Monday, September 20, 2021

Neglected Gem: Take This Waltz (2011)

Seth Rogen and Michelle Williams in Take This Waltz (2011).

The opening and closing images of Take This Waltz, of Margot (Michelle Williams) baking muffins, work in tandem with the folk music on the soundtrack (written by Jonathan Goldsmith) to evoke a melancholy, pensive mood. The writer-director, Sarah Polley, is a master of moods. Take This Waltz was her second film. Her first, Away from Her (2006), was an impressive debut. Adapted from the lovely Alice Munro story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” it told the story of a man (Gordon Pinsent) whose wife (Julie Christie) persuades him to put her in a home when her Alzheimer’s worsens. Polley, one of the most talented of her generation of Canadian actresses and perhaps the brainiest – lovers of the marvelous TV series Slings and Arrows will remember her as Cordelia, opposite William Hutt’s Lear, in the show’s final season – convinced Christie, whom she’d befriended on the set of The Secret Life of Words, to delay retirement to play the ailing heroine. Christie was wonderful – hardly a surprise. And I think you can see, when you watch Take This Waltz, why she let Polley talk her into doing Away from Her. Polley thinks like an actress and a filmmaker; her directorial style comes directly out of her ability to think through a character. What Christie and Michelle Williams have in common is that you can’t tell where intuition takes over from intelligence. The work that the Australian director Gillian Armstrong did with actresses in the 1980s represented a kind of women’s collaboration that generated a more delicately shifting depiction of female characters than you got in other movies. Polley doesn’t have Armstrong’s technical expertise but what she gets from Williams in Take This Waltz (the title comes from a Leonard Cohen song) is comparable to what Armstrong accomplished with Diane Keaton in Mrs. Soffel and Judy Davis in High Tide.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Macroscope: Synchronicity in the Work of Goldner Ildiko and Carrie Meijer

Goldner Ildiko (left) ; Carrie Meijer (right)

“Paintings are music you can look at. Music is painting you can listen to.” – Miles Davis.

I have long thought about and written about paintings as what I call frozen music (a descriptor I borrowed from the great German poet Goethe’s characterization of architecture), so naturally I was delighted when one of my favourite musicians, the legendary trumpeter Miles Davis (who was also a nocturnal painter, as a matter of fact), chose to categorize these two overlapping forms of self-expression in this fashion. Music has always evoked for me a sequence of visual images somehow aligned with the notes at play, and paintings, or any visual images really, also seem to display a still document of rhythm and melody interacting with colour and form. It’s even been demonstrated that the harmonic scale in music follows, or perhaps echoes is a better word, almost precisely the shape and form of flower petals, seashells and bird feathers, all of which are powerful representations of the spiral growth pattern evident in nature. The proportional harmony and ratio of ingredients involved in organic life forms of all kinds exhibit the selfsame pattern, captured famously in the Fibonacci sequence and what is popularly known as the golden mean, where one small section of the pattern maintains the exact same relationship with the bigger portions as the bigger portions do with the whole.

Monday, September 13, 2021

The Courier: The Art of Benedict Cumberbatch

Merab Ninidze and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Courier.

Benedict Cumberbatch has one of his best roles in The Courier (available on Amazon Prime) as Greville Wynne, an English salesman of no great accomplishment who agrees to act as the middleman between MI6 and the CIA and a Russian bigwig named Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) who, in the cause of world peace, offers secrets to Britain and America during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Dominic Cooke’s taut thriller, with a precise, intelligent script by Tom O’Connor, is one of those irresistible stories about a mediocrity who surprises even himself by turning out a hero. And (much as I’ve enjoyed watching him as Doctor Strange) Cumberbatch shows more sides here than any movie has permitted him since he played Alan Turing in the immensely satisfying The Imitation Game – another true-life narrative – seven years ago. It’s admittedly a quirky performance, like one of those deep-cover period-piece portraits Laurence Olivier specialized in during the late phase of his career, when he all but disappeared into his wigs and prosthetics. Cumberbatch doesn’t exactly go in for that kind of physical transformation, but his vocal delivery almost makes a fetish out of Wynne’s Britishisms – his upper-class accent, his narrow vowels and his clipped, practiced aura of professionalism – and he conveys what he’s feeling through tight smiles. Greville’s business ventures take him around the world, but his skills are limited, and he drinks a little too much. The irony of his carrying off the part of a spy is that, according to his wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley), he’s incapable of hiding anything. Some time ago she figured out that he was cheating on her – it was his single marital indiscretion – so when he begins to act secretive again, and his trips to Moscow on an alleged business project take up more and more of his time, she assumes that he’s philandering once again.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Stabbed in the Heart: The Twilight Saga (2008-2012)

Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart in Twilight (2008).

I confess: I too used to shit freely on Twilight (2008). What started changing my mind is the excellent work of its two leads, Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, in their work after Twilight, though never again together after their breakup. This, and not my internalized misogyny against media embraced by teenage girls, is the angle from which I have approached these films, based on the four novels by Stephenie Meyer. And they're fascinating.

Monday, September 6, 2021

CODA: Breaking into Something Real

Emilia Jones in CODA.

The last half hour of CODA (playing in theatres and on Apple TV+), about the hearing daughter of a deaf family of Gloucester fishermen who discovers a talent for singing, is sweet and affecting. The heroine, Ruby (Emilia Jones), who has been interpreting for her parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and her older brother (Daniel Durant) all of her life, struggles with her sense of obligation to them and her need to assert her independence and live the life she wants. (CODA is an acronym for “children of deaf adults.”) When the sympathetic choir director (Eugenio Derbez) encourages Ruby to apply to Berklee School of Music and she invites her family to watch her perform in the school concert, for the first time they begin to understand what singing means to her, and in a knockout climax they sneak into the balcony of the Berklee auditorium during her audition. With her beloved teacher at the piano, she sings Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and signs the lyrics for the benefit of her family. The scene sounds sentimental and obvious when you describe it, and it’s both of those things, but nothing in it seems pushed or tricked up.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Mixed Bag

Jasna Djuricic in Quo Vadis, Aida?

This article contains reviews of Quo Vadis, Aida?, Uncle Frank and Georgetown.

Quo Vadis, Aida?, set at the end of the Bosnian War, is a remarkably taut piece of classical political filmmaking. The writer-director, Jasmila Zbanic, a Bosnian-Yugoslavian native residing in Berlin, has been working in film since 1998 and turning out features for a decade and a half, but I believe this is the first of her movies to open in North America, likely a happy side effect of its nomination for the Foreign Film Oscar. Zbanic’s subject is the series of events that led to the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre, where a combination of the hatred of the Serbs for the Muslims of the town of Srebrenica and the pathetic inadequacy of UNPROFOR, the peacekeeping force of the United Nations, to protect them led to the slaughter of the entire adult male population and the dispersion of the women and children. The Dutchbat peacekeepers established a UN enclave within the town but were too lightly armed to stave off the Bosnian Serb Army under Ratko Mladić’s command, which forced its way in, separated out the men, and bused them to their deaths. (Earlier they lacked the supplies to offer food and water to the Bosnians inside the gate, and lack of space obliged thousands of townspeople to wait outside; some, terrified of the arrival of Mladić’s soldiers, escaped to the woods.)

Monday, August 16, 2021

Stillwater Doesn’t Run Deep

Camille Cottin in Stillwater.

There are two terrific scenes early on in Stillwater, the new movie from director Tom McCarthy. Matt Damon plays Bill, an Oklahoma oil rigger and construction worker who takes periodic trips to Marseilles to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin), who’s in prison there for killing her female lover while Allison was a college student. Like Amanda Knox, whose story partly inspired the movie’s set-up, Allison has continuously proclaimed her innocence.  She’s sure that Lina’s murderer was a seedy young man, one of Lina’s assortment of lovers, whom the police were unable to track down. On this visit she hands her father a letter she’s written in French to her lawyer (Anne Le Ny), asking her to follow up on a young Arab woman who claims to have seen Allison’s suspect. The lawyer dismisses it as a dead end, but Bill doesn’t have the heart to disappoint his daughter – who’s already sat in a cell for five years – so he decides to do some checking of his own. He begins by asking Virginie (Camille Cottin), a French actress and single mother with whom he’s made a connection, to translate the letter for him, and as she does so she realizes with a shock that man she has just met is the father of the American college student who was the subject of the highest-profile local news story of recent years. You can see Virginie struggling to work through her own responses – mostly amazement and compassion. (Cottin is very good.)  When Bill opts to find the young woman Virginie agrees to come along to serve as translator. But the meeting, which takes place at a café deep in the heart of an Arab neighborhood, is a disaster: as soon as they start asking questions, the young woman’s friend warns her that she’s going to get herself in trouble and frightens her into walking out. Virginie has to explain to a frustrated, confused Bill that the issue is race – a white Marseillaise and a white American in territory where they don’t belong are trying to squeeze information out of an Arab – and the tensions resonate with the story of Allison’s court case, where she was portrayed as a white foreigner preying on an Arab woman.