Criterion Sunday 265: Short Cuts (1993)

It’s strange the way memory works: I’ve read the Raymond Carver short stories this film is drawn from, and I’ve seen this film too, back in the 1990s. I was then (and probably still am) an enormous fan of Carver’s spare prose, and I remember some of those stories and the traumas within them — the two lads peeling off from their families to chase after some girls while on a picnic, or the guys out fishing who find a dead body, amongst others; they’re not exactly cheery tales, but rather exhume a certain fascination with everyday working class lives and the pathology of downtrodden men in particular. So it’s odd that I remember the film adaptation with such warmth, though perhaps I confused its technical qualities, and the careful emotional construction (with its cross-cutting that only heightened the onward rush of narrative revelation), with some kind of uplift to the story as a whole. No, this is bleak stuff really, even if it is compelling and wonderfully well-made. Almost all of these characters have trouble relating to one another — husbands with their wives (the wives have rather less trouble understanding their husbands), fathers with sons, groups of friends, and then of course there are business-client relationships (Lyle Lovett is not a happy baker).

To this extent, when there is a shared moment of understanding or emotional honesty — like Madeleine Stowe and Julianne Moore as sisters, laughing themselves silly at their respective a*hole partners (Tim Robbins as a humourless and adulterous cop, and Matthew Modine as a self-important surgeon), or Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin patching up their differences for what feels like the umpteenth time — it hits home that much more forcefully, and compensates a little for some of the darker interactions. Some characters can be empathetic in one scene, but boorish in the background of someone else’s, and there’s a constant fluidity to the way that identification moves throughout the film. And while at times it does feel a little dated — there’s a throughline of cynicism that feels very much of the 1990s, as is some of the class commentary — Altman never loses the compassion for any of his characters (though, okay, Chris Penn’s Jerry is very trying), and it never gets boring.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The chief extra is Luck, Trust & Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver Country (1993, dir. John Dorr/Mike Kaplan), a fairly solid video-based 90 minute making-of documentary. There are sit-down interviews with the actors on the set about working with Altman, which veer from the bland pabulum to more in-depth discussions — Frances McDormand lays out Altman’s way of shooting master shots and the technical challenges of that, or Julianne Moore thoughtfully reflects on one key scene for her character. There’s plenty of footage of Altman on set, which gives you an idea of how he manages actors, and we see him making little changes or suggesting different ways of capturing a scene. There are also interviews with Carver’s widow (and the film’s screenwriter) about the process of adapting the stories and what exactly she sees as the continuities between Carver’s Pacific NW-set short stories and Altman’s LA film.
  • There are a couple of short minute-long or so additional scenes, as well as an alternate take for the big confrontation between MacDowell/Davison’s parents and Lovett’s baker.
  • Three of the songs which were penned for Annie Ross’s character are presented in audio demos, as sung by their original composer, Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), in his customary drawl.
  • Some years later Tim Robbins and Robert Altman discuss the film in a likeable half-hour piece for the Criterion release, sharing memories of the production and going over some of Altman’s influences and the way he shaped the project in collaboration with his actors.
  • There’s also some good context for the marketing of the film, including a huge number of suggested posters (some of which really betray their 90s roots), as well as the eventual teaser trailer, full trailer and six 30-second TV spots that emphasise different aspects of the production (including one which just drops the actors’ names, and two which heroically try to recount the storylines).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Altman; Writers Altman and Frank Barhydt (based on the short stories “Neighbors”, “They’re Not Your Husband”, “Vitamins”, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”, “So Much Water So Close to Home”, “A Small, Good Thing”, “Jerry and Molly and Sam”, “Collectors”, “Tell the Women We’re Going” and the poem “Lemonade” by Raymond Carver); Cinematographer Walt Lloyd; Starring Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Julianne Moore, Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Robbins, Frances McDormand, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Madeleine Stowe, Matthew Modine, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Penn, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Peter Gallagher, Jack Lemmon, Lyle Lovett; Length 188 minutes.

Seen at university library (laserdisc), Wellington, October 1998 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Monday 26 August 2019).

Maggie’s Plan (2015)

Yet another film — I feel like I see one every few months, but maybe I just like to seek them out — that fits neatly into the burgeoning romcom subgenre of New York-set films about middle-class intellectuals trying to find love. Many of them star Greta Gerwig; Maggie’s Plan is no different. That said, and I suppose a range of opinions may be available, but I think Gerwig is great, an intensely likeable screen presence whose delivery energises even the most familiar material. Here, the film follows the usual roundelay of attachments — Maggie is a teacher who falls for social anthropologist John (Ethan Hawke), who’s having trouble in his marriage to the frosty Georgette (Julianne Moore) — but it doesn’t insist on marriage or even romance as the way forward. That in itself makes it worthwhile, quite aside from all its excellent comic performances (Julianne Moore remains a force of nature).

Maggie's Plan film posterNEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Rebecca Miller; Cinematographer Sam Levy; Starring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 12 July 2016.

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

It can be easy to write reviews of films which are a bit rubbish for whatever reason, but sit me down to try and set out my thoughts about a well-made, well-acted and enjoyable low-key drama in a naturalistic mode, and I’m a bit stumped. That’s the case with this film about the children of a lesbian couple looking for their donor father. It’s an excellent ensemble cast (with Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, as ever, standing out as being particularly good), and it doesn’t feel false, not least because the director, Lisa Cholodenko, seems to be drawing from aspects of her own life. Ruffalo’s Paul is living a bachelor life running an organic food shop and restaurant, when Joni (Mia Wasikowska) gets in touch via the sperm donor centre on behalf of her younger brother Laser (yes, that’s his name apparently and no one seems to find it particularly silly; played by Josh Hutcherson), who is curious as to his parentage. The film is trying to get at what it means to be a parent, articulated most clearly by Annette Bening’s character Nicole, a doctor and somewhat controlling mother figure who doesn’t take particularly well to Paul’s appearance in their family life. I liked the characters, I felt I could identify with them (maybe that’s a middle-class aspirational thing) and believe in their motivations. but beyond that I can’t really be any more helpful. A fine piece of work.

The Kids Are All Right film posterFILM REVIEW
Director Lisa Cholodenko; Writers Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg; Cinematographer Igor Jadue-Lillo; Starring Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson, Mark Ruffalo; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 24 August 2015.

Three Short Reviews of Recent Popular Films: Gone Girl, Interstellar and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (all 2014)

Unlike in 2013, I haven’t been writing reviews of every film I’ve seen this year. I also had trouble finding enough enthusiasm to write about some of the big tentpole blockbusters of the year, mainly because so many others have cast in their two cents, that mine seem entirely beside the point. Still, you’re more likely to have seen these films, so I thought I should at least write a few sentences to give my opinions, and you can disagree with me in the comments if you wish! (For what it’s worth, I’ve also taken to adding my ratings for unreviewed films on my film reviews by year page.)

Continue reading “Three Short Reviews of Recent Popular Films: Gone Girl, Interstellar and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (all 2014)”

Maps to the Stars (2014)

Whenever I visit Paris, I seem to get the opportunity to see an English-language film somewhat ahead of its release elsewhere in the world, and my experience has been that these films have probably been a bit too weird to find mainstream success. Such was the case with Anne Fontaine’s Adore (aka Perfect Mothers, 2013), and it’s certainly the case with this, the latest David Cronenberg film. It’s not the setting and the atmosphere that are unusual — this vision of family dysfunction amongst the hermetically sealed-off homes and egos of Hollywood is familiar from films like Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) and, more recently, Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2013). Nor is it strange for the way it seems to share a spiritual kinship with that other twisted North American David’s Mulholland Dr. (2001) at the level of its unsettling atmospherics. What’s most disconcerting about the film (admittedly partly the reason it brings Lynch to mind) is in the melodramatic dynamics that are in play amongst the film’s protagonists — ageing diva Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), infomercial guru Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), his neurotic wife Cristina (Olivia Williams) and their brattish movie actor spawn Benjie (newcomer Evan Bird), and mysterious stranger Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) with her enigmatic burn scar and initial apparent fascination with Hollywood homes. It’s all beautifully and antiseptically shot, and it’s one of those films that impresses with the density of its ideas upon later reflection, but the experience of watching it is odd and unsettling enough that I remain unconvinced. There’s a recurring incest metaphor that expresses itself in the arc of several characters, primarily the bond between Havana and her mother Clarice, who died many decades earlier, while still in the bloom of youth. We see some (rather unconvincing black-and-white) footage of one of Clarice’s films, and she appears as a waking nightmare to Havana at several points, as do other dead presences to other characters. But this is only one way in which the past haunts the present characters. The strangest is the repetition throughout the film of a poem by French symbolist Paul Éluard. It’s spoken in the old film of Clarice’s, it’s recited as a mantra, it’s even being memorised by Benjie in his trailer. The poem, “Liberté”, was written in 1942 as a riposte to the Nazi control of France, which already loads it with a history to which the film doesn’t always seem equal. But this is, after all, a film in which characters are trying (not always with great success) to free themselves from the burden of the past. If it sets itself out to be a map of the interrelationships between these Hollywood players, then it’s clearly one that people should be wary of following.

Maps to the Stars film posterCREDITS
Director David Cronenberg; Writer Bruce Wagner; Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky; Starring Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Olivia Williams; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at UGC Ciné Cité Les Halles, Paris, Friday 4 July 2014.

Non-Stop (2014)

I sometimes wonder what makes a great actor, and what really separates the performances that get recognised in major industry awards and the ones that prop up straightforward genre fare that won’t get anywhere near such recognition. Because this film — a taut action thriller set on a plane for which the threat of global terrorism is just a convenient prop for a bit of gung-ho men-with-guns nonsense — certainly has some good actors in it, ones who’ve had that taste of recognition (Lupita Nyong’o, who has a small role here, just the other night). But none of them are going to be getting any nods next year, except from their accountants, because the difference between those two planes of acting has little to do with the actor, but with the quality of the writing, and this right here is boilerplate generic action-by-numbers. It just so happens that it’s done with enough aplomb that it mostly stays on the right side of enjoyable hokum.

Liam Neeson has certainly redirected his career towards the kind of terrain more fitted to the talents of Jason Statham, essaying growly-voiced vengeance with rote regularity. Non-Stop isn’t quite the same as his Taken franchise though, and here he’s not out for revenge but to try and figure out just what’s going on. It’s not even clear to everyone that he’s the good guy — he’s a man seen swigging whisky on the job and smoking in the airplane’s bathroom, with a ferocious stubble and the hangdog expression of someone not really up to the job. On the other hand, as a friend pointed out to me, the film’s opening minutes do a terrific job of implicating just about everyone we see, including plenty of obvious stereotypes, which is as any whodunit should be. And if there is, in the end, an explanation for what’s going on, it’s pretty perfunctory and I’m not sure I could recount it for you even if I wanted to. That’s not the point. The point is the chase.

The dialogue may not find any new levels of truth, and some of the emotion-laden symbolism (Neeson’s relationship with his daughter, Julianne Moore’s need to be by the window) is unpicked in speeches and then groaningly resolved by the plot’s machinations, which however self-awarely contrived (“in an unbelievable twist…” announces a news anchor near the end) are still contrived. And then there’s the usual overreliance of the malefactor(s) on procedures being followed and on things being done in a certain way (though not perhaps to quite the extent of, say, Skyfall). But the writers and director at least do a good job with stringing out the suspense until there seems no escape before finding a tiny crack and moving things forward to the next brick wall. It ensures that even in the claustrophobically limited space there’s still plenty to hold the viewer’s attention. And that too is where the good actors come in handy.

It’s a film in which the terrorist (but who?) wants $150 million. Neeson’s character at length feels it’s not about the money. But for the filmmakers and the studio it has to be, and maybe that amount is their own target to get from the audience? It won’t win any awards, and it may not deserve them, but it’ll make money and, for the daffy enjoyment it provides, it probably deserves at least that.

Non-Stop film posterCREDITS
Director Jaume Collet-Serra; Writers John W. Richardson, Chris Roach and Ryan Engle; Cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano [as “Flavio Labiano”]; Starring Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Monday 3 March 2014.

Don Jon (2013)

There are a lot of serious issues to confront when dealing with modern Western society, and the way that women are pervasively sexualised in advertising and on the internet is certainly one of them, so it’s to director/writer Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s credit that he tries to tackle this thorny issue in Don Jon. Unfortunately it flirts rather too much with being an earnest social problem film and as such is let down by overreaching in its final third, but these are flaws that point to Gordon-Levitt’s good intentions and I can only hope that with future films his writing will gain greater subtlety of expression.

As it is, the title character of ‘Don’ Jon (played by Gordon-Levitt), a young Italian-American man who is addicted to internet p0rnography, is put across rather programmatically. Perhaps befitting the character’s Catholic upbringing, his life is dominated by rituals — the film itself uses repeated shots to good effect, a sort of Groundhog Day-like tracking of changes via small deviations to the repetition. Jon is shown to be obsessed with his body image, with cleanliness in his home, and with keeping up his social obligations both to his family and to the Church. The self-regard he has for his own body is accompanied by a corrosively nasty attitude towards women he meets in the club, the primary place of bonding with his (male) friends, where each woman they see is rated and their bodies judged mercilessly. The point is, of course, that this attitude derives from the way women are depicted in the media, and not just p0rnography: we see Jon (and his father) paying particular attention to a heavily suggestive TV ad at his family’s dinner table, and lurid magazine covers (even ones aimed at women) show up in a supermarket aisle.

Aside from Jon’s (perhaps purposely) thin character, filled with rage and narcissism, one of the film’s chief problems for me is the treatment of his family, an hysterically overacted caricature of Italian-American family life, lacking only any implication of mafia connections. Jon’s father and mother (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly) get in regular screaming matches, quietening down only for their Sunday church visit, while Jon’s sister is glued to her smartphone and doesn’t say a word for the entire film, before at length revealing herself to be rather sensitive to his (and the film’s) issues. Still, Scarlett Johansson typically does very well with her similarly underwritten part as Barbara, a potential girlfriend for Jon (he having until this point sociopathically avoided any kind of relationship commitments in favour of one-night stands and, obviously, the lure of internet p0rnography). She brings a hard edge to her stereotypical Jersey girl, and the film makes a lot of play comparing her own untenable ideas about romance (as illustrated by a hilarious parody of a romcom starring Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway) with Jon’s equally skewed fantasies derived from p0rn.

It’s in the last third, when Julianne Moore enters the plot as an older woman taking the same evening business course as Jon, where credibility is particularly stretched. She has experienced some trauma in her home life and is thereby able to find an emotional bond with the younger man, which she turns into a healing process for his noxious attitudes. In the film this is largely expressed through his slightly altered hairstyle and more relaxed demeanour, suggesting a neat progression into responsible adulthood for his character where the emotionally-frayed and societally-pervasive subject matter doesn’t admit of any such easy conclusions.

I certainly didn’t hate this film by any means, even if its characters pushed the bounds of stereotype. The filmmaking, for a start, is laconically unflashy with its repeated motifs and shots, and moves along at a fair clip. Meanwhile, the actors have a good time with their thinly-sketched characters. Gordon-Levitt has shown brilliant sensitivity in many of his acting roles (for example, in Inception, Looper and Mysterious Skin, amongst many others), and still at a relatively young age. If this is a calling card for his behind-the-scenes skills, then it’s a promising start, and suggests better things to come.

Don Jon film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Joseph Gordon-Levitt; Cinematographer Thomas Kloss; Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 17 November 2013.