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.