Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Recommended for home viewing: Thelma

There’s something very wrong with Thelma, though we’re not quite sure what it is. We first meet her when she’s just a child, living with her devoutly religious family in a remote town on the coast of Norway. The girl’s father, Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen), takes her hunting on the shores of the frozen lake next to their house. Thelma walks ahead of her dad, entranced by the sight of a deer. Standing behind his daughter, Trond silently points his rifle at her head. He doesn’t pull the trigger, but the temptation is there.

Thelma — an ominous, unnerving, and strangely powerful thriller about the most devious of human desires — might appear to be a change of pace for Oslo, August 31st writer-director Joachim Trier, but the story tenses and frets with the same melancholy glimmer that courses through his dramas. Here, the Norwegian’s filmmaker’s signature brand of existential dread (always coupled with and complicated by a youthful sense of becoming), is expressed through style more than action. This isn’t a movie where all that much happens, but every decision ripples with darkness.

The brunt of the action takes place more than a decade after that disconcerting prologue, when Thelma acts against her parents’ wishes and enrolls as a freshman at a university in Oslo. Played as an adult by the entrancingly blank Eili Harboe, she’s an isolated misfit (pretty but self-contained), unequipped with the social skills that seem to come so easily to the kids who grew up in secular homes. She’s shy, and tends to tremble, but Thelma doesn’t appear to be afraid of other people; if anything, she’s afraid of herself. It’s not much of a spoiler to suggest that she has good reason to be scared. There’s something inside of her, and it starts to shake its way out one gray afternoon in the university library. Only moments after sparking a conversation with a beautiful fellow student named Anja (musician Kaya Wilkins), the electricity proves to be too much, and Thelma starts to violently convulse on the floor. This will not be the last of her seizures.

A new friendship is waiting for our heroine when she wakes up: Anja is as warm and outgoing as Thelma is cold and enclosed, but there’s an immediate attraction between the two girls, and neither one of them is able to control it. Trier endows the intractable compulsions of self-discovery with a supernatural charge, as animals start to follow Thelma wherever she goes, slithering even into her dreams. One night, Anja appears out of the black forest that surrounds Thelma’s dorm, unsure of how she got there. Later, the two girls enjoy a brilliant night at the symphony, only for the slightest flirtation to threaten the lives of everyone in attendance. Thelma begs God to rid her of lesbian thoughts, yet God seems to have other ideas in mind. Trier’s protagonist may think that she’s in a sweet coming-out story that uses genre elements to express the sheer force of finding oneself, but this young woman is about to learn that she’s in a very different kind of movie.

It would be potentially ruinous to discuss how Thelma develops from there, but rest assured that Trier ramps up the strangeness with every new scene, this frigid little fairy tale eventually coming to feel like an adaptation of Carrie as directed by Ingmar Bergman. Shot in cinemascope and shivering with elemental imagery (the thick ice that stretches across the surface of her parents’ lake doubles as an effective expression of Thelma’s isolation from the rest of the world), Trier’s film slowly mutates universal growing pains into specific ingredients for existential horror. Lust is just the tip of the iceberg, though Thelma is consistently keyed in to the persuasive power of the female body, and how the strength of physical attraction can sometimes be complicated by its shallowness.

The longer the movie goes, the more that sex just becomes a means to an end. As Thelma’s physical state worsens and she’s diagnosed with psychogenic non-epileptic seizures (an affliction that once led to women being labeled as witches), Trier begins to leverage her bizarre condition into a smirking commentary on the human id. Diving into Thelma’s sordid past — why is her mom in a wheelchair, anyway? — Trier increasingly forgoes the loquaciousness of his previous Norwegian-language films in favor of natural imagery that says things his characters can’t even admit to themselves. Over time, the sight gags of a relatively standard psychological thriller (e.g. Thelma being trapped underwater in her university swimming pool) are replaced by visuals that seethe with biblical fury.

The more disturbing the set pieces get, the more fundamental the questions they ask us become. If the first half of the film contemplates how difficult it can be for teenagers to come into their own power and outgrow their parents, the second half interrogates the basic value of unconditional love, and whether people really need each other at all. As compulsively watchable as Harboe can be, Thelma is too much of an empty vessel to eclipse the beguiling madness that Trier invents for her; she’s reserved to the point that she borders on a non-character, and there are moments when the freaky circumstances of her freshman year feel interesting in spite of her. As a result, the movie sometimes strains to get where it’s going, and its sillier moments have a way of diluting the impact of its more serious ones. And yet, Thelma’s story sticks to your bones like a shiver, and sinks deeper for days after the credits have rolled. Her hollowness gets filled in as the body count starts to rise, Trier revealing her dormant power, scooping out her purpose, and inviting each viewer to fill it in with their most uncomfortable impulses.

When Thelma stares into the abyss, the abyss stares back, and both sides like what they see. It’s almost calming. The stillness of this unassuming film ultimately becomes the scariest thing about it, as Trier reconciles his protagonist’s inner and outer desires, her faith and her feelings, and leaves us wondering how terrible it would be — how terrible we would be — if everyone always got exactly what they wanted.

Drama, Fantasy, Horror. Directed by Joachim Trier. Starring Eili Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Henrik Rafaelsen. MPAA Rating: Not Rated. Running Time: 1:56. Theatrical Release: Nov. 10, 2017

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Recommended for home viewing: Jane

Biographical documentaries of famous people are typically dull affairs, the kind of thing that falls into hagiography or the kind of talking-head, then-this-happened adoration more at home in the 60-minute television format on PBS than in a feature film. There are very few filmmakers who have defied this trend as completely as Brett Morgen, the director of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and The Kid Stays in the Picture (about producer Robert Evans). He makes films that feel like extensions of his subject matters, channeling their creative spirit in the form of his filmmaking more than just detailing what happened in their lives. So it’s cinematic justice that over a hundred hours of footage of Jane Goodall crossed paths with Morgen, as both are pioneers in their field, and only Morgen seems capable of shaping that footage in such a unique, captivating, inspiring way as in Jane, one of the best documentaries available for home viewing so far this year.

Jane is that rare documentary that works in equal measure for those who know a great deal about Goodall and those people who don’t know a thing. Most people probably think they know all they need to know about Goodall. She watched chimps, right? Her research was essential to understanding not only the way we interact with the natural world but our place in it, but hers is not a name like Kurt Cobain that gets thrown around in conversations much in 2018. Jane fully elevates the scientific pedestal on which Goodall should be placed but it does so in part by humanizing her, revealing the challenges she faced and discoveries she made as more than mere National Geographic footage you might see in a science class.

Morgen structures his film relatively chronologically, allowing Goodall to tell her own story as we see footage of her in the wild. There’s a fascinating structural element of Jane in that the footage doesn’t contain interviews or dialogue, and so we’re watching Jane, the chimps, and the other humans who would come to Gambe, in a way that’s not dissimilar from the way Goodall observed her subjects. And there’s the added sense of disconnected observation that comes with time, and in the manner that Goodall herself is analyzing her own story in the way that someone might analyze the actions of a family of chimps. The parallel is clearly intentional, especially as Jane becomes more and more about how the lessons that Goodall learned in the wild informed her entire life, including even teaching her lessons about motherhood.

That’s a theme of Jane as we’re introduced to Goodall’s supportive mother in the opening scenes, see how Jane observes the motherhood of the chimps she’s studying, and then see her maternal instincts on display with her own child. Morgen very subtly does this in his films — drawing thematic undercurrents that move through the work without overriding the informative chronology of it all. There’s a fluidity that can be breathtaking to watch, especially as that motion is accompanied by Philip Glass’ best film score in years. You should be warned that it’s "very Glass," and I found it somewhat overwhelming at first, but I quickly couldn’t imagine the film working without it. It becomes an essential part of the film because of the aforementioned lack of an abundance of archival interviews, meaning that Goodall’s modern voice and Glass’ compositions become our primary sources for information and inspiration.

Jane is filled with fascinating anecdotes and insights, such as the fact that Goodall was never nervous about going to the wild to observe chimps because we didn’t really know about the aggression of the species when she chose to do so. She didn’t know to be scared (but would learn about the violence inherent in the chimp population). Goodall made headlines around the world when she filmed a chimp using a branch to obtain termites from a hole for nourishment. It may not seem like a big deal now, but it was once thought that humans were the only species to use tools, and the fact that a chimp used a branch as a tool shook the world, especially in the offices of religious leaders. The footage around the first time that Goodall really made contact with the chimps — when they trusted her enough to get close — is still breathtaking. It’s incredible to consider that footage this old of a chimp taking a banana from a woman for the first time ever would make for one of the most unforgettable scenes of 2018. A baby chimp learning how to walk is on that list of this year’s images I won’t forget as well.

Goodall herself is a forthcoming and fascinating interview subject — another testament to Morgen’s work as a narrator. Jane feels like a film that couldn’t have been made without the valuable insight gained through time. We see so many documentaries that want to be current and timely that they don’t realize the value of chronological distance from a subject. In a sense, we’re watching the impact of Goodall’s evolution from a young adventurer to a groundbreaking scientist to a wife and mother. And it’s through her self-analysis of that evolution that Morgen draws a line through 50 years of research and an entirely different species. As he has in his other films, he’s saying to us that it is through these pioneers that we can see the best in ourselves and the potential of the human intellect and desire to learn. But he never loses his filmmaker’s desire to entertain at the same time. It’s that balance of both — the genius of both the subject and the filmmaker — that make Jane such a rewarding experience.

Documentary, Biography. Directed by Brett Morgan. MPAA Rating: PG. Running Time: 1:30. Theatrical Release: Oct. 20, 2017

Friday, August 10, 2018

Recommend for home viewing: Small Town Crime

In an alternate, less uptight version of our reality, 1980s TV detective series knew no censors. They were seedier in their homage to pulp novels, and more willing to show the deadly consequences of their action. In that universe, Ian and Eshom Nelms' Small Town Crime is the special, feature-length premiere of a series worth watching every Friday night. Starring John Hawkes as a booze-addicted former cop who stumbles across a mystery he can't stand to leave unsolved, the scuzzy-looking movie is a boon to the actor's fans even if it lacks qualities that might broaden its appeal to at-home film viewers.

Hawkes' Mike Kendall ends every night in a blackout; starts every morning (around noon, presumably) trying to get back on the police force ("It'll take a miracle," a former colleague says); and in between, does just enough job-hunting to keep the unemployment checks coming. But when he finds a woman left for dead by the side of the road, his sense of duty kicks in: He races with her to the hospital, and when she dies, he decides to find her killer.

Passing himself off as a private detective to the girl's family (Robert Forster plays the wealthy grandfather), he learns that she was a "troubled" girl. In fact, she was a prostitute, and her colorful business manager (a man calling himself Mood, played by Clifton Collins, Jr. with characteristic flair) had a deal with one of Mike's bartender acquaintances. Several hookers are in danger, he learns, and Mike might be just the person to rescue them without involving the cops.

Hawkes' take on the P.I. archetype is not the slightly-tarnished knight of Chandler or the tough guy of Spillane. Jim Rockford would brush his lapel and quickly excuse himself if the two met. But the Nelms brothers put his character through the same kind of wringer those guys regularly endured (the blackjack-to-cranium ambush, for instance), and Hawkes makes it credible that he'd stay on the job instead of retiring to a barstool. Mike does have one reason to regain his self-respect: His adoptive sister (Octavia Spencer) and her husband (Anthony Anderson), upstanding citizens who've been paying his mortgage through these lean times, are nearing the end of their patience with him. When his new gumshoe hobby endangers them, it's a foregone conclusion that Mike will rise to the occasion.

Only one small sore-thumb scene, in which a barmaid delivers a clever little speech too indebted to Tarantino, ever suggests that Small Town Crime has ambitions above its modest station. But that's a blip for a satisfying, stale-beer crime flick that would rather get its kicks from Mike's muscle car and, eventually, from a classic railyard shoot-'em-up climax. Mike doesn't make everything right in an evening, and the screenplay nods knowingly toward the future in just the way an old NBC pilot would have. Hell, maybe some present-day cable network could pick up the ball, convincing Hawkes to return to the small screen, this time as star. Assuming, that is, that the Amazon pilot in which he plays a superhero (!?) doesn't take off first.

Crime, Mystery, Thriller. Directed by Eshom and Ian Nelms. Starring. John Hawkes, Anthony Anderson, Octavia Spencer, Robert Forster, Clifton Collins, Jr. MPAA Rating: R. Running Time: 1:31. Theatrical Release: Jan. 19, 2018.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Recommended for home viewing: Last Men in Aleppo

In case Gary "What Is Aleppo?" Johnson is still wondering why it is important that (potential) world leaders and the world at large pay attention to what is happening in the city, the documentary Last Men in Aleppo would be a good starting point. Directed by Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad and co-directed and co-edited by Danish cutter Steen Johannessen, this harrowingly immediate feature follows two Syrian members of the White Helmets, the organization that goes in after each bombing from the air to try and rescue victims from under the resulting rubble and ruins.

Frequently heartbreaking and hard to watch — "Watch out for torn limbs," one of the protagonists tells his colleagues matter-of-factly at one point — the film demands to be reckoned with as a testament to the selflessness and courage of these literal life savers, though the constant preference for a purely human approach over even basic contextual information might rub some viewers the wrong way.

The White Helmets have been receiving quite some attention lately, with Orlando von Einsiedel’s short Netflix documentary about them and with George Clooney reportedly working on a feature version. Fayyad’s film, among this year's Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature, was shot between the fall of 2015 and the fall of 2016, while barrel bombs from Russian planes rained on Aleppo, restricting the movement of the volunteers and about 250,000 civilians (left from a population of over 2 million) to an ever-smaller part of the city. Whenever a bomb reduces a building to ruins, the White Helmets try to arrive as quickly as possible to see if there might human victims that need to be rescued. At the start of the film, Fayyad and co-director Johannessen give only the barest of outlines about the conflict and even less information about the White Helmets themselves, omitting, for example, that the organization is financed from abroad and mostly ignoring its political dimensions.

Instead, the documentary focuses on the grueling day-to-day of two White Helmet workers. Khaled and Mahmoud are both around 30 and they tirelessly hurry to wherever a new bomb has hit and destroyed a building, potentially trapping living souls underneath the rubble. With danger for their own lives, they dig and move tons of debris until they can either reach survivors or recuperate the corpses of those that have died. It is, of course, a thankless task in which a moment of ecstasy over finding a living child can tip over into tragedy mere seconds later when their mother or one of their siblings turns out to be dead.

Johannessen and co-editor Michael Bauer carefully modulate the contrasts of the men’s daily highs and lows in the film’s first half, with grave moments alternating with light banter between the men or moments of Khaled with his two young daughters (his wife is conspicuous by her absence). There is a sense that they try to continue life as normal for as much as possible, buying goldfish — earlier spied in the initially rather enigmatic opening sequence — for a fountain or taking advantage of a cease-fire to let the children play outside. The question of whether they should leave is constantly on Khaled’s mind, as ever more buildings are razed to the ground, people die and the unmentioned question arises of what and who is left to stay behind for?

Similarly, Mahmoud struggles with more existential questions as well as those arising directly from his job. After a visit to a family of whom he saved a son, he feels guilty because it felt like he was "showing off". But it is impossible to reconcile this with an earlier image of the boy, with his hair still missing where he had head wounds, as he sat with Mahmoud’s arm around him, quizzing him about his rescue. Mahmoud’s warm embrace and kind gestures suggest exactly why he digs into each new pile of rubble, hoping to rescue another child like that kid.

Mahmoud also worries about his younger brother Ahmed, who wants to help him, and about his parents, who think the siblings are working in Turkey. In one of the film’s most intense scenes, the brothers are almost hit by a missile and then shot at just after having arrived at a car wrecked by a missile. They were there to get the corpses out of the burning vehicle but for wanting to look after the dead, they almost ended up dead themselves.

Director of photography Fadi al Halabi had a crew of several cameramen who followed Khaled and Mahmoud over the course of a year. Their images are often stunning, not only for what they show but also how they showcase it. Despite the fact they are working in a war zone, there is practically none of the bad-quality shaky-cam footage that we’ve come to expect from those places. Instead, many of the shots have a kind of incongruous and surreal beauty about them, imbuing the film with a certain majesty. And except for a few grainier nighttime and interior sequences, the images are of exceptional clarity.

The editing in the film’s second half is slightly baggier than necessary, while Karsten Fundal’s heavy and heterogeneous score is often less a harmonizing factor than a distraction. The final sequences also feel a little too much like a calculated, fiction-type arrangement of the available footage. Still, there is no denying the cumulative power of the material, in large part due the protagonists’ endless reservoirs of humanity, dignity and selflessness in the face of one of the world’s biggest and most incomprehensible tragedies. Light on background and contextual facts, Last Men in Aleppo speaks very loudly from the heart.

Documentary, War. Directed by Feras Fayyad, Steen Johannessen. MPAA Rating: Not Rated. Running Time: 1:48. Theatrical Release: May 3, 2017

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Recommended for home viewing: "BPM (Beats Per Minute)"

In 1959, the writer and philosopher Guy Debord, best known for his work on what he called "the society of the spectacle," made a short film called On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time. A simple title, but one with a lot of implications. It could serve as an alternate title for the French film BPM (Beats Per Minute). Known as battements par minute in French, the phrase that initially referred to the human heart, was then applied to modern dance music.

The way this movie relates to the Debord title is in the fictionalized story it tells, about the Paris branch of the AIDS activism group ACT UP in the 1990s. Directed by Robin Campillo from a script by Campillo and Philippe Mangeot, the movie opens with a few members of the group storming the stage during a government presentation on their handling of the AIDS crisis. Their shock tactics get a little out of hand, and the movie cuts to a meeting of the group after the fact, comparing notes, admitting fault, expressing humorous confusion at the contradictions between individual accounts, and discussing what to do next. The movie makes canny use of non-linear editing, moving backwards and forwards with engaging fluidity, and it keeps this up throughout. But the movie, in its 140-minute or so running time, sets itself down purposefully enough to give the audience a good look at several characters sharing a "unity of time" in different ways.

There’s Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), the pragmatic head of the group, who’s always looking to achieve a balance between the eye-opening protests of the group and a kind of constructive engagement with the government officials and big pharma reps who are slow to respond to the crisis. Sophie (Adèle Haenel) is one of the relatively few women in the group, an eloquent and energetic front-of-the-line type. The group’s makeup is mostly of gay men, but it’s hardly exclusive. The teen Max (Felix Maritaud) got the HIV virus by transfusion, and both he and his single mom Hélène (Catherine Vinatier) are passionate factors in the group. Max mixes up, in his apartment bathtub, the fake blood that the group uses to decorate the office of one pharma company at which it stages an intervention.

None of these characters come across as a "type" during the scenes in which we get to know them. The actors delineate them as strong individuals. The film’s sharpest focus is often trained on Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a pint-sized provocateur whose passion is matched by fierce logic and charismatic eloquence. He forms what seems an unlikely romance with Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a hunky, quiet newbie whose negative HIV status arouses initial suspicion when he joins the group. Their love story is frank, sometimes funny, and eventually heart-rending.

What the movie does, beautifully, and unfortunately, necessarily, is remind the viewer that the axiom "the political is personal" is not a fluffball bromide to be set aside in the postmodern world. BPM recounts with precision an era in which people died in part because governments tacitly (and sometimes not tacitly) agreed worldwide that a particular virus was punishment for deviant behavior and thus not something that deserved urgent attention. The tactics of ACT UP were deemed "extremist" by many. This movie demonstrates the humanity of these activists, people whose backs were against a wall. It does so with humor, compassion, affinity, and no condescension. Even if you consider yourself reasonably well-versed in the history, BPM is a kind of wake-up call, a cinematic alarm against complacency.

Drama. Directed by Robin Campillo. Starring Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adèle Haenel, Antoine Reinartz, Catherine Vinatier, Felix Maritaud MPAA Rating: Not Rated. Running Time: 2:23. Theatrical Release Oct. 20, 2017

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Recommended for home viewing: The Breadwinner

More imaginative than Coco, more soulful than Moana, more everything than Despicable Me 3, Nora Twomey’s The Breadwinner cements Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon as an animation powerhouse worth mentioning alongside the likes of Pixar, Laika, and the great Studio Ghibli. A deeply anguished story that’s told with the same vivid style as Cartoon Saloon’s two previous features, The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner triumphs with a sense of emotional sobriety that strikes far deeper than anything that passes for children’s entertainment in this part of the world — it may be aimed at (older) kids, but it’s certain to hit their parents twice as hard.

Adapted from Deborah Ellis’ 2000 novel of the same name, The Breadwinner is immediately set apart by its setting. The film begins in Taliban-controlled Kabul, where an 11-year-old girl named Parvana (stoic newcomer Saara Chaudry) sits on the dirt with her father as he sells his wares. Although women are prohibited to be in public without being covered, Parvana is still young and invisible enough to avoid the ire of the increasingly fundamentalist male population. Be that as it may, every new customer presents a new opportunity for oppression, as the city’s gun-toting men are always eager to assert their dominance. They eye Parvana like wolves in waiting, and intimidate her kind father for defending his daughter’s innocence; her father explains to some aggressive shopper that he lost his leg while trying to defend their country in the war against the Russians, but the Taliban men don’t understand history, only erasure.
Parvana, on the other hand, is steeped in her family’s rich history of storytelling; she may still be a child, but she understands the nature of violence, how it visits history in terrible cycles, taking so much from her people that they’re left with no choice but to start over. "Stories remain in our hearts even after all else is gone, her father tells Parvana, and she takes those words to heart; her father hasn’t given her much, but he’s given her this. And when the Taliban arrest him without cause, it is all that he is able to leave behind.

Without a man to go into the market for them, Parvana, her older sister, her toddler brother, and their heartsick mom are left to starve. But these are resourceful, iron-willed women. There’s a profound scene in which Parvana’s mother wordlessly cuts the girl’s hair, shearing her daughter of her identity so that she can pass as a boy and buy them the naan they need to survive. The Breadwinner may be drawn with the softness of a coloring book, but its characters are hardened to the hilt and blessed with wills of iron. They know what has to be done.

The film mines its significant power from that relationship between beauty and terror, Twomey using animation to redeem a story that would have been unbearably sad in live-action. Created with a program called TVPaint, The Breadwinner adds a sober dose of reality to Cartoon Saloon’s vibrant house style; the hand-drawn characters are coated with a digital sheen, resulting in an aesthetic that marries the lushness of Disney classics with the modernity of flash animation. The computer-generated elements allow the story to unfold against nearly photo-realistic backdrops, suspending the movie between fantasy and reality in much the same way its heroine is caught between two worlds.

Or three worlds, as Twomey reserves yet another look for the long passages in which Parvana tries to buoy her brother’s spirits by telling him a story about a boy who’s tormented by an evil elephant king who has spikes for tusks. For these sequences, Twomey spirits us into a splendid world full of paper cut-outs, Parvana doing her best to preserve some vital family history in a place where photographs are forbidden. These bits tend to dilute the power of a film that already gets a touch scattered once Parvana assumes her disguise, and they take us away from the film’s true protagonist for far too long, but they’re so fetching and full of life that the distraction is easy to forgive. Most importantly, this sub-plot manages to save the story from itself, arriving at its point just in time to make sense of the exasperatingly hectic finale that Twomey has invented for her adaptation.

So urgent and far-reaching that it never settles into the comforts of a coming-of-age story, The Breadwinner is a small film about the biggest things. It’s engaging from start to finish, but Twomey — to her great credit — prioritizes stoicism over sentimentality. Parvana’s story will pull at your heart, but its beauty is evenly matched with its despair; she may triumph in one small victory over systemic misogyny, but the war is hardly won. The film can’t leave us with happiness, so it opts instead to leave us with hope, hope as stubborn as the shock of yellow flowers that grow out of the stones outside of Parvana’s home.

Animation, Drama, Family. Directed by Nora Twomey. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running Time: 1:34. Theatrical Release: Nov. 17, 2017

Friday, August 3, 2018

Recommended for home viewing: Faces Places

Agnès Varda may not see as well as she used to, but her creative vision has never been clearer. If the magnificently moving, funny, life-affirming, and altogether wonderful Faces Places (or, in its original language, the much smoother Visages Villages) is to be the 88-year-old Belgian auteur’s last film, it will be because of her failing eyesight or the inexplicable difficulty she’s had with funding her work, and not because she’s run out of things to say or novel ways to say them.

If this is to be her last film, then it will be one of cinema’s most extraordinary sendoffs, as poignant and perfect a swan song as Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises or Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love. Never mind the fact that Miyazaki is supposedly working on another feature, or that Cannes is posthumously presenting Kiarostami’s final non-narrative work — when it comes to the truly great artists, the end is never really the end.

Indeed, notions of finality and (im)permanence cast a long shadow over Faces Places, which finds Varda teaming up with a semi-anonymous street photographer named JR, who serves as the film’s co-director, for a whimsical tour of the French countryside. The plan is to drive from one bucolic village to another, invite the locals to pose in the van that JR has transformed into a mobile photo booth, and paste massive print-outs of the resulting portraits onto the environments their subjects call home. Varda loves the idea, she’s compelled to "photograph faces so they don’t fall into the hole of memory."

But while all of the people they meet are delightful characters who the film manages to milk for every ounce of their personality, Varda and JR inevitably emerge as the real stars here. She is nearly 90; he is 34. She worked with Jean-Luc Godard; he looks like Jean-Luc Godard (and, much to Varda’s consternation, will similarly not take off his sunglasses). And yet, the movie is barely five minutes old before it’s clear that these two are a screen duo for the ages. From the charmingly animated opening credits, to the whimsical voiceover in which Varda and JR imagine all the places they might have met — cue footage of Varda dancing in a nightclub — the pair establish an instant rapport that feels too perfect to be faked. In regards to both their chemistry and its context, they come across like less competitive, more huggable versions of Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan (though it’s hard to say which is which).

Varda has always possessed a warm and compulsively watchable screen presence, and the pint-sized iconoclast — easy to spot on the festival circuit in recent years thanks to the signature stripe of purple dye that rings around her hair like a bullseye — still has more pep in her step than most of us have ever had. JR is the real variable here, and everything about him makes you brace for a douchebag; between the arrogant scale of his art and the affectedness of his appearance, the young artist seems like nothing but trouble.

Fortunately, that couldn’t be further from the truth. JR is an absolute joy (and a mensch, to boot), and the playful relationship he develops with Varda makes you sad for all the years of her life that they didn’t know each other. Teasing at times, quietly deferential at others, he taps into his co-star’s inherent sense of wonder and creates a canvas big enough for her to fit all of the ideas that she’s still dying to project.

At one point, Varda wistfully sighs that "Every new person I meet feels like my last one," and while her comment may have been prompted by one of the passing strangers who she encounters on this journey, JR is obviously its true inspiration. Varda readily concedes that she’s "looking forward" to the end, but as she meets the young man’s 100-year-old grandmother, or sits with him as they stare out into the sea and reflect (via storybook-like narration) on the people they’ve photographed, it’s hard to imagine that she doesn’t feel as though she’s barely scratched the surface of this world. He is a living reminder of all the great humans she won’t get to meet, all of the new ways through which she won’t get to see them. The more you find to love about this place, the more you have to leave behind.

Varda was already a woman who was destined to leave her will on film, but it’s deeply beautiful (and tons of fun) to watch this great artist commemorate the blue-collar NPCs of rural France, these farmers and postmen and laborers who are unknown in their own time. Despite how that may sound, there isn’t whiff of condescension to be found here. Varda and JR aren’t validating their subjects, but rather asking them to help corroborate the idea that images are a way of affirming our existence, of being bigger than our bodies.

Some of them are A-grade eccentrics (like Pony, the toothless poet who lives under the stars and makes art out of bottle caps). Others are more run-of-the-mill types, but no less compelling for that. In fact, Varda and JR’s most memorable subjects might be the three dock workers we meet towards the end of the film — well, not them, but rather their wives. Varda has always been a vital voice for women, and Faces Places builds to an endearingly perfect illustration of why, as she and JR make it well and truly impossible to overlook these ladies.

But nothing lasts forever. We see that during the touching sequence in which Varda blows up a photo of her deceased friend, Guy Bourdain, and slathers it over a bunker that’s crashed onto the world’s most deserted beach — when they return the next morning, the photo has been washed away by the tide. That ephemeral feeling strikes again in the film’s heartbreaking final sequence, which plunges into the depths of cinema history before eventually returning with the achingly bittersweet truth that life is less fulfilling than what you see in the movies. All the same, Varda’s soul-stirring Faces Places is an essential reminder that it doesn’t always have to be.

Documentary. Directed by Agnes Varda and JR. MPAA Rating: Not rated. Running Time: 1:29. Theatrical Release: Oct. 6, 2017.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Recommended for home viewing: The Ballad of Lefty Brown

Grizzled and limping, speaking with a reserved twang full of self-doubt, Bill Pullman is nobody's ten-gallon hero in The Ballad of Lefty Brown. Rather, Jared Moshe's second feature casts him as a loyal loser trying to do right after the usual men of action have disappeared or been corrupted, even if it seems sure to kill him. Filmed on celluloid in big-sky Montana, the old-fashioned picture will win the hearts of some viewers simply by existing. But though slow to get rolling, it eventually builds into a worthy showcase for Pullman, who himself has too rarely stepped out of support roles.

For decades, Lefty has ridden by the side of Peter Fonda's Edward Johnson, helping him survive the Old West's dangers and become a wealthy rancher. Now elected to serve as the new state of Montana's first senator, Johnson will head for Washington and leave the ranch in Lefty's care — much to the concern of Mrs. Johnson (Kathy Baker), who, old friends or no, believes he's not up to the responsibility.

While this is being debated, the two men ride out alone to retrieve three stolen horses. One of the rustlers (Joe Anderson's Frank) ambushes them, shooting the senator and leaving Lefty for dead. After bringing his friend's body home, Lefty strikes out on his own to find the killer.

Nobody thinks he has a chance of that, especially not two old members of the senator's crew who soon arrive to pay condolences: Tom Harrah (Tommy Flanagan), a U.S. Marshal who lost many years to the bottle, and Jimmy Bierce (Jim Caviezel), who recently became the state's governor. Harrah goes off to keep Lefty out of trouble while Bierce returns to the duties of his office — which, in his view, lie mainly in the arena of opening the state up wide to railroads and other deep-pocket interests. Meanwhile, Lefty stumbles across a wet-behind-the-ears kid (Diego Josef's Jeremiah) who fancies himself a gunslinger.

Though this isn't an undue amount of scene-setting, Moshe paces it rather sluggishly, leaving us as ready as young Jeremiah is to hear the old-timers talk of a livelier age. The screenplay covers some "print the legend" ground before letting Lefty open up in ways that suggest he wasn't always the unreliable second fiddle. And then, just as he's finding himself rising to new challenges, Lefty is accused of having killed his best friend.

Having already given us a shootout or two, the film grows more involving as Lefty fights for both his life and his good name. Pullman has no trouble making the character sympathetic, even as he maintains the near-ineptitude Lefty's known for. (His quick, satisfied chuckle when Jeremiah rescues Lefty from a standoff is one of the film's larger small pleasures.)

The movie's drama eventually squares nicely with the traditional pairing of big liberty-versus-civilization themes and dramas of personal temperament. Lefty, though hardly a master of the unruly wilderness, may not be able to live in the world to come. This Ballad loves him for that, and happily gives him one last adventure worth singing about.

Western. Directed by Jared Moshe. Starring Bill Pullman, Peter Fonda, Kathy Baker, Tommy Flanagan, Jim Caviezel, Diego Josef, Joe Anderson. MPAA Rating: Not rated. Running Time: 1:51. Theatrical release: Dec. 15, 2017

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Recommended for home viewing: Blockers

With its sex-related gags and pure raunchiness, Blockers provides enough R-rated humor to satisfy those who are growing tired of the tame PG-13 fare that has thus far populated the 2018 home viewing choices. (The film’s original title, Cockblockers, was changed for obvious reasons, although the image of a rooster above the word "Blockers" keeps it alive in spirit.) A marriage of a Judd Apatow-influenced sex comedy (featuring Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann) and a hard-R John Hughes knock-off, Blockers takes us into the bedrooms of teenagers and their parents as they negotiate the bumpy road of prom night and all it entails. Although the movie’s foremost goal is to deliver big laughs, it gets points for taking seriously the trauma of parents who, after nurturing and caring for their children over an 18-year period, are forced to let go.

When pretty blond prom princess Julie (Kathryn Newton) decides that she’s going to lose her virginity to boyfriend Austin (Graham Phillips) after the dancing is done, her two best friends, Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Sam (Gideon Adlon), come on board. Kayla has set her sights on the laid-back Connor (Miles Robbins) and Sam is stuck with her less-than-dreamy date, Chad (Jimmy Bellinger). What she really wants, however, is to come out of the closet and hook up with her secret crush, the openly lesbian Angelica (Ramona Young). Things seem to be progressing well — an early departure from the chaperoned event to attend a lakeside party — until the parents become involved.

Julie’s mom, Lisa (Mann), learns of her daughter’s "sex pact" through a bit of inadvertent snooping. (Warning to teenagers planning to lose it on prom night: don’t leave chat windows open on laptops where parents can see them.) With Kayla’s dad, Mitchell (John Cena), and Sam’s father, Hunter (Ike Barinholtz), in tow, she heads out in pursuit of the kids, seeing herself as the defender of her daughter’s hymen. The high school seniors always seem to be a step ahead, however, resulting in Mitchell and Hunter having to do all sorts of demeaning things to keep the chase going.

The teen-oriented portions of Blockers are more engaging than the segments tracking the adults. When the story follows Julie, Kayla, and Sam, it has a distinct Superbad vibe and Sam’s struggle with her sexuality is at least as compelling as that of the title character in Love, Simon. Lisa, Mitchell, and Hunter, however, exist primarily to move the plot forward and provide comedic opportunities. They are important to the extent that, without them, the film would lose the element of parents facing their children’s emergence from childhood, but the over-20 characters are not well-defined or developed.

The standout adult actor is Cena, who plays against type as an emotionally vulnerable guy who’s prone to breaking into tears at any moment. Cena is game for anything; he reminded me a little of Arnold Schwarzenegger from some of his comedies (Twins and Kindergarten Cop), albeit without the accent. Of the prom-goers, Viswanathan caught my attention with her tough-but-saucy approach to a role that’s not tremendously well fleshed out. Her performance makes her big scene (opposite Cena) work.

The comedy is along the lines of what we have come to expect from R-rated movies about kids trying to have sex. There’s plenty of vulgarity and graphic talk, some nudity (with more male exposure than female), drugs and alcohol, and buckets of vomit (although falling short of what Mr. Creosote produced). The gross-out quotient isn’t as high as in some films but it doesn’t skimp. (For my money, the vomit scene may be the high point of Blockers’ comedy — that or Mann’s shocking encounter with a television set.) Needless to say, an appreciation of this film requires an enjoyment of the brand of comedy it offers. The movie is good enough to please fans of this subgenre but not so good that it will convert those who aren’t. I’m reminded of something Roger Ebert wrote about Kingpin: "No doubt the movie is vulgar, and tries too hard for some of its laughs … the humor isn't just gags and punch lines, but one accomplished comic performance after another." I felt that way about Blockers, laughing more than I often do at Hollywood-produced "comedies" while admiring the craft that gives buoyancy to the humor (credit director Kay Cannon and her screenwriters, Brian and Jim Kehoe), while grounding it with a relatable subtext.

Comedy. Directed by Kay Cannon. Starring Leslie Mann, John Cena, Ike Barinholtz, Kathryn Newton, Geraldine Viswanathan, Gideon Adlon, Graham Phillips, Miles Robbins, Jimmy Bellinger, Ramona Young. MPAA Rating: R. Running Time: 1:42. Theatrical Release: April 6, 2018.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Recommended for home viewing: The King’s Choice

Set during the three days in 1940 when the forces of Nazi Germany overran and subjugated previously neutral Norway, The King’s Choice is hardly unusual in bringing to light a previously little-known story of World War II. What is unusual about the film is that it is a frankly admiring portrait of a monarch. The king here is the tale’s hero, and the choice he makes regarding the Nazi invasion undergird a drama that is proudly and unequivocally patriotic.

Beyond that distinction, the Norwegian-Irish production deserves recognition for the excellence of every aspect of its making. Director Erik Poppe and his collaborators bring enormous stylistic vibrancy and realism to a story that benefits greatly from their skills.

The film begins by providing a brief history lesson that will be needed by non-Norwegians. In 1905, having been united with Sweden since the 19th century, Norway broke away, established its sovereignty and voted to become a constitutional monarchy. A young Danish prince was invited to become the ceremonial head of state and was crowned King Haakon VII when he arrived to assume his new role.

Flash forward 35 years and Haakon is a gaunt, mustachioed 68-year-old widower (Jesper Christensen) facing challenges from domestic and foreign sources. In Norway, Socialists would like to dispense with the monarchy. But the far more serious threat comes at the beginning of April’s second week, when the Germans make their intention of annexing Norway clear. Of course, it’s not presented as a hostile takeover pure and simple. Rather, claiming that the British have mined Norway’s coast, the Nazis essentially say they want to help the country maintain its neutrality and are open to negotiations for what will be, in reality, an outright surrender.

Much of Norway’s leadership wants to fight the invasion and the film’s first act includes a brilliantly staged scene where Norwegian coastal artillery emplacements fire on and destroy an approaching German warship. But the German war machine is simply too enormous and powerful to be resisted for long, and it only take hours for it to occupy Norway’s main cities.

As soon as the invasion approaches, King Haakon and the royal household are in motion. With Crown Prince Olav (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), his wife and small children in tow, the monarch and his retainers pile into the cars and make for Oslo’s train station, where they board a special train that quickly heads north, ahead of the advancing Germans.

Norway’s cabinet members also flee the capital, but their hasty deliberations make it clear that this is a government in shambles, confused and unsure of what to do to save the country from disaster. They look to the king almost as a totemic figure, and he does project resolve and courage, but he also needs to provide the occasional reminder that he is a figurehead, not a monarch with any but ceremonial powers.

There is one other person, though, who looks to the king as if he is indeed the man in charge: Adolf Hitler. The film’s most prominent German character, Curt Bräuer (Karl Markovics), is an envoy who wants to arrange negotiations in order to transition Norway to German control with minimal bloodshed, a desire that meets with scorn from the Nazi commander. In one scene, the envoy is on the phone to Berlin arguing his case when someone on the other end grabs the phone and tells him what to do. It’s the Fuhrer himself and he orders Bräuer to forget about the elected government and get the king’s agreement. This sets up both the envoy’s pursuit of Haakon in the third act and the choice the king must make.

While The King’s Choice has the feel of a large-scale WWII drama, we don’t actually see large numbers of soldiers on the move. Aside from the early naval engagement noted above, the main action is represented by the fighting between Norwegian defenders and German soldiers at a small outpost that’s on the king’s path. In these scenes, there’s a baby-faced soldier named Seeberg (Arthur Hakalahti) whose characterization represents the film’s one concession to old-style war-movie sentimentality.

Although at 133 minutes the film could stand some tightening, it remains gripping and well-acted throughout. With the notable help of John Christian Rosenlund’s nuanced cinematography and Peter Bavman’s meticulous production design, Poppe has fashioned one of the most handsomely realized and viscerally compelling of recent period dramas. It’s no wonder the movie swept Norway’s film awards and was its nominee for the Foreign-Language Film Oscar.

One footnote: Although the name of Vidkun Quisling, the fascist who became Norway’s puppet ruler under the Nazis, is heard in the film, the man himself — whose name became a synonym for "traitor" — is not seen.

Biography, Drama, History. Directed by Erik Poppe. Starring Jesper Christensen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Karl Markovics, Arthur Hakalahti. MPAA Rating: NR. Running Time: 2:13. Theatrical release: Sept. 22, 2017

Monday, July 30, 2018

Recommended for home viewing: A Fantastic Woman

Four years ago, Sebastian Lelio shook up the official competition in Berlin with Gloria, a bracingly honest, ultimately empowering study of the rocky journey of a middle-aged divorcee, stumbling toward completeness with a gradual affirmation of her self-worth and independence. True to its title, the Chilean director's extraordinary latest film, A Fantastic Woman, is a superlative companion piece. Another work of searing empathy, it traces the emergence from devastating grief of a young transgender protagonist, treated like a criminal in the wake of her older partner's abrupt death. Shocking and enraging, funny and surreal, rapturous and restorative, this is a film of startling intensity and sinuous mood shifts wrapped in a rock-solid coherence of vision. It should elevate Lelio in the rising-star ranks of international filmmakers. While it's politically charged and very much of the moment in terms of its representation of trans-rights issues, what's perhaps most remarkable is that not a word of direct advocacy is spoken. Any trace of the agenda movie is deftly subsumed in pulsing human drama.

The emotionally penetrating singularity of focus on a woman alone, reeling from loss, in some ways invites comparison with the recent Jackie, directed by another bright light of Chilean cinema, Pablo Larrain, one of the main producers here through Fabula, the company he heads with his brother, Juan de Dios Larrain. While its flamboyant flourishes generally are quieter, Lelio's movie also recalls the dazzling midcareer flight of Pedro Almodovar, when he moved away from subversive comedy into psychologically and structurally complex melodramas like The Flower of My Secret, All About My Mother and Talk to Her. Some might even find echoes of John Cassavetes' great vehicles for Gena Rowlands. And few will miss the elegant strains of Hitchcock, both in themes of enigmatic female identity and the divided self, redolent of Vertigo, and in the cool visual compositions of cinematographer Benjamin Echazarreta, which capture the title figure against eye-catching features of Santiago architecture that suggest a heightened reality. Visually, the movie is a knockout from first frame — a magnificent view of Iguazu Falls, no less — to last, its use of color sumptuous.

Played by the remarkable transgender actress Daniela Vega, the central character, Marina Vidal, shows fortitude and self-possession that won't quit, regardless of the blows she's dealt. A singer in her late 20s making ends meet by waitressing, she's first seen performing in a nightclub act, tossing flirty glances at her partner Orlando (Francisco Reyes), and teasing him with song lyrics about their love being yesterday's news. But the mutual depth of feeling and sexual intoxication between them makes it abundantly clear that's not the case. Working again with Gonzalo Maza, his co-screenwriter on Gloria and earlier films, Lelio conveys the couple's loving commitment in gorgeous scenes like a birthday meal at a Chinese restaurant, a rapturous dance-floor smooch, and blissful sex back at his apartment, where she has recently moved in. Orlando, a 57-year-old textile company executive with a marriage and family behind him, pledges a gift to Marina of a trip for two to the Iguazu Falls. However, he's misplaced the actual envelope containing the tickets, which becomes an intriguing MacGuffin in Marina's odyssey.

Orlando dies suddenly that same night after suffering an aneurism. Marina is stunned and shattered, but already at the hospital, her grief is ignored amid questions about their relationship from a doctor (Alejandro Goic) who insists on using male pronouns in reference to her, as well as the male birth name on her papers. A wound and bruising on Orlando's body from a fall while getting to the hospital result in a police report. A detective from the Sexual Offenses Investigation Unit (Amparo Noguera) operates from the assumption that prostitution or rape were involved before subjecting Marina to a degrading physical examination.

That's nothing, however, compared to the hostile indifference of Orlando's family to her pain. The dead man's son, Bruno (Nicolas Saavedra), who can't even remember Marina's name, informs her he wants her out of the apartment as fast as possible, refusing to hide his disgust at his father's choices. And Orlando's ex-wife Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim), a businesswoman festooned in power jewelry, barely contains the contempt behind her veneer of cold courtesy, before offering her money to get out of their lives. Only Orlando's brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco) shows her respect, though she reads his offer to give her some of her late partner's ashes as a bribe to keep her away from the funeral and wake.

Throughout these ordeals, Marina maintains her surface composure, while a slow-building rage churns inside her. Lelio and Echazarreta effectively place her under an emotional microscope. They study her against reflective surfaces and alienating backdrops like the amusement arcade connected to the café where she works, or the sleazy backroom of a club she wanders through, seeking self-punishing release. Such moments of rawness are interspersed with others of fantastical escape, like a dance scene in which she's transformed in her mind from a wreck to a glittering star, leading a choreographed formation routine.

One of the most striking interludes follows Marina's visit to her operatic voice coach (Sergio Hernandez), a father figure who reprimands her for not being serious enough about her talent. She tacks off afterward along the street into the face of a windstorm of supernatural force, while her voice continues to be heard singing the Giacomelli aria Sposa son disprezzata, appropriately, about a scorned wife. Even when music choices might potentially have seemed too on-the-nose, like Aretha Franklin doing (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, Lelio uses them with audacious originality. That extends also to the strange and beautiful score by experimental British electronica composer Matthew Herbert, working here in a more orchestral but no less distinctive vein.

The supporting ensemble (loaded with Larrain regulars) is studded with incisive character work, including from Trinidad Gonzalez and Nestor Cantillana as Marina's supportive stoner sister and her sweet flake of a husband, respectively. And despite relatively brief screen time augmented by ghostly subsequent reappearances, Reyes makes a strong impression as Orlando, of a man reborn through unexpected happiness; the bitter prejudice and lack of understanding his choices sparked become evident only after his death.

The movie's stunning revelation, however, is Vega, whether Marina is enduring disrespect to which she's become almost inured; experiencing horrific violence that cruelly transforms her into the freak other people see; unleashing her inner banshee; or shedding silent tears after finally seizing the right to mourn for which she has fought so hard. It's a transfixing performance, restrained and moving, with a gut-wrenching impact in one hypnotic scene where Marina is forced to pass as a man. Vega even does her own singing, with impressive ability. No less than Paulina Garcia's astonishing work in Gloria, this is acting at its most fearless. The movie represents a huge leap in terms of trans narratives onscreen, but by any standard, it's a powerful drama of a woman whose suffering never dims her determination to keep moving forward.

Drama. Directed by Sebastian Lelio. Starring Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Amparo Noguera, Aline Kuppenheim, Luis Gnecco, Trinidad Gonzalez, Nestor Cantillana, Nicolas Saavedra, Alejandro Goic, Sergio Hernandez. MPAA rating: R. Running time: 1:40. Theatrical release: Nov. 17, 2017

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Recommended for Home Viewing: Walking Out

Walking Out is a tense survival thriller that offers much more than nail-biting adventure. Sure, it has plenty of edge-of-the seat suspense, but, as written and directed by Alex and Andrew Smith (The Slaughter Rule), it is just as noteworthy for its terrific, spare dialogue, stunning cinematography, stirring musical score and poignant narrative arc.

Based on a short story by David Quammen, it’s a tale of a father and son who must battle the elements in the Montana mountains, but it’s also a relatable rumination on the complexity of parent-child relationships and their continuing sway over us into adulthood. Cal (Matt Bomer) is 44, divorced and living alone in Montana. He invites his 14-year-old son David (Josh Wiggins, Max), who resides in Texas with his mom, for a winter hunting trip. Cal’s plan is for the pair to backpack into the mountainous wilderness and track and shoot a moose.

David seems more interested in playing video games on his phone than in exploring the great outdoors. But, while he doesn’t articulate it, it’s clear he also yearns to be closer to his dad. For his part, Cal wants to be known and understood by his estranged son. When Cal asks David if he’s sure he wants to go on this moose hunting expedition, David answers honestly that he isn’t sure, but he wants to. And so they take off into the unknown.

Cal had gone hunting with his late father Clyde (Bill Pullman) when he was David’s age. At first it seems as if Cal wants to recreate, and perhaps relive, happy memories. Later, we learn matters are far more complicated, but Cal, nonetheless, seems intent on bonding with his teenage son through nature and responsible hunting (killing only what they plan to eat). He gives David the rifle his dad gave him on his 14th birthday. Clearly, this has great significance to Cal; David accepts it more dutifully than happily. When his dad tells him about the moose he’s seen and their regal bearing, David asks "Why kill moose if they’re so royal?" Cal begins to tell his son about his own boyhood hunting excursions with his dad: "I was you once."

Wiggins is terrific as David, perfectly embodying a typically terse teenage boy with subtle authenticity. He communicates volumes with low-key facial expressions and awkward gestures. We feel we know this boy. Unfortunately, Cal is not as fully fleshed-out. While Bomer gives the role his all and is excellent playing against type, we don’t learn enough about his character to fully understand his motivations and state of mind. We get that his own relationship with his father was fraught, and that he mourns both his loss and that of his mother, who died when he was a teenager. But we don’t know much more about Cal as an adult. Why does he live off the grid? What does he do for a living? Does he have a partner? Friends? Why is he estranged from his son? What caused his break-up with David’s mother? Individually, these questions are not essential, but taken together they amount to missing backstory.

Even with those holes in character development, the story of Cal and David’s increasingly terrifying trek is absorbing and powerful. Their present dilemma is compelling enough to make us almost forget about contextual questions. It is a testament to Bomer and Wiggins’ impressive acting and their chemistry that we believe them as father and son, and are riveted by every turn in their journey. Their expedition begins awkwardly. Initially, their relationship is distant and strained: Cal seems hard on his son. Then, his loving side prevails. The pair begins to grow closer, but all too soon they face serious peril upon encountering a mother grizzly and a dead cub. A few unwise moves and an accidentally discharged rifle turns their adventure into a life-and-death struggle. David is faced with huge decisions that affect their very survival. Their saga unfolds dramatically, with some very tender moments interwoven.

While the three main characters are grandfather, father and son, a fourth character is the mountainous landscape outside Bozeman, Montana. Working from Montana-based author Quammen’s tale, writer-director brothers Alex and Andrew Smith were raised in Montana and clearly wanted to pay homage to their home state, capturing its dramatic beauty.

The score by Ernst Reijseger (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) is hauntingly evocative, perfectly pitched for the rugged landscape. Cinematographer Todd McMullen (The Leftovers) makes the entire journey a breathtaking one, and also fashions beautifully burnished flashback sequences of Clyde and the 14-year old Cal (Alex Neustaedter).

Lily Gladstone (who’s been winning awards for her supporting turn in Certain Women) has a small, but key, role as a local who meets the two at a critical moment in their excursion. She’s that rare actress who’s memorable in the smallest part, inhabiting the role convincingly.

But this compelling film belongs to Wiggins and Bomer, and to the astonishingly gorgeous backdrop of the Montana mountains. It’s a brutal, blood-drenched story, but also a captivating and poignant generational saga that will stay with the viewer long afterward.

Adventure, drama, mystery. Directed by Alex and Andrew Smith. Starring Matt Bomer, Josh Wiggins, Bill Pullman, Alex Neustaedter, Lily Gladstone. MPAA rating: PG-13. Running Time: 1:35. Theatrical release: Oct. 6, 2017

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Recommended for home viewing: Loving Vincent

Stand in front of a painting by Vincent van Gogh for more than five minutes (as I have on my many visits to the Musee d’Orsay in Paris), and your brain starts to react in strange ways. Even today, more than a century after the artist’s death, the brushstrokes pack an almost psychedelic energy, vibrating with an intensity that seems to have sprung directly from van Gogh’s tortured personal life. Now imagine staring at one of these paintings for 90 minutes straight — or crazier still, watching a series of them actually start to move.

Such was the vision Polish animator Dorota Kobiela had for Loving Vincent, a truly awe-inspiring portrait of the great Dutch artist that boasts the distinction of being "the world’s first fully painted feature film." That means every one of the nearly 65,000 frames in this near-lunatic labor of love was rendered by hand with oil paints, following a style intended to mimic that of the master — which has precisely the effect you might imagine, pulling audiences into the delirious, hyper-sensual world suggested by van Gogh’s oeuvre.

The artist himself has been dead a year when the story begins, so we aren’t seeing things through his eyes so much as in ersatz homage to his style, where bold colors and thick, energetic strokes of paint transform traditional live-action footage into living tableaux, rendered all the richer by Clint Mansell’s gorgeous score. It’s an impressive conceit, and one that allows us to float through van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone or pop in for a drink at the Café Terrace at Night — just two of nearly 130 actual paintings that Kobiela and co-writer/director Hugh Welchman weave into the relatively conventional detective story (of all things!) that frames this one-of-a-kind work of art.

Most people know that van Gogh cut off his own ear, but fewer recall — and no one knows for certain — the precise explanation for his death. In 1890, while staying in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, the tormented artist died of complications from a (likely self-inflicted) gunshot wound to the stomach. Van Gogh is reported to have taken credit for shooting himself, insisting, "Do not accuse anybody, it is I that wished to commit suicide," but there have always been doubts: Was he covering for someone else? Could the curious injury have been an accident? And if it truly had been a suicide attempt, what pushed him to such a desperate act?

Needless to say, Kobiela and Welchman won’t be the ones to solve this mystery, and yet, they enlist a handsome young man — Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), son of the postmaster with the wild-bramble beard (Chris O’Dowd), both of whom sat for several van Gogh portraits — to serve as a sort of amateur detective. Clad in the same bright yellow blazer forever immortalized on canvas, Armand becomes improbably infatuated with the case, setting out to answer the question, "How does a man go from being absolutely calm to suicidal in six weeks?"

Traveling from Arles (the French city where van Gogh’s madness nearly got the better of him) to Auvers-sur-Oise (where he died) to interview anyone who might have insight into the artist’s death, Armand has been tasked with delivering an envelope from the artist to his brother, Theo van Gogh, though the tragedy deepens when he learns that Theo also passed away. Although history immortalizes Vincent van Gogh as a kind of mad genius, the filmmakers literally try to craft a more nuanced and sensitive portrait of the artist, who often signed his letters, "Your loving Vincent" — from which the movie’s title derives.

But Loving Vincent could just as easily describe the state of runaway fanaticism it takes to inspire such a tribute, which demanded nearly seven years of painstaking work to pull off. The resulting portrait playfully reinterprets the idea of Impressionism, synthesizing the often contradictory angles from which his acquaintances saw the artist (or vice versa) into a kind of composite that ranges from the wild, fantastic colors used to capture paint supplier Pere Tanguy (John Sessions) to the delicate pastels he used to render the enigmatic young Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan), daughter of Doctor Gachet (Jerome Flynn), the man Armand is most desperate to interview. (Actor Bill Thomas plays another physician, the borderline-silly Dr. Mazery, who introduces biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s controversial theory that someone else shot van Gogh.)

Mere photography couldn’t possibly capture van Gogh’s paradoxical nature, and indeed, previous biopics have tended to pick one facet and stick to it. By contrast, this one embraces his complexity, withholding a clear view of Vincent (played by Robert Gulaczyk) until the very end — a tactic that reinforces the notion that we can only truly understand him through the work he left behind.

And yet, lovely as the animated-painting technique is to behold, the way they go about it introduces a peculiar problem: The filmmakers have cast real actors, many of them recognizable, to bring these characters to life, and because their approach involves a kind of rotoscoping (where the frames are painted over live-action footage — a variation on the way Richard Linklater tackled Waking Life, or Walt Disney modeled Snow White’s dancing), the style of painting it requires is philosophically the opposite of van Gogh’s.

Although this technique isn’t "cheating" per se, it shackles the crew of 120-odd oil painters to what the camera sees, functioning as a kind of high-end PhotoShop filter as the individual artists are tasked with applying a van Gogh-like impasto to the underlying reference footage. In so doing, the directors settle for superficial texture, while sacrificing the playfulness that van Gogh applied to framing, perspective and capturing the luminous, almost radioactive aura of his subjects. Even stranger are the flashback scenes, which are painted in shades of black and white, when another approach — such as loose, draft-like pencil sketches — might have been more intuitive.

With any luck, viewers won’t dwell overly on the particulars of how the effect was achieved, concentrating instead on the content of the story, which brings a poetic sense of tragedy to the last act of van Gogh’s life, and fresh insight into the kind of man he was. Loving Vincent may exist as a showcase for its technique, but it’s the sensitivity the film shows toward its subject that ultimately distinguishes this particular oeuvre from the countless bad copies that already litter the world’s flea markets. To the extent that van Gogh’s style permitted him to capture a deeper sense of truth, he makes a noble model for the filmmakers to follow.

Animation, biography, crime. Directed by Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman. Featuring the voices of Douglas Booth, Chris O’Dowd, Saoirse Ronan, Jerome Fkynn, John Sessions, Bill Thomas, Robert Gulaczyk. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Runnng Time: 1:34, Theatrical release date: Sept, 22, 2017.