Saturday, December 27, 2014

Traveling Women: Wild and Tracks

In Wild, Reese Witherspoon gives a fine, intelligent performance as Cheryl Strayed, a young woman who spent three months walking the thousand-mile Pacific Crest Trail as a means of cleansing herself of the wayward, self-destructive life she’d been living, sleeping around and shooting heroin. It sounds like a showy, Oscar-bait role, but Witherspoon (who was also one of the producers) doesn’t play it that way; she keeps her wit sharp and her character carefully grounded in the grittiness of the material but not its (potential) melodrama. And that’s how the performance has been set up, first by novelist Nick Hornby, who adapted Strayed memoir, Lost: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, using a series of flashbacks to sketch in the life that led her here, and director Jean-Marc Vallée, who understates the sensational parts of her story. (He and Hornby restrict the drugs and the promiscuity to perhaps two slivers each of narrative.) Vallée is the Québecois filmmaker who made a splash – deservedly – in Canadian film circles with his 2005 coming-of-age picture C.R.A.Z.Y. and then went international with Young Victoria and last year’s Dallas Buyers Club. I loved Young Victoria, a gentle, complicated historical drama (also a coming-of-age story) but had mixed feelings about the other: engrossing and original as it was, it was pitched close to the melodramatic edge that Vallée is so cautious about steering clear of in Wild, and the film, as well as its two highly touted central performances (by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto), kept tipping over that edge. The actors were splendid as long as they leaned away from it, toward the humor of their outrageous, opposite-number characters. I have no mixed emotions about Wild. The filmmaking – the way Vallée and his co-editor, Martin Pansa, slip almost subliminally in and out of the past – is stunning. (John Mac Murphy, credited as editor on both Wild and Dallas Buyers Club, is a pseudonym for Vallée.)

Friday, December 26, 2014

Critic's Notes & Frames, Vol. X

Singer Joe Cocker, who sadly died over the holidays at 70 after a battle with lung cancer, could get to the bottom of heartache in a song like no other. Listening to him perform, with his gravel voice, was like hearing Louis Armstrong cured in a blue funk. Containing a melancholic soul that rivalled Billie Holiday, Cocker's ecstatic surrender to the naked emotion in a romantic number, at its best, could transcend masochism. Of all his memorable tracks from "Hitchcock Railway" to his soulful take on "With a Little Help from My Friends," his gospel tinged "Do I Still Figure in Your Life?" asks with maybe the greatest urgency the most poignant demand of his audience.

Film director Carlos Saura has made many dazzling dance pictures before, from Carmen (1983) to Flamenco (1995), but Iberia (2005) may be his most erotic work. Using a studio outfitted with minimalist backdrops of scrims, curtains and mirrors, Saura adapts sections of composer Isaac Albeniz's "Iberia" suite for a number of the biggest stars in the Spanish dance and music world to perform. Yet like Jonathan Demme in Stop Making Sense (1984), Saura makes us conscious of the artifice he's creating, letting us see the cameras, the lights, and the recording equipment, only then to employ the magic of performance to evaporate the artifice. Saura isn't content just capturing that alchemy, though, he goes further inside the process of performance art itself and, while using expressionistic techniques, reaches the purest essence of dance to create a fully realized expression of love for the sensuality of movement.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Biblical Bore – Exodus: Gods and Kings

Christian Bale as Moses in Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings

Director Ridley Scott’s latest epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings, makes Moses the second biblical patriarch to have his story butchered by Hollywood this year. The first, of course, was Noah in Darren Aronofsky’s deluded treatment last spring. Scott’s film doesn’t punish its audience with caustic melodrama the way the second half of Noah did. He’s a better craftsman than Aronofsky, and his visual palette more sensible – the movie’s landscape has the craggy wildness you associate with the Old Testament universe. But it matches its predecessor for clouding the meaning of the central narrative themes and injecting bizarre, half-baked spirituality into them. The result is a rare feat: a movie that’s at once both bloated and a fiasco.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Neglected Gem #67: Quick Change (1990)

Bill Murray in Quick Change

Quick Change takes twenty minutes or so to find its tone. In the opening sequence, Grimm (Bill Murray), dressed in a clown suit, robs a bank, holds the customers and employees hostage, and rigs it so his two accomplices, his girl friend Phyllis (Geena Davis) and his pal Loomis (Randy Quaid), hidden among the hostages, are the first to be released – along with Grimm himself, in a second disguise as a whining nerd. But the combination of Grimm’s actions and Murray’s ironies plays a little uneasily; I didn’t laugh much until these three cleared the bank and were putting one over on the exasperated police chief (Jason Robards). At that point, the movie, which Murray co-directed with the screenwriter, Howard Franklin (adapting a book by Jay Cronley), relaxes into a pleasantly off-kilter New York obstacle-course farce with the structure of an anxiety dream. As the trio tries to make their way to the airport with their loot, everything conspires to block their path. Their plan is to divert the cops, who think Grimm’s still inside the bank, until they can make it out of the country, but while Grimm’s talking on a pay phone to the chief, Loomis accidentally leans on the car horn, blowing their cover. Then they get lost and can’t find anyone to give them directions; when they do, finally, he turns out to be another thief (Jamey Sheridan), who holds them up. Their car is towed and smashed, they land a cabbie who doesn’t speak English, they duck into a warehouse full of gangsters – while Grimm, a burned-out city planner, views each encounter as further proof of the hatefulness of New York. That’s why, he explains, he engineered this robbery – to get them safely beyond the city’s scummy reach.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Geek Shall Inherit The Earth: The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, in The Imitation Game

Filmgoers, like gamers, are natural puzzle-solvers – we like to try and stay one step ahead of a mystery, or piece together a disjointed narrative, or guess at a film’s ending before it arrives. There isn’t much to unravel in The Imitation Game, a film which depicts the life of mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his attempts to crack the German Enigma code at the secret Bletchley Park facility in World War II, but the way the film positions society’s smartest (and most socially awkward) members as the world’s last hope against the Nazi menace is almost as much a love letter to geeky hobbyism as it is a biopic of the world’s first computer scientist. The film isn’t complex enough to be a puzzle unto itself, but so many puzzles abound for the characters to solve – crossword and code-message alike – that it feels like a celebration of how using brains, and not brawn, is often what wins a global war.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Lost Lake: Broken Gates

Tracie Thoms and John Hawkes in Lost Lake, at the Manhattan Theatre Club. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Lost Lake, the new play by David Auburn (Proof, The Columnist), is very conventional, but I quite enjoyed it. It’s a two-hander with a familiar set-up: two strangers thrown together under unusual circumstances move from being (roughly) adversaries to becoming (unorthodox) friends because the tensions and uncertainties in their disparate lives bond them. They are Veronica (Tracie Thoms), a New York City nurse and single mother who rents a cabin in the woods upstate for a week in the summer for herself, her two young kids and her daughter’s friend; and Hogan (John Hawkes), whose cabin it is. (The three children remain offstage presences.) When Veronica arrives, she finds that Hogan hasn’t fixed up the premises as he’d promised; the phone doesn’t work and she has to retreat up the road to get a decent cell phone signal. She doesn’t realize that he’s in dire straits, financially and emotionally – that, in fact, he’s living in his car, having run away or been thrown out by his brother and sister-in-law. (He says he was thrown out, but, as we learn along with Veronica, he’s an unreliable source of information about his own situation.) He doesn’t know that she is also in extremis: she’s just lost her job and, for complicated reasons, is in the midst of trying to get the review board to agree not to rescind her nursing license.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Fun for the Holidays: Select Offerings in Music, Collections, Books, DVDs and Magazines

Real World 25, from Peter Gabriel's Real World label is one of many great gift possibilities this holiday season.

It’s the holidays, the stressful time of year when you scurry about trying to match the right gift with the right person. There’s so much to choose from out there, in music, books, collections and DVDs... so where do you begin? Here are some selections I think you’ll like, something for every kind of taste.