Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL
Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

18 April 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria

I saw Clouds of Sils Maria last night and am still not quite sure what i think of it. I am, in fact, a little hesitant to express my ambivalence in the light of all the glowing reviews the film, directed by Olivier Assayas, has been met with, and am secretly worried that i will lose feminist cred by not declaring my undying love for it. My friend and i decided that it is pretty much what you would get if Ingmar Bergman did a remake of All about Eve: slow, talky, ambiguous, the kind of movie that you appreciate more in retrospect than while you are watching. It's not a movie i would encourage everyone i know to run out and see, but neither would i discourage it. I'm sitting here this morning thinking about it (as i knew i would be) and am very glad to have seen it. It is a movie that explores questions of time, aging, celebrity, art, and above all the lives of women. It is, of course, a rare pleasure to watch a movie with three strong female roles played by Kristen Stewart (who is finally gaining some acknowledgement as the good actress she is), Chlöe Grace Moretz (in a chillingly chameleon-like role), and the always mesmerizing Juliette Binoche. An additional treat was the presence in the film of Angela Winkler, who -- to this viewer at least -- is best known for her powerful youthful performances in The Lost Honor of Katerina Blum (1975) and The Tin Drum (1979).

The film takes great advantage of its setting and made me want to pack my bags and go back to Switzerland and walk along Alpine trails having deep conversations. Plus it included archival footage from this beautiful little 1924 documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQMT5v0yk9o.
In that sense, it reminds me of Mindwalk (1990), another such cerebral journey through a remarkable yet strangely ephemeral landscape. In the latter film, three people meet on Mont St. Michel, an island accessible only briefly at low tide. In Clouds of Sils Maria, the play that made Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) a star and to which she is debating a return is named after the Maloja Snake, a phenomenon in which -- under specific atmospheric conditions -- the clouds slowly and sinuously weave a path between the mountains, a metaphor for both the younger character in the play and the young actress aspiring to play the role. 

As the number of other films that i have mentioned thus far would suggest, one of the very real pleasures of Clouds of Sils Maria for any serious film lover is the extent to which it evokes connections to a surprisingly varied array of other films. In one of the very few truly lighthearted moments in the movie, for example, film star Maria Enders and her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) go to see the latest movie starring Jo-Ann Ellis (Chlöe Grace Moretz), the young tabloid-magnet who wants to reprise Enders' star-making role. The film is a 3-D sci-fi  trifle that -- to this viewer at least -- appears to have been filmed using the same set as the equally silly movie-within-a-movie in Albert Brooks' Modern Romance (1981)

I may not be there just yet, but i think that i might very well end up loving Clouds of Sils Maria in that enduring way that is so much more satisfying than those movies that we can't wait to drag all our friends to but then have trouble remembering a few months later. In the meantime, i leave it to you, dear reader, to see it if you will and form your own opinion.

21 February 2015

Still Alice

Although the movies nominated for Best Picture this year would seem to suggest that the only lives worth narrating on the screen are the lives of men (the vast majority of whom are white), there have been some wonderful films that focus on the lives of women this year. Wildwhich i've already written about on this blog, is one of them. Still Alice is another. 

I saw Still Alice yesterday and recommend it very highly. I woke up this morning still thinking about it (my litmus test for good movies). Julianne Moore's performance as a brilliant academic diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's is devastating (I would still like to see Marion Cotillard win Best Actress but will not be disappointed if Julianne Moore (or Reese Witherspoon) wins instead). To watch this acclaimed professor of Linguistics struggling to remember the right word, slowly losing her ability to communicate, is tragic. I held off on seeing the movie for a long time because i have such a terrible fear of developing Alzheimer's and being stuck here on this planet, unable to make a graceful exit. But i'm glad i finally saw it. 

The movie very much rests on Moore's capable shoulders. It's not an easy thing for a movie to recreate the disorientation and panic of a mind that can no longer be relied on. The film uses a lot of extremely soft focus to represent Alice's confused mental state. In one memorable scene, it is only her face that we see clearly, while the familiar landscape of Columbia University, where she has taught for many years, dissolves into an unintelligible blur. But there is only so much that can be conveyed by manipulating the camera's focus. Ultimately, the narrative must depend on the character's face, her posture, her failing diction, to tell the story, and Moore does this beautifully.

The scenes between Moore and Kristen Stewart, who plays her youngest daughter, were especially touching to me in a personal way: their relationship reminded me a little of my often bumpy relationship with my own mother in my youth. I'm sure that other viewers will relate to their situation as well. And i just want to say here and now, in public, that i like Kristen Stewart. I am sorry that she was ever cast in those silly Twilight movies that seem to have made a lot of people hate her; and i'm very happy that i've never seen them. Instead, i remember her as that young girl who was so captivating in Into the Wild. It wasn't a big role, but it was lovely and memorable. And her performance in this film is very good as well.

As much as i enjoy watching movies of almost all kinds and as much as i am looking forward to watching the Academy Awards tomorrow night, i have just one thing to say this year: Oscars be damned! There are some very good movies about women out there. Get out there and see them!

The Obligatory Pre-Oscar Commentary

Every year about this time i start to panic: the Academy Awards are less than 48 hours away and i still haven't seen all the best picture nominees. Nevertheless, for what it's worth, here are some thoughts on this year's nominees.

I'm not going to go through any lengthy commentary about the movies that are up for the Best Picture Oscar. I thought that each of the movies i saw was wonderful in its own way; it seems wrong somehow to say that one is the best among them. Birdman was technically brilliant, mesmerizing, and featured a fantastic performance by Michael Keaton. And why on earth did it not get a nomination for editing? The Grand Budapest Hotel was just lovely--simultaneously sweet, silly, and profound. I just read a very interesting article by Norman L. Eisen in The Atlantic that discusses Grand Budapest in relation to its treatment of the Holocaust and memory (the story within a story within a story); you should read it. 

I also loved Boyhood. I wrote about Richard Linklater and his commitment to the very long form of storytelling in an earlier post. Despite the title, Boyhood is really the very poignant story of an entire family, as children grow, parents age, and relationships change. Although it is woefully misinformed about the present dismal state of careers in academia, it is otherwise wonderfully realistic and true in its exploration of human nature. 

Selma did that thing that Hollywood does when it is at its very best: it told a story, one that we all thought we knew, but told it in such a powerful way that it became new and immediate and moving. I wept through the entire movie and couldn't stop thinking about it for days. Someone should give the Academy a swift kick in its collective butt for failing to nominate Ava DuVernay for Best Director and David Oyelowo for Best Actor. 

One of the reasons i liked Selma so much was that it took this epic story that is so much a part of the fabric of our history, and looked at one transformative moment in the long--and still ongoing--fight for fairness and equality. And unlike the usual Hollywood biopic, it did not condense the struggle of countless African Americans and make it into just one man's story. It had scope. While Dr. King was clearly the central character, you never lost the sense of all the other people engaged in the struggle. 

Under ordinary circumstances, i am not a big fan of biopics, which might help to explain why i haven't seen the other nominees for Best Picture yet. I may try to see The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game tomorrow. I'm sure they are both very good movies, but i just haven't felt compelled to run out and see either one of them. I'd like to see Whiplash as well, but like the other two, i could gladly wait and watch it when it becomes available for home viewing. 

I did not see American Sniper. But that's all right--everybody else in America did. And most of them seem to have liked it. I have very little desire to see it, although at some point i will probably have to watch it for research purposes. But until then you are on your own. 

Much has been said already about the lack of diversity in this year's nominations. It's disappointing that all of the Best Picture nominees are centered on male characters (all but one of whom are white males). It's especially disappointing that the woman who directed one of those films was overlooked. But despite the Academy's lack of vision, there were some truly wonderful women's roles this year, and some equally wonderful women bringing those roles to life. I would have a very hard time deciding whether the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role should go to Reese Witherspoon for Wild (and why oh why was this great movie not nominated for Best Picture?), Julianne Moore in Still Alice, or Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night. But if i were forced to make that decision, i would have to choose Marion Cotillard. That was a performance of such subtlety, tragedy, and dignity, that i still get tears in my eyes just thinking about it a month after seeing the film. I wanted to write about Two Days when i first saw it, but to be perfectly honest, i find it harder and harder to work up the energy to write on this blog that apparently no one reads. Ah well! 

Despite the fact that i've spent this entire post claiming that i can't or don't want to choose who should win the Oscars, i guess i do have a few favorites:

Best Picture: Grand Budapest Hotel -- in part because comedies are so rarely given the respect they deserve. 

I'm not going to bother with the categories for male actors. I'm going to ignore them. Because David Oyelowo.

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Patricia Arquette in Boyhood

Best Director: Regardless of who wins, what i really want is for Kanye West to storm the stage and say that Ava DuVernay should have won. For once i'd agree with him.

01 January 2015


It has been my practice since the start of this millennium to see a movie on either New Year's Eve or New Year's Day. At the top of my current must-see list was Foxcatcher, but when i noticed that there was a morning showing of Wild that would end around the time the first showing of Foxcatcher began, i decided to be especially good to myself and see both, since i am woefully behind in my moviegoing this season. I hadn't read Cheryl Strayed's memoir, on which the film is based, and honestly knew very little about the story, besides the fact that it was about a woman who goes on an epic walk-about. Somewhere in the back of my mind, i feared that it was one of those self-indulgent stories about a woman who has the money and leisure time to go off on a spiritual quest to solve problems that seem far less pressing than my own. Nevertheless, i knew that Wild had gotten good reviews and was being nominated for several awards, so i thought it would be a good lead-in to the main feature. As things turned out, i was so moved by Wild that i had to postpone Foxcatcher until another day so that i could savor the mood a little longer. 

There are movies that are fun to write about, whether it is because of their aesthetics, their history, the compelling performances, or just because they tell a good story. Then there are movies that I find it very difficult to write about because i connect with them on such a personal level that i can't even say if they are "good" by objective standards or not. I'm pretty certain that Wild is a "good" movie, but i'm even more certain that it was the best movie i could have chosen to see today. It touched me in a way that few movies have, perhaps in part because when i was young and -- like the protagonist -- dealing with grief in some very un-therapeutic ways, i too dreamed of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, of losing myself  in the beauty of the natural world and challenging myself in its unforgiving terrain. But i never did. 

There is, of course, a long tradition of losing oneself in the wilds, whether it be Dante's midlife crisis, Thoreau's rather tame wilderness of Walden Pond, or even Christopher McCandless's ill-fated trek to Alaska. But it is, as the old Joe Jackson song says, different for girls. There are a whole additional array of terrors in the form of men who may or may not be predators, which any woman who has been out there on her own is bound to have encountered at least once. And the film does a good job of capturing that substratum of anxiety that requires a woman who undertakes a solitary quest like this one to have an additional layer of courage, beyond what is needed to face the physical challenges of the environment and the psychological challenges of having all that time alone with her own thoughts, memories, and regrets. 

Above all else, this movie felt honest to me: honest in the weariness, determination, and occasional terror of Reese Witherspoon's performance; honest in the graceful and ephemeral presence of Laura Dern as the mother whose death she still mourns; and honest in the bruises, the pain, and the triumph of a life-restoring journey. 

12 July 2014

Life Itself

Roger Ebert is one of those rare public figures that i wish i'd had a chance to meet. Whenever i would read one of his reviews i would feel almost as though i did know him, as though we'd just watched the movie together and were discussing it over a cup of coffee afterward. That's the kind of writer he was: personal, clear, entertaining, insightful.

There was so much about him that i admired: not just his wonderful reviews, but also his absolute and democratic love of movies, his openness about his alcoholism, his refusal to accept defeat when confronted with a level of illness that would send most of us into utter despair. And yet, i was a bit hesitant about seeing Steve James's documentary Life Itself. I was a little afraid that it would be a simple praise-piece. How could it be otherwise? After all, Roger had died just over a year ago after a very public struggle with an especially virulent form of cancer; and, although it is a cliche to describe someone's struggle with cancer as "brave," Roger Ebert had been brave, incomparably brave in confronting his illness, and in remaining in the public eye after surgery had drastically changed his appearance. And he'd been both brilliant in his embrace of new technologies that gave him a way of continuing to share his thoughts on the movies and generous in providing a forum for young critics to reach a wider audience and continue the work he had begun.

Of course, i should have known that Steve James would not direct a puff-piece, that like his classic, Hoop Dreams (1994), this would be a complex picture of a man who could be an avuncular movie reviewer or a competitive pain in the ass. Life Itself is a loving look into the life of this man whom, on one level, we all knew so well. Perhaps because i am no longer young myself, i was especially moved by the way in which the film makes us reflect on what it means to reach the end of a life well-lived. And by "well-lived" i do not mean perfect, for Roger Ebert was anything but. He was, as we all are, a work in progress--but oh what he managed to accomplish in the course of that life! 

The camera is unflinching in capturing some of the details of Ebert's final months, and it is unflinching in large part because that seems to be what Roger wanted. We watch uncomfortably as he receives nourishment through a tube in his throat: it is excruciating to watch, because it was clearly excruciating for him to endure. But endure he did, for as long as he could. And he let the camera catch his pain, because that too is part of life. And he kept working. That is perhaps what amazes me most: he never stopped. When his distinctive midwestern voice was stilled, he found new ways to continue sharing his thoughts on the movies with his audience. Even his signature "thumbs-up" gesture took on new and more poignant significance as it became a more general way for him to communicate and a symbol of his enduring optimism. 

Ebert's life wasn't just reviewing movies, and the film does a fine job of capturing the complexities of his relationships with other people, from his often contentious professional partnership with the late Gene Siskel to the friendship he shared with directors like Werner Herzog and  Rahmin Bahrani. But most touching are the scenes between Ebert and his wife Chaz and the glimpses they offer of a life filled with love, mutual understanding, and a sense of two people who both knew and appreciated how lucky they were to have found each other and shared their lives. 

When the end credits of Life Itself began to roll, i found myself unable to leave the theater because i couldn't stop the tears from rolling down my face. They weren't sad tears, despite the pain and debilitating surgeries that Roger Ebert endured and the emotional pain that was so clearly written on Chaz's face as her beloved husband struggled through his final illness. They were instead tears of appreciation for this reminder of -- as the title says -- life itself, in all its beauty and pain, its struggles and accomplishments. 

20 April 2014

Vampires of Detroit

Up until this afternoon, if you had asked me to name my favorite cinematic vampires, i would have probably rattled off a list: Nosferatu (both Max Schreck and Klaus Kinski), the classic Bela Lugosi, the oddly coiffed Gary Oldman. But at the top of that list would have been the poignant castrato child-vampire who befriends a pale and lonely little boy in that moody Swedish masterpiece,  Let the Right One In (2008). Today, after seeing Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, that list has to be redrawn. This is the vampire world i'd bare my neck to be a part of -- a world in which even the blood, sipped from delicate aperitif glasses, looks delicious. Imagine what it would be like to have such an existence, to survive long enough to learn dozens of languages, read thousands of books, master an orchestra's worth of musical instruments, and converse with a centuries-old Christopher Marlowe (still holding a grudge against Shakespeare though he's outlived him by 400 years); how it would feel to walk the sinuous, shadowy streets of Tangiers or the ominous wasteland of post-industrial, post-prosperity Detroit, at midnight without fear. 

Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston)

Manic Pixie Dream Vampire Ava (Mia Wasikowska)

Only Lovers Left Alive does not depend on an intricate plot or an orgy of blood-sucking; in fact, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), the one exuberantly insatiable vampire in the film, is presented as a comic figure, a "vampire brat" as my companion and i dubbed her. Instead, the movie focuses on relationships and reflections on the state of the world as viewed through the eyes of those who have had a very long time to observe it. Central to the film is the relationship between the lovers of the title, Eve (Tilda Swinton), who somehow manages to simultaneously convey both serenity and ecstasy, and Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a melancholy musician/inventor depressed to the point of suicide at the mess the living ("zombies," as he refers to them) have made of the Earth. They live on opposite sides of the world: she in a sumptuous nest of tapestries and books in Tangiers and he, surrounded by rare musical instruments in what would seem to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but is in fact Detroit. Yet they are joined at the soul and deeply in love. When he needs her, she flies to his side (on the red-eye, for obvious reasons). Eve and Adam complement each other both in appearance and philosophy. Both are pale, elegant figures in their century-old dressing gowns and dark glasses, but where the dark-haired and black-clad Adam seems almost paralyzed by despair in his tinkerer's Paradise (i.e. junk heap) of a house, Eve spins in dervishly delight, her wild mane of blonde hair swirling about her. Through the window of Eve's Tangiers home she looks out on a small plaza crisscrossed by people and activity throughout the night. Adam is cocooned, cringing in horror when the doorbell rings, looking out on the street through a makeshift security camera set-up at the unwanted groups of teen admirers of his music who have somehow discovered where he lives. His walls are covered with old cardboard egg-crates for sound insulation, further cushioning him from the world outside. 

I wish that i knew Jim Jarmusch, that i could call him on the phone right now to tell him how much i loved this smart, funny, erotic, and thought-provoking movie. And then i'd ask him how he discovered that Detroit was not only an exquisite counterpoint to Tangiers, but also the ideal setting for the melancholy Adam to make his home. It is in many ways the perfect illustration of the themes of mortality, immortality, and ecological suicide that the film explores. When Eve arrives in Detroit, Adam takes her on a tour of the city in all its crumbling splendor (with one happy side-trip to the house where Jack White grew up); the most striking location on this tour is the Michigan Theatre building, one of those grand movie palaces of the 1920s, now used as a parking garage -- a beautiful ruin of cathedral-like dimensions, reduced to sheltering the product that was once the pride of Detroit, the cars that, for a while at least, made this city rich.  And while i had him on the phone, i would tell him how much Only Lovers reminded me of a very different movie, the 2012 documentary Searching for Sugarman, with which it shares many similarities in its Detroit settings -- from the lonely deteriorating house on an eerily empty street that the musician calls home, to the abandoned factories and seedy bars of this once-great city. Most of all, like Only Lovers Left Alive, Searching for Sugarman has at its heart the story of a musician's musician, a man who through his art has survived the rumors of his death. So call me, Jim Jarmusch, let's talk about it.

Watch the trailer for Only Lovers Left Alive here.

15 June 2013

Celine and Jesse Redux

The first thought that occurred to me after seeing Before Midnight (2013) was what a luxury it is that a film like this even exists: a luxury for director Richard Linklater, born of his ability to work with dedicated actors and on a low-enough budget to make the kind of movies that can take the time to explore -- really explore -- the complexities of human relationships; a luxury for two fine and serious actors to develop their characters over the course of their relationship; and a luxury for the viewer to walk the streets of Vienna, Paris, and the Peloponnese beside them, to watch Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) change and mature along the bumpy road of their distinctly non-Hollywood romance. 
Before Sunrise
Celine and Jesse's story begins in Before Sunrise (1995), when they meet on a train traveling west from Budapest. They are both young, beautiful, and bright. They strike up a conversation that is intense in the way that everything in life is (or at least should be) intense when one is twenty-two and taking on the big and small questions of life, love, and the world in general. Reluctant to say goodbye when the train arrives in Vienna, Jesse spontaneously asks Celine to get off the train with him, and with equal spontaneity, she does. The two wander through that lovely city all night, drinking coffee, debating, and becoming intimate. When morning arrives and Celine must catch her train to Paris, there is a moment in the station that hangs suspended in time as we and they wonder if this is it -- one beautiful moment to remember for a lifetime -- or if these two young lovers will ever meet again. They don't exchange phone numbers, but they hurriedly make the decision to meet again in the same spot in six months. We are left to wonder if they ever do, until that question is finally answered nine years later in Before Sunset (2004). 
Before Sunset
The second film is set in Paris, where Jesse has come to Shakespeare and Co. to give a reading of his successful novel, based on his night with Celine. She is in the audience. Although Jesse has only a few hours until he has to catch a flight to New York, the two slip away for a stroll through the winding streets of Paris. We learn that Jesse had returned to Vienna for the proposed rendezvous, but that Celine had been unable to get there. Life goes on, finding them now both in their early thirties, she with a career in humanitarian work, he a successful author with a wife and son. But that one perfect night and a long series of "what-ifs" still connect them to each other, though they have not exchanged a word in nine long years. 

It is that "what-if" that makes these first two films so true and so satisfying for this viewer (and i'm sure for many others as well). Who hasn't had some brief, beautiful encounter and wondered what would have happened if...? It might not have been set in anywhere nearly as romantic as Vienna, or with someone as attractive as Julie Delpy or Ethan Hawke. But there are those moments when you are so young, and so completely open, that you feel like you could share every drop of your being with someone you didn't even know a few hours earlier. You might be in your eighties, looking back at the end of a long, eventful, and satisfying life, and still remember that moment, that person, that feeling, that loss. Richard Linklater was inspired by just such an encounter with a young woman named Amy Lehrhaupt, with whom he spent a night wandering the streets of Philadelphia in 1989. Sadly -- and unbeknownst to Linklater, who had lost contact with her -- Lehrhaupt died in a motorcycle accident shortly before filming began on Before SunriseBefore Midnight is dedicated to her.

Although it answers the big question left hanging at the end of the first film, Before Sunset is not the typically happy and tidy ending to this story. Jesse and Celine are both older and a little more bruised by life; they are beginning to grow into the personalities that were still taking shape in the first film. Yet the feelings they shared in Vienna are still there, and although the consequences of their decision are far more complex than they would have been nine years earlier, they embrace this second chance. Celine caught her train at the end of the first film, but this time Jesse never makes it to the airport for his flight back to New York.
Before Midnight
The ending of Before Sunset is a satisfying one for any romantic. We brush aside the big questions of the family that Jesse leaves behind in New York and the more complicated issue of what it means to be involved in a romance that has been -- for lack of a better word -- romanticized, both privately within the imaginations of the two lovers and publicly in a best-selling novel. But when, after another nine-year interval, we catch up with Celine and Jesse again, this time on a vacation in Greece, they are coping with the consequences of that decision: he with guilt over his son, who lives in Chicago with Jesse's embittered ex-wife; she with frustration over how much of her own life has been put on hold for Jesse's benefit and with her own ambivalence in her role as mother to the couple's twin daughters. They are no longer bursting with youth, independence, and possibilities; they are a middle-aged couple dealing with the problems and irritations that come with a shared life. Before Midnight is both heartbreaking and heartwarming as it explores the repercussions of the choices we make in life. 

For any viewer who has followed this series from the beginning, there is a comfort and familiarity in seeing Delpy and Hawke grow and change over the course of nearly twenty years. How fortunate or prescient of Linklater to choose these two actors for his leads. Not only do they seem to share the director's dedication to this project, but they are both actors with that most rare of qualities: the willingness to age gracefully in front of the camera. Of course, it helps that Delpy is French and therefore presumably immune to Hollywood's compulsion to turn ever actress over thirty-five into some strange waxworks version of her younger self; but when she is on the screen, she is there as a beautiful woman of forty, believable as a character who has shared a life with someone, who has children, has a career, and has to wrestle with the dissatisfactions and self-questioning that come at that stage in life. In short, she and Hawke both feel palpably real in these roles, and have grown more so with each performance.  Celine and Jesse are not always easy to love, but then, who is? And no matter how self-absorbed he might be or how prickly she sometimes is, this is how real people are outside the world of fairy tale endings, and it is impossible not to care about them and hope to run into them another nine years down the road.