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chlotrudis 20


The 20th Annual Chlotrudis Awards were a blast, jam-packed with musical numbers (as usual), wonderful acceptance speeches from Dale Dickey, Beth Grant and Rebecca Jenkins and a droll presentation of our favorite Canadian films from Thom Fitzgerald. Every year, the ceremony reminds me why I value independent film. When I moved to Boston in the late ’90s, I never imagined that I’d find a group of people who felt as passionate about quirky little movies as I did.

The complete list of this year’s winners is here (7 of my 13 votes won their categories).

My Ballot: 20th Annual Chlotrudis Awards

Dale Dickey and Beth Grant in Blues for Willadean

Dale Dickey and Beth Grant in Blues for Willadean


The film group with the weird name that I belong to celebrates its 20th annual awards ceremony this Sunday at the Brattle Theatre at 4:00 PM (Canadian actress/musician Rebecca Jenkins and the awesome Dale Dickey will be attending, along with returning past honorees Beth Grant and Thom Fitzgerald). Below, my awards ballot, with my votes in bold print. Although I didn’t manage to see close to everything nominated this year, I made sure I caught at least three in each category (apart from the Buried Treasure, where viewing all five is required).


As I Lay Dying
Much Ado About Nothing
Short Term 12
The Way Way Back

With the exception of Mud, I could have voted for any of these; I primarily chose James Franco’s Faulkner adaptation because more people should have had the opportunity to see it, but I’ll also vote for any ensemble that includes Franco, Beth Grant, Jim Parrack and Tim Blake Nelson, among others.

Should have been nominated: I’m So Excited!, another typically fabulous Almodovar ensemble where everyone receives at least one moment to shine.


Berberian Sound Studio
Mother of George

A tough decision: as much as I loved Berberian Sound Studio’s all-encompassing audio/visual assault and appreciated Mother of George’s painstakingly gorgeous colors and costumes, No really impressed by daring to deliberately look ugly in service of its time period and its deft, seamless incorporation of source material.

Should have been nominated: Computer Chess, for stubbornly recreating a bygone world even less attractive or beloved than the one seen in No.


The Great Beauty
The Grandmaster
Mother of George
Upstream Color

I could not deny Mother of George’s overall visual splendor–it’s the one film I regret not seeing in a theater this year.

Should have been nominated: Reality, if only for that gorgeous, extended opening tracking shot.


As I Lay Dying
John Dies At The End
Prince Avalanche
The Spectacular Now

I predict that not long after Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley eventually get their first Oscar nominations for future performances, The Spectacular Now will find its cult and resonate as its era’s definitive teen drama. Only Frances Ha arguably had a more satisfying ending this year.

Should have been nominated: C.O.G., for successfully transferring a memoirist’s voice from page to screen without resorting to any first-person narration.


Enough Said
Frances Ha
The Hunt
The Past
Short Term 12

And, as much as I loved Frances Ha, The Past surpasses it in narrative construction–despite the two hour+ running time, not a moment feels superfluous or wasted.

Should have been nominated: Sightseers, the year’s most original and absurd horror-comedy (not to mention also the funniest).


Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club
Ernst Umhauer – In the House
Matthew McConaughey – Mud
Tahar Rahim – The Past
Richmond Arquette– This Is Martin Bonner
Sam Rockwell – The Way Way Back

All strong candidates (apart from McConaughey–he was so much more effective in Dallas Buyers Club and even The Wolf of Wall Street). Still, for me, the long underrated Rockwell added an essential zing to a pleasantly average movie, and would’ve received an Oscar nomination had the film received more support in that arena.

Should have been nominated: Denis O’Hare for C.O.G., stealing the movie away from Jonathan Groff whenever he’s onscreen.


Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine
Janet McTeer – Hannah Arendt
June Squibb – Nebraska
Molly Parker – The Playroom
Allison Janney – The Way Way Back

I probably would have still liked Nebraska if Squibb wasn’t in it, but her acerbic presence went a long way in making this my favorite Alexander Payne film since Election (and just imagine an even mightier version of Election with Squibb as Tracey Flick’s grandmother!)

Should have been nominated: Mickey Sumner for Frances Ha–nearly as vital to the film’s success as anything else and suitably fulfilling the role a young Scarlett Johansson played in Ghost World.


Toby Jones – Berberian Sound Studio
Mads Mikkelsen – The Hunt
Daniel Radcliffe – Kill Your Darlings
Gael Garcia Bernal – No
Miles Teller – The Spectacular Now
Paul Eenhoorn– This Is Martin Bonner

Everyone on this list deserves to be here (I only haven’t seen Kill Your Darlings), but Mikkelsen is the immediate standout for me–a thoroughly complex performance nearly as good as Michael Shannon’s in Take Shelter from a few years back.

Should have been nominated: Oscar Isaac for Inside Llewyn Davis–also snubbed by the Oscars, the film obviously would not have worked without his performance.


Greta Gerwig – Frances Ha
Barbara Sukowa – Hannah Arendt
Danai Gurira – Mother of George
Brie Larson – Short Term 12
Shailene Woodley – The Spectacular Now
Rachel Mwanza – The War Witch

A close call between Gerwig and Larson. While you’d expect career-best work from the former, the latter genuinely surprised me; she’s come an impressively long way since the first season of United States of Tara.

Should have been nominated: Suzanne Clement for Laurence Anyways–for that diner scene alone, she deserved to be on more people’s radars.


20 Feet From Stardom
56 Up
The Act of Killing
The Punk Singer
Stories We Tell

I could just have easily voted for Stories We Tell, but decided to spread the love (see below); besides, I placed The Act of Killing one spot ahead of it on my year-end top ten.

Should have been nominated: All my favorite docs made the list this year (I only didn’t see The Punk Singer); I also nominated Plimpton, The Square and The Jeffrey Dahmer Files.


Noah Baumbach – Frances Ha
Thomas Vinterberg – The Hunt
Ulrich Seidl – Paradise: Faith
Asghar Farhadi – The Past
Sarah Polley – Stories We Tell

All worthy nominees, but Polley’s accomplishment as a director here is the most revelatory and unique–I can’t wait to see what she makes next.

Should have been nominated: Again, this is a solid list of nominees.


The Act of Killing
Frances Ha
The Hunt
Paradise: Faith
The Past
Short Term 12

The only one I hadn’t seen at nominating time was Paradise: Faith, which I finally watched last week–it belongs here as much as the rest, but Frances Ha remains my favorite film of the year.

Should have been nominated: Before Midnight, which doesn’t really need the organization’s help, although I would’ve liked for it to have received at least one nomination.


The Broken Circle Breakdown
Laurence Anyways
The Painting

I debated long and hard between Laurence Anyways and Concussion; the former might be Xavier Dolan’s best film yet, and I would watch all 168 minutes of it again in a heartbeat (if I had 168 minutes to spare). However, I went with the latter because it really epitomizes what this award is all about–had it not been “buried”, Stacie Passon’s wonderful debut feature might’ve dominated online indie and queer film discussion and zeitgeist the way Weekend did two years ago.

Should have been nominated: I didn’t see many worthy candidates before nominating (apart from Laurence Anyways); if it were up to me, I would’ve swapped out The Painting for Sightseers.

Movie Journal # 5: 2013 Stragglers




Wrapping up 2013 with a slate of films I watched over the past month, many of them Chlotrudis Award Buried Treasure nominees…

Stacie Passon’s film might have found a wider audience a decade ago; in 2013, VOD and limited theatrical distribution dictated by weekend grosses all but insured it would end up overlooked, and that’s too bad because it’s one of the past year’s best, most incisive directorial debuts. Primarily a great showcase for Robin Weigert, who up until now has played mostly supporting roles, it also takes a potentially lurid premise (bored lesbian housewife’s secret career as a prostitute) and explores it thoughtfully, considering all the consequences but also the benefits of an extremely specific type of mid-life crisis. Passon also offers perceptive views of both contemporary suburbia and homosexual domesticity without trivializing or sensationalizing either. A solid screenplay (from a comically abrupt, action-packed opening to a meditative, resolute final scene) and a strong supporting cast (especially Maggie Siff as an attractive neighborhood mom and Johnathan Tchaikovsky as a co-worker/confidant/enabler) only further strengthens the film’s case as a true buried treasure. Grade: A

A bizarre mixture of Miranda July (ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW) and Roy Andersson (SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR) is the best I can come up with in describing Quentin Dupieux’s uncompromisingly weird (but often delightfully so) second feature. It’s clever to a fault, each scene unlike anything preceding it and most of them teeming with easter eggs that reflect and enforce the film’s title, ranging from obvious (an office interior where it’s perpetually raining) to unexpected (the digital alarm clock where 7:59 doesn’t necessarily become 8:00) and cannily subtle (too many things to mention). On the whole, it’s a little uneven and I can’t say I always found this relentless barrage of eccentricity endearing. Thankfully, as Dolph, the central, hapless figure looking for his lost dog, Jack Plotnick makes for a model audience surrogate and William Fichtner exudes understated, mischievous glee as Dolph’s foil, the enigmatic Master Chang. A vast advance over Dupieux’s previous film RUBBER, this is a cultish piece of work for sure, but not necessarily an alienating one. A-

Reteaming with VISION director Margarethe von Trotta, Barbara Sukowa gives an immense yet intricate performance as German-Jewish philosopher/theorist Hannah Arendt. Focusing on her controversial series of articles for The New Yorker regarding the trial of ex-Nazi Adolf Eichmann in 1961, the film both examines Arendt’s reasoning behind her theory of “The Banality of Evil” and the widespread negative public reaction to the article, with many accusing her of defending Eichmann’s actions. This incident, along with flashbacks to Arendt’s younger self and her involvement with former mentor Martin Heidegger is how the film defines her, although her close relationships with husband Heinrich Blücher (Klaus Pohl) and colleague Mary McCarthy (a deliciously tart Janet McTeer) considerably flesh out the context von Trotta places her within. Still, without Sukowa quietly commanding every scene, the film would be merely competent—thanks to her presence, we come to see Hannah as a prickly, complex yet still quite sympathetic heroine. B+


At her wedding, Adenike (Danai Gurira), a Nigerian recently transplanted to Brooklyn is asked by her mother-in-law to bear a child named George. In her culture, this is not a request, but a command, her duty. After a year, it’s apparent that she and her chef husband, Ayodele (Isaach de Bankole) cannot conceive. With Ayodele refusing to see a doctor, Adenike must resort to unconventional, controversial measures to bear a child. There’s not much more to Andrew Dosunmu’s film where plot is concerned, but that’s not the point; from the outset, his tableau is more poetry than prose, a ravishing sensory experience of colors, lighting, music, sounds, costumes and rituals, all so vivid you can practically taste, touch and smell them in addition to what you actually hear and see. Rather than obscuring any narrative content, these stylistic elements complement it, transforming a standard tale of infidelity and societal expectations into something almost otherworldly. Perhaps just a little more content could have turned this into a great film, but as is, it’s a good one—substantial, enlightening and unforgettable. B+

You don’t see many films where bluegrass music plays a significant role in the narrative and the overall aesthetic, and I doubt you’ve seen any before that are set in Belgium. But this melodrama about a couple coming together and falling apart also throws a terminally ill child into the mix, along with issues of faith, fidelity, bereavement, alcoholism and the art of getting a tattoo. Even for something with a running time of just under two hours, it feels incredibly overstuffed, often coming apart at the seams with clumsy scenes of extensive ranting and overly arty moments that scan as a bit too show-off-y. Fortunately, the story compels, the camerawork’s often beautiful, the music’s great and the two leads are very good—they wholly express why these two characters would fall in and out of love, which you don’t always see evidence of in a love story. Although full of jagged edges, some of which could’ve benefited from some refinement, it’d be a far less distinctive film without them.  B

For an animated feature, this has an stimulating premise: a sustained peek into the inhabitants of an unfinished painting and how a few of them venture outside the frame to seek their creator in hopes of getting him to finish the work. As visually stunning as one could hope, THE PAINTING unfolds onscreen like a dream, referencing a host of French artists with both reverence and playfulness; unfortunately, I didn’t find the actual story to be so sublime. Dividing the inhabitants into three classes (“Sketchies”, “Halfsies” and “Alldunns”—the original French terms probably sound less hackneyed) propels the narrative and creates necessary conflict, but it’s far too heavy-handed and simplistic, casting a pall over the film’s more effervescent pleasures, like the soothing, rejuvenating nap a character takes within a flower, or the inventiveness of one painting’s inhabitants crossing over to a separate artwork. Overall, it’s like a book with a pretty cover, intermittently marred by lesser content on the inside. B-

Also Seen:

Going back to a few titles I watched right before Chlotrudis nominating time in January: I dismissed Joe Swanberg (perhaps the Tyler Perry of mumblecore) after seeing LOL in 2006; Drinking Buddies aroused my curiosity with his first-time use of well-known actors outside that community. Despite good work from Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson, I needn’t had bothered as Swanberg’s worldview feels as insular and dramatically ineffectual as ever (C)… Berberian Sound Studio is half-bonkers, the type of experiment where you’re not certain if the lead (in this case, a well-cast Toby Jones) is losing his mind or if you are; terrifically lurid and dark production design, though (B)… The Square would be a boilerplate documentary about a historical political event (in this case, the recent Egyptian Revolution) as seen through a select few participants if not for the immediacy given to it by shape and mere access. (B+)

Additionally, if I had seen August: Osage County on stage I’d probably loathe the film version; since I haven’t, I kind of liked it, flaws and all (massive scenery chewing, some obviously sentimental embellishments), although I couldn’t help picturing how much more fun a Charles Busch camp take would’ve been. (B-)… I got much more out of Paris is Burning than on my first viewing 15+ years ago; now an invaluable time capsule (despite less focus on AIDS than you’d expect for the era), it reads like a ground zero primer for drag culture, making it accessible to outsiders without at all normalizing it. (A-)… Finally got around to re-watching My Favorite Year. Obviously Peter O’Toole’s show and the legend at his most affable, but the supporting cast (did Mark Linn-Baker waste a potential film career by starring in Perfect Strangers?) adds a lot. It would make a good double feature with Tootsie—who knew 1982 was such a grand time for lighter-than-air but nourishing, intelligent comedies (see also Victor/Victoria)? (A)

Selfies For All!*



As Oscar predictions go, this was my best year yet–I correctly guessed 20 out of 24, only failing on two of the shorts categories (thanks a lot,, Best Documentary (though what won was no surprise) and Best Picture (ditto). Unfortunately, such predictably and lack of at least one single major upset made for a dull, dull ceremony, despite Ellen’s selfies (quite amusing, actually) and pizza-ordering stunt (padding which had nothing on Andy Kaufman’s infamous treating-the-audience-to-milk-and-cookies stunt, ingenuous when he did it 35 years ago). And don’t even mention the many montages–they’ve already taken up too much time I’ll never get back (time I would’ve preferred to see Angela Lansbury and Steve Martin receiving their honorary Oscars in person).

On the brighter side, the acceptance speeches generally rocked, especially the ladies (Blanchett and Nyong’o), although the best came from Best Original Song winners Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez–snappy and well-rehearsed yet sincere and affecting. Regarding presenters, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emma Watson were effortlessly charming, while Kim Novak and Harrison Ford made us laugh (albeit unintentionally). As for John “Adele Razim” Travolta, Zach Efron and other line flubbers, perhaps someone out there will string together a montage half as entertaining as this. Pink gave the night’s best musical performance (better her than Lea Michele doing that song, amirite?), with Darlene Love’s acceptance speech a close second (despite her slightly off final note). Very happy for the Best Original Screenplay win for HER, wish NEBRASKA hadn’t been shut out, but I really can’t complain–for once, none of the winners were abominations. The complete list of them is here.

*unless you’re Liza Minnelli.

Not Defying GRAVITY: Oscar Predictions




Although I still watch the telecast to its bitter end every year, the Oscars no longer thrill me in the way they did a decade ago.  Gone are the years when I’d volunteer at the Brattle’s annual ceremony-watching bash or post bitchy reactions to the nominations hours after they were announced. Perhaps Crash winning Best Picture eight years ago lowered by expectations somewhat.

Nonetheless, the Academy Awards is still the Super Bowl for film geeks and I’ll likely be tweeting pithy comments throughout the show this year (@ckriofske); below are my predictions. At the very least, this year’s Best Picture race is no sure thing. Either 12 Years a Slave or Gravity will win, and I’m going with the latter simply because it will also sweep most of the tech categories and the former’s too difficult a watch for many viewers (I’m betting American Hustle will get shut out entirely). Also, the predictability of this guessing game (enhanced by all of the internet weighing in, myself included) moves me to be a little unpredictable in at least one major category. Despite working at a theatre screening them, I haven’t seen any of the shorts, so I’ve referenced the experts at for ideas as to what will likely win in those categories…

Best Picture: Gravity

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

Best Animated Feature: Frozen

Best Cinematography: Gravity

Best Costume Design: The Great Gatsby

Best Directing: Gravity

Best Documentary Feature: The Act of Killing

Best Documentary Short: The Lady In Number 6: Music Saved My Life

Best Film Editing: Gravity

Best Foreign Language Film: The Great Beauty

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Dallas Buyers Club

Best Original Score: Gravity

Best Original Song: “Let It Go”, Frozen

Best Production Design: The Great Gatsby

Best Animated Short Film: Get a Horse!

Best Live Action Short Film: The Voorman Problem

Best Sound Editing: Gravity

Best Sound Mixing: Gravity

Best Visual Effects: Gravity

Best Adapted Screenplay: 12 Years a Slave

Best Original Screenplay: Her

25 Great Moments in 2013 Films

American Hustle

American Hustle


Continuing a tradition I started last year, I present 25 memorable/impressive/thrilling scenes and moments from 25 films that came out in 2013, in alphabetical order by film title:

1. The brief, illuminating meeting between Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) and Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard) in 12 Years A Slave.

2. Merry Clayton remembers recording her background vocals on The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” in 20 Feet From Stardom.

3. Anwar Congo’s gut reaction at the scene of his “crimes” at the end of The Act of Killing.

4. Irving (Christian Bale) shows us how he fixes his hair (including toupee and epic combover) at the start of American Hustle.

5. The epic hotel room argument between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) in Before Midnight.

6. Curly (Corey Stoll) brings David (Jonathan Groff) home to his trailer to meet his mother and his
“collection” in C.O.G.

7. Various feline infiltration at the hotel throughout Computer Chess.

8. The concluding, bittersweet porch stoop conversation between Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Albert (James Gandolfini) in Enough Said.

9. Frances (Greta Gerwig) runs down Broadway in lower Manhattan to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” in Frances Ha.

10. The first interior shot in Gravity where Ryan (Sandra Bullock) takes off her space suit.

11. “The Moon Song” montage in Her.

12. Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) attends and disrupts the Christmas church services in The Hunt.

13. The flight attendants’ lip-synch performance of the song that gives I’m So Excited! its title.

14. Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) performs for Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) and then hears Grossman’s brutally honest reaction in Inside Llewyn Davis.

15. Fred (Suzanne Clement) makes a grand, floating entrance at a party to Visage’s “Fade to Grey” in Laurence Anyways.

16. The song Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) sings to herself near the end of Museum Hours.

17. Kate (June Squibb) both eloquently and vulgarly tells off her extended relatives at a family reunion in Nebraska.

18. Marie’s (Berenice Bejo) reaction to her daughter Lucie’s (Pauline Burlet) secret and her subsequent treatment of Lucie in The Past.

19. The chase/confrontation between Avery (Bradley Cooper) and Luke (Ryan Gosling) in The Place Beyond The Pines.

20. When Alvin (Paul Rudd) meets the unnamed lady (Joyce Payne) at the former site of her home in Prince Avalanche.

21. The lengthy, opening overhead tracking shot that eventually leads us to the wedding ceremony in Reality.

22. The big reveal of what Marcus (Keith Stanfield) asked his fellow residents to make for Grace (Brie Larson) in Short Term 12.

23. Tina (Alice Lowe) writes a letter to Chris (Steve Oram) using her unwieldy souvenir from the Pencil Museum in Sightseers.

24. The final scene (and in particular, its note-perfect ending) in The Spectacular Now.

25. The series of silent cuts between members of the Polley family as they all mournfully pause to consider/remember their deceased matriarch Diane in Stories We Tell.

The Best Films of 2013

This year, I upheld my goal of writing about every new film I saw (with the exception of a recent handful – those will have to wait until next month). Instead of my usual mini-reviews of each title in my top ten, some decidedly more abstract thoughts (click on the titles for links to my original reviews).

Frances Ha Greta Gerwig

I initially called this Noah Baumbach’s best film since THE SQUID AND THE WHALE; after some time and a second viewing, I’ll call it my favorite film in years. Although a singular heroine, Frances/Greta Gerwig embodies someone whom we can relate to, or at least someone I once was, at an age when I was equally exhilarated and terrified, trying to figure it all out.


Proves that truth always carries the potential to trump fiction in all-out absurdity.


Proves that the difference between what we remember and what actually happened is always in flux.

Film still from The Past by Asghar Farhadi

We emphatically try to move on in presence and spirit, but our memories remain and often dictate how we go on living.


However, as time passes, we can’t help but change; what once was a reason for living we now all too easily take for granted.


As we age, we want to believe in the impossible and the absurd, if only for the good it may bring to those we care about most.


We soldier on even if we don’t seem to get anywhere, for the journey carries far more weight than the destination.


8. HER
The possibility of love is never out of reach, no matter the immense difficulty in finding it on occasion.


We seek adventure, but in moderation: too much of it could literally kill you, but a complete lack thereof could be detrimental in other ways.

Laurence Anyways xabier dolan

We strive to change (or accept change in others) but always remember to seek beauty and wisdom. Also fabulousness.


(a.k.a. great movies I could not fit into the top ten)



56 UP

Movie Journal # 4: HER and Other Diversions


HER arrives at an age when computers play an increasingly prevalent role in our lives. Compared to even a decade ago, items like smartphones have transformed how large segments of our society appear and behave; this film looks further ahead to an unspecified but none-too-distant future where an OS (operating system) is more a companion than just a mere tool–it has an interactive personality, as if Siri or a GPS voice had a mind of its own.

While not an entirely new premise (see ELECTRIC DREAMS or hell, even DEMON SEED), it nonetheless feels new here. Writer/director Spike Jonze opens up this notion by using it as a catalyst to examine how and why personal relationships work or fail. His protagonist, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), has a job as a letter writer, living vicariously through the words he composes for other people, trying to fill a void in his own life left by a failed marriage. Soon, his computer’s new interactive OS, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) more swiftly and effectively fills that void.

Although Samantha’s not a human, she’s real enough for Theodore—the brilliance and beauty of HER is in how affecting and, well, convincing their relationship becomes. Rather than aiming for satire, Jonze is completely sincere in depicting how and why any two personalities can bond and fall in love (the film’s numerous montages centered on this process, such as when Theodore carries Samantha along with him to the beach are highlights). Fortunately, Jonze is also shrewd enough to know how inherently absurd and problematic it is for a man to fall in love with his computer; his resolution of this comes in an unexpected manner, poetic and mysterious but also a bit calculated, grasping for an explicable conclusion to a set-up that does not easily lend itself to one.

And yet, HER concludes in a good place as Theodore takes away something vital and enriching from the whole experience. This is Phoenix’s most surprising performance to date: his Theodore is soft-spoken and a little reticent (the owlish glasses and bushy moustache serve as shields) yet he’s altogether emphatic, yearning with desire to love and be loved. Amy Adams is also terrific as his platonic best friend with relationship issues of her own. Although an unknown actress might have proven less distracting voicing Samantha, Johansson exudes enough charisma that I haven’t admired her so much since LOST IN TRANSLATION. Jonze’s best film since BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, this very different work nearly matches it in ingenuity and exceeds it in heart. Grade: A

With layers of surface reveling in all matters of period taste (some good, the majority bad), it’s not difficult to find immediate pleasure in David O. Russell’s 1978-set account of a con artist ring known as ABSCAM—just one look at Bradley Cooper’s perm or Christian Bale’s epic combover instantly draws you in (if you’re into that sort of thing). Beyond those surfaces, as a director Russell makes like it’s 1973 more than ’78, and you sense his last two well-received films were just warm-ups to this picture, his funniest since FLIRTING WITH DISASTER and his smartest since THREE KINGS. Structured and paced like a labyrinthine thriller but tonally closer to Scorsese in comedic mode, it wraps an unexpectedly touching romance (between Bale and Amy Adams) within the con job stuff. Instead of softening the film, however, it sweetens it enough so that you care about characters whom would’ve come off as merely despicable in an archer, colder piece of work. A-

Not Almodovar’s most profound film by any means, and I can hardly imagine it becoming anyone’s favorite Almodovar—unless, perhaps, it’s their first (despite the in-joke cameos), for it plays like a compendium of all the director’s stylistic traits. Almodovar’s equivalent of AIRPLANE! is zippy, loopy, raunchy, impeccably designed, unquestionably absurd and packed with delirious (but knowing) melodrama and surprise narrative turns. Whereas some of his late-period work appears a little colorless in courting a sort of maturity, here he’s unapologetically camp (the film’s titular lip-synch extravaganza) and brash (a persistent, devil-may-care attitude towards drugs, drink and sex). As fluffy as the safety foam that cushions the final scene, you sense this was meant as nothing more than a trifle. Although Almodovar’s capable of far sturdier stuff, it’s reassuring to see him do something like this, if only purely for the fun of it. B+


30s-ish couple Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina (Alice Lowe) go on a camping holiday in the British countryside, only something is slightly off with Chris. Tina’s cranky mum Carol (Eileen Davies) senses it immediately when introduced to him in the opening scene, but susceptible, naïve Tina doesn’t get it until two people die along the way. A bit like Mike Leigh’s NUTS IN MAY, only with murderous sociopaths in the leads, SIGHTSEERS is violent and acidic enough to be recognizable as the work of director Ben Wheatly (DOWN TERRACE); it’s also hilarious and disarmingly upbeat—the most cheerful film about serial killers since perhaps EATING RAOUL. Lowe is perfection as a seemingly simplistic innocent whom Chris influences in all the wrong ways, while Oram plays Chris as a murderous, passive-aggressive charmer/loser worthy of Ricky Gervais. After oodles of silliness and some inspired absurdity (don’t miss Tina’s trip to the Pencil Museum), SIGHTSEERS ends on an ironic note that cunningly takes the piss out of every other serial killer film ever made. A-

Well, I guess Scorsese could have at least acknowledged the financial ruin Belfort and his bros brought upon thousands of unwitting investors, but that’s the only serious flaw in this three-hour bacchanalia of white-collar crime excess. Belfort’s bad behavior seduces because he’s a seducer—it’s how he built his business from the bottom up. If utter repulsiveness cannot also simultaneously seem attractive, then everything from GOODFELLAS to THE GODFATHER is as hollow as this film’s detractors deem it to be. Granted, it’s no GOODFELLAS, but it’s more alive than THE AVIATOR or even THE DEPARTED. Despite the range he’s always had, DiCaprio was born to play a douchebag; with him in every scene, I’d even almost sit through a four-hour cut. B+

A massage therapist (Rosemarie DeWitt) develops a sudden aversion to touching human skin—that’s the intended hook here, but the parallel story, where her dentist brother (Josh Pais, wonderfully awkward and uptight) simultaneously and mysteriously gains the power to alleviate pain for his patients is far more immediate and makes for better cinema. Director Lynn Shelton cultivates a strong cast that also includes Ellen Page as Pais’ loyal but quietly frustrated daughter and Allison Janney as a Reiki therapist who encourages Pais to come out of his shell. Still, this is a little disappointing after Shelton’s superior YOUR SISTER’S SISTER—it carries a lot of interesting ideas and has a few nice isolated scenes, but a lack of focus prevents it from being anything more. B-

Serviceable—that’s the word I kept thinking of throughout this thriller in which an intelligence agency operative (Brit Marling) infiltrates herself within an eco-terrorist group that targets the agency’s corporate clients. I’m not saying this film, co-written by Marling with director Zal Batmanglij is bad or even a failure—as such films go, it’s simply unremarkable, barely indistinguishable from a network or basic cable TV drama. Instead of finding nuance or something entirely new to say about the material, the writers stick to a straight-and-narrow template. Despite a great cast including Alexander Skarsgard as the group leader and Ellen Page as one of its more passionate members, everyone plays their part and nothing more because there is little to these character types beyond what’s on the page. As I said, serviceable, and also forgettable. C+


The Past

The Past


Two domestic dramas about divorce, both of them among the best films of the year. In THE PAST, on the eve of signing divorce papers, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns from Iran to the home in France he left four years before. His soon-to-be-ex-wife Marie (Berenice Bejo) still lives there with her two daughters from a previous marriage, plus the young son of Samir (Tahar Rahim), a man she wishes to marry. Despite having literally moved on, the kind, pragmatic Ahmad effortlessly steps back into the father figure role he once played for Marie’s daughters. Although bound and committed to a future with Samir, Marie at times seems a little too comfortable allowing Ahmad back into her life, if only temporarily (it doesn’t help that Samir resembles a younger version of Ahmad, either). Meanwhile, Samir’s wife Celine lies in a coma induced by a suicide attempt eight months ago.

Ahmad, Marie and Samir all express a desire to move forward, yet their actions repeatedly betray this notion, showing the difficulty and near-impossibility of leaving one’s past behind; that the film is never heavy-handed or obvious in conveying this is a credit to writer/director Asghar Fahardi. This is every bit as accomplished and well-constructed as his previous film, A SEPARATION—although it runs for a little over two hours, nothing seems extraneous and the pacing is such that when you’re hit with a narrative twist (and there are a few), you’re nearly blindsided by it (but still fully believe it). Mosaffa and Bejo both excel at playing characters with wildly contrasting temperaments, while Rahim delivers a performance that grows in subtlety and power throughout the film’s second half, reaching its fullest expression in a final scene as mysteriously elegant as anything in an Atom Egoyan film. THE PAST cements Fahardi as a master of domestic drama and I can’t think of a better contemporary filmmaker in this regard.


Henry James adaptation WHAT MAISIE KNEW has numerous obstacles to overcome at the outset: visualizing James’ dense prose, modifying it to fit (and resonate in) the present day, dodging the cheap sentiment and overblown drama prone to tales of divorce and its effects on a child. Happily, directors Scott McGeehee and David Siegel manage to avoid all these traps—they’ve come up with an unflashy but deeply affecting film about family in both the literal and figurative sense of that word and how nurture is possible via both.

The film rests on the shoulders of Onata Aprile, who plays Maisie with confidence and naturalness impressive for a child actress in a key leading part. Julianne Moore takes on the challenge of playing her mother, a frankly unlikable rock star who really isn’t fit to be a parent although, to Moore’s credit, we still feel for her while feeling aghast at her actions. Alexander Skarsgard is a revelation, strikingly different from his TRUE BLOOD vampire as a gentle, goofy bartender who connects with Maisie better than her real father, a well-meaning businessman (Steve Coogan) with mismanaged priorities. Joanna Vanderham rounds out the cast as the nanny who becomes Maisie’s most emphatic caregiver.

While often a brutal film because it pulls no punches in its depiction of divorce and its messy aftereffects, WHAT MAISIE KNEW is, in the end, wonderfully life-affirming, showing the good that can come out of a bad situation but only after thoughtfully considering all the consequences. As in most tales of death and rebirth, we have to see Maisie go through the worst in order for the best that follows to feel fully earned.

Movie Journal # 3: Capsule Review Catch-Up

Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis


An all-caspule review edition, because I’ve seen a lot since I returned from Cuba. I’m mostly caught up (with the exception of one film I loved but want to see again before attempting a longer review). For now, the last ten new movies I’ve seen (more or less), in alphabetical order by title:

You can’t fault this James Franco-directed William Faulkner adaptation for lack of ambition; to even film such a challenging novel (with contains 15 different narrators) requires considerable moxie. While the finished project isn’t always graspable, it’s far from an embarrassment. The first thing you notice is Franco’s decision to shoot a majority of it in split-screen—always a risky choice as its flashiness can threaten to obscure any substance, but here it’s an ideal way to show multiple perspectives at once. It also helps that the cinematography always looks interesting, gracefully swaying between lucid landscape shots and more abstract compositions. The ensemble is uniformly strong and includes Beth Grant (in a rare entirely dramatic role) as the dying matriarch, Tim Blake Nelson as the (literally) toothless voice of sanity and Jim Parrack as the son who physically suffers the most to honor his mother’s last wishes, among others. At times, the story seems incredibly oblique and the tone verging-on-pretentious, but Franco also relays the material with purity and sincerity; if he wants to establish himself as a director who acts (and not just an actor who directs), this is a promising start. Grade: B

On the heels of SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN comes another doc about obscure, unearthed 1970s Detroit musicians, although that’s all the two films have in common. Death were a band composed of the Hackney brothers, three African Americans who eschewed Motown and R&B for an ahead-of-its-time proto-punk. Unfortunately, they were also barely heard because eldest brother/guitarist/songwriter David’s refusal to change the band’s name cost them a record deal. Since no archival footage remains apart from still photos, the film relies heavily on recent interviews with Hackneys, now in their 50s (save David, who died in 2000); however, it doesn’t really take off until their grown children, who recently found out about their fathers’ music and have formed a band of their own, enter the picture. Their enthusiasm in paying tribute to their long-lost legacy makes the strongest case for everyone else to discover it. B

I’ve waited years for someone to make a film out of one of David Sedaris’ autobiographical essays, knowing that any attempt could go either way (see Ryan Murphy’s meh version of Augusten Burroughs’ RUNNING WITH SCISSORS). Fortunately, this fairly straightforward take on Sedaris’ account of his time post-college meandering through rural Oregon works because it fully captures his distinct tone—a sincere, near-deadpan relaying of acerbic, absurd content. Jonathan Groff is well cast as the author’s stand-in—you can sense both the snark and the seeker at odds beneath his detached observer exterior. Even better is the support he gets from a cast full of great character actors, including Dale Dickey as a gruff factory co-worker who hilariously refuses to play into Groff’s feigned eagerness, Corey Stoll as a friendly (and just a tad creepy) foreman and especially Denis O’Hare as a born-again Christian clockmaker who ends up pointing out the hypocrisy of Groff’s actions while inadvertently betraying more than a few of his own. The ending doesn’t work as well here as it does in original essay, coming off as far more abrupt, but overall this is good enough that I encourage Groff and director Kyle Patrick Alvarez to adapt more of Sedaris’ material. A-

On paper, this scans as a calculated attempt by Matthew McConaughey to complete his multi-film rehabilitation from rom-com leading man joke to well-respected, award-winning Actor. However, from the instant you see him startlingly emaciated as Ron Woodruff, you don’t see McConaughey at all, a trickier feat than it sounds. That goes double for Jared Leto, theoretically an insane pick to play the role of saucy transgendered-best-friend until he/she appears on screen and you’re swept away by how complete the transformation is. The well-meaning screenplay is a little hacky at times, but director Jean-Marc Vallee (who helmed the wonderful C.R.A.Z.Y.) favors an understated, matter-of-fact tone that goes a long way in making this perhaps the best mainstream fiction film about AIDS to date (not that it has much competition).  A-

Ostensibly about two graffiti artists/small time pot dealers on a quest to tag New York City’s most desired (and untagged) target, the big apple that pops up whenever the Mets hit a home run at Citi Field, GIMME THE LOOT is really more a slice-of-life in the mold of OUR SONG and RAISING VICTOR VARGAS, only nowhere near as good. Sophia (Tashiana Washington) and Malcolm (Ty Hickson) both show potential as characters (particularly the latter when he develops a crush on a client), but as the graffiti plot fades in favor of less urgent matters, the film meanders along ever-so-aimlessly—the personalities and plotlines are present, but writer/director Adam Leon can’t shape them into a satisfying whole. C-

The idea of kids playing a game of war so realistic and elaborate that one could almost mistake it for the real thing is a clever one, especially as one kid goes rouge and pushes the game to a far more personal level than the others. It might have made for a fine short, but at feature-length, it becomes almost unbearably repetitious. The cast, exclusively minors, is good, all of them immediately recognizable from the kids most of us played with growing up; maybe too recognizable, because the characters rarely go beyond cliché, like the quiet boy willing to do anything to belong, or Jess, the token girl who’s just there because of a crush she has on one of the boys (a shame, since Mackenzie Munro, the actress who plays her, is terrific). While the filmmakers clearly intend to show the negative consequences of war, they can’t help glorifying the whole process more than a little—in this context (as opposed to a film about real war), it left me feeling a little uneasy and unclear about what their intentions were. C

With few exceptions, Joel and Ethan Coen rarely make something expected of them, so a project centered on the early ‘60s Greenwich Village folk scene and one of its struggling (fictional) talents doesn’t seem so much a departure. Still, this is by far the gentlest, dare I say most affectionate thing they’ve done, surveying and almost longing for a long lost era… but don’t call it nostalgia. The titular “hero” is a talent worth rooting for, but he’s also often boorish, a nebbish, unmotivated and self-sabotaging, even though his heart’s (usually) in the right place. The character wouldn’t work without an actor as nimble and assured, as likable and arguably unknown as Oscar Isaac—like the series of cats Davis cares for throughout, Isaac carries the film. He serves as the focal point from dual perspectives of everyman and the man who never made it. By expressing himself so vividly in his art, you believe Davis really had something to say, even though he sang other people’s songs. As late-period Coen Bros go, the darker, funnier, bolder A SERIOUS MAN is still their peak; this is almost its B-side, full of the same nihilism and absurdity, but more soulful and contemplative. A

As a teenaged Milwaukee native/resident, the Jeffrey Dahmer case obviously hit close to home for me, as it would for anyone to have something so high profile and extremely grotesque occur in your backyard. This documentary is both a history and a covert examination on what effect Dahmer had on the city via its residents nearly twenty years later; it really shouldn’t work as it only profiles three people and supplements them with scenes of Dahmer played by an actor. Fortunately, the interviewees are all excellent and each provide a distinct perspective: (former) Milwaukee County Medical Examiner Jeffrey Jentzen, Dahmer’s neighbor Pamela Bass, and homicide detective Pat Kennedy. In particular, Kennedy (the man to whom Dahmer confessed) is an entertaining, insightful figure, one that possibly could’ve carried the entire film, Errol Morris style. As for the fictional Dahmer scenes, they’re not altogether unnecessary. Whether they show Jeff buying tropical fish at a pet store or a dozen bottles of hydrofluoric acid at a supermarket or taking a doomed trick to a hotel, they wisely stay on the right side of good taste while giving us a visual aid to ponder just who this seemingly unassuming psycho killer was. Andrew Swant also plays Dahmer with the right balance of humane and creepy. A curious film, for sure, but one that has stayed with me. B+

If the “That’s Amore!” opening credits (or the mere presence of Pierce Brosnan in MAMMA MIA! mode) seem a little… light for a Susanne Bier (OPEN HEARTS, BROTHERS) picture, rest assured it begins with the lead, Ida (Trine Dyrholm) fresh home from chemo treatment for cancer, walking in on her husband cheating on her in their living room. From the moment she and Brosnan’s Philip meet (more awkwardly than cute), you know the two will get together, quite possibly during the impending wedding of her daughter and his son. For all its predictability, the film still has its share of curveballs, many of them delivered with an agile touch that bespeaks life’s uncertainty and messiness even when picturesque, sun-drenched Italy serves as a backdrop. Dyrholm is a winning protagonist and certainly not your standard rom-com lead; as usual, Paprika Steen makes the most of her smallish role as Philip’s bubbly, bossy sister-in-law. B+

Olivier Assayas is a master when it comes to style and tone, but he hits (CLEAN, SUMMER HOURS) as much as he misses (DEMONLOVER) in telling a satisfying story. This presumably autobiographical 1971-set study of French anarchist teenagers influenced by the student protests of three years before sadly falls into the latter category even though it contains enough thrilling, intricate sequences (such as the epic, breakneck-paced vandalizing of a school building and a bonfire-fueled spectacle set to Soft Machine’s “Why Are We Sleeping”) to justify a two-hour-long running time. If Assayas’ stand-in, Gilles (Clément Métayer) came off as less of a cipher or had a character arc that transcended the old “budding artist sleeps with various women as he finds himself” trope, then the film might have signified as more than just another coming-of-age period piece with few distinguishing marks beyond time and place. B-

Also Seen:

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is a silly, silly film and sublimely so at its best, which often involves Steve Carell doing anything or Ron Burgundy going blind (or bly-iiiind!)… in-between snatches of the annual A Christmas Story marathon, I watched two other holiday classics: It Happened On 5th Avenue, which has become a tradition in my household, and, for the first time, The Shop Around The Corner, which might have my favorite pre-Hitchcock James Stewart performance… although I was in Cuba during the 35th International Festival of Latin Cinema, so packed was my schedule that I saw only one film, Havana Suite, a lovely elegy for its residents and one to seek out if you’re interested in the culture. Speaking of Cuba, I also finally watched Buena Vista Social Club, which took a while to get going but eventually drew me in with its understated reverence and grace.