Scott Sheppard’s documentary An Act of Love (B) is the powerful account of United Methodist pastor Frank Schaefer who challenged convention by officiating his son’s same-sex marriage ceremony despite church doctrine. Sheppard delves deep into the heart of an American family and far into the bureaucracy – where strictures further complicate scriptures – that hinders societal advancement in an otherwise progressive institution. It’s a sensitive and sensible look at the clash between family and faith. Schaefer makes a compelling central subject in a story that continues to unfold in trials and conversations beyond the screen.
One of the most acclaimed Hungarian films in recent years tells the tale of a father endeavoring to bury his son, but there’s so much more to the story. László Nemes’s chilling you-are-there style Holocaust drama Son of Saul (A-) takes viewers deep into horror and chaos where a heroic dad’s singleminded mission to provide a proper burial for his offspring is complicated by his role as a Jewish prisoner inside a WWII Auschwitz Concentration Camp where he serves as part of the “Sonderkommando” unit that disposes of the dead. Told within stifling quarters over the course of less than two days in 1944, the story is focused on Saul’s leviathan task while he fends off SS-guards and smugglers in his midst as the burial and even overall escape becomes either elusive or imminent. Much falls on the shoulder of lead actor Géza Röhrig, and he is magnificent in a muscular role requiring few words. Nemes’ direction often relies on tight close-ups and sound effects that prompt viewers to fill in an even more terrifying complete picture. Told with the propulsion of near-constant motion, it is an extraordinarily effective glimpse into history. Due to some of the labyrinthine plot details that undergird the narrative, the emotional core occasionally gets short shrift. It is essential viewing in this historical sub-genre and a harrowing, insightful experience.
I saw David O. Russell’s Joy (D+) so you don’t have to. Loosely based on the life of a divorced mom who transforms herself into the entrepreneur of the Miracle Mop empire in the early days of television home shopping, this maudlin seriocomedy takes roughly 90 minutes before it gains a pulse. By the time the story stirs any momentum in a prolonged TV studio sequence, Russell has already failed to generate any consistent tone or believable characters. Bits of the inspirational loosely true story and some facets of Jennifer Lawrence’s occasionally compelling performance as the title heroine (Mother of Invention? Mopping-Jane?) are the only components that bring any life at all to the proceedings. The auteur’s usual repertory ensemble including Robert DeNiro and Bradley Cooper are painfully dull and inconsistent in their roles. The final reel unspools unceremoniously to the finish line but can’t compensate for the inert narrative that led us there. For a film about a magnate of retail, the writer/director fails to make the sale.
A Felliniesque fantasia on life, love and art, Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth (A-) is an answer to cinephile prayer. There will be many who dismiss this Swiss Alps resort set comedy-drama as pretentious drivel or avoid the film altogether for fear of glacial pace; but those seeking an appropriately contemplative requiem on the choices made in the sunset of life will treasure the movie’s nontraditional narrative structure, formalist art direction and unconventional approach to character development. Giving late career-best performances as an aging composer, filmmaker and actress, respectively, Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda (in a potent extended cameo) are a master class trio bearing wisdom and fortitude. They’re also really funny in their wry honesty. Rachel Weisz and Paul Dano are both strong as generational counterpoints. David Lang’s music, especially the work he created for Caine’s fictional composer, is sheer bliss. Sorrentino captures a grotesquerie of fascinating people against gorgeous backdrops in conversations that comprise a protracted art house aria. Like the film’s spas, green pastures and alpine wilderness, the film leaves room for characters to breathe and discover one another in harmony. Some may argue there’s very little plot, and they’d be pretty much right. But the film is impeccably perceptive in peeling back the layers of humanity and stripping its characters bare of the familiar. The wit and wordplay devised by an Italian writer/director is stunningly universal; and despite its older stars, this autumnal film beats with a youthful heart.
Related article: Fellow friend and critic Aaron West writes about Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning 2013 film The Great Beauty in this review on Criterion Blues.
Among many of the film’s great qualities is its exquisite music including this original work:
The 1950’s New York City of Todd Haynes’ Carol (B+) is gorgeous to behold. A stardust fantasy inked in pinks, draped in lavender and spiced with holiday peppermint sticks, it is also home to a burgeoning forbidden romance between an unhappy housewife played by Cate Blanchett and a timid shopkeeper played by Rooney Mara. Haynes films key sequences of this slow-burn drama via raindrop covered glass panes, through architectural lines that separate characters from one another and in front of mirrors that reflect tender love blossoming amidst the suffocating funhouse of a society in transition. The lead actresses are note-perfect in their commitment to characters and provide a fascinating portal into the sometimes too formalist unfolding of the proceedings. Haynes may be the ideal director for this austere work, skilled at keeping his heroines and the audience at safe distance from their surroundings and capturing the longing of outsider protagonists hoisted in space and time to alien earthly environments. If folks are left wanting a bit more, well, that’s sort of the point.
Here’s a clip to see the splendid art direction and these two master actresses in action:
The central gimmick of Lenny Abrahamson’s Room (B) – of mother and son imprisoned in a secluded shed for many years – peaks early; and after the inevitable escape attempt, there’s nowhere else to go as the plot plumbs the psychological aftermath. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay give breakthrough performances as a family forged in trauma, and the close bond they form is a highlight of the film. The heavy-handed symbolism of the early sequences that feel virtually in utero (is the room actually the womb?) versus a wider expanse of the great big world as its own mental prison never gather the intended gravitas. Still, much of the film is gripping, and the performances are fresh and affecting. Once the central duo is expanded to a more established stunt-casting ensemble including Joan Allen and William H. Macy, it just doesn’t get more compelling. The film simply continues to long for the confined spaces and finer acting of the mysterious opening moments.
There’s lots of big ideas to convey about the headlines plaguing us today in Spike Lee’s fever dream fable Chi-Raq (B). Although overstuffed with plot and prose, it’s a powerful entreaty to end the violence dominating inner-city America and in Chicago in particular. Lee’s unconventional narrative is a modern-day adaptation of Lysistrata, complete with rival gangs, rhyming lines, a charming narrator (Samuel L. Jackson) and a formidable heroine, played with fierce majesty and commitment by Teyonah Parris. Nick Cannon is cold and effective and near-unrecognizable as a lead gang member in a plot about women abstaining from sex as the ultimate way to get the men of their community to wake up and restore civility. Lee’s film suffers from an avalanche of gonzo notions, many of them quite brilliant and some of them self-indulgent detours that could have used some judicious editing. But ultimately it’s a shock to the system and a vivid reminder of the political power he has as a filmmaker. It’s vivid and sometimes makes you livid and is an important take on society today.
Brute force awakens as writer/director Ryan Coogler successfully reboots the Rocky franchise with the effective sports drama Creed (B+). Michael B. Jordan shines as the title character Adonis “Donny” Creed, working out issues of identity and legacy to fulfill the destiny of his late father Apollo. Salvaged from a declining series of film sequels and even a botched Broadway musical, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa gets his comeuppance as Donny’s trainer, and the veteran actor is exceedingly charming in the role. Together Donny and Rocky become an unexpected family, and their chemistry together is the heart of the film. Although it’s hard to overcome the retread factor of what has become one of history’s most formulaic film series, Coogler infuses the enterprise with a sense of discovery, camaraderie and high stakes. The result is the sleeper hit of the season and proof that the Fruitvale Station director and his muse are a team to watch.
Bill Pohlad’s Love and Mercy (B) is the unconventional telling of the life of musical wunderkind Brian Wilson, the producer mastermind behind The Beach Boys and one of the most acclaimed albums in history, Pet Sounds. Akin to Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not Here, which famously showcased a parade of performers playing the musician, this Wilson narrative casts its subject in two parts, representing a personality in fissure – Paul Dano as the crazed savant in his creative experimental peak in the ’60s and John Cusack as a man medicated into oblivion searching for redemption in the ’80s. The Dano sequences of Brian-Past are by far the strongest as the phenomenal actor displays the spark of creation, the cusp of genius and the brink of madness. He is vulnerable to his own demons and the fear of an abusive father and stunningly alive as a genius savant. Cusack doesn’t stand a chance in the weaker parallel plotline. The film is at its best putting music front and center and posits that the musician summons songs and sounds as a way to cope with and corral the voices in his head. For Wilson, the studio itself becomes a critical instrument that helps heal his soul. Paul Giamatti is effective as a stern therapist and Elizabeth Banks a delight as the love interest of Brian-Present. Flashbacks and fancy film stocks help buoy the character’s misunderstood vibrations. Music lovers will revel in the film’s unusual portal to finding rhythm, and admirers of good acting will enjoy the yin and yang harmony of the Dano/Cusack portrayal. A bit like A Beautiful Mind put to melody at the pace of West Coast cool, this biopic is definitely worth a spin.
There’s one great line in Jason Moore’s Amy Poehler-Tina Fey comedy Sisters (C) when a character remarks that she could use a little less Forever 21 and a bit more Suddenly 42. There’s likely a film buried deep within this one that addresses the angst of aging when you really don’t want to grow up, but Moore’s movie rarely scratches the surface below the bawdy laughs. Party girl Fey and straight-laced Poehler switch roles as they throw a party in their about-to-be-sold childhood home; and through the highjinks of the bash as Fey is designated “party mom” and Poehler gets to let her freak flag fly, they learn more about each other. The funny ladies have winning chemistry and lots of sassy lines especially at the expense of frenemy Maya Rudolph; but the film’s signature party is a rather one-note and overlong cavalcade, and it’s just not consistently funny enough to cover any new ground. Still, these snappy siblings have their moments.
Best known for directing Will Ferrell larks, director Adam McKay sets his eyes on a work of gravitas by tackling the American housing market collapse through the eyes of a few investing misfits who saw it all coming in the wry dramedy The Big Short (B). Treading familiar territory of big data chic honed to more entertaining effect by the same author’s Moneyball, this film suffers from a paucity of likable protagonists. That’s likely intentional but unfortunately undercuts the film’s sharpness. Steve Carrell, Christian Bale and Ryan Gosling are standouts as guys who hope to strike it rich by betting against America and its institutions. The ultimate story is an important one to tell, and McKay sprinkles in some meta flourishes to ensure viewers can keep up. A civics lesson wrapped in the arch of a paranoid thriller, it’s close encounters of the earned kind. It’s a lot of exposition for the plaintive payoff.