

For whatever reasons a loner, at once emancipated and in service, she seemed unknowable even to her upper-middle-class employers in Chicago suburbs such as Highland Park. (Class distinctions may have played a role. Her former employers presumed that so private a person would not have wanted anyone to see her photos; not one of them says that he or she ever asked Maier, with interest or encouragement, if they actually might.) Those interviewed state that she was firm but caring with their children; those children, now in late middle life, give reports of a sort of Mary Poppins with a French accent who took them on grand adventures, interspersed with one or two darker reminiscences that sharply contrast not only with the majority but with the film’s generally whimsical tone and music.

The mystery began to unfold through the efforts of John Maloof who, with Charlie Siskel, co-directs the documentary. In 2007, he bought—for $380—a box of negatives at a Chicago auction; he knew only that it included street shots, a few of which he hoped might prove useful for a book he was writing. The auction house gave him Vivian Maier’s name but he found not one entry for her in Google.

He later issued an appeal in Flickr; a few articles about his find appeared; and in 2011 the Chicago Cultural center mounted an exhibit, “Finding Vivian Maier: Chicago Street Photographer”. Maloof, obsessed with the trove he had stumbled upon and the enigmatic artist behind it, scanned more of her work, bought more of her negatives, and went in search of anyone with whom she had crossed paths. He discovered Vivian Maier, but the Internet has made her a star.

A few of the assertions in the documentary are worrisome and a bit leering.  A word of admonition, perhaps from an art historian, about our tendency to mythologize artists, particularly women artists, would have offered some helpfully balancing context. And Maloof and Siskel don’t look deeply enough into what is perhaps the most incontrovertible evidence of Maier's life—the remarkable, diverse, and revealing work itself.

Nonetheless, Finding Vivian Maier is, from many perspectives, a must-see film; it’s an engaging way to begin a journey and a shrewd consideration of the rapidly changing ways and means of assigning artistic value. It remains to be seen whether professional opinion eventually confers upon Vivian Maier’s work an imprimatur that places her alongside Diane Arbus, Eugene Atget, Robert Frank, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. What has already occurred—and the excitement in watching this film—is that however those considerations pan out, we’ve already been admitted to the virtual museum to judge these eidetic images for ourselves.

 

 

REVERSAL OF FORTUNE (1990, Directed by Barbet Schroeder)

 

Director Barbet Schroeder brings a European sensibility to Reversal of Fortune that affords the subject the perspective it probably deserves.

 His Oscar-nominated treatment urges us to take neither the bleak marital arrangements of Claus and Sunny von Bulow nor the legalistic grandstanding of attorney Alan Dershowitz too seriously. His focus is on gamesmanship. The rules—of both society and personal conduct—are examined dispassionately. And it’s a level playing field: no cheap shots at the rich are allowed, and there is only a cool respect, not righteous reverence, for the law.  

Schroeder and screenwriter Nicholas Kazan, working from actual transcripts of the notorious trial and Dershowitz’s own account of the proceedings (his book of the same title was published in 1986), clearly know that what they have on their hands is a superb mystery. Eschewing both tabloid luridness and moral presumption, they fashion the mixed motives, circumstantial evidence, and inherent grotesqueries of the case into a mordantly humorous entertainment.

Irons.jpg As Claus von Bulow, the mysterious opportunist married to Newport heiress Sunny and convicted of twice trying to kill her by insulin injection, Jeremy Irons is the film’s richest treat. His von Bulow is robustly chill. This was Irons’ most complex performance to date (he won the Best Actor Oscar and Golden Globe)—a reach that was large both physically and vocally, yet managed with intricate subtlety. Perhaps his most impressive feat is modulating his characteristically sensitive intelligence into something radically different—something shrewd and inscrutable, more blockish and literal. The voice is also transformed: it’s deeper, rounder, and has the stolid cadence of a world-weary but socially correct Teutonic sensualist.

Irons is particularly funny when his von Bulow tries for a sort of hail-fellow, Gary Cooperish delivery in his talks with Dershowitz (Ron Silver). We begin to look forward to his would-be expansiveness and his occasional jokes that are surprisingly touching in their wry innocence. It is Irons who largely drives the movie, providing its essential mystery, humor, and unpredictability. He nails the overweening self-possession of von Bulow—the central enigma that is fundamental to the story.

Somewhat similarly, Glenn Close dulls her usual spark in rendering Sunny von Bulow as an alcoholic money-puppet. It’s an unsympathetic portrait of a woman whose marked indifference to life, her children, and the opportunities of wealth and privilege is numbing in its vacuous self-destructiveness. Close does manage to eke some colorings of human feelings for her character in a couple of scenes where we sense that she may indeed have been victimized (beyond her own missteps) by her fortune. She creates an absorbing portrayal of the society beauty, now aging, retreating from her millions and her misalliances—in a frumpy Wasp cardigan and a drunken stumble—to her last resort, a closely guarded bathroom stocked with pills.

Barbet Schroeder, Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close 

Ron Silver as Alan Dershowitz, the celebrity Harvard law professor who represented Klaus, has a feverish energy that provides the counterbalance for hanging the tale. His scenes with the stable of star law students he hastily assembles to prepare for the second trial have the slick, suspenseful pace of a good documentary. Silver’s may be a larger role than that of Irons or Close, but his manic lawyering feels more like a foil for their showier turns. He is always a reliably realistic actor, and director Schroeder enriches the interplay here by dramatically juxtaposing Silver’s naturalistic common man against Irons’ and Close’s beautifully stylized rendition of the von Bulows.

Schroeder and Kazan successfully blend some fictional assumptions with multifaceted source materials. The cast, all at the top of their game, deliver performances sharpened by intuition and technical virtuosity. The cinematography of Luciano Totvolo has an old-money sheen and Mark Isham’s score a glacial elegance. The film’s sophisticated sang-froid creeps up on you like a hard frost in the night.

 

 

SNOWPIERCER (2014, Directed by Joon-ho Bong)

 

Snowpiercer was positioned in last summer’s market as more intellectual and stylish than competing futuristic and/or blunt-force action thrillers. This comparison is not completely earned, despite the sometimes interesting work of hot director Joon-ho Bong who also did the screenplay adaptation from a 1982 graphic novel, Le Transperceneige. The source material plays right into Bong's vaunted dedication to careful composition and capacious framing. Though the film is perversely overlong and its palette wearyingly dark, there is a meticulousness (if not always clarity) in the narrative that outstrips the chaotic overload of many films taken from comic books.

A dystopian moral parable, Snowpiercer picks up 17 years after a misbegotten attempt to reverse the final throes of global warming—a chemical was released into the atmosphere and overcorrects: a second ice age has ensued and wiped out all life on the planet. As luck would have it, an eccentric trillionaire named Wilford (Ed Harris) had already completed work on a long and uncannily efficient self-sustaining train. He allows the world’s few hundred survivors to board his ark-like vehicle—which travels the world on an endless loop—so long as they stay in their “preordained places”.

A cruel apartheid is sustained by the authoritarian regime: the decadent one-percenters live in luxury in the front cars, and the poor and dispossessed are crammed into the rear. Thereby hangs the Darwinian/Orwellian allegory about political inequality and wealth disparity; until Curtis, played by Chris Evans (“Captain America”, “The Avengers”) decides it’s time to lead a revolt. His comrades in strategy and arms include the ever estimable John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, and “Billy Elliot’s” Jamie Bell, an interesting and versatile actor who’s overdue for more challenging roles.

The film’s only vitality and wit emanate from Tilda Swinton’s sly performance as Mason, a bureaucratic functionary who shuttles between the mysterious and unseen Wilford, in the inner sanctum of the “sacred engine” at the front of the train, and her periodic speeches to the hoi polloi. Her admonitions to the underlings are the only unadulterated jewels of black comedy admitted to the film’s prevailing gloom. The surety of tone and rhetoric—quite obviously patterned on Margaret Thatcher’s—has a fey hilarity. Her condescension is wedded to her belief in the absolute necessity of everyone being kept in his appropriate and “divinely designated” place; it is a seamless ideology, unwittingly despicable and robustly forthright. In one of these ghoulish homilies she reminds the huddled masses, using one of the unfortunates as a model for the lesson, that, “We are the head. You are the foot. You would not put a shoe on your head, would you? Would you!”

Only near the end of the film do we see any scenes of the life in the forward cars—and it seems a missed opportunity for opening things up, not only for the thematic contrast but for a bit more visual and emotional breath. Snowpiercer is aggressively bleak, the only action that occurs is violent, and the film’s unrelieved dimness begins to work against its apparent aim:  rather than steadily accruing sympathy for the horribly treated underclasses, viewers are more likely to become impatient and inured.

Bong’s penchant for storyboarding every frame of his films is nowhere more evident than in the scenes of violent brutality. Along with an assortment of tortures and mistreatments along the way, there are three excruciatingly protracted set-pieces of battle as, car by car, the rebelling back-of-the-trainers make their way forward and engage with their oppressors. The camera leers lustfully as—often in close-up—a highly orchestrated maelstrom of bodies is variously axed, speared, gouged, and otherwise sliced and diced.

That these overlong (sometimes slow-motion) scenes are among the most reverentially staged is indicative of what’s most wrongheaded and disagreeable about Bong’s film. He has some flair for treating timely and provocative themes with serious thought and a rich cinematic sense comprising pictorial vividness with narrative verve and velocity; unfortunately, here both the central metaphor and the filmic scope and storytelling are beaten to a very slow death. We might look forward to Bong taking a good idea, drilling deeper and with more economy, and focusing his talents to more compelling effect.  The problem with Snowpiercer is that its apocalyptic take on humanity at its basest is too long, too underdeveloped, and too unrelentingly grim. The film suffers from the very vision it depicts—life bereft of all but its most depraved instinct for survival, with no remaining vestige of animating spirit, and even sensation jaded beyond numbness.

 

 

THE GAY DIVORCEE (1934, Directed by Mark Sandrich)

 

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were initially teamed in Flying Down to Rio in 1933, but this feature was their first effort together as stars—and it’s tremendous fun. Based on Dwight Taylor and Cole Porter's play of the same name, The Gay Divorcee centers on Mimi (Rogers), a woman seeking a divorce from her husband. She travels to an English seaside resort, pursued by the love-stricken Guy (Astaire), whom she mistakes for the hired correspondent in her divorce case. Among the many musical numbers are Porter’s gorgeous "Night and Day," the only song from the original Broadway musical included in the film, and Con Conrad and Herb Magidson’s "The Continental," which won the first ever Academy Award for Best Song.

Like most of the Fred and Ginger films the plot of The Gay Divorcee is as evanescent as champagne froth; as usual the mistaken identities and motives, cross-purposes, and romantic banter whimsically concoct the merest pretext for the real feast—the dancing, Van Nest Polglase’s late art deco scenic design, and the delectable performances of the supporting cast. The work of the character actors here is so expert and so rich it’s as essential to the film’s charm as that of the leads. Indeed, when characters have names such as Hortense Ditherwell—Mimi’s aunt, played by Alice Brady—and Egbert “Pinky” Fitzgerald (the distinctively hilarious Edward Everett Horton, who appeared in two other Fred and Ginger movies), we might think we’ve wandered into a Restoration comedy—and we wouldn’t be far wrong. There’s even an Italian singing lothario named Rodolfo Tonetti (Erik Rhodes, who has an archetypal perfection). The laughs in The Gay Divorcee derive at times from arch silliness, at others from innuendo so sly as to seem almost subliminal.

In his long career Horton almost always played in droll counterpoint to the male lead, most often as a supercilious personal secretary or valet or, as here, an effete gentleman. (His particular talent and the persona of his roles of the '30s and '40s prefigure some of the superb Tony Randall's performances with Doris Day and Rock Hudson/James Garner in the late '50s and '60s.) Horton has scenes in The Gay Divorcee which actors still study as mini-classes in the difficult art of comedy: his timing and subtlety are breathtaking and he was a master of the necessity in comedy for absolutely serious sincerity. His scene with a head waiter played by the brilliant Eric Blore—who also appears in three other Fred and Ginger vehicles—is a joy forever for film buffs and one from which many can quote at length.

(see—http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y9fHz8fOIPQ)

The Gay Divorcee was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1935. Other highlights include another swell Magidson-Conrad tune for Astaire, “Needle in a Haystack”, and a poolside Horton—togged-out in Edwardian bathing costume—with a featured 17-year-old Betty Grable in a camp dance number, “Let’s K-Knock K-Knees”.

What’s not to like?

 

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