A Temporary Condition
Samuel L. Jackson Pays Homage to Russia
“Pulp Fiction” star Samuel L. Jackson delivers his directing debut with a poignant and sexy melodrama rooted in 1930’s Moscow, Russia. “Mishkin’s Complaint” pushes the envelope on modern cinema’s trend toward A and B-list Hollywood actors engaging in full-fledged sex acts onscreen. The result leaves an impression. Keep an eye out for a dramatic cameo from Edward Snowden — it comes around the 35-minute mark.
Jeremy Irons plays Mishkin, a law-abiding attorney with a lust for life’s simple pleasures — smelling the cheese is always on Miskin’s list of things to do. He divides his time between eating things that make other people envious — and enjoying group-sex with his mistress Ilsa (Uma Thurman) and a bevy of interchangeable young women. Jackson’s outré set pieces of sexual expression run a gambit from tastefully erotic to downright sleazy. You’ll never look at Uma Thurman the same way again.
Mishkin plays violin with a small band of drinking buddies (played by Nicolas Cage, Chiwetal Ejoifor, and Billy Crudup). No one would ever accuse Mishkin of being a virtuoso. His tenuous command of the violin provides the group with a never-ending stream of lighthearted insults aimed at the band’s would-be leader.
“Mishkin’s Complaint” is about a man of minimal intelligence and resources who is completely satisfied with his life until he discovers that he has fathered a hermaphrodite girl by a woman who is now deceased. Mishkin’s intersex child Viktoriya — played with predictable accomplishment by Tilda Swinton — arrives in Moscow looking for work as a cabaret performer.
As Viktoriya indulges in every form of vice with both men and women, she takes a job at the bar where Mishkin and his friends play music. A budding romance between Nicolas Cage’s character and Viktoriya complicates matters for Mishkin whose grasp of his child’s sexual identity is less than well informed.
The theme of Samuel L. Jackson’s film seems to be that closure and resolution are merely crutches that citizens of weaker — read Western — countries fall prey to as a substitution for sexual satisfaction. In the film’s disquieting final scene, Jackson makes an unmistakable nod to the Motherland. Russia’s own Iksana Akinshina (“The Bourne Supremacy”) plays the tragicomic woman to whom Mishkin pledges his undying loyalty in exchange for an act of charity that hardly seems worth the effort. Mishkin’s complaint, as it turns out, was always only ever a temporary condition. Perhaps Russia is ahead of the curve when it comes to cinema. There’s no competition with this kind of exploitation around.
In the longstanding tradition of jokes applied to the first day of the month after March…
Not Rated. 101 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
YOUNG & BEAUTIFUL
For his latest filmic exploration François Ozon addresses a complex mix of sexual, personal, social, familial, gender-based, and technological issues, inexorably honing in on a striking synthesis of generational catharsis. That he does so via a story about Isabelle (exquisitely played by newcomer Marine Vacth), a beautiful bourgeoisie and a 17-year-old DIY prostitute, reflects the growth of one of France’s most consistent filmmakers — one of few who develops in proportion to the promise of his well-seeded career.
Set over the course of a year, the film uses the age-old narrative form of seasonal changes to mark Isabelle’s fluid transition from virgin to sensual mistress. Most of her clients are men old enough to be her grandfathers. To call Marine Vacth’s fearless performance extraordinary barely scratches the surface of her finely crafted, transparent portrayal. Vacth isn’t merely precocious; she is a force of unbridled feminine and intellectual nature. Isabelle has important lessons to teach, as well as to learn.
Ozon takes “meta” liberties when he shows Isabelle and some of her high school classmates reciting quotes from Arthur Rimbaud’s poem “No One’s Serious at Seventeen.”
"On beautiful nights when beer and lemonade
And loud, blinding cafés are the last thing you need
You stroll beneath green lindens on the promenade.”
The unapologetically poetic direct-to-camera sequence captures much of the naiveté, seething lust, and directionless ambition that Isabelle seeks to shed through her computer-facilitated double life of erotic experimentation. Her journey will be a quicksilver submersion into a lifetime’s worth of sexual experience and ever-changing needs and desires.
In keeping with Ozon’s non-judgmental approach to his characters in such films as “Hideaway” and “In the House,” the filmmaker never veers into melodrama or exploitation regardless of how tempting the subject matter might seem on the surface. That’s not to say that Ozon doesn’t regard the erotic nature of Isabelle’s endeavors with the sexual directness they deserve. The audience experiences her erotic journey in relation to the sense of liberation she discovers along the way. If that freedom comes with a cost of cynicism, then the lessons are all the more truthful for her paying that price. There is a cost to wisdom — regardless of how it is achieved.
When Isabelle witnesses her judgmental mother Sylvie (Geraldine Paihas) secretly flirting with a man with whom she may be having an adulterous affair, it seems to support Isabelle’s bold if hazardous attempt at getting to the bottom of a romantic illusion that is too limited and naïve for her mature constitution. Isabelle always gravitates to the bottom line in human relations. An uncomfortable sequence where she gauges her step-father’s lustful ambitions presents one of the film’s more challenging scenes.
Gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Pascal Marti, “Jeune & Jolie” (“Young & Beautiful”) is a patient film that delves thoroughly into the generational mindsets of its age-disparate characters. Charlotte Rampling helps send the narrative to its evocative conclusion as a woman called Alice, the wife of one of Isabelle’s clients. You will never forget this truly mind-blowing film.
Not Rated. 95 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
August: Osage County
Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play loses an hour-and-a-half from its original running time, but none of its dramatic impact in the playwright’s own screenplay adaptation. Arriving during the holidays, when American family members reunite — many against their better judgment — “August: Osage County” is an intrepidly dramatic reminder that there are similarly flawed, if not worse, familial units out there.
In the most fearless performance of her career Meryl Streep is Violet, the pill-and-cigarette addicted, cancer-suffering matriarch of a dysfunctional Oklahoma family. Vicious, racist, greedy, and more belligerent than passively aggressive, Streep’s Violet Weston is a real piece of work. Endless glasses of whisky and reading T.S. Eliot no longer provide escape for Violet’s long-suffering husband Beverly (wonderfully played however briefly by Sam Shepard). Suicide is the only way for Beverly to be rid of the bitch.
Beverly’s funeral occasions a family reunion to end all such gatherings for the Weston clan. Any doubts that Violet is one of the most irredeemably selfish and obnoxious human beings on the planet are laid firmly to rest.
Of Violet’s three daughters, only Julianne Nicholson’s enigmatic Ivy has stuck around to care for the woman who makes the Wicked Witch of the West seem like Cinderella by comparison. Ivy knows how to keep Violet at arms length but still isn’t immune from getting burned by her cunning mother when she lets the sparks fly. Nicholson is masterly in a role replete with hidden passions. A subplot involving her cousin Little Charles Aiken (Benedict Cumberbatch) is cause for more one surprise.
Barbara (played by Julia Roberts in the film’s only miscast role) arrives with her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their pot-smoking teenaged goth daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Juliette Lewis’s loopy Karen shows up with her trophy fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney), whose sleazy business dealings are a reflection of the way he conducts his romantic, or at least lust-fueled, diversions. Mulroney’s participation in an explosively funny yet troubling scene underscores the rugged landscape of Letts’s familial minefield. Some explosions are bigger than others, but they don’t let up for a minute.
The narrative showpiece is a dinner-table family scene that builds in a symphony of discordant attacks, as conducted by Violet in full malicious voice. Streep comes in sharply on every beat in a blinding display of indecency. Everything gets spilled; everything gets broken.
Rated R. 121 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Asghar Farhadi’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning “A Separation,” is a melodramatic romantic mystery with dangling threads. That’s not a put-down. The film’s emphasis lies in an intimate process of emotional discovery that Farhadi enables — regarding personal histories, tragic mistakes, unpredictable behaviors, confused motivations, and romantic allegiances. The narrative goal has more to do with how and why questions are raised rather than nailing down hard-and-fast answers that would leave audiences with a warm fuzzy feeling at the end of the movie. Like life, the story is messy; the characters are complicated; there are no easy answers.
Marie (Berenice Bejo) anxiously greets her Iranian husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) at the Paris airport. She has summoned him from his home in Tehran to finalize their divorce after four years of separation. However, Marie’s intentions are more convoluted than merely seeking closure on a long-dead-gone relationship. Rather than reserving a hotel room for him, as Ahmad requested, Marie brings him to stay in her rundown house by train tracks on the outskirts of town. She lives there with her two daughters from another marriage, as well as her current boyfriend Samir (Tahar Rahim), along with his young son Fouad. Ahmad’s natural paternalism shines from the second he sets foot on the property. He cooks up a generous meal of Iranian dishes and fixes the kitchen sink. Perhaps Marie hopes that some of Ahmad’s domestic charms will rub off on Samir. Any worries of petty jealousies between the two men are brushed aside; there’s too much at stake for each individual Farhadi’s multicultural extended family.
Marie’s temperamental teenaged daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) is convinced that her mother is a serial dater of unsuitable men, and tries to encourage Ahmad to intercede. Lucie’s concerns are not unfounded. Samir and Marie were discovered having an affair by Samir’s wife who, in response, attempted suicide; she now lies in a coma. Co-writer Farhadi steers clear of the material’s potentially maudlin corners through Ali Mosaffa’s clarifying presence as a genuinely concerned and trustworthy outsider. Ahmad serves as the audience’s narrative guide. He’s our detective.
You can’t help feeling that Marie is with the wrong man -- that she would be better off had she stayed with Ahmad. Certainly, her decision to carry on an affair with a married man has already resulted in terrible heartbreak. The “past” of the film’s title refers to an amorphous chain of time that constricts the future as much as it does past events that can never be fully known or understood. The process of grappling with relationships demands an immediacy that is at odds with personal needs and intentions that they themselves may be counter to one another. The past, like the present, is only partially knowable.
Rated PG-13. 130 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
A Losing Proposition
Spike Lee and Korea Don’t Mix
Korean director/co-screenwriter Chan-wook Park’s haunting 2003 revenge drama “Oldboy” is one of the most unbearably intense films ever made. Based loosely on a Japanese graphic novel, the movie is the second installment in Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy” — see “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” (2002) and “Lady Vengeance” (2005). However, there are elements that make “Oldboy” a much rougher ride for the audience than Park’s other two violence-fuelled crime thrillers in the trio. “Oldboy” is a more disturbing and rewarding experience due to the nature of the terrible reversals suffered by its forever-tormented protagonist of the film’s title. “Oldboy” refers to a fraternal term of endearment for the alum of a private high school.
The original film’s complex themes revolve around social commentary regarding Asian nationalism, politics, incest, private prisons, as well as taboo cultural mores and motivations. It is a richly multifaceted film that addresses a wide range of deeply personal and political issues in a simultaneously direct and metaphorical manner. Chan-wook Park’s “Oldboy” is an outrageously original cinematic vision that only a fool would attempt to revise without paying acute attention to elevating the source material — if not at least playing the song as written.
Why then would Hollywood choose to remake an extraordinary (and recent) film whose fingerprint is so specific? Stephen Spielberg takes the blame for stepping up to the plate to remake “Oldboy,” initially with plans to cast Will Smith in the leading role that Choi Min-sik made his own as Oh Dae-su in Park’s original. A screenplay adaptation by Mark Protosevich (“I Am Legend”) was passed around Los Angeles. Put Protosevich’s tone-deaf adaptation into the hands of Spike Lee, and what you come up with is a flavorless revenge movie robbed of every ounce of cultural identity, nuance, and emotional power of the original. Lee’s version of “Oldboy” isn’t so much transposed, as it is a gutting of all the best aspects of the original. I’m certain there are qualified screenwriters and directors that could have transposed Park’s film into a Western-culture harmonization and kept its narrative intact — especially the original film’s divine ending.
Chan-wook Park’s formidable protagonist eats a live octopus after escaping 15 years of kidnapped captivity inside a private incarceration facility. No such scene of primal expression exists in Lee’s version.
The octopus scene’s elimination is a representative example of the kind of heavy-handed editorial alterations the filmmakers repeatedly commit in reducing a great film to a mediocre one.
The original scene is more than a little upsetting; it cuts right through to the viewer’s heart and stomach in a way that Spike Lee’s version never approaches. The visceral connections are missing.
There is no redeeming value to Spike Lee’s remake of a Chan-wook Park’s instant classic “Oldboy” — a cinematic experience that is irrefutably unlike any other you have ever had.
The beginning, middle, and ending of Lee’s “Oldboy” are all different from Chan-wook Park’s film. To expose the differences between the two versions would only serve to dignify Spike Lee’s abomination, or give away any more jolts or surprises from the prototype version.
The only usefulness of Lee’s travesty is to alert would-be audiences that they should see, or revisit, Chan-wook Park’s incredible film. But by no means should anyone squander the time they would spend watching Chan-wook Park’s “Oldboy” on Spike Lee’s deflated rendering.
Rated R. 104 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Great Beauty
A virtuosic cinematic achievement of epic proportions, Paolo Sorrentino’s formalized comment on modern-day Rome is a visual and satirical feast. Taking cues from Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” the gloriously expansive film establishes Sorrentino-regular Toni Servillo as Jep Gambardella, a veteran dilettante journalist of Rome’s celebrity and arts culture who has successfully insinuated himself as a member of the city’s elites. His claim to fame derives from a still-celebrated novelette [“The Human Apparatus”] he wrote as a young man. Jep is a sycophant through and though. His eye for style is cheapened by his worship of the false promise such affectations hold. As an updated version of the breezy character that Marcello Mastroianni played in “La Dolce Vita,” Jep is older and therefore wiser. The occasion of his 65th birthday gives cause for reflection. The nubile girl who first stole Jep’s heart when he was a virile young man haunts him as an object of desire and emotional motivation whose “great beauty” resonates with that of Rome’s ancient architecture and pretentious culture — even if much of that floats over abyss of abject corruption.
Sorrentino lays the foundation for his boldly extravagant film with a quote from Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s “Journey to the End of the Night.”
“Travel is useful, it exercises the imagination. All the rest is disappointment and fatigue.
Our journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength.
It goes from life to death. People, animals, cities, things, all are imagined.
It’s a novel, just a fictitious narrative. Littré says so, and he’s never wrong.
And besides, in the first place, anyone can do as much. You just have to close your eyes.
It’s on the other side of life.”
Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi’s shifting camera unceasingly frames decorous compositions to simultaneously celebrate, provoke, and reveal layers of a dynamic culture unlike anywhere else in the world.
At once glamorous and impure, every social setting — be it a lavish party, a strip club, or a dinner with the Catholic Church’s 104-year-old patron Saint of poverty — every scene breathes with a painterly attention to detail toward capturing Rome’s beautiful and ethereal qualities.
Paolo Sorrentino is one of the few truly visionary filmmakers working today who utilizes the power of cinema to embrace and elevate an overflowing wealth of ideas, attitudes, and realities. I promise, you will be stuffed after seeing “The Great Beauty.”
Not Rated. 142 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
A Balm For America’s Wounds
Alexander Payne Finds What He’s Been Looking For
Alexander Payne’s films have been a series of peaks and valleys. His first two movies “Citizen Ruth” (1996) and “Election” (1999) set such a high standard of socio-political satire that there was no place left to go but down. “About Schmidt” fulfilled that inevitable lull with an aging small-minded character whose greatest legacy was the years he squandered for a thankless company. Then came “Sideways” (2004), a movie soared as a masterstroke of nuanced comedy about male-midlife-crisis that gave Thomas Haden Church a chance to shine like never before. “The Descendants” (2011) was a flawed precursor to the themes of America’s cultural, economic, and political demise that Alexander Payne nails on every level in “Nebraska.”
The film’s majestic title evokes the Midwestern badlands where man is dwarfed by a big sky and a rugged terrain that simultaneously dwarf and glorify his existence. Payne appropriately shoots in black and white to lend a nostalgic quality that filters the satirical nature of the drama, and contextualizes its comedic elements. The monochromic presentation clarifies “Nebraska’s” somber atmosphere to measure the symptoms of a country sinking in a darker economic crisis than that of the Great Depression. Still, neither context nor subtext is ever telegraphed. Every scene and line of dialogue presents new revelations of purpose and place.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is an aging alcoholic family man suffering from the onslaught of dementia. He can’t drive anymore, but dreams of buying a new truck. He views himself as a failed patriarch, and by the look of things he’s not wrong.
The film opens with Woody distractedly walking along a Montana highway like a close cousin to Harry Dean Stanton’s character at the beginning of “Paris, Texas.” The 76-year-old Bruce Dern inhabits Woody so thoroughly that you genuinely worry about his well-being. Like Robert Redford’s career-topping performance in this year’s “All is Lost,” Bruce Dern’s portrayal here is astonishing for its unadorned directness. Nothing is wasted. Nothing is lost. Everything flows. Everything matters.
David (Will Forte), one of Woody’s two sons, is a loser. He sells electronic equipment in a retail store. He recently broke up with his former live-in girlfriend over commitment issues. Forte — famous for his run on “Saturday Nigh Live” — is a revelation for his concealed comic delivery. Forte carves his character’s initials with evermore-determined incisions toward a sincere crisis decision of emotionally cathartic consequence. This is a movie that will live on in your heart forever.
Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb) can curse like a sailor, and frequently does when her salty demeanor veers into ribald territory. A graveyard visit proves a guffaw inducing event when Kate lets loose. Payne knows exactly where to let humor pounce, and pounce it does with a precision that stings.
Woody recently received a Publishers Clearing House-type document in the mail that he is convinced means he’s won a million-dollars. He is determined to travel to Nebraska to collect his winnings in person. He doesn’t trust institutions like the post office, but he is all-too-trusting of people. Sympathetic to his father’s fragile mental and physical state, David elects to take time off from his job to drive his dad to Nebraska as an excuse to spend some quality time with the old man. The father-and-son road trip through Wyoming and South Dakota allows for a stop-over in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska where family and “friends” come out of the woodwork after hearing about Woody’s windfall. Woody’s ex-business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) is an especially prickly customer.
Written by debut screenwriter Bob Nelson, “Nebraska” strikes at a distinctly American mindset of jealousy, greed, and betrayal that undermines its citizens’ equally persistent sense of optimism, integrity, and familial connection. It’s an adult family film worthy of repeated viewings over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, when families join together in living rooms to share personal experiences, ideas, and hopes for the future. The elusive new value that America seeks is right under its nose; it’s also in the underlying theme of this truly wonderful picture.
Rated R. 115 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)