MAP TO THE STARS ***


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FOR DIRECTOR DAVID Cronenberg (“A Dangerous Method”, “Eastern Promises”, “A History of Violence”) the people who inhabit planet Hollywood are really a species who inhabit a separate constellation. Their lives are as empty as the large, opulent empty houses they rattle around in. It is into this constellation of stars that an alien, Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) lands. She is from Jupiter. That’s Jupiter, Florida.

www.indiewireShe’s the coy, charming, totally deranged homicidal daughter of masseuse/therapist/media star, Dr. Stanford Weiss (John Cusak) and his overbearing wife, Christina (Olivia Williams). Stanford and Christina have sired two children, Agatha and a thirteen year old Bieberish punk child star, Benjie (Evan Bird).

Stanford and Christina are also siblings.

Like parents like children: Agatha also wants to be married to her brother.

It must be something in the water.

When Stanford discovers that Agatha is baaaaack (after seven years in a clinic) he’s understandably concerned, you could say hysterical, since the last time she was in town, she burnt down the family home, in some sort of attempt to kill the ghosts of dead people who were haunting her. The fire has severely scarred her. They are the scars of her past upon her person.

The others are not so lucky. Benjie bears his scars inside his tormented head. He sees dead people. They are the ghosts of his guilt.

Ageing star Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) also sees dead people: her mother – who she thinks or at least claims, had abused her sexually as a child.

Incest, like dead people runs rife in this planet.

Havana is obsessed with neutralizing the ravages of age. She’s puffed up her lips and is intent on landing a role that will reprise the movie that made her mother a hit star (and somehow turn back time). She wants to both outperform her mother and through this role, reclaim her youth. But the ghost of her mother is having none of that and she is haunted by it. The role is one that Agatha wants so desperately that she’s prepared to sleep with anyone to get it. (Which is par for the course in planet Hollywood)

Havana has hired Agatha to be her gofer. In this planet, that means doing everything including, we are shown, helping her shit.

And hovering around these stars is wannabe actor, script-writer, chauffeur and resident stud muffin, the man with the movie star sounding face and name – Jerome Fontana (a Robert Pattinson), there to help Agatha feel beautiful and Havana feel young.

Pattinson is out of his depth here. He is a bland invisible presence in what is really a stellar constellation of talent working really really hard to deliver some sort of emotional resonance into a movie geared at little more than making its audience feel haughtily superior to these well paid losers.

It’s fun to watch, but the overriding questions we’re left with as the lights come up are, “And so? Do we care? Is this it?” This is the kind of cathartic navel-gazing that Hollywood seems to revel in. No wonder it headlined Cannes: it’s big hearted Hollywood showing the world how self-critical it can be: the emptiness and perils of fame. But Cronenberg and writer Bruce Wagner (who adapted his film script to book form in “Dead Stars”) are careful to keep anything that veers into tangible reality at arm’s length. The viewers in Cannes need not fidget too much in their seats. The protagonists after all, see dead people; the performances are boldly coloured caricatures of stock weirdoes; there’s enough death and agonizing hysteria to give the viewers at Cannes the way out: we may be rich and famous and in therapy, but we’re not like these weirdoes. These types only exist in the movies.

 

A MOST WANTED MAN ****


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MID WAY THROUGH this magnificent movie, CIA Agent Martha Sullivan, Robin Wright’s character, a brunette version of her character in “House of Cards”, says in response to a question posed to her by Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) that she does what she does “to help keep people safe”. Later on, in front of a committee, when he’s asked the same question, Gunther repeats Martha’s words. He skulks around in the dark of the night, well outside the law, as the head of a deep covert German spy agency “to keep people safe”

The big difference between Martha’s and Gunther’s identical statements is that even for him, this ‘been there, done that’, seen too much, cynical spy master, his is a genuine expression of honesty. He’s somehow, despite it all still acting for the good of keeping people safe. Martha’s attitude represents pretty much the attitude of the people Phillip is up against: she does what she does for the headlines and the career boost it’ll give her.

John Le Carré’s novel turned movie (and written by him) is, as you’d expect, set in the shadows. And it’s claustrophobic: the action moves from one small, enclosed space to another. We’re in a world of people listening in on others, following them and plotting out moves like chess masters. Indeed, probably the two only ‘innocent’ or rather naïve people in the movie are chess players. Le Careé’s cynicism is reflected in the fact that in the end, in this world of lies and subterfuge, honor and truth really are out of place.

The wanted man of the title is ostensibly Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobyrgin), a refugee Chechen Muslim who has slipped into Hamburg, a city we are told on high alert ever since 9/11 (i.e everywhere). He’s there to locate one Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), a shady financier, who holds in trust for him over €10M – the legacy from his dead, gangster father. The German police believe he’s in the city to finance and organize a terrorist plot. They want him caught, arrested and Guantanamo-ed.

For Gunther and his team, however, Issa is just a – probably innocent – lead to much bigger fish. Gunther’s following the money and playing the long game. His intent is to get to the source, to unearth the heart of terrorist funding. As he says, “the minnoes get eaten by the barracudas; the barracudas get eaten by the sharks”. He’s after the killer-whales that eat the shark. It’s a strategy that requires patience and gamesmanship.

His American counterpart – the ruthless, double-crossing Martha – who is quite clearly pulling the strings of both the German counter-intelligence and Internal Security agencies, is all for the fast kill. The quick headline-grabbing imprisonment…which will get her the kudos. She’s happy to sacrifice the sharks for a publicized kill of the barracudas. That at least gives the appearance of success in the ‘war against terror’. It’s a policy that ensures that the cycle of terrorism is forever perpetuated.

These are the guardians of our security.

The most wanted man remains, despite arrests, at large.

In a movie without a car chase or a murder, and with hardly any action to speak of, Director Anton Corbijn (and writer Le Careé) who also gave us Clooney’s moody spy thriller, “The American”, offers us as taut a thriller as you’re likely to get this year. As the story unfolds, and the red herrings are dropped here and there, the audience is kept at the edge of their seats. We know things are going to go wrong. They always do. But when and where? Will people get caught out? Will Gunther’s hunch prove right?

What makes this so irresistibly gripping is its compelling credibility. Who knows how this world of spies really operate. No matter. “A Most Wanted Man” makes us feel that we’re not an audience to an entertainment, but an eavesdropper to a shadowy reality. You keep thinking, as you follow the story down its dark tunnel of lies and deceptions that this really is how it actually works. And this is a credit not only to Corbijn, but to the persuasiveness of the acting.

Philip Seymour Hoffman towers over the movie. My, will he be missed! His Gunther is the absolutely believable antithesis of the movie spy: overweight, alcoholic and chain-smoking. When he speaks (in what seems to me a flawless German accent), his low rumble of words well up from somewhere deep and dark. He manages to combine physical menace with an avuncular tenderness and we can understand precisely why he can both seduce people to go against their friends, and stand up fearlessly to anyone in his way.

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Hoffman is not alone. Robin Wright’s CIA Agent Martha is all smiling insincerity. Willem Dafoe’s Tommy is the sleazy wealthy banker forced into acting for the forces of good, despite his best intentions; and the surprise of the movie: Rachel MacAdams as the naïve liberal human rights lawyer, Anabel Rihjter (in a world where she has no rights). She is a compelling balance between vulnerable stupidity and pragmatic acquiescence.

Sadly, this bureaucracy of back-stabbing spies is the force tasked with keeping us all safe. Lock your doors!

OBVIOUS CHILD: Not at all obvious why this is so well reviewed


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“OVBVIOUS CHILD” DOES offer a rare moment in mainstream (ish) US cinema: its protagonist (Jenny Slate as Donna), drunk one night, gets knocked up, pregnant and decides on an abortion. The ta-da moment is that she actually goes through with it. So much so that it’s being lauded as the “abortion rom com” in the US. Hollywood has given us an increasingly long list of drunk, banged up, pregnant, heart-broken protagonists. This seems to reflect their take on the zeitgeist of modern romance. But almost always love, God, the need to cater to the (largely fundamentalist) mainstream audience or simply the conventions of rom-com where the intrusion of reality is verboten, demands a change of mind.

So it’s a sort of first.

This is the only possible reason why you should consider parting with your money to see this  irritating, cringe-inducing, humourless, often puerile exercise in cinematic self-indulgence.

Ms. Slate is a stand-up comedian and part-timer on “Saturday Night Live”, who has broken out of the club circuit to become the hugely feted star of this well received movie.

The protagonist in this story (Donna) is, you guessed it, a stand-up comedian. Well, she does ‘do’ stand-up and does offer a monologue: a riff on her life and her (embarrassed) boyfriend (Gabe Liedman). But, though we see shots of people laughing, of humour, there is none.

The movie lodges itself entirely in the brain and obsessive perspective of Donna. The people with whom she interfaces – her ex and present lovers (Liedman and Jake Lacy), her BFF (Gaby Hoffman), her parents (Richard Kind and Polly Draper) and her manager (Paul Briganti) – aren’t so much real people as foils to her faux angst. She cringes, cries, sleeps, gets drunk, cuddles up with mummy, has some version of chaste sex (with her bra on), eats etc. all to the vouyeristic delight of director Gillian Robespierre’s camera. The whole thing feels like a vanity project and seems to be screaming at us: “look at me now, how cute I really am, and how funny I can be, even when my mascara’s running”

The directing offers no relief. First-timer Robespierre may have a bright future ahead of her (and that there’s actually another female director in Hollywood is worthy of applause) but this feature is clunky with choppy editing and a generally muddy tone.

It’s all very claustrophobic.

Donna’s not a particularly interesting, funny, intelligent or pleasant person; and her story is a minor-key tale of love lost and love found without bigger aspirations. So it’s difficult to understand why Jenny should feel that the paying audience should give a damn.

Importantly, the esthetic wall between the character (Donna) and the actor (Jenny), the performance and the performer seems so porous that the result is a sort of ontological mess. The “Donna” who isn’t particularly interesting and the “Jenny” who expects (we presume) the audience to give a damn feel like one and the same.

Oh, Sarah Silverman where are you?

 

TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT: Four Stars


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IN THIS MOVIE (“Two Days, One Night”/ “Deux Jours, Une Nuit”) about the impossible choice between self-preservation and selflessness, directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne establish a brilliant premise: Sandra (a gaunt Marion Cotillard), suffering from debilitating depression, but working her way back to health, has been fired from her job. She and her husband need her income to manage their mortgage and the basic life expenses for their small family. Reluctantly, M. Dumont, the management has advised its small staff that, after a Gerry-meandered election, the necessary choice between Sandra’s salary or a bonus of €1000 has come out in favor of the bonus. Most people opted, perhaps without too much thought, for themselves. But Sandra has managed to persuade management to re-do the election, this time with secret balloting and without the veiled threats of a foreman. However, to win enough votes, Sandra must lift herself out of the stupor of her depression (with or without doses of Xanax) and, over a weekend try to persuade enough people to choose for her and vote against their personal interests.

She first must choose action over inaction (she’d much rather simply curl up into sleep) and must fight against her absolute despair…only to be able to humble herself enough to woo people away from the lure of a bonus. It’s humiliating. And even when she finds the wherewithal to summon up the strength to plead with people to choose against their self-interests, she lacks the eloquence of persuasion. In “The Secret Agent”, Conrad speaks of “the lament of poor humanity, rich in suffering and indigent in words”

Sandra is so “indigent in words” and her despair is so intense, that at times she literally cannot find the words to explain herself… without drugs. Without the words to express herself, and potentially without the job to sustain her family, Sandra’s sense of self disappears. In her eyes, she has become an invisible person, regarded merely as a threat that must be repulsed. It becomes more and more apparent that her search for the votes is more than a search for a job; it is also a search for the self-worth that employment offers; a search for visibility and for life.

As she journeys from house to house, she is confronted by others, equally desperate for any additional scrap of money. This is society on the edge, which we experience from the (intelligent) writing that allows us brief, but revealing glimpses into the lives of her fellow sufferers. Though Sandra is in every frame, this isn’t so much a movie about her, as it is about the extent to which our lives are shaped and influenced by the people around us, about our interconnectedness. Sandra may see herself as nothing more than a two dimensional threat, but her presence at the doors of her colleagues and their reactions to her predicament opens up rich dimensions of character and sharp insights into the lives they live. We are met with a kaleidoscope of very human, very real responses: fearful, protective, empathetic, resentful, helpful etc.

One common factor in all the reactions is the need people have to blend in, to go with the flow, to effectively avoid the discomfort of choosing. Every one of them asks her the same question: how many people have agreed to forego the bonus? It’s simply so much easier to vote with the majority than to have the temerity of individual conviction. But the delicate balance of those for and against her means people are forced into making an individual choice. They can’t hide behind group-think. They (and she for that matter), have to choose, no matter how difficult that is.

Cotillard never quite wins our empathy, but nevertheless she pulls off the role brilliantly. It’s a difficult role to play: she has to be passive enough to be a mirror to the angst of others and yet imbue this passivity with enough latent passion to make her final passage into life a credible one.

And it’s a profoundly credible story. Fortunately, since this is no focus-grouped Hollywood fare, the movie avoids the music-soaring triumphalism you’d expect of an Oscar-seeking star powered “vehicle”. It’s low keyed, it feels real; and it offers no glib criticism of those who would put their bonus over her job security, nor any pretense that “doing what’s right” is any route to a better future.

“Two Days, One Night” lights up what is undoubtedly the overriding crisis of our generation: the desperation to find and keep a job in a world where unemployment has become endemic. It’s not a crisis that we’re seeing much of these days in the news. ISIS, the Israel/Palestine conflict, the Ukraine and Ebola have knocked this issue off the headlines.

Somewhere a banker is rejoicing

 

LUCY: Brainless


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LUC BESSON’S “LUCY” is a trippy grab-bag of movies, styles and pretensions about a woman whose brain capacity explodes from (we are told) the 10% that humans use to its full 100% capacity. The movie is the bastard child of Terrence Malick with Marvel Comics.

We meet Lucy (Scarlett Johansson acting as though she recently had a lobotomy) when she’s forced to carry a bag of CPH4 – the spark that creates DNA and life itself…but you knew that – in her stomach. Besson wants to get his fair share of the lucrative Asian market, so much of the initial action and all of the diabolical, sneering, ruthless but astonishingly incompetent bad guys are Taiwanese. One of these ruthless types kicks her in the stomach, the bag explodes and voila, knowledge and strange powers fill her fragile frame.

Since as we know, and Besson want us to remember, knowledge is power (Lucy’s kick in the stomach was a version of eating the apple). The more knowledge she gains of everything, the more her power grows. Morgan Freeman, still playing the voice of God, and here imitating a famous neuro-scientist, fills us in on what’s happening, since the brains of us poor viewers are still at that 10% capacity.

Besson wants to ensure that we really, really, understand what’s going on, so he backs up his story with multiple allusions (for instance, when Lucy, in her pre 100% power mode is being tracked, we cut away to a leopard tracking impala). These Terrence Malick gimmicks are meant to lend the movie an air “Quality Cinema”

As Lucy gains in her cerebral capacity, we whizz past “The Matrix” via “Inception” by way of “The Exorcist”; we reach “Under Her Skin”, past the crawling darkness of Tobey Maguire’s “Spiderman 3” and flash deep into the beginning of the Universe we saw in “The Tree of Life” (Lucy as your 10% of cerebral capacity knows is the name of the ape: ‘the original mother’ from whom we’re all descended)

Bad guys are sent to sleep when they threaten her (now there’s a super-power to be desired), she is able to change her hair colour at will and the more she grows in knowledge, the more nonplussed she looks. I think Scarlett’s expression was from a different script from the movie. In the movie her character became the sum of all knowledge, in her acting, she simply became more dumbed out with every frame

But, the good news – it’s all over in 90 minutes.

Can’t wait for the director’s cut

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FINDING VIVIAN MAIER: A Well Developed Positive


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FINDING VIVIAN MAIER is a fascinating documentary about the discovery of the stunning photography of an almost invisible nanny, Vivian Maier.

For years she nannied for a number of (reasonably wealthy) families. Her wards apparently loved her; their parents trusted her -this French-sounding, eccentric, deeply private woman. What none of them were aware of was that she was a skilled, obsessive observer and photographer of New York street life. She’d lead her young wards all over the city – to them, journeys of fantasy well away from the milieu of their class – in search of the faces, the moments, the light that have made her, posthumously, a deservedly lauded, master photographer.

Her photos – the faces, the casual gestures, the ironic compositions, the extraordinary light- all manage to suggest fleeting moments of honest emotion, as if she were able to still flickers of thought and capture the unexpected intimacy between the observer and the observed

But who was this woman? What drove this hidden passion?

The story begins when John Maloof, the director, in search of interesting vintage photos for a project he was working on, bought blind, a box of negatives. They weren’t quite what he was looking for. Even so, he could recognize that these weren’t the typical family snaps; he scanned some of them and uploaded them onto a blog. The response was overwhelming. Here was art in search of an artist.

So just who was the photographer? All he had were the images, vignettes of frozen lives and passions, but no information about their creator. His pursuit eventually lead him to the mother-lode of material, all stuffed into a storage locker. There, he untombed dozens of boxes, packing crates, suitcases, plastic containers, bags, back-packs… anything that could hold “stuff”. Amongst this “stuff” – the memorabilia of a life – he found thousands of negatives, undeveloped rolls of 35mm and 18mm (movie) film (over 100,000 of them) along with her clothes, sacks of receipts, uncashed tax refund checks, notes, memos, and assorted junk.

Here in a sense was Vivian Maier, a woman who seemed to want to hold on to the past, to capture on film or via hundreds of sundry objects, the very flow of time. The uncovered objects and film reveal to us what she looked like – tall, stately, with a certain European elegance and dressed in a style that leant an air of outsider mystery. But who really was this reluctant artist?

Maloof ends his documentary with an image that summarizes its journey: we see, in a dark-room, a photographic sheet in its well of developing fluid slowly revealing its image. So too is Vivian Maier slowly revealed. Sort of.

We meet many of her wards – now adults- as well as sundry others with whom she interacted. They were, it seems, from their contradictory and superficial recall, equally nonplussed as to who she really was, where she came from, why she remained in this relatively lowly profession all her life; and, to some of her employers, what were in those ever accumulating boxes (which says much of big city anomie I guess).

Indeed, her name itself was as much a chameleon as she was: She was Vivian Maier, Meyer, Mayer, sometimes even V. Smith. She spoke with a French accent, but one professional scholar of speech patterns reveals that it was a fake. No one really knew her. It was as if she was no more real than the vague memory of her wards or subjects. Only now, long dead, Maloof tries to crystallize these memories to piece together some sort of rounded picture of the reluctant artist. She remains elusive – more as an idea than a real person.

So who is the reality behind the idea?

We’ll never know. We may never ‘find’ Vivian Maier, but through her photography, what Maloof did find is a way one person looked out on the world; not simply what she saw, but how she saw it.

And that’s quite a find

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THE BUTLER: Serves up a treat


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PERHAPS IT WAS the way the movie had been advertised, or maybe I was simply prejudiced against spending two hours with Forrest Whitaker as Uncle Tom in the White House. At best, it seemed as though “The Butler” would simply be an exercise in mawkishness. Whatever. I was wrong. For all it’s faults, this is a well written, nicely executed, layered movie about the tension between compliance and resistance; between the private, intimate world where family takes precedence over all and a public, social world where a person must act on his conscience…in the public good.

Whitaker, as Cecil Gaines, is the eponymous butler in a movie that is the – surprisingly – gritty counterpoint to “Forrest Gump”. Both movies present a panorama of US history using the device of the ‘naive’ observer. But the history “The Butler” presents is not Gump’s happy box of chocolates, but the (ongoing) awful history of race relations in the US.

The movie begins as young Gaines witnesses the murder of his father. He has been killed for daring to resist the serial rape of his wife by a young White cotton planter. In an act of, perhaps guilt or contrition, the young, shocked child is removed from the field by the planter’s elderly White mother, Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave in this star-dense cast). Cecil escapes by becoming the “house nigger”.

In that opening scene, the story’s social, poilitical and human elements are set in motion. The act of resistance and the brutality of the reprisals that follow are recurring themes. Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer), the young White planter is a thuggish holdover from the typical slave owner. Freedom does not equal equality. But really, the movie suggests, Thomas’ behavior is no less abusive than the behavior of the State. And in the face of this history, “The Butler” suggests that there are two roads to follow: the private road of compliance and escape or the public road of resistance and engagement.

The house is the world of escape and the house negro, as he is referred to in more polite terms, rises through diligence, subservience and an ability to observe without being observed, right up to the White House.

Gaines, scarred by his past (the Black past of slavery and oppression) matures as a reserved and deeply conservative man. He remains aloof and neutral to the roiling turbulence of the America he lives in; an America of the KKK, Watts, inner-city riots, Martin Luther King and the rise of the Black Panthers. His passivity is counterpointed by dual forces of resistance: that of his son – a troubled, increasingly angry, increasingly politicized young man – and that of a series of courageous presidents, from Kennedy to Johnson, Nixon and even Reagan.

Like Annabeth Westfall at the beginning, their conscience and humanity wins out over an embedded, socialized sense of contempt of “the negro”.

Gaines resists the need to resist, to fight the injustice of an unjust society. This is the path taken by his son. But it is a path that so threatens the father’s sense of order that there can be no common ground between them. The result is banishment. English actor David Oyelowo is Louis Gaines, Cecil’s son – sent packing by an angry, confused, stern father.

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Compliance and resistance cannot co-exist.

And having as a child, escaped the bloody reality of the world he lived in before, Gaines continues to flee reality for the ordered and protective cocoon of the private worlds of his home and the White House.

Despite decades of resistance, despite laws and State troopers, change is slow. Racism persists. So too for Cecil, change is painfully slow… until an epiphany of sorts occurs when he is at a State reception, not as butler, but as guest. He realizes finally that equality is tokenism. That his conservatism and restraint will never shift the status quo and that the peace he has sought for all his life is, like his presence at the dinner, a sham; mere tokenism.

Cecil’s story can easily be seen as a kind of cop out, the coward’s way. But the movie never editorializes against him. Whitaker gives his character a dignity and a deep sense of decency. He’s just an ordinary man, working hard in an unfair system to get ahead in life, to feed and protect his family, and his passivity is not so much a cop out as a very understandable and human response.

Equally understandable is his shift, as an old man, to the son’s side. Finally he understands and can empathize with the power of resistance. Father and son, compliance and resistance need each other. They can live together

Director Lee Daniels handles difficult material well. In a movie that could easily have been either strident or sentimental, he balances the two to give us a deeply human drama as well as a richly moving history lesson.

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The list of Presidents served by Gaines starts with Eisenhower (Robin Williams) and at times the movie does feel like some sort of must-have “star vehicle” with James Marsden (Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (Johnson), Alan Rickman (Reagan) John Cusack (Nixon), Jane Fonda (Nancy Reagan), Maria Carey, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz and Oprah Winfrey (as Gaines’s wife). Always nice to have such a stellar bunch, but it’s distracting and often gives the delicate texture of the movie a sour note.

The movie ends on a hopeful note. Obama has just been elected. Equality at last. Equality at last. Well, we can only hope that the butler died before the killings in Ferguson. Equality is yet to come