Whether you watch movies for escape or provocation, you'll find plenty to like this week
Sometimes movies are just for fun, and sometimes they get a little deeper. This week we have several movies that ask us to ponder life, love, family, loss, pain, and other conundrums.
One sci-fi movie becomes much more if you’ve seen the TV series it’s based on. Other movies leave you hanging at the end, offering an ending that could never be, or an ending that just stops. Sometimes an ending makes us laugh about how horrible things are, and other endings let us know that, sometimes, things turn out OK.
Finally, we have a movie that turns 100 years old this year, reminding us that, especially in this mud-slinging election year, it’s important to keep an open mind.
Now that Joss Whedon is known as the “Avengers” guy, it’s a good time to go back and look at his excellent, fleet-footed feature directing debut, Serenity (2005). Of course, diehard fans know that this was the feature-length film version of his great TV series Firefly, which ran between 2002 and 2003, but was prematurely canceled. It’s a vastly entertaining, pulpy movie, but I have discovered that being familiar with the show makes for a richer experience; the emotions can run deeper and darker.
Set in the future, where space has become a kind of wild west—complete with an appealingly peculiar dialect and slang—Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) flies around space with his fearless crew, looking for odd jobs and trying to avoid the forces of the evil Alliance. Chiwetel Ejiofor joins the cast as a new bad guy, searching for River (Summer Glau), whom he thinks can be used as a living weapon. Familiar faces Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, and Ron Glass all appear, with David Krumholtz as a space-nerd who monitors all kinds of video feeds.
Swordfish (2001) isn’t really a good movie, but it’s a pretty darn good guilty pleasure, and it’s certainly worth a second look after it was roundly panned in 2001. It might even be a good-bad movie, although it’s known mostly for having perhaps the most famous gratuitous topless scene of all time. John Travolta gives one of his hammiest performances as Gabriel Shear, a master criminal plotting to steal billions from the government. He and his sexy partner Ginger Knowles (Halle Berry) require the services of a computer hacker, and they find Stanley Jobson (Hugh Jackman), just out of jail, who will do the job in order to be reunited with his daughter. But of course, there’s a larger scheme in place, and Stanley must figure it out and save the day.
Don Cheadle stars as an FBI man, with Sam Shepard, Vinnie Jones, and Drea de Matteo filling out the supporting cast. Dominic Sena directs, with a few extra explosions thrown in for good measure.
The Voices (Hulu)
Iranian-born Marjane Satrapi is perhaps best known for creating the graphic novel Persepolis, which was based on her own childhood, as well as directing the incredible 2007 animated film of the same name. Since then her movies have all had a distinctly non-realistic, sometimes magical, tone. The Voices (2015) goes even further into Grand Guignol, but stays true to its sympathetic outcast character.
Ryan Reynolds stars as Jerry Hickfang, a nice guy warehouse worker with a troubled past who sees a therapist and takes meds. When he doesn’t take his meds, his cat and dog speak to him. While attempting to date the office beauty (Gemma Arterton), Jerry accidentally kills her. In a panic, he cuts her up and stores her in the freezer. But then her decapitated head starts talking to him as well, and other co-workers start poking around. Satrapi helps her bizarre fantasy with its special little touches; Jerry’s apartment is a re-designed bowling alley, and his work uniform is pink. Anna Kendrick and Jacki Weaver co-star.
Mommy (2014) (Hulu)
Xavier Dolan’s French-language Mommy (2014) is a movie of small moments and big feelings, depicting the constant struggle to snuff out pain and strive for love. Ann Dorval stars as the title mommy, presenting herself as a fortysomething sexual creature, wearing long, tangled hair, tight clothes, and sexy shoes. She does whatever she likes, smoking, drinking, flirting with men, but the center of her world is her son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon). He is also a very physical being, moving like an animal, or a dancer, and commanding all the attention in the room. He’s very charming, but also explosive, and capable of sudden violence.
These two move to a new neighborhood, and meet a new neighbor, a mousy teacher Kyla (Suzanne Clément), who has a speech impediment. After experiencing their brand of hospitality, Kyla becomes a frequent visitor, hooked on the high emotions of this household, and she accepts a job home-schooling Steve. Dolan films all this mainly in a tight, constricting frame, except for one euphoric scene wherein, the trio feeling truly happy for a moment, Steve spreads his arms and pushes the edges of the frame outward. Dolan also employs a strange dream sequence that also fits into his very simple, universal struggle.
4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011) (Hulu)
One of the last of the movie mavericks, director Abel Ferrara is not for everyone’s tastes. He began on the grindhouse circuit in the 1970s and 1980s and moved to making NC-17 arthouse movies in the 1990s. Nowadays his movies are barely distributed, but he still has a stable of actors willing to work with him, such as Willem Dafoe in 4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011). One of many apocalypse-themed movies I’ve seen of late, this one is as bleak as they come. There’s no last-minute rescue, no outrunning tidal waves, or fighting aliens. This one is about the resignation that the end has come.
Dafoe is an actor and his wife Skye (Shanyn Leigh) is a painter. They have sex, probably for the last time, and she works on a giant painting while he visits friends (Natasha Lyonne among them). New York City seems quiet. They order some takeout and allow the delivery boy to use their computer to Skype with his family overseas. Then, they wait until 4:44 a.m., when scientists have predicted that the world will end. (Ferrara spreads various “news” reports throughout to let us know.) I can’t say this is my favorite of Ferrara’s films, but it’s very effective, and impressive for a low-budget effort.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Crackle)
This has become a go-to movie for both men and women to list as a “favorite” on dating sites, which shows what a versatile movie it really is; it bends and shapes into any kind of thing you imagine it to be. It’s about love, loss, hope, despair, dreams, reality, etc. I like it more and more as time goes on, and it’s always worth another look.
Written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) tells the story of a recently broken-up couple: Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet). Joel learns of a procedure wherein all memories of a person can be erased from one’s brain, thereby eliminating the pain of loss. As Joel goes through the process, he re-lives memories of Clementine, although as the procedure is happening and his memories are shifting, literally anything is possible. (Gondry comes up with some memorably weird, beautiful, crazy imagery here.) Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, and Tom Wilkinson co-star. Kaufman won an Oscar for his astounding screenplay, and Winslet received a nomination for Best Actress. Carrey, for some reason, was not nominated. The title comes from a poem by Alexander Pope.
I’ll See You in My Dreams (Amazon Prime)
Given that movies about women over 50 are incredibly rare, this movie existing at all is already worth celebrating, but given that I’ll See You in My Dreams is so good, it’s doubly special. Blythe Danner stars—her first starring role, by the way, in a career stretching back to 1968—as Carol, a widow who lives simply and quietly in her own house, but faces loneliness for the first time when her dog dies. Her foul-mouthed gal-pals (Rhea Perlman, June Squibb, and Mary Kay Place) try to convince her to move into a retirement community, she meets a new pool boy Lloyd (Martin Starr), and the handsome Bill (Sam Elliott), and her daughter Katherine (Malin Akerman) shows up for a visit.
I was worried about this material being too heavy-handed, or too heavily foreshadowed, but director and co-writer Brett Haley handles everything with the softest touch; even a scene where the ladies get stoned and go out for a munchie run isn’t too over-the-top. Lloyd is perhaps the most touching of the characters, forming an affectionate, respectful, platonic (not lurid) friendship with the older Carol. The title comes from a song he sings to her.
Dogville (Amazon Prime)
The controversial, always-fascinating Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier made one of his best and most daring movies with Dogville (2003). This three-hour epic is set in a fictitious mountain village, which is depicted with lines drawn on the floor of an enormous warehouse. The actors must pretend that they are walking around inside buildings, unable to see through walls, knocking on doors, etc. There’s even the chalk outline of a dog that we occasionally hear barking! The beautiful Grace (Nicole Kidman) turns up, on the run from gangsters. The townspeople agree to take her in, giving her little tasks to do in exchange for their help. But soon mistrust, fear, and suspicion grow, and before long Grace is turned into a kind of slave.
The incredible cast, all drawn to this weird, challenging project, includes Paul Bettany, Lauren Bacall, James Caan, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, Chloe Sevigny, Stellan Skarsgard, Harriet Andersson, and Udo Kier. John Hurt narrates. David Bowie’s “Young Americans” is used in a controversial closing segment, possibly suggesting that von Trier is aiming his commentary squarely at the U.S.A. (a place he has never visited). But aside from that, I admired this film very much and continue to think about it years later.
It’s pretty clear that Daniel Craig’s set of James Bond films have stepped up the game on this series, bringing a bracing new energy and edge to a character created for the page back in 1953. But because the previous entry, Skyfall (2012), was one of the all-time best, it cast a shadow over the not-quite-as-good, but still very good Spectre (2015). Many felt that the material was a bit tired—and, actually, quite a bit of the dialog is about how the double-O agents are irrelevant—but at least the presentation is fresh.
This time Bond investigates some shady dealings, leading to a beautiful assassin’s widow (Monica Bellucci) and then to the sinister leader (Christoph Waltz) of a vast criminal organization. The helpful “Bond girl” this time is gorgeous Léa Seydoux, playing the daughter of another, rival assassin. Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes returns for the second time (after Skyfall) to the series, and though this one doesn’t look quite as glamorous as the previous entry, it still contains some exhilarating tracking shots and some ominous shadows. The biggest disappointment is the wimpy (Oscar-nominated) theme song by Sam Smith; the great band Radiohead recorded an amazing new song that the producers apparently rejected. What were they thinking?
Art School Confidential (TubiTV)
Terry Zwigoff is one of the great American directors of truthful, cynical comedy (Ghost World, Bad Santa), as well as the director of my all-time favorite documentary, Crumb. When he’s at his best, he finds a kind of astringent beauty in the hopeless, and though Art School Confidential (2006) contains some of his finest work, for some reason it just didn’t catch on with critics or audiences. It could be because star Max Minghella is just a little too clean-cut in lead role. He plays Jerome, an art student who suffers. Is he any good? Are others better than him? Who gets to decide, and why? Can he be just good enough to get rich and meet girls? He winds up at Strathmore Institute, where other misfits are in attendance, as well as messed-up teachers like Professor Sandiford (John Malkovich), who has spent his career painting triangles.
A “strangler” appears on campus, which has an interesting effect on the artwork! The key character is Jimmy (Jim Broadbent, in a performance that should have been considered for an Oscar), a grimy, angry Strathmore grad who lives for his next bottle of booze and the chance to tear down any aspiring young creative types. Zwigoff starts his movie with a punch in the face, and doesn’t stop there. It’s vicious, but it’s quite brilliant and very funny.
Meek’s Cutoff (Fandor)
One of the most unusual Westerns ever made, Meek’s Cutoff (2011) takes place on a wagon train headed along the Oregon Trail to California in 1845. The hired guide, Meek (Bruce Greenwood), tells a good story but may not always know where he’s going. And one of the women, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), seems to be tougher and wiser than anyone else. The band captures a lone American Indian, and begins to hope that he could lead them to water to replace their dwindling supply; but there’s also the worry that he could lead them into an ambush.
The incredibly talented director Kelly Reichardt (who has a new movie at this year’s Sundance Festival), likes stories in which very little actually happens, but which give viewers time to think about things in the empty spaces. The beautiful outdoor cinematography was shot in a narrow aspect ratio to emphasize the feeling of being lost and trapped; the intelligent dialog, fine performances (including those by Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, and Shirley Henderson), and ambiguous ending suggest another level of filmmaking. Hence, the movie becomes about more than just the search for water. It’s less like a narrative and more like a poem.
Intolerance (Fandor, Hulu, & Archive.org)
D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece turns 100 years old this year, and is available on several streaming services, though the highest quality is arguably the restored 197-minute version on Fandor. Griffith made Intolerance (1916) in response to critics of his massively successful, influential, and controversial The Birth of a Nation a year earlier. Intolerance tells four intertwining stories, set in ancient Babylon, Calvary, sixteenth-century France, and modern-day America. Each story tells of an authority that forces its single-minded viewpoints on others, and the suffering that subsequently occurs. This ranges from the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (Howard Gaye) to the terrorizing of a young woman (Mae Marsh) by puritanical forces. Lillian Gish stars in a wraparound sequence of a mother “endlessly rocking” with her baby.
The movie is absolutely immense in scale and endlessly impressive, and despite his desire to convey messages, Griffith was a master storyteller; he unfolds his tales with the skill of an addictive soap opera. But the production was so expensive (today, no one knows the actual cost), that it was a flop. It was only in later years that it came to be regarded as one of the all-time great films.
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