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: Mr. Turner

5 09 2014

Telluride Film Festival

When I spent last fall in London, I often found myself wandering the halls of art museums (largely since they boasted free admission).  Quite often, I would walk past a painting on the wall without giving it much thought, admiring its remarkable craft but feeling rather unmoved emotionally.  One painter whose work struck me on a deep and profound level, though, was J.M.W. Turner, whose work with light and shadow predated the renowned Impressionist movement.

I was hoping that Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner,” a film who places J.M.W. Turner in the subject position, would stir me similarly.  Unfortunately, I can’t really say that I felt the same pull to Leigh’s film as I do to Turner’s paintings.  But simply because I did not respond deeply to it does not mean the work is entirely void of merit.  I simply appreciate it more than I like or enjoy it.

Timothy Spall as Mr. Turner

With the exception of 2011’s “Another Year,” I seem to be rather immune to being swept away of Mike Leigh’s uniquely derived products.  (For those who don’t know, Leigh formulates his screenplay in tandem with the efforts of his actors in a lengthy, laborious rehearsal process.)  The characters all seem well-formed, and the dialogue always feels quite natural.  It just never feels exciting to watch.

In a sense, though, that’s kind of the point.  “Mr. Turner” is a biopic in the sense that it covers the life of J.M.W. Turner, but Leigh resists all the clichés and conventions we are normally conditioned to expect from a movie about a true-life creative mind.  Turner has no flashes of mad inspiration, nor does every word he utters ring with capital-I “importance.”  In fact, we rarely get to see his creative process at all.

Leigh uses “Mr. Turner” not to show how his subject is extraordinary, but rather the many ways in which he is ordinary.  It’s a biopic hiding inside an ensemble drama where Turner happens to have the most screen time.  Timothy Spall, a consummate character actor perhaps best known for his turn as Peter Pettigrew in the “Harry Potter” series, certainly makes the most of the attention given his grimacing genius Turner.  It’s a physically committed, emotionally potent performance that gives him a much-deserved moment in the spotlight.

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Telluride Film Festival Diary, Day 3

31 08 2014

8:30 A.M.: Up early to talk with Mike Leigh and then hit up one of my most anticipated films of the festival –  the Marion Cotillard-starring “Two Days, One Night.”

11:30 A.M.: Floored by “Two Days, One Night.” A fascinating look at the internal tussle between self-interest and self-sacrifice. Now headed to the noon panel!

1:00 P.M.: Ugh, nothing worse than having to leave an incredible panel that featured Jon Stewart, Gael Garcia Bernal, Bennett Miller (director of “Moneyball” and “Foxcatcher”), and Jean-Marc Vallee (director of “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild”). But now I’m about to see an obscure silent film with live accompaniment, which is certainly a cool thing. Even if the movie is a dud, it is certainly a unique experience to cross off the cinematic bucket list.

5:30 P.M.: Well, the silent film was a pretty neat thing to see. I was not entirely in the right mindset to watch that kind of a film, so I didn’t necessarily engage with it on a level I’d hoped.

Then we had student Q&A sessions with the Dardennes (who directed “Two Days, One Night”) and Morten Tyldum (who directed “The Imitation Game,” which I did even get to see). I told the French-speaking Dardennes bonjour, which was sadly all the interaction I had with them. I had a great question for them, but I didn’t get called on. The conversation with Tyldum was surprisingly interesting, considering that none of us saw the film.

Now, on to “Dancing Arabs,” an Israeli-Palestinian film that I know absolutely nothing about. And sometimes, that’s not a bad thing.

8:45 P.M.: GOT INTO “FOXCATCHER.” Festival = made. And James Gray, the director of my favorite 2014 film “The Immigrant,” is sitting two rows behind me!

Also, I ran into Ramin Bahrani, the director of “99 Homes,” while in line for the bathroom today. I told him how much I enjoyed the film, and he replied in astonishment that I was able to stay awake. I also chatted him up about Winston-Salem, where he filmed a short that played before the presentation last night. Pretty cool stuff!

Oh, and “Dancing Arabs” was mediocre, in case you were wondering.

12:11 A.M.:  Back from “Foxcatcher.”  What a cerebral, brooding film.  Definitely going to spend some time in deliberation on this one.  Reminds me of how I felt emerging from “The Master.”

Anyways, tomorrow is the day when the festival reprograms the films that had lots of turnaways – so wish me luck as I attempt to catch “Rosewater” and “Wild.”  So now I’m going to try to finish the book of the latter … which I doubt will happen.





Telluride Film Festival Diary, Day 2

30 08 2014

9:15 A.M.  Good morning from Telluride!  Looks like today is going to be an action-packed day of moviegoing and talking with filmmakers.  I had to be up for a discussion at the ripe hour of 7:15 A.M. today, which was just as much fun as a barrel of monkeys!

This morning’s festivities kick off with a screening of Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner,” which won the Best Actor prize at Cannes this year.  While you wait for my reaction, perhaps you’d like to see some of my pictures that I’ve been taking?!

12:15 P.M.: I’m at a panel right now that includes…

Mike Leigh
Wim Wenders
Werner Herzog
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Francis Ford Coppola
Ethan Hawke
Walter Murch

HOLY CRAP.

Also, “Mr. Turner” was quite good, too.

3:27 P.M.: So, where to begin on the past three hours. Getting to be in conversation with Francis Ford Coppola for an hour was insane. Hearing from the insanely normal and approachable Xavier Dolan was neat, too. Although it’s pretty hard to top getting to meet Leonard Maltin, whose movie guides were always on my bookshelf growing up. I told him how much those meant to me, and he was clearly very humbled to hear those words. Then we got to talk about film criticism for a few minutes … simply incredible.

3:45 P.M.: Not going to lie, I’m not the most excited for our next selection, some 40 year old German film called “Baal.” I should go in with more of an open mind, but knowing that I’m in here and “Foxcatcher” is out there…

9:45 P.M.: So “Baal” was awful and basically a waste of my time, as predicted. Then essentially none of my student group got into “The Imitation Game,” despite the fact that we were supposedly guaranteed seats more or less. Guess I’ll have to catch this flick that’s being hotly tipped for Oscars on Monday … add it to the list with “Foxcatcher.”

Bennett Miller, Channing Tatum, and Steve Carell

Bennett Miller, Channing Tatum, and Steve Carell

So now I’m in line for Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes,” a film starring Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon that premiered to acclaim in Venice this week. Of course, there was a free outdoor screening of “Foxcatcher” that just had to overlap with this screening by 15 minutes. But no, I guess I’ll just have to keep hanging…

P.S. – Celebrity sightings today include Laura Linney (just chilling solo outside a theater) as well as Steve Carell and Channing Tatum outside the “Foxcatcher” screening.

10:28 P.M.: Laura Dern spotted at “99 Homes.”

1:13 A.M.:  Back in bed still reflecting on and reeling from “99 Homes.”  Not that I don’t want to immediately post a review (because I could probably cobble my thoughts together now), but I desperately need some sleep and have a rare chance to get two full cycles.  Good evening (though it’s doubtful anyone is reading this live)!





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.





“Another Year” Poll Results

24 01 2011

There was a time when “Another Year” seemed like not only a sure-fire Best Picture and Director nominee, but a legitimate threat to win them both.  That was back in the summer after the Cannes Film Festival when it had all the buzz.

Fast forward two seasons and Mike Leigh’s movie is on life support, barely breathing in an awards season that has given the movie little love other than for Lesley Manville from the BAFTAs and National Board of Review.  Mike Leigh’s direction and writing have gone basically unnoticed.

Now, the movie hopes to draw enough support from the Mike Leigh-loving Academy voters to get a nomination and salvage itself.  I can’t say whether or not the movie merits a nomination as it has yet to open in Houston.  But I can tell you that its prospects are slim.

Back in September when the Oscar race looked entirely different, I wrote an Oscar Moment piece covering “Another Year.”  In it, I pointed out that the deserving factor could work to Mike Leigh’s advantage:

“… 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.'”

The poll voters were split back then with half thinking it would be Leigh’s time and half thinking it wouldn’t be.  Four months later, it seems almost certain that it will NOT be Leigh’s time.

I enjoy looking back and seeing what the race could have been.





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)