THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE



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The most tension filled moments, the ones crammed with the most conflict, in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the sequel to, need we say it, but I guess, of course, we must, The Hunger Games pére, are not the violent back and forths in the reality TV series at the center of the story.  It’s actually watching accomplished and well respected actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer and Lenni Kravitz (even Josh Hutcherson) trying desperately to find a personality for their characters.  
The winner of these particular games?  Donald Sutherland, perhaps our most underrated actor today, an old pro who has been with us since his first role as a switchboard operator in a TV drama on the omnibus series Studio 4 in 1962 and has since graced us with strong performances in such movies as MASH, Klute, 1990, Fellini’s Casanova, Ordinary People (I could go on and on).  While all the others are frantically floundering (and very dispiritingly from an audience point of view, as far as I’m concerned) in the competition here, Sutherland inhabits the role of the despot President Snow with all the ease and casualness of putting on a morning coat and going outside for his daily constitutional.  You almost feel sorry for all the others; once Sutherland enters the scene, none of his opponents really stand a chance.
Of course, Jennifer Lawrence does come in for a strong second.  She’s as committed to the role as she was in the first in the series and she plays the role of Katniss Everdeen as if her life depended upon it as much as her character’s does in the games themselves.  And there’s something satisfying about seeing a representative of the older and the younger generations meeting on the field of battle, striving valiantly against each other.
But the pitiful plight of Hoffman, et al., may not be entirely their faults.  The screenplay by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt doesn’t really provide the actors much to work with and the direction by Francis Lawrence seems more devoted to making sure the freeways don’t get backed up and the traffic keeps moving.  Perhaps the real tragedy in this movie is not what happens to the inhabitants of Katniss’s District 12 (and it sure ain’t pretty, that’s for sure), but that writers like Beaufoy and Arndt, both of whom showed solid talent for penning above average middle-brow movies (The Fully Monty, 127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire, Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3), may now be stuck writing below average tent pole blockbusters like this.  Once the games are over, will they be able to return to their roots, or will the President Snows of the studios trap them forever?  Only a sequel will tell.
The movie as a whole works a little less well than the earlier one.  Again, it all feels more outline than fully realized drama.  And gone is the bloom on the rose; there’s not really enough new here to warrant much excitement and the story drags too much of the time.  One reason for this is that the screenplay makes the same mistake as the earlier one; everyone involved seems to think that it’s what happens in the games themselves, who kills whom in what grotesque and savage way, that is the most interesting part of the conflict when, in reality, it’s the manipulation behind the scenes, the way the people watching the show can control events, the ratings, the efforts of Harrelson’s Haymitch and other mentors to try to win support for their favorites and determine the outcome, etc., that is the real source of suspense.  But alas, almost all of this happens off screen.  
And the authors have been trapped so to speak by the character of Katniss and what they need to do with her.  President Snow, along with Plutarch, the designer of the games (the aforementioned floundering Hoffman), need to turn her into a lean, mean fighting machine, someone so merciless in killing, the viewers watching the show will turn against this bastion of the newly fermenting rebellion.  But the only way to do that is to keep Katniss out of the action, make her incapable of killing someone because there’s no one around her to kill.  So in order to give her something to do, they throw arbitrary, non-human antagonists at her (a poisonous gas here, a few baboons there, a tidal wave or two for good measure, etc.).  The forward momentum really stops here as everything is on the same level of tension and the plot just doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.  And all anyone in the audience is really interested in at this point is the outcome.
And not just the outcome.  Everyone is also waiting, and more so, for the big twist.  Or to be more accurate, to find out if they are right about the big twist, which is not that much of a surprise since the whole thing is given away when Plutarch gives Snow some advice that is so ludicrously bad and Snow, completely out of character, actually goes for it.  The screenplay tries to finesse this by having the advice, like all the other interesting stuff, given off screen.  But if one wanted the rebellion to grow, Snow did the one thing that would insure it (take two former winners of the games from each district, people who have been promised they will never have to enter the games again, two people who are heroes and icons of their districts, people who everyone looks up to and worships, and kill them in front of everybody—it’s genius, I tells you,  genius; what could possibly go wrong with this scenario). 
I’m not sure that The Hunger Games ever made a lot of sense in the first place (and one could argue whether it’s really important that it needs to).   Where it is strongest is in its metaphors, the modern day referencing of current problems, especially the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and our Greek and Romanesque obsession with reality shows.   And when it does introduce something new, the rebellion itself with people willing to sacrifice themselves and bravely stand up to authority by holding up their three fingers as a symbol of the mockingjay, the movie is at its most emotional, even causing a fleeting catch in the throat and a near tear to fall at times. 
And the technical aspects are impressive and often steal the whole mess of a movie.   The production design (Philip Messina), art direction (John Collins, Adam Davis, Robert Fechtman) and set direction (Larry Dias) is everything one could hope for and often says more than the screenplay and characters do about their situation.  But I’m not sure anything can beat the wonderful costumes of Trish Summerville, with men’s designs influenced by Edwardian England and the women’s by Lady Gaga. 
In the end, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is probably a bit too critic proof at the moment.  Telling kids not to like it is like telling kids to not get a tattoo or not like Twilight (shudder); it just ain’t gonna happen.  Whether I think the movie works or not, or whether I even think it’s any good or not, seems pretty irrelevant in the great scheme of things.  And if I was honest, even after all the sub-standard comic book sturm and drang on the screen, I still want to know what’s going to happen in the third and fourth installment as they go Harry Potter on the final entry and split the final confrontation into two movies.    

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB and ALL IS LOST



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Dallas Buyers Club, the new, inspired by true events movie about the AIDS crisis, has basically the same plot outline as Schindler’s List.  In Spielberg’s movie, Schindler, a gentile, takes advantage of an oppressed minority, Jews, and exploits them in order to make a lot of money; in the process he gains a conscious and starts doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.   In Dallas Buyers Club, virulently homophobic rodeo rider, hard living, electrician Ron Woodruff takes advantage of an oppressed minority, mainly homosexuals, and exploits them in order to make a lot of money; in the process he gains a conscious and starts doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. 
And I’ve only just begun.  In Schindler…, Ralph Feinnes plays a Nazi who runs a concentration camp that is responsible for the death of who knows how many Jews.  In Dallas…, his counterpart is played by Dennis O’Hare, a doctor who runs a hospital that joins forces with the pharmaceutical company (the Nazis in this piece) that is responsible for the death of who knows how many people with AIDS because of the way medication is dispensed (with money the ultimate arbiter).  Schindler’s right hand man is a Jewish accountant.  Woodroof’s is a drag queen.  And In Schindler…, the concentration camp commandant has a mistress, a Jewish woman caught between two worlds.  In Dallas, it’s a female doctor caught between two worlds.
Okay, I’ve had my fun.  I just couldn’t resist.  And in the end, I think it’s safe to say that Dallas… hardly rises to the level of Schindler…  But Dallas… does help shed light on a shameful moment in U.S. history where prejudice and homophobia, as well as pharmaceutical greed, determined how a plague was to be treated. 
The film itself, with a screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, and direction by Jean-Marie Vallee (who gave us both the wonderful and emotionally rich semi-autobiogrpahical dysfunctional family drama of C.R.A.Z.Y. and the surprisingly effective, epic dysfunctional family drama of Young Victoria), is not as impressive as one would like.  It’s a bit draggy (pardon the pun) in parts, with scenes of clunky, even embarrassing, dialog.  And the movie often seems to do little but cover the basics and get the story told.   Some of the characters, like the female doctor, played by Jennifer Garner, seem to have no reason to be in the movie at all and it shows in the performances (Garner has nothing to do and she proceeds not to do it; at one point, she claims to have been a friend to one of the main characters, but you have to take her word for it, because there’s little to indicate it in the screenplay here).   And Vallee doesn’t’ do much as the director except get the job done.
But it does have two factors in its favor and they are the performances of Matthew McConaughey as Woodroof and Jared Leto as Rayon, the drag queen. 
I have to be honest.  I have never been that impressed by McConaughey as an actor.  He is perfectly fine in what he does, but I have just never responded to his thespian abilities the way others have.  I’m perfectly willing to admit it’s me and we all have those actors who just don’t work for us the way we would like.  But what I have admired about McConaughey is his brilliance in picking pitch perfect parts for himself as well as his incredible work ethic.  He’s like Susan Hayward and Joan Crawford on steroids—I may not be a great actor, damn it, but I’ll work so hard at it you won’t be able to tell the difference. 
And Woodroof is perhaps the perfect McConaughey role, as perfect as Atticus Finch was for Gregory Peck.  It feels a part written expressly for the actor and he goes at it tooth and nail, including losing so much weight he looks as skinny as a Hollywood starlet desperate to be hired.  He may still be little more than good ol’ boy Matthew, but isn’t that exactly what you want for the role?
Jared Leto, on the other hand, is completely unrecognizable and seems to just relax into his role, completely disappearing into it as if he was to the too plungy neckline born (a joke that will only make sense if you see the movie, and yes, Rayon, it is too plungy).  His performance is made all the more poignant and deeply moving in the one scene where he doesn’t appear in drag, donning a business suit to seek help, as well as say goodbye, to his embarrassed father. 
The film also refuses to stint in informing the audience how the pharmaceutical companies used the epidemic in order to make money off their medications, manipulating and controlling the FDA, and coercing doctors through medical studies to use their drug (here AZT) and to ignore all others.  It’s an infuriating story that still needs to be screamed from the hospital tops.  (To be even more infuriated, if that is your want, see the movie Fire in the Blood http://howardcasner.blogspot.com/2013/09/fire-in-blood-and-informant.html). 
All in all, I can’t say that Dallas Buyers Club rises above what it is.  But as hit and miss as it may be, it is a real eye opener and delivers enough of the goods to make it worthwhile.
All is Lost, the new Robert Redford movie (I think there are some others involved here, but I’m not aware that anyone really cares that much about them), starts at the end.  Redford delivers a voice over informing the audience that it’s over, that he’s gotten himself into a situation he can’t get out of and he’s sorry, but that’s just the way it is.  The movie then goes back eight days to begin from the beginning.
So basically what we have here is a story in which all we do is wait an hour and a half to find out if a man lives or dies.  And how you respond to the movie will probably depend on how interested you will be in what Redford’s character has to do to survive.  For me, there’s not really much going on of great interest here.  The boat that Redford’s character is using to sail in the middle of nowhere gets hit by a lost cargo bin full of tennis shoes and from then on out, it’s him against the elements.  If you like that sort of thing, it’s just the sort of thing you’ll like, but I didn’t find anything that original and fascinating about it all (well, there is one exception—I thought it incredibly clever how he makes water—no, I don’t mean urinates, I mean, actually desalinizes sea water) and after awhile I was desperately hoping a tiger might show up, whether it was all in the character’s head or not.  
Redford has been praised for his performance here.  This puzzles me a bit.  For the most part, he’s just doing this and that to survive, showing no emotion or inner life at all.  In other words, it’s a role that actually requires an actor not to act, which is actually so far so good and would seem to be a part that would be just the thing for him.  But when Redford is actually required to display his art, to show emotion, to let the audience in on what is going on inside (like the moment he yells “fuck” in frustration at the universe), it was embarrassingly unconvincing and I cringed.  In fact, this may be one of his weakest and least interesting performances of his career. 
The screenplay and direction is by J.C. Chandor.  He does little with either role as far as I can tell.  He did much better with his previous film Margin Call, a chamber piece full of claustrophobic scenes filled with people trapped in offices.  Here, where the background is the wide open seas with endless horizons, he can’t seem to really bring anything new and/or exciting to what then really ends up being just another routine entry in the man trying to survive against nature genre.   And Chandor gets trapped by his ending.  If Redford’s character survives, it really is just another run of the mill genre piece.  If he doesn’t, then the movie has no reason for existence. 
One thing that did come to mind here is the recent (to me mind boggling) critical approach to film that says that the movie that is the most visual with the least dialog is better than that other kind.  But for me, this film is the proof that such a critical approach is no guarantee of a better film.  All is Lost is visual, all right. In fact, that’s about all it is.  One could even call it an exercise in minimalism.  However, in the end all it really seems to prove is that less is not necessarily more.

LA DOLCE VITA REDUX: The Great Beauty and Tom at the Farm


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Warning: SPOILERS

great beautyIn 1960, Federico Fellini gave us one of the greatest films of all time, La Dolce Vita, a savage look at society Italiana at the time, as well as a heartbreaking character study of a journalist who, by the end of the movie, is totally and spiritually lost (La Dolce Vita also gave us the word Paparazzi for those who like to play Trivial Pursuit).

 

It’s been more than fifty years since that seminal film found its way into cinematic history and today we have The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezze), from screenwriters Umberto Contarello and Paolo Sorrentino, who also directed.  This time, though, the movie is a much more vicious and savage look at Momma Roma’s inhabitants and the writer, a journalist, is totally and spiritually lost from the beginning of the film.

I think the comparison is very apt because The Great Beauty feels, in many ways, as if it were a sequel to that earlier film, that is, if the central character were still alive and only 65.  When I told a friend this, his first question was, but is it like the neo-realist Fellini or the Fellini after 8 ½? 

His reaction when I said it was of the later was not the most of positives, but people should be forewarned.  The Great Beauty is not like the Fellini of Rome: Open City (yes, I know, he didn’t direct it, but he was a writer on it, so there), La Strada and Nights of Cabiria.  This is the wild and deliriously dreamlike Fellini of Amarcord, Roma and Cassanova. Continue reading

CLOSED CURTAIN, CONGRATULATIONS! and VIC + FLO SAW A BEAR



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I saw three movies at AFI that all began the same way, and I don’t mean on the screen.  For each one, a programmer would introduce them and would wax rapturous to the audience about seeing the film for the first time at a festival, knowing, just knowing, in the first five minutes no less, that this movie was so unique and original, that the writer and director had a real vision, and that AFI just had to bring this movie to Los Angeles.  With that they would start texting the other programmers (which was probably a bit annoying to other audience members, as well as being a bit hypocritical since the programmers would always tell us to turn off our cell phones before the movie started, but anyway, I digress…) and tell them about their discovery.  As a result, a flurry would commence. 
And this made perfect sense since the opening scenes, even the first half, for all three films were quite wonderful.  And then the second half would begin.  And the movie would, let us say, not quite live up to earlier expectations (or in layman’s terms, would start falling apart, or in layman, layman’s turns, it would crash and burn).  And my first thought was, where were all the flurries of follow-up texting then, telling each and every one, oops, sorry, false alarm?  There were times I even wondered if the programmers had actually stayed for the whole film.
Closed Curtain is the new Iranian film from writer Jafar Panahi, who also co-directed it along with Kambuzia Partovi (in an unusual turn for movies, it has two directors, but one writer).  Both filmmakers are under house arrest in their home countries and both have been banned from making movies for the next twenty years.  As a result, Panahi has written and directed two movies based solely in the confined locations of his arrest (I think the phrase “oh, yeah, well…take that” is somewhat appropriate here).  In Iran, self-contained, three-unity films are not just an option, they are sometimes a creative necessity. 
The first film Panahi made this way is a documentary called This Is Not a Film about a director planning a project he is not sure he will ever be able to direct.  His follow up film is this one and the first half is quite intriguing and often riveting.  In a sort of quasi-sci-fi premise, a man (played by Partovi) comes to his second home by the sea smuggling his dog with him because dogs have been named impure by Shariah law and are being put to death.  To save his dog, he has to become a hermit and make sure that no one sees his beloved pet (he even has to throw out the droppings after dark, first checking that no one is around).  But then one night, two people, a brother and sister, suddenly appear, on the run when the police break up a party on the beach.  The brother leaves, but the sister stays.  And then suddenly, the man turns around and the sister has vanished.
This is a wonderful set up for a mind-fuck of a thriller.  It’s edge of seat, original, enthralling.  One has to know what is going to happen and how it will all come out.  Which is too bad since this is something you will never know.  For at this moment, this story line completely stops as Panahi breaks the third wall and enters the frame, but not as a character in the story, but as himself.  And the story now becomes about him relating to his friends and neighbors as well as…
Well, to be honest, I have no idea what the story is about at this point.  It completely lost me.  And it was so unfortunate, because the first half was a story well worth telling.  I have no idea why Panahi suddenly decided he just didn’t want to tell it anymore.  I’m sure he had his reasons, but it was all a mystery to me.  In the end, the second half became a confusing series of scenes that didn’t seem to have any real clear purpose or goal. 
The first half of the dark comedy Congratulations!, written and directed by Mike Brune, is absolutely hysterical.  I mean, it’s a real laugh riot, one of the funniest films I’ve seen all year. 
The basic premise is that a child goes missing; but he vanishes basically in front of his mother and guests who are attending a party at the child’s house.  The mother looks away for half a minute and then turns back and her son‘s no longer there.   Actually, that’s not the basic premise, that’s the set up for the basic premise.  The premise is that when the police arrive, they don’t act like a child vanishing in this manner is anything surprising.  They treat it as something that is devastating, but has happened before.  And to make things even more absurd, everyone acts their roles and says their lines as if they are in an episode of Dragnet, with John Curran, as the detective in charge, reciting his dialog in rich, flat tones that would make Joe Friday proud.
I’m not sure that really gives one an idea as to why the whole thing is so ridiculously funny.  But the absurdity of the situation combined with the seriousness with which it is treated is classic black humor.  At times, one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  And there are some remarkable scenes, such as the mother (Rhoda Griffis) spontaneously and desperately, even heart-breakingly, reenacting exactly what she did when she realized her child was missing, hoping against hope that might give her the clue to finding her little boy.
But in the end, the second half starts to flounder.  Brune hasn’t figured out a way to sustain what is essentially, in many ways, a one-joke premise that possibly could have been done in less than half the time and still be effective.   I mentioned Dragnet, and that probably is all the screenplay is: a satiric episode of that series that didn’t really have enough going for it to last much longer than a single installment would.
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear is writer and director Denis Cote’s character study of two women, lovers, both of whom are ex-cons and who begin living together at a remote farm where Vic’s father is suffering the debilitating effects of a stroke, so debilitating he can’t even get out of his wheelchair or speak or take care of himself.  The characters and the acting are rich, so rich, that one is drawn into their world and relationships and intrigued by what their future holds.
But the story has some serious structural flaws.  It begins as Vic’s story (Flo doesn’t show up for thirty minutes or so) and then it becomes Flo’s story as she goes off to pick up men at a local dive while a psychopath from her past shows up seeking some sort of revenge for some sort of motive that is never, ever revealed for some sort of reason (actually, both the pasts of Vic + Flo are a bit Harold Pinterishly unclear at times, which is actually one of the story’s strong points). 
Cote, though, never brings Vic and Flo’s storylines together in a satisfactory way (which is surprising since the set up seems to make it embarrassingly easy for one to do so if one had the druthers for it).  As a result, the story eventually feels as if it’s not really going anywhere.  The ending is a puzzle.  Both women find their legs encased in bear traps, but never try to get themselves out.  And then they become ghosts wandering around.  I guess it’s supposed to be symbolic or be deeply revelatory about the characters’ relationship, but hell if I know what it all meant.
And thus we have it.  Three films with definite potential that for some reason don’t quite get there and it’s a shame.  But after seeing all three movies and thinking over the introductions of the programmers, it sort of reminds me of a scene from the 1942 film Kings Row in which Ronald Reagan wakes up after an accident to find his legs have been amputated.  At first everything seems normal since his upper body is perfectly sound.  Then suddenly the truth washes over him and he starts screaming, “Where’s the rest of me”.   I did keep wondering where the rest of the movies here were.

GLORIA and STRANGER BY THE LAKE



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Gloria, a character study of a divorced women in her forties written by Sebastian Lelo and Gonzalo Massa, and directed by the latter, is the Chilean entry in the Foreign Language Film Category for the Oscars.  In full disclosure, I should mention right off that my friend and the audience loved this movie.  Actually, he found it “delightful”.  Me?  Eh, not so much.
How you feel about the movie will probably depend a lot upon how you feel about the character herself, and, yes, I must admit, I did rather like this Gloria.  She’s perky and takes risks.  She sings to the radio while driving in a way that’s a little embarrassing because, you know, you’ve done it, too, you know you have.  She wears these incredibly goofy, over size glasses that look kind of neat and retro and fun.  There’s something about her that’s quite ingratiating.  And Pauline Garcia plays her with a lot of warmth and empathy, smiling her toothsome smile, as she makes her days of well, I don’t know if quiet desperation is the term, but she does seem vaguely unsatisfied about something in her life, though the context is a bit wibbly, wobbly as far as I was concerned.
But then the movie stopped working for me.  She meets a man and starts a romance.  And on a date, something happens.  He gets a phone call.  And even before he answered the phone, I said to myself, “Okay, I got it, I know where this is going, I know every twist and turn that is going to happen here” and it became a film I felt I had seen a million times before.  No surprises.  No chances taken.  The same old, same old.   And it seems to take forever to get there.
Her date does some awful things to her, true, and I felt very bad for her (walks of shame are often only amusing when you tell the story in retrospect).  But the ending is one of those where you are asked to root for the character because she refuses to let tragedy, the continued awfulness of life, the inherent sadness of existential existence get her down.  No, by God, she’s going to say yes to life and she dances triumphantly to a song with her same name (you know the one). 
And the ending works.  For a moment.  I’m really caught up in it until I realize, “Wait, what tragedy, what awfulness of life, what inherent sadness of existential existence.  She had a couple of bad dates” (well, one was more than just bad, but still I stand by my basic point). And to be ruthlessly honest, as the credits rolled, I felt I had been had to a degree. 
Still, it’s a perfectly nice story and you could certainly do a lot worse.
A man calmly strips completely naked, cock and balls swaying in the sun, and walks around the woods looking to fuck or get fucked by another man while other naked men do the same thing.  One man jacks himself off, his hard cock shooting out cum, while another man kisses him.  Another man goes down on two other men, sucking their dicks at the same time.  Another man fucks one guy, then turns around and lets the other guy fuck him.  Two guys sixty nine each other, their mouths going down on each other’s hard, erect cocks.   Another guy lowers his shorts and plays with his cock, trying to get hard, masturbating himself, while watching two guys trying to fuck, until he is told by one of them to take off, while the other guy sees no harm in being watched.
If any of my phrasing disturbs you, if any of that sort of activity makes you uncomfortable, then you should definitely NOT go see the exciting and riveting French film Stranger By the Lake, a new thriller that takes place at a remote cruising area populated by gay men in the 1980’s (I think, the time period is a bit unclear, but I’m pretty sure that’s when it happens).   Please, save your time and money, and go see Mary Poppins or something.  Because Stranger… is one of the frankest, most realistic and uncensored views of gay male sex you are likely to see in movies for some time.  The writer and director Alain Guiradie has not hidden anything in the shadows or cleverly staged it all to make it more palatable.  He has put it all out full monty as they say, and without the use of fake genitalia as in Blue is the Warmest Color (though at one point, I do suspect a stuntcock was employed).  So beware and be warned.
Stranger… is a film that does something that I look for in films.  It takes you into a world that you may never have seen before.   But more importantly, it completely realizes that world.  It doesn’t try to hide anything or coddle you as an audience member.  It is as complete and honest a look, without apology or any attempt to defend it, as you will likely ever see.   It is told from the viewpoint of someone on the inside looking out and is as much this insider’s look at a culture with its own rules, language and mores as The Apostle is about Evangelical charismatics; Goodfellows is about the mob; and The Nun’s Story is about life in a convent.
And this means looking at men who don’t have the greatest of bodies, with stomachs sagging and faces brutally revealing their ages.  It means showing men desperately trying for a connection with sad and hopeless looks, knowing they are not what anybody really wants (or actually, they are not what the men who they want want—they wouldn’t have sex with people like themselves either if they could help it).  It shows people who are willing to make fools of themselves, knowing they are going to be turned down before they even approach someone.  It means showing sex in all its pornographic detail.
But it also shows the excitement of existing in that milieu, of being free to go naked, of making those incredibly thrilling connections, of fucking in the broad daylight with a complete stranger while everybody watches.  It’s a scene where sex is always and everywhere in the air.  And it’s not like sex anywhere else, it’s not Kansas, anymore, Toto.  It’s an incredibly erotic and passionate world while at the same time an equally depressing and frustrating one.   
But Stranger… is also a thriller.  It’s been compared to Hitchcock, but for me, I think the pacing is a little leisurely for that and I think a more apt comparison is the great French filmmaker Claude Chabrol, especially his film La Boucher, about a serial killer at loose in a small French town.   Stranger… is a film full of the wind making eerie sounds as it rushes through the waving trees; a film full of languorous afternoons by a lazy lake; a film filmed with setting suns and impenetrable darkness. 
It’s a film where you see shot after shot of the hero arriving and parking his car, a series of scenes that seems pointless at first, but actually says much: not only does it tell you the area is a place where the same people come to every day, so everyone almost always has the same parking place, it’s also a series of scenes that when something goes a little awry, you notice—a certain car never leaves and is always there, all through the nights, day after day, until one day, it’s suddenly not there anymore. 
The story revolves around Franck (solidly acted by Pierre Deladonchamps), a very good looking young man who starts coming to the lake more often than usual because he lost some hours at work and has nothing else to do.  He’s one of those attractive men who is democratic in the way he treats other people—he’ll see a much older, heavy set man, who is anything but handsome (in this case Henri, played by Patrick d’Assumcao, who for some reason made me think this is the actor you get if you can’t get Gerard Depardieu), and he’ll casually go and sit by him and talk, never ever passing judgment on the older man’s looks.  It will never occur to Franck that there is anything odd about this, though no one else at his level of attractiveness would do the same.  He’ll even become your friend and have dinner with you. 
Of course, he does it without realizing (though possibly he does very deep down) that he is causing a certain discomfort in Henri (who instantly thinks, what is this good looking young man sitting down and talking to me for, what does he want, is he teasing me, does he want money for sex, is he truly attracted to me).  So Franck is also a bit of a heartless cad as well.  And he’s a bit less democratic in sex.  He won’t have anything to do with the sagging bellied men who are old enough to be his father.  But he’ll let them watch without losing a hard on over it and if they play their cards right, he might let them give him a blow job. 
But one day he sees a stranger, Michel (played with a certain smoldering sexiness by Christophe Paou) and there is just something about this stranger that Franck can’t get over.  And they talk, but, for various issues, don’t have sex.  And then Franck sees this stranger do something horrific.  But Franck finds himself paralyzed about it all, not able to act.  This turn may be hard to accept, but I bought it, and I think I bought it because I don’t think even Franck fully understands why he acts the way he does.  So instead of going to the police, he begins a regular sexual encounter with Michel, and the passion is so incredible, it just confuses him more about what to do. 
And in the end, I found myself fully investing myself in this relationship, as hard as it may be to believe at first.   And this decision of Franck’s leads to subtly growing tensions and breathtaking scenes like Michel asking Franck to go for a swim when there is nobody, nobody, at the lake to see them.  At first Franck refuses, knowing what has happened before, but then he has to, he has to go out to Michel, he has to know whether Michel will do to him what he did to the other person.  And when he doesn’t, Franck is both thrilled and terrified.  And even more confused.
The story gets more suspenseful as a police inspector starts hovering around, always showing up at the wrong moment, to ask questions.  He’s like something out of a George Simenon novel and provides some comic relief along with philosophical observations about the cruising lifestyle while being the character that forces the climax (no pun intended) as he puts more and more pressure on all the characters to do something.   He’s played by Jerome Chapatte, and though he gets the job done, he may look and walk and act a bit too much like Jacques Tati than is ultimately good for the movie.
And the film ends on one of those existential, European notes of ambiguity.  I’m not sure I agree with the finale, though normally I love such resolutions because that is often the way life is.  But here it makes an earlier action of Michel and Henri pointless, which is a little unsatisfactory.  But at the same time, it also made the movie hard to forget.

12 YEARS A SLAVE and BASTARDS



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John Ridley and Steve McQueen (writer and director respectively, and no I’m not going to make any sort of joke about how great McQueen was riding motorcycles away from Nazis—that sort of thing is so beneath me) have achieved two things in their new film 12 Years a Slave: they have created one of the most beautiful films about slavery that has ever been made, while also creating one of the ugliest and most realistic movies about slavery that has ever been made.  I suppose one might say that they even achieved a third thing here: they managed to create a film in which these two seemingly opposing aesthetic approaches actually support and deepen each other.  Not an easy feat and the main achievement in this often hard to watch biopic of a free man who is abducted and sold into slavery. 
There is much to like here.  As was said, it’s both beautiful and horrible to look at.  And there is some amazing use of percussion and sound in the thrilling music score by Hans Zimmer.  The technical aspects of the film, the set design, the costumes, etc., are first rate.   In fact, if someone called this movie brilliant, I’m not sure I could really argue the point.  It’s quite an achievement and an experience not easily forgotten.
So why, at the end of the day, was I never quite emotionally involved in this story of Simon Northrop, the free man betrayed and bound into bondage?  Why did I find myself getting antsy at times (and not during the scenes of violence and degradation the slaves were put through—those were the last places where I got antsy)?  And why, oh, why (and I say this in fear of getting condemned to criticism hell forever), why do I prefer Django Unchained?
I think there are several reasons why 12 Years… didn’t quite work as well for me as it did for many, many others.   The first is that it didn’t seem to take movies about slavery anywhere that it hadn’t gone before.  Well, true, it’s the most realistic and grotesque depiction of that ignoble institution, and must be given credit for that.  But is that enough?  In the end, does the movie say anything more than, well, that slavery is bad, just as every other movie about slavery has also so said?  It may have proven its thesis more than others, but again, I’m not sure that that alone is quite enough.   It’s worthy, very worthy, for that, but is it any more than that?
The structure also felt a bit static as well.  There didn’t seem to be any real rises or falls to the story.  Instead, in many ways, it was just one horrifying scene after another, all pretty much on the same level of tension, with a plot that didn’t really seem to be heading in any clear direction.   Of course, Ridley and McQueen were trapped to some degree by the subject matter.  How do you depict twelve years of slavery that revolves around someone who has no choice but to be reactive rather than active and still keep the story going forward in an exciting and riveting manner when there is no real end game within the character’s control? 
It’s not easy.  Ronald Harwood and Roman Polanski had the same issue but were more successful in their movie The Pianist, also a movie about someone so trapped in a situation he could do little but react.  I think, though, that what made the difference there is two things: in the Pianist, we were constantly aware of what that character was doing to survive on a daily basis (whereas for Northrop, this didn’t seem as strongly dramatized; in fact, whenever he did do something to try to fix his situation, it often felt like it was more an afterthought thrown in by the writers rather than something integral to the structure of the story). 
The second is that The Pianist had a structure dictated by a time-line series of events: Poland before the invasion, the German enforcement of anti-Semitic laws, the Warsaw ghetto, the central character escaping before he could be taken to a camp, his hiding in Warsaw during the war, and then the war ending and his life in Russia.  But in 12 Years…, Ridley and McQueen couldn’t quite find the same sort of structure; Northrop is freed before the Civil War, and there wasn’t much difference in one year from the next, unlike in the Pianist (and when a difference, an interruption in the status quo, could be dramatized, like Northrop’s two years spent with a more “kindly” master, Ridley and McQueen leaped over it as it were insignificant).
I also felt there was something amiss in the characterizations.  To be ruthlessly honest, I found it rather odd that the white characters were the most complex and psychologically intriguing here.  The personas played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson (and even those played by actors like Bryan Bratt in much smaller roles) all seemed to have more depth than the slaves.  The main exception to this is perhaps Lupito Nyong’o as the mistress of Fassbender’s slave owner (who plays the part as if her life depended on it; it’s an often terrifying performance), but she has relatively little screen time.  In fact, what really surprised me is that in a movie about slavery, so much time was spent on the Strindbergian relationship of Fassbender and Paulson’s characters, a husband and wife who find no end of enjoyment in torturing each other.  
And there is that dialog.  As far as I can tell, it was well written.  That didn’t seem to be the issue.  For me (and here in full disclosure I must reveal that my friend who saw the movie with me disagreed most fervently on my assessment), none of the actors ever appeared comfortable with the archaic phrasings and rhythms (it never seemed to roll trippingly off their tongues), unlike, say, the actors in True Grit, who attacked their outdated patois with great gusto, as if to the wild west born, or the actors in Topsy-Turvy, who sounded as if they actually grew up in Victorian London.  Everybody recited their lines almost as if they needed at least another week of rehearsal for it to feel natural.  And that’s when I found myself getting antsy; when the torture and degradation stopped and I had to actually listen to these people talk to each other for extended periods of time.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Northrop with a great deal of empathy.  He is a fine actor and is getting all the praise he deserves for his skill here.  But in the end, I never quite became emotionally involved in it the way, I’m sure, Ridley and McQueen wanted me to be.  I am more than willing to accede that this is all on me.  But as much as I appreciated the experience, and it is an experience that should be experienced, it just didn’t quite come together for me.
Bastards is the new, kinda, sorta neo-noir written by Jean-Pol Fargeau and Claire Denis, who also directed (the two often collaborate on their screenplays).   I call it kinda, sorta, because it often feels like an early draft, a movie that hasn’t been fully thought out. 
It focuses on two people: Raphaelle, the mistress to LaPorte, a powerful businessman, and Marco, a freighter captain who leaves his post to move into a flat above Raphaelle in order to seek revenge against LaPorte, who he blames for all the problems his family has recently undergone (their daughter used as an SM victim, her vagina horribly injured; his brother committing suicide; and the family business going bankrupt).   There’s a ton of potential here and the opening horrifying scenes are appropriately puzzling and intriguing (why are those EMT workers crowded around this building; why is this young woman walking naked down the street in high heels; why is the wife blaming the police for the death of her husband who committed suicide).  What more could one ask from a neo-noir? 
But about half way through, it feels like the story stopped going anywhere that exciting.  And it’s this focus, or what might be more accurately called a lack of one, this splitting of the plot between the two people, that seems to be the chief problem.  The whole effectiveness of the story gets muddled because in having the narrative derive from two different viewpoints, the story becomes so split, there’s not enough time to fully develop either character, either through line, until the film seems to be flailing to come together in an exciting and emotionally involving manner.   The result is a climax that seems to come just as the story was really getting going, making the whole enterprise meaningless, which was then followed by a scene dramatizing the daughter’s SM experience shot, for some mind boggling reason, as if it were an MTV video.  If it all means something, or the finale was supposed to come together in a revelatory way, let’s just say it all escaped me.
The  movie stars hang-dog looking Vincent (La Mustache, Mademoiselle Chambon) Lindon as Marco and the handsome Chiara Mastroianni (daughter of you know how and you know who) as Raphaelle.  They are both excellent and have a nice chemistry together.  The whole movie has an effectively moody feel to it, emphasizing the noir of its genre.   It has a fantastic set up.  It has every ingredient a film of this type should have.  Except the correct recipe for putting it all together.