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.

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REVIEW: Maleficent

1 06 2014

What’s old must become new again in order to keep movie studios’ back catalogues fresh so they can earn money; thus, we end up with “Maleficent,” a reimagining of their “Sleeping Beauty” tale.  It’s a film that uses the same formula as “Oz the Great and Powerful” and then splashes it with flourishes from Tim Burton’s 2010 revisionist “Alice in Wonderland.”  It trots out the familiar mythology – only now in sleek CGI! – and then puts a few twists on it to justify the remake.

Analyzed in tandem with the Mouse House’s 2013 megahit “Frozen,” the film yields interesting insights into the psyche of Disney.  This marks their second straight tentpole that does not give the audience the expected male-female romantic ending, leaving them to ponder the many different forms love can take.  One can only wonder where these progressive messages will ultimately end.

But that’s about all the intellectual discussion I can pull out of “Maleficent.”  It’s a sloppily written film filled with feckless characters whose discernible motivations are few and far between.  The movie needlessly complicates the simple 1959 classic story, making it a slow plod.  And, from a perspective likely only depressing to me, it reduces great actors like Imelda Staunton and Lesley Manville to playing cartoonish fairies in a failed comic relief subplot.

What should be the star in absence of these elements, the visual effects, are even quite confused.  Scenes designed to showcase the work of artists who work in the medium of pixels are cluttered with details that don’t cohere for a unified look.  At times, the film resembles the Pandora of James Cameron’s “Avatar;” at others, Burton’s “Alice.”  The opening scenes resemble an illustrated children’s storybook … and then, there are 3 mo-cap fairies.  The whole collective vibe recalls a 2002 video game like “Kingdom Hearts.”

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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.





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)