Tuesday
May122015

Dobkin: The Judge (2014)

The time is about ripe for a lush Grisham tribute, and The Judge dlivers on all fronts, offering up an intricate, tightly crafted story about a hotshot lawyer, Hank Palmer, played by Robert Downey Jr, who returns to his home town in Indiana for the first time in years, after hearing that his mother has passed away. At first it seems like it’s going to be a homecoming film, a reckoning with the past, but that’s quickly channelled into a legal drama, as Frank discovers that his father, Henry, a local Judge, played by Robert Duvall, was involved in a hit-and-run on the night of his mother’s funeral, and is being brought before the local courthouse where he usually presides on murder charges. The stage is set for the kind of regional legal drama that Grisham did so well, except that in this case the traditional Grisham narrative of the small-town ingenue arriving in the big city is somewhat inverted, with Frank arriving back home to confront why he was disillusioned enough to seek out the city in the first place. From the very beginning, that makes him more volatile and neurotic than the typical Grisham lawyer – or at least more willing to wear his volatility on his sleeve - as Downey sinks into one of his best performances in years, embracing a role that gives him full rein to deliver the skittish, dodging kind of charisma that he does so well. In fact, it’s probably Downey’s presence that prevents the film ever feeling too rigid in its genre tribute, or ever really stabilising into one single genre – deflective and appealing in a single breath, he manages to keep the film on its toes, although he’s helped by a perfect sparring partner in Duvall, as well as an object lesson in how to assemble and orchestrate a cameo cast, with Vera Farmiga, Grace Zabriskie and a Fargo-esque Billy Bob Thornton appearing in a mere handful of scenes but nevertheless critical to the film’s momentum. Still, it’s very much Downey’s film, partly because the specificities of the narrative – and the way they both artfully and tactfully sync up with his own backstory – play perfectly to his fidgety restlesness with his own muscularity and masculinity, his ability to exude a barely concealed shame consciousness that’s quite queer, reminding you why he’s so often found playing characters who are perpetually running away from themselves. In particular, Downey has an uncanny way of bringing out his inner kid without resorting to kitsch – vulnerable, flighty and a bit immature – that might be more acclaimed in the Iron Man franchise, but is perfectly attuned to what it needs to divest this film, and his relationship with Duvall, with any of the ponderous gravitas it might have had, since, whatever terrible thing the “Judge” has done to warrant Frank staying out of his life for over a decade, it’s clear that Frank needs to be petted and managed a little bit as well, which leads to some of the most touching scenes in the film. Thick with Midwestern atmospherics, it’s an old-fashioned, modest exercise, but for that very reason content to let all its actors deliver stalwart, intricately plotted performances without overwhelming them with the need to be high concept, a breath of fresh air that Downey, in particular, needs as his charisma is squeezed tighter and tighter by Marvel universe-building, which doesn't tend to have much time for the skittishly sentimental Downey on display here.

Tuesday
May122015

Hallström: The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014)

Given that Helen Mirren is about the only venerable British actress who doesn’t appear in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel franchise, it was perhaps only a matter of time before she appeared in a film that was more or less targeting the same niche – in this case, an adaptation of Richard Morais' novel about an immigrant Indian family who set up a restaurant across the road from a Michelin-starred restaurant in a small, picturesque French village. Tensions immediately arise, and a great deal of comic subterfuge transpires, until the two parties realise that their shared love of food is greater than anything keeping them apart. Similarly, it’s only a matter of time before Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), the manager of the Michelin restaurant, realises that young Hassan (Manish Dayal) is prodigious enough to propel her into the two-star stratosphere she’s been aiming for ever since receiving her first star some thirty years before, and offers to bakroll his formal culinary education. As a result, most of the film takes place as a kind of experiment in French-Indian fusion – at first combatively, as the two restaurants deliberately buy up each others’ ingredients at the local market, only to be forced to find a way to incorporate them into their own menus, but then more generously, as Hassan, in particular, sets about reinventing the Cordon Bleu canon in the light of his own heritage. If that sounds somewhat predictable, that’s because it is, but part of what makes the film work is that the combative element never quite goes away – there is a continual, if affable, jostle for supremacy in the kitchen, just as it’s the tension and dynamism between Indian and French ingredients that defines the particular brand of French-Indian fusion that Hassan pioneers upon moving to Paris in the third act to become a celebrity chef in the vein of Ferran Adria. For all the cosiness, then, there is room for Hallstrom to cloak a whole lot of fixations in contemporary, competitive, combative food culture – reality cookoffs, charismatic chefs, sourcing fresh ingredients, molecular gastronomy – in the MOR magical realism that he does so well (along with Chocolat and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, it almost makes for something of a  loose trilogy), until it feels as if we're dealing with a quite contemporary food sensibility despite all the nostalgic period trappings – a sense of fine dining as mouth orgasm or direct brain stimulation that perhaps explains why every romantic or erotic encounter is so pointedly oral or olfactory, or why there’s such a libidinal fixation on feeding sauces and spices to the beloved. For these characters, the centre of the nervous system are the taste buds, and, as in Chocolat, the film poises us, time and again, at the seconds just before and after they’re stimulated, until even the safest and most respectably arthouse conversations brim with a pregnant mouthfeel that can only be satiated by eating or feeding someone something delicious as soon as humanly possible. 

Sunday
May102015

Schlondorff: Diplomatie (Diplomacy) (2014)

The latest film from Volker Schlondorff is a tight, taut chamber drama set in Nazi Paris on the eve of the Allied victory. Shot mainly in real time and almost entirely within the confines of German Headquarters at the Hotel Meuriel, it’s a dramatisation of the relationship between General von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup), who was commissioned with destroying the city before the Allies arrived, and Swedish Consul Raoul Nordling (Andre Dussolier), whose supreme diplomatic skills prevented it from happening. Most of the film takes place as an extended negotiation between these two men, with interludes depicting the preparation for the destruction, which pretty much involved rigging every historic or significant site in Paris with explosives – Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Invalides, the Opera, the Parliament and the Place de la Concorde are just some of the targets – so as to flood the inner city until the foundations collapsed. That’s a pretty catastrophic prospect, and it’s a smart move on Schlondorff’s part to minimise our actual experience of Paris – it’s set mainly at night, although there’s still less of the city than there might be – so as to abstract and dissociate us from the familiar postcard pictures that are still available today, plunging us back into the gloom that settled over the city on what might have been its last night before it went the way of Mannheim, Hamburg and Berlin. At the same time, though, Schlondorff shoots everything within Choltitz’s room with a kind of heightened architectural awareness, from the secret passage and two-way mirror that Nordling uses to get in and incept Choltiz’s plan, to the long, lingering shots on details of décor, from doorknobs to dishes, as if to restrict his camera to the only spaces and fixtures that, for the Nazis, were totally above destruction, the heart of German Paris. Within those stifling tableaux, a purely diplomatic drama would already be highly atmospheric, but there’s a real art and grace to the way in which Choltitz and Nordling’s roles – the infinite obedience of the good general and the infinite flexibility of the good diplomat – allow little glimpses of character as well, as flexibility and obedience both start to lose their meaning under such extraordinary circumstances, until it’s as much of an interpersonal drama as a diplomatic one, especially once Cholitz discloses the recent announcement of the Sippenhaft, a Nazi dictum that makes him as much a captive of the situation as the Parisians. The result is a film that feels as if it might be made into a play, but that doesn’t feel adapted from a play – spoken almost entirely in a language that is not the characters’ or the director’s own, it is theatrical but never stagy, and that’s perhaps the best way to describe Nordling’s diplomacy as well, which Schlondorff waits for the last perfectly poised shot to capture in its quintessence. 

Sunday
May102015

Rock: Top Five (2014)

As digital media has blurred the distinctions between shortform and longform cinema more and more, comedians have found more and more niches between standup and narrative-driven entertainment, from the loose, variable-length standup of Louie, to the short-film sketch format of Inside Amy Schumer, to the post-standup ambience of a film like Obvious Child. In some ways, Chris Rock’s magnum opus Top Five tries to tell the story of that moment, or is more able to tell a traditional story about that moment, just because Rock belongs to the previous comic generation, coming to terms with this new world rather than being reared on it. Set over a single day in New York, the film, which was written and directed by Rock, sees him as Andre Allen, a washed-up standup who, after releasing a series of Martin Lawrence-esque blockbusters, opts for a think piece about the Haitian Uprising in order to win back some credibility. In a daring move, the film takes place more or less as a single conversation, opening with an interview between Andre and New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown, played by Rosario Dawson, that evolves and elasticises until they’re traversed nearly all of Manhattan by the time the film reaches its spine-tingling final shot. As that might suggest, part of the film’s project is for Rock to try and translate his spitfire standup into dialogue, something he’s never really pulled off before, but which he absolutely nails here, gathering all his peculiar tics and mannerisms into a uniquely African-American brand of screwball, which is just as anxious to come to terms with this new expansion of media universe as the first great wave of screwball films were in the 30s. At the same time, the fact that the film was produced by Kanye and Jay-Z, with a score curated by ?uestlove, is no coincidence either, since it’s hard to think of a film in which the give and take of hip-hop is translated so beautifully into conversation, limpidly ebbing and flowing as Andre and Chelsea, both recovering alcoholics, come dangerously close to the next bar, bottle or bottle shop, but always pull away at just the last minute. That’s not to say, either, that Rock’s stand-up persona is absent, but that’s it’s integrated so seamlessly into this character’s life and personality that, when he does finally return to the stage for a surprise spot at Comedy Cellar, there’s an emotional and cathartic kernel you never really sensed before, even or especially because that discrete distinction between his stand-up and film selves is so dissolved by this point. In its own way, then, it’s very much a vision of post-cinematic New York – Andre and Rosario never get around to discussing his film – which is perhaps why it has such a classy, boutique, uptown kind of feel, even when we return to Andre’s home in Harlem. At one level, it’s a way of making the day feel contoured by that final New York Times piece, but it also casts the entire film in a kind of distended limelight – there are lots of Chaplin references and an amazing cameo in which DMX sings “Smile” to a cell of incredulous inmates – that makes it feel like an elegy for both stand-up and comedy film as separate entities, while also quizzical enough about what might lie beyond them to win Rock a whole new host of loyal fans.

Sunday
Apr192015

Östlund: Force Majeure (2014)

Satire – or at least sustained satire – is not a particularly common cinematic register, so it tends to be quite striking when it manifests itself as mercilessly as in Force Majeure. Set in its entirety at an exclusive ski resort in the Swiss Alps, Ruben Ostlund’s fourth film is about a nuclear family who start to fall apart when their patriarch deserts them in the face of an impending avalanche, only to skulk back sheepishly when he realises that the danger has passed. Most of the film follows the family – and especially the couple, Tomas (Johannes Bah Kunke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) – as they try to recover from that moment, a situation that’s considerably complicated by the fact that Tomas seems unwilling or unable to even acknowledge it took place. His face and body give him away, though, as Kuhnke puts in a performance of such shame, emasculation and downright sheepishness that it’s almost impossible to watch, while Ostlund prevents him ever becoming a figure of complete pathos either by way of the mock-heroic cues and vistas within which he frames this disintegrating marriage. In particular, most scenes between Tomas and Ebba are shot from a distance, as Ostlund’s camera scrutinises Tomas until he positively squirms under the weight of the massive alpine mise-en-scenes that previously seemed commensurate to his grandeur as the head of the family, but now seem somewhat satirical, suddenly dwarfing him with his own pretensions and aspirations to manhood. Add to that the fact that Ostlund also tends to shoot the couple and their conversations straight-on, as they gaze into the middle distance, and there’s an exquisite sense of just how hard it is for them to make eye contact after this momentous event in their marriage, as they’re pinned and mounted by a panoramic shame that seems to somehow have infected them as a couple, and as an entire family unit, quickly exceeding Tomas’ momentary impulse. Yet just when it feels as if the film is becoming too merciless, or too monotonous, Ostlund slackens things a little, as the couple start to drift into something of a monogamish relationship – not necessarily sexually, but in the sense of being open to other couples, individuals and experiences in ways that were prohibited by the tightness of their previous nuclear unit, a movement that doesn’t fully revitalise their relationship so much as create a new flexibility and provisionality between them that’s perhaps more original than any more straightforward renunciation or reclamation of manhood would have been. Ostlund trained as a skiing director, and his wonderful depictions of the resort are what finally cement this flexibility as something to be admired and even emulated – since the narrative ends on a slightly morose note – as he translates the dissolving architecture and machinery of the relationship straight onto the alpine landscape. Against a series of abstract voids in which land and sky seem to be perpetually fused, he takes us through one weird, decontextualised snippet of alpine transportation after another, until the whole film feels set on the lifts, gondolas and tracks that seem to be continually ferrying the family from one empty space to the next. At first, their gliding, vertiginous freefall is somewhat disconcerting – all motion in the film quickly and eerily comes to feel relative – but by the end, it feels as if these perpetual whiteouts are the only places where the couple can come to terms with things, which is perhaps why the final scene, poised precariously between the resort and the real world, feels so perfect, and so poetic.