REVIEW: Le Week-End

13 06 2017

Who says going to the City of Light is always a romantic, picturesque getaway? In Roger Michell’s “Le Week-End,” a British couple celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary finds the city a staging ground for their most practical and petty matters. For Meg and Nick (Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent), this grand city does not necessarily demand grappling with grand problems.

Newell finds the sweet spot between the gentle compassion of Nancy Meyers and the plainspoken working-class mentality of Mike Leigh. Not to mention, his depiction of the city also occupies a halfway ground between the American romanticizing of Paris and the French highlighting of its underbelly. The film provides a window into the dissatisfaction a couple may face when the kids are gone and they have to truly face each other. As you stare down the end, whose hand do you want to hold?

“Le Week-End” might feel a touch more slight were the graying crowd not so underrepresented on screen. Were they as well represented in movies as they are in Washington, then surely I’d be echoing then-Variety critic Justin Chang in his savage takedown of a particularly bad prolonged adolescence indie when he called it “the latest American independent feature to suggest there are few things more intriguing than a young white guy trying to find himself.” But for what it is now, the film works just fine. B-





REVIEW: Brooklyn

18 11 2015

BrooklynSincerity has gone out of style in the world of adult filmmaking, perhaps as a sort of defense mechanism against the ever encroaching threat of extinction. (That’s just speculation on my part, though.) So it always feels refreshing when a film like “Brooklyn,” triumphant in its emotionality and lack of irony, manages to break through the cracks. The film’s combination of a pure heart and gorgeous craftsmanship produces an experience that lifts the soul.

Director John Crowley takes an unabashedly classical approach to telling the story of Saoirse Ronan’s Eilis, an Irish immigrant to New York in the 1950s. “Brooklyn” may look and feel like a film made in that time period, but it never falls back on retrograde worldviews or attitudes. Screenwriter Nick Hornby simply takes Colm Tóibín’s novel and allows it to soar as a tender tale of a young woman finding her voice and her home – two things with obvious relevance today.

Eilis leaves behind her widowed mother and unmarried older sister in small town Ireland not out of any great desire to start a new life. In fact, the arrangements for her to live and work in the heavily Irish concentrated Brooklyn get made almost entirely by others. Faced with the choice between an unsatisfying present and an uncertain future, Eilis lets her family nudge her towards taking the fork in the road.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 1, 2015)

1 01 2015

Mike Leigh’s films are certainly not everyone’s cup of tea; I, myself, often find his movies rather impenetrable.  His scripts, with their precise and emphatic characterization, often feel like the most episodic instances of linear plots imaginable.  Leigh takes his sweet time in getting to his final destination, which can be maddening for those not on board.  The leisurely pace can often provide quite the opposite of leisure, as a matter of fact.

All these things are true of his 1999 film “Topsy-Turvy,” a historical biopic of British opera masters Gilbert and Sullivan set at the development of their great production, “The Mikado.”  The movie boasts all the hallmarks of a period piece – namely, extravagant attire and luscious set design – but little of the stuffiness or self-importance that usually accompanies them.  This is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” for the way it eschews that style of opulence-focused filmmaking in favor of its talented ensemble.  Leigh cares far more about what feelings lie underneath their wardrobe instead of the fabrics that adorn it.

Sorry to keep limiting the audience, but the film will carry far more meaning for those who have spent any time working on a theatrical production.  The stage draws a particular kind of personality and ego towards it, and “Topsy-Turvy” packs its cast full of these personages.  These are not just “Waiting for Guffman”-like archetypes, though. All the players feature a depth of character that makes them all the more recognizable as people, not just as figures.  Common sense would not dictate the logic behind granting so much screen time to those who execute Gilbert and Sullivan’s work, yet it somehow works.

The two titans of the operetta hardly go underdeveloped, however.  “Topsy-Turvy” offers plenty of insight into the working relationship of two talented artistic creators, showing how their professional collaboration turns sour after over a decade.  Sullivan (Allan Corduner) seeks to craft a breakthrough opus while Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) seems hardly phased by their relative creative stasis so long as it continues to pay the bills.  They almost dissolve their partnership over simple disagreement, not because of some extraordinary circumstance that usually tears musicians apart in cinematic renderings.

Ultimately, they pull it together and create something fresh and exciting with “The Mikado,” and Mike Leigh arguably achieves the same feat with “Topsy-Turvy.”  The film is funny as well as insightful, in sneaky ways that are not entirely apparent until it concludes.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 27, 2013)

27 12 2013

The year 2014 is fast approaching, which portends a myriad of things for people.  For many, it is a fresh start, a chance to renew lapsed goals and resolve to become a better person.  Yet for all of us, it is an inescapable marker of time slipping through our fingers.  For what is a year but just two signposts of elapsed time, a set of brackets to contain our ups and downs?

Mike Leigh’s “Another Year,” my pick for the final “F.I.L.M. of the Week” in 2013, looks at this widely-recognized span of time from a refreshingly realistic angle.  It’s not a tale that escalates dramatically like a conventional fictional plot.  Rather, Leigh presents four chapters – one for each season – in the lives of ordinary people going about their business.  There is not necessarily any grand significance to their trials and triumphs, but in simply recognizing these normally unrecognized moments, Leigh grants them a beautiful dignity.

To detail the occurrences of “Another Year” in any great detail would be to spoil the flow of the picture.  Like many films by Mike Leigh, it involves a large ensemble cast who are more than just actors in the movie – they are true collaborators.  Their characters drop in and out of the story with the exception of the two anchors of the film, the old married couple Tom and Gerri Hepple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, respectively).  They are a solid bedrock for their many friends, steady and resolute from their many years of experience weathering whatever is thrown at them.

There’s no indication that the year chronicled in “Another Year” is one of any particular challenge for Tom and Gerri.  Both continue to work their jobs, tend their house, care for their grown son, and love each other.  They even manage to stay relatively unfazed by their erratic friend Mary, played by Lesley Manville in what should have been an Oscar-nominated performance. (Sadly, confusion over whether she was a leading or a supporting actress may have cost her a shot at a trophy she deserved to win.)

As she endures a particularly biting mid-life crisis with an accompanying lack of direction and self-worth, Mary provides the tension that makes “Another Year” more than just pure naturalism.  Manville is nothing short of stunning in the role, providing just about every emotion one can feel over the course of a year within the film.  Leigh closes with a long-held shot of her face, and it is truly devastating.  Not unlike the final shot of “Zero Dark Thirty,” all the action and events of the film are ultimately reflected in the face.  And in “Another Year,” the events are life itself, in all its small victories and tough disappointments.





REVIEW: Arthur Christmas

24 12 2012

Arthur ChristmasSometimes, animated movies are so busy trying to be clever that they forget to be charming or – dare I say it – cute.  If they lack the effortless ease of Pixar and the occasional DreamWorks release, they seem to often think that the charm flows directly from the creativity.

Arthur Christmas” is all the evidence I need to believe that the hypothesis above isn’t true.  It puts a digital, industrial spin on the age-old Christmas story of Santa Claus delivering presents to children all over the world.  Moreover, it manages to make its version of the yearly phenomena both funny and plausible.

The opening scene, showing the delivery from the perspective of the elves frantically working in mission control to ensure a successful Christmas, was absolutely fantastic.  It’s ingenuity at its finest, and I was braced for a delightful ride full of holiday spirit.

But then the film shifted towards the family dynamics of the Claus family, led by the lazy patriarchal Santa Claus voiced by Jim Broadbent.  His son Steve (the voice of House – I mean, Hugh Laurie) is gunning hard for him to retire so he can fulfill his birthright.  Meanwhile, there’s Arthur (voice of James McAvoy) running around with an unfettered optimism and idealism, something his family shrugs off and attempts to marginalize.

“Arthur Christmas” depicts the wee hours of Christmas morning when the family fails.  Well, really, Santa fails first as one gift does not get delivered, and Arthur takes it upon himself to ensure it gets received.  Along with an overeager wrapping elf and his grandfather, a former Santa Claus (voiced by Billy Mack – I mean, Bill Nighy) that shares Arthur’s enthusiasm, their adventure is most definitely exciting.  But with weak characterization and an overemphasis on craftiness, “Arthur Christmas” is hardly a cup of Christmas cheer for all to enjoy.  C+2stars





REVIEW: The Iron Lady

12 01 2012

I can’t imagine painting a cinematic portrait of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a controversial and important figure in history, would be easy.  However, I’m almost certain that a fairer and more complete one that the one “The Iron Lady” presents can be forged.  It’s less a portrait than a profile, meant only to show her dark side and highlight her demons rather than her successes.

While I’m definitely open to people finding innovative new ways to approach the tired and typical de rigueur biopic, screenwriter Abi Morgan’s solution doesn’t give us an overview of Thatcher so much as it gives us her opinion of Thatcher.  By anchoring the movie in her declining years as she suffers from Alzheimer’s and the resultant hallucinations of her deceased husband Dennis (Jim Broadbent), “The Iron Lady” starts with the proposition that Margaret Thatcher is crazy.  Director Phyllida Lloyd then complements this by giving these scenes the ambience of paranoid thriller as she slips in and out of reality, all the while wondering if her caretakers will take her away from home.

Then, once her spacey unreliability has been established, they begin the voyage into her storied past from her days as Margaret Roberts, the grocer’s daughter, to her rise in the Conservative Party all the way to the top position as Margaret Thatcher.  The structure barely works as it stands because it shifts so abruptly, giving the movie the same uneven and rough feel that Lloyd bequeathed to her film adaptation of “Mamma Mia.”  But the worst part is that, whether it came from Morgan’s script or Lloyd’s direction, the voices don’t go away and Thatcher is made out to be crazy even when she was totally in her right mind.

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Oscar Moment: “Another Year”

24 09 2010

I’ll close out this week chalked full of Oscar Moments with the movie that has been a favorite since it premiered at Cannes back in May, Mike Leigh’s “Another Year.”  It received adoring review after adoring review, most speculating that it would win the prestigious Palme d’Or.  And while it didn’t take home any hardware, it emerged as the movie with the most buzz from the festival.

This month, it played at Telluride and Toronto, not really gaining any more traction but rather cementing its status as a sure-fire critical favorite.  So can all that awards season heat from May last all the way until February?

I’m not a big Mike Leigh fan, although I certainly have a lot of respect for the way he makes his movies.  For those who may not be familiar with his filmmaking methods, allow me to explain.  Here’s a critical perspective from the British Council:

Instead of writing a script, Leigh works from a basic premise, however vague it may be, that will be fleshed out through months of improvisation and rehearsal. This will involve an exploration of the actor’s own experiences and people they know, things which will then inform the characters they develop; Leigh’s work then, is devised, so much of the credit must be given to those he works with. Equally significant is the way Leigh controls story: ‘You have to be free as an actor from knowing what your character wouldn’t know.’ Yet while his performers are vital to the process, it is Leigh, who moulds and shapes the work, who provides the simple instructions which allow the narrative to develop. The material is continually reshaped until the very moment the cameras role. It is then that the work is in some way ‘fixed’. After that, there is little time for improvisation.

It’s a fascinating idea, although from my experience with Leigh’s work, I’m not sure how much it works for me.  Nevertheless, the Academy loves his writing and direction.  He has been nominated four times for Best Original Screenplay, most recently in 2008 for “Happy-Go-Lucky,” and twice for Best Director, most recently for 2004’s “Vera Drake.”  As for the overall success of his movies, only one, 1996’s “Secrets & Lies,” was nominated for Best Picture.

While Leigh’s track record with the Academy is overall pretty spotty, it’s clear to see that they do really like him, especially as of late.  I think the movie’s surest bet is in the Best Original Screenplay category, Leigh’s most common stomping grounds.  Although Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly says of the script, “This time, Leigh doesn’t bother with the pretense of a story; like a more boisterous Eric Rohmer, he simply splits the movie into four seasonal chapters over the course of a year, thereby liberating it from the clank of narrative,” so we can’t be totally assured.

However, at 67, Leigh may be the beneficiary of “let’s-give-it-to-him-before-he-leaves-us” syndrome in the Best Director category.  If he’s nominated, he’ll be a big threat because he’s been there twice before and many will feel that he finally deserves it.  Plus, according to Kris Tapley of In Contention, “to say the least, it’s Leigh’s finest hour in years.”

I’d say given the critical fanfare, “Another Year” should easily slide into the Best Picture field of ten.  The real challenge for the movie will be landing acting nominations.  Given the film’s large ensemble, will anyone other than Lesley Manville have a shot at a nod?  Here’s Gleiberman again, this time on the actress’ turn:

Lesley Manville, who plays Sheen and Broadbent’s most regular, and desperate, Saturday night dinner companion, a fragile, sozzled, enthusiastically needy secretary who has been coyly girlish, and drunk, for so long that she has no idea the loneliness she’s seeking to escape is of her own devising.

Manville has been hogging the spotlight, and when anyone talks of the ensemble, they single her out.  She’s the movie’s best bet for an acting nomination, although category fraud may play a part.  Most pundits consider her a leading actress, but Sony Pictures Classics may want to sneak her into the weaker Best Supporting Actress field.

The rest of the cast, save for prior winner Jim Broadbent, has so little name recognition that it’s going to be hard for any of them to sneak in.  Ruth Sheen could have a shot at Best Supporting Actress, as could Broadbent in the Best Actor category.  But for any of them to be legitimate contenders, I think they are going to need support from critics’ groups in December to thrust them into contention.  No one really knew who Amy Ryan was in 2007, yet thanks to being named Best Supporting Actress by association after association, she wound up with an Oscar nomination.

If anyone thinks “The King’s Speech” is going to have a hard time keeping September buzz, I think “Another Year” may have it just as hard.  How can it keep riding the wave of critical success into Oscar season?  With a release of December 29, did Sony Pictures Classics wait until the last minute so the wave can die and begin anew?

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Manville), Best Original Screenplay

OTHER POTENTIAL NOMINATIONS: Best Actor (Broadbent), Best Supporting Actress (Sheen)