45 Years

Kate and Geoff Mercer, played by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are approaching their 45 year anniversary. They live an idyllic life in the flat countryside around Norwich, England and are outwardly very happy. All that changes when Geoff gets word that the body of his first love, Katia, is found in a Swiss glacier, where she died in a climbing accident before he and Kate ever met. This puts Geoff into a ruminative mood that alarms Kate, shaking her faith in Geoff’s feelings toward her.
I would imagine that the main challenge of this film is explaining why Kate should be threatened by a woman who died over fifty years ago, keeping in mind this is not a ghost story. After all forty five years is a lifetime together and a successful marriage by any standard. The script by Andrew Haigh who also directed, and Charlotte Rampling’s masterful performance sufficiently explain why Kate is upset.
This is a story about the secrets we keep both from friends and from loved ones. Geoff has never talked about the incident where Katia died. The story turns out to have many layers. At one point he admits that the Swiss authorities have him down as Katia’s next of kin because they had pretended to married during their trip so that they could sleep in the same rooms. And it gets worse. Kate asks him point blank if he would have married Katia if she’d lived. He’s honest and admits that he would have.
This causes Kate to become emotionally unmoored. She realizes that because the couple never had children they never really took any pictures to document their lives. The past becomes a blur to her, as if it were a dream and not real.
Charlotte Rampling’s performance is the centerpiece of the film. It is a workshop in understated performance. In almost every scene in the last half of the movie she is behaving properly, keeping up a cool English reserve but you can see her reeling underneath. There’s really no reason for her to be upset and yet you understand why she is.
The film has a stately pace and there are long shots of the English countryside, almost exclusively shot on overcast or rainy days so the whole film has a muted look. People stare into the distance and engage in meaningful silences a lot. There are no emotional fireworks and the climax impacts only Kate. No one else aware of her character arc.
Another secret, I suppose.

Anomalisa

The obvious reason for deciding to animate a story is if the story has fantastical elements in it that cannot be easily filmed. Of course with special effects being so good lately, that line is blurrier than ever. Look at the live action sequels to its classic animated films that Disney is doing. You almost never see it going the other way though, a film that could easily be a live action story being animated. Chomet’s The Illusionist comes to mind and there are probably a few others.
And now Charlie Kaufman gives us Anomalisa. It is about an author named Michael Stone, voiced by David Thewlis who is worn down by his mundane life. While on a business trip he meets a woman, Lisa Hesselman, voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and they have an encounter. Obviously, this seems closer to Youth or Clouds of Sils Maria than Inside Out.
If you look at the credits for the film on IMDB you will get a clue as to why this film needed to be animated. Thewlis and Leigh voice their characters and every other character in the film is voiced by an actor named Tom Noonan, even the women and children and he doesn’t really do anything to change his voice when he’s doing the characters. He acts but it’s in the voice of a middle aged man coming out of the mouth of a waitress or the main character’s son.
At first, Kaufman revels in the mundanity of the images. They use the stop motion animation to portray the blandest of actions, taking a pill, showering, ordering room service and a bunch of other things we do every time we travel and stay at a hotel. But gradually it sinks in that everybody except David and Lisa sound the same and the filmmaker’s intent dawns on you. This is a portrait of David’s mind.
And that would be fine if David weren’t such an unlikeable character. The world through his eyes is a dull monochromatic bore. Plus he’s being very unfair to the naïve Lisa. But even Lisa fails to gain any sympathy. At first her lack of self-confidence is endearing but after listening to her whine for a while, you just want to tell her to get help and then get as far away from her as possible.
There are layers of symbolism but they’re really not worth exploring. This is thankfully a ninety minute film but I was checking my watch after the first fifteen. It really is a slog.
Most Charlie Kaufman films have an innovative energy to them. The plot conceits are inventive. I suppose you could characterize the conceit here the same way but the story and the characters are so unlikeable that this thing is almost unwatchable.

Carol

Working as a shopgirl in a New York department store during the Christmas Holidays in 1952, Therese Belivet, played by Rooney Mara, spies an elegant blond woman looking at the toy trains. The woman turns out to be Carol Aird, played by Cate Blanchett, a rich woman in a loveless marriage. Therese helps Carol make her selection and a relationship develops. This being the 1950’s that relationship is very much frowned upon by society and Carol stands to lose custody of her five year old daughter.
This is a sumptuously filmed movie with beautiful fashions from the fifties, great sets and locations, which I guess they found in Cincinnati. The cinematography brings out the colors without overemphasizing them. In short all the technical aspects are perfect.
But the heart of this film are the performances of the two leads. As I’ve said before Cate Blanchett is one of the best actors working today. Her character is outwardly smooth and confidant, giving the impression that she’s comfortable and in control in any situation, the very model of strong femininity, but with a touch of detached sadness. However, she makes some very bad decisions in this film and in private moments is wracked with self-doubt.
Likewise Rooney Mara plays Therese as a young but thoughtful naïf, who has been dutifully doing the things she thinks society expects from her. She has a boyfriend, who is pressuring her to get married, and a group of bohemian friends, who seem like good guys, but to whom she doesn’t really relate. Upon first seeing Carol, a new set of feelings falls on her like a ton of bricks and she doesn’t even begin to know how to sort them out. There are scenes where she and Carol are eating somewhere and you can see Therese observing Carol’s mannerisms and habits and trying to copy them. She is growing before our eyes, even though she’s simply casting around for some sense of what’s happening to her.
The one cavil about the acting that I had was with Cory Michael Smith who plays a pivotal role in the middle of the film. As you may know Smith plays Edward Nygma on the series Gotham. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem but they make him up to look exactly like his character on the TV show and his approach to the role is the same. When he makes his first appearance, I could only think, “Don’t trust him. He’s the Riddler.” A thought that is very out of place in this kind of drama. Other than that the performances were all top notch.
Carol is based upon the Patricia Highsmith novel, The Price of Salt and as the author said in an interview was inspired by seeing an elegant blond woman in the department store where Highsmith worked. That sparked the idea in her head and she wrote the novel over the next few years. Her usual publisher wouldn’t touch it but she placed it with another one and with a pseudonym was put out in the subgenre of lesbian literature, which I guess was a thing back in the fifties. The subgenre was considered pulp fiction at the time and the literary tone and quality of the novel stood out.
Still it was in and out of print until the producers of this film pick it up and made this excellent adaptation.

The Revenant

The Revenant is based on the true story of Hugh Glass, here played by Leonardo DiCaprio. In 1822 as a scout for a fur trapping expedition into unexplored territory, Glass surprises a grizzly bear and her cubs. He kills the bear but is mauled badly. Not expected to live, he is left with three volunteers, John Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy, Jim Bridger, played by Will Poulter and Glass’ son by a Pawnee woman, Hawk, played by Forrest Goodluck. They promise to stay with Glass until he dies and to give him a decent burial. But there are hostile Indians in the area and Fitzgerald gets nervous. While Bridger is away, he murders Hawk and hides the body. Then he convinces Bridger that the Indians are minutes away. They wrap Glass in the bear skin and put him in a shallow grave. Then they take his gun and supplies and report back to the expedition that he died.
But he didn’t. With a broken leg, festering open wounds, and no supplies or weapons, Glass stumbles and crawls his way back to civilization, looking to survive and looking for revenge on Fitzgerald. A lot has been written about this incident. There are even a couple of earlier movies and TV episodes. I’m tempted to call it one of the foundational stories of the western genre like the gunfight at the OK Corral or the Lincoln County war. But frankly I’d never heard of it before so it’s hard for me to think of it that way.
This grim material is ideally suited for the director and co-screenwriter Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose dark vision has informed many good films in the past few years. It is a stately film with long shots lingering over snow covered mountains and meandering riverbeds. Even in the chase scenes they cut to long panoramic shots that drain any momentum from the plot. Inarritu is too good a filmmaker for this to be a mistake. He is making a meditative revenge drama.
There is all kinds of visual symbolism in the film. Flowing water represents life, I guess. There are many shots of treetops swaying in the wind where the camera was set up on the ground, shooting straight up, echoing Glass’ wife relaying a Pawnee proverb about looking at the tops of the trees while knowing that the trunks are sound. In a flashback Glass holds his then young son, who has just been severely burned in a fire that took his wife, and says, “Just keep grabbing breaths.” So the sound of breathing permeates the soundtrack. There is also a theme of rebirth, of being a revenant, someone who comes back from the dead. At two points in the film he emerges from womblike conditions, once from a sweat lodge that a friendly Pawnee traveler makes him when he’s about to succumb to fever from his wounds and once from a dead horse he hollows out and crawls into to survive a blizzard.
No director is going to get a bad performance out of this cast. Inarritu guides them skillfully to great heights. DiCaprio gets a bad rap because he is a big movie star and people don’t like to believe that big movie stars can actually act. He can. This is a tremendous performance where he shows us things we’ve never seen from him before. He makes us feel every ounce of pain, both physical and psychological, that this character experiences.
Tom Hardy plays John Fitzgerald as self-serving amateur lawyer, always twisting events to his own advantage. He lies but his real damage is done in half-truths, faulty conclusions to fuzzily described events that only resemble what actually happened. As near as I can tell he never slips up in his frontier American accent.
I really can’t find anything to criticize about this film except for the fact that it didn’t really grab me. Maybe it was the pace, or the unpleasantness of the story. Revenge dramas are problematic in that it’s hard to sympathize with someone whose main objective is to kill someone else. Or it could be my deep suspicion that if I can understand symbolism without having to think about it too hard, it’s probably too heavy-handed.
Despite my grumbles this is an important film and well worth seeing for the performances and the scenery if nothing else.

The Hateful Eight

As I have pointed out previously, the basic formula for any Quentin Tarantino film is to get a group of badasses together with a bunch of lethal weapons and see how many ways they come up with to kill each other. That is after they’ve had some great conversations of course. Gab and gore is the trademark of any Tarantino film. Well apparently QT reads this blog because in The Hateful Eight he gives us the stripped down formula: eight antagonists trapped in a one room establishment somewhere on the side of a Wyoming mountain near the town of Red Rock. This takes place in the old west so there is no deconstruction of Madonna lyrics.
The group is a mix of bounty hunters, four bounties (one alive), lawmen, an ex-slave, Yankees and Rebels. For the three plus hour length of the film they talk and shoot. One look at the cast and you will see that there are capable actors filling all these rolls and the performances are universally fine. Kurt Russell dominates the room as John Ruth, a bounty hunter who tries not to kill his bounties, preferring to watch them hang. Samuel L. Jackson, as I’ve said before, is the coolest person in any room he happens to find himself in and this room is no exception. Jennifer Jason Leigh is Ruth’s prisoner. She gives an extreme off the wall portrait that comes off very well.
It is a visually interesting film. As Hitchcock proved in Rear Window there are many ways to shoot a room and Tarantino knows them all and uses them. The colors pop out at you.
The Hateful Eight is not Tarantino’s best. It is many hours of dialog with moments of graphic violence interspersed. There doesn’t appear to be any point or direction to all the palaver. Perhaps he figured that he needed to make a film based almost entirely on dialog just to prove he could do it. With all due respect to the Aaron Sorkins who roam the earth, Quentin Tarantino is the best dialog writer in Hollywood. Maybe he can be forgiven for thinking his words could carry this ponderous plot.
If you are a Tarantino fan, and I’ll admit to being fascinated with his work, you probably need to see this in the theaters. Casual fans can probably wait for the DVD so they can pause it to take bathroom breaks. Or they may not even want to pause it.

Joy

Joy is David O. Russell’s bio-pic based on the life of Joy Mangano, the inventor of the Miracle Mop. Played by Jennifer Lawrence, Joy is a divorced mother, living in a house where her ex-husband, her grandmother, mother and father, who are also divorced, as well as her children all live together, Joy gets the idea for the Miracle Mop when she cuts her hands while wringing out an old style mop. She has a history of creativity and invention but she’s never tried to patent anything or sell it. She winds up as one of the early pioneers on QVC and becomes an instant success.
That’s when her troubles really begin. Through a combination of shady business practices and bad legal advice, Joy’s success and her patent are almost taken away from her. She almost gives up.
It winds up being a very inspirational story, which is becoming typical of a Russell film. This is interesting to me because the tone of his films, the dialog and performances, seem very jaded and ironic. But the whole adds up to an earnest movie that celebrates female empowerment and the triumph of persistence and intelligence in a setting where consumerism is very much celebrated. I’m not quite sure how he does it but the effect is amazing.
Russell has attracted a talented troupe of performers who have now been with him for three films. Jennifer Lawrence is one of the biggest movie stars out there and someday that may affect her performances but so far she is turning out quality work. Robert De Niro’s comic acting abilities have been well demonstrated over the past few decades. This is one of his better outings in that vein. Bradley Cooper isn’t really given that much to do.
My one caveat is that Russell seems to be falling into a rut. His movies all have these eccentric characters and they are beginning to feel similar. And that’s only partially because they are all played by the same people.
That may be more of a problem in the future but for now Joy is definitely worth seeing.

Youth

At a posh hotel/resort at the foot of the Alps, two old friends are on their yearly months long vacation. One is Fred Ballinger, played by Michael Caine, a retired conductor/composer who is accompanied by his daughter, Lena, played by Rachel Weisz. The other is Mick Boyle, played by Harvey Keitel, a screenwriter and director working on what he views as his last important script with a group of young screenwriting protégées. These two old geezers get together and reflect on the state of their lives, their families and to observe the lives around them.
Whenever I go to one of these things I always wonder if it is going to have a plot, a thin excuse for a plot (the most likely scenario), or if it’s just a straight up gabfest. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those if done well, but if done badly, there simply isn’t anything worse. Especially when the characters are artists obviously serving as avatars for the filmmakers who want to impart their aesthetic philosophies on the grateful you.
Fortunately, Youth isn’t bad. It’s saved by some terrific performances. Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel can always be relied upon. Rachel Weisz is always good too. And Paul Dano is good as a disillusioned movie star.
There are also some very striking images. The colors pop out at you and the Alps are a beautiful backdrop to all the blathering. Every night the hotel has some entertainment on a glowing rotating stage, which makes for an interesting image.
Unlike a lot of these things Youth is very funny in some places. And it has a nice little message. These two artists at around eighty have been doing it for so long that they’ve lost touch with the emotions that originally motivated them. Observing the dramas of the young people around them reconnects them to those emotions and in effect rejuvenates them.
At a little over two hours, Youth is too long. Ask Richard Linklater; these things shouldn’t be run over 90 minutes. At that length, even if you’re not interested in what’s being said, you can still admire the scenery for an hour and a half and not get too bored.
Youth is flawed, probably fatally so, but I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.


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