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)