Articles by

<Nicolas Rapold>

10/08/14 4:00am

Directed by Damien Chazelle

To judge from the persistence of performance shows like America’s Got Talent and the continued proliferation of artist documentaries, humiliation and the cult of genius still scratch some itch for audiences. Set in a top-flight New York music school, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash places one obsessive aspirant, drummer Andrew (Miles Teller), in the line of fire of a sadistic jazz teacher and band leader, Fletcher (JK Simmons). His enhanced classroom techniques have all the hallmarks of abuse (manipulation, unpredictability), but all that only feeds Andrew’s masochistic drive, which needs awful obstacles in order to prove his uniqueness.

Quite literally a dark film—rehearsal rooms and other interiors windowlessly lit to suggest abstract musical battlegrounds and Andrew’s tunnel vision—Whiplash runs on that burning double question: does Andrew really have it, and will he finally bite back? The puffily expressive, “slappable” Teller (as Simmons put it at the NYFF press conference) suits his role as ultra-competitive kid looking to prove himself to all comers (status-conscious family members included), with youthful stamina to burn. Chazelle’s split-second editing (and Andrew’s fear-hatred-attachment) feeds the legend Fletcher becomes in Simmons’s delightfully delighted master class in panic-inducing cruelty—all for the greater good of musical perfection and the band, of course.

Often nearly toppling into the ridiculous, Whiplash does deliver beyond the standard beatdown-and-uplift arc with its persuasive cage-match of egos (with the running joke, and reminder, being that the freedoms of jazz require exacting and exhausting dedication). And Andrew is not alone in his world of painful ambition: Chazelle ekes out a girlfriend/foil, who (to Andrew’s bafflement, and a little too evidently to Chazelle’s) seems content with not being as awesome as other people try to be, leading to one of the great bad first dates in recent movies. (Andrew’s band mates surface now and again in his monomaniacal story with the dismaying glimpse of other, equal terrors that don’t have the spotlight.) Whiplash reaches its purest heights and, with its characters, plummets to lows with the dexterity of a virtuoso drum solo, and, after all the preparation and merciless evaluation, finds true catharsis in the release of stage performance.

Opens October 10

09/10/14 4:00am

Stray Dogs
Directed by Tsai Ming-liang

The Chinese title of Tsai Ming-liang’s award-winning Stray Dogs is apparently “Excursion,” which is a dry description if there ever was one for the derelict existence endured by its woebegone characters. But, this being Tsai—an auteur with idées fixes that have stayed fixed for years—the title “Still Life” might serve just as well for a gorgeously designed film that’s equally a fascinating study of landscape, colors, and contours with a nearly sculptural texture.

A father of two makes a living holding up ad signs at traffic medians in the rain, and a supermarket worker (played by three actresses) looks after the kids. Since the (possibly makeshift) family scrapes by in a hardscrabble squat, Tsai’s latest trek through intra-urban portraiture has been praised for spotlighting the economic margins, exploring homelessness as something more than a romantic state. But to a large extent, this is still Tsai’s world, and these people are just living in it. The city’s a sprawling, depopulated psychic space, where people creep along, like figures in a painted landscape that have come to life, through long shots so textured that they are practically ridged with oil-paint brush-strokes. (Credit’s due to his cinematographer team, and Tsai himself for production design.)

As glimpses into tight-knit make-do homes, the indoor setups are nominally more intimate and at times realist (and, among exteriors, the traffic-sign sequences look almost stolen). But the way Tsai arrays people in a room—or, in a climactic tableau, lets a man and woman stand next to each other wordless, motionless, facing away for minutes at time, to little effect—tends to arrest any semblance of dramatic drive, and scenes in Stray Dogs are placed end to end more than one after another. Tsai’s acteur fétiche, Lee Kang-sheng, who plays the sign-bearing dad, occupies an increasingly important role in his films not as some mute collaborator in his genius but by now as a figure of human constancy, still attracting durational shots like movie stars accumulate close-ups. Here Lee engages in more Extreme Anguish, tearing into a monster cabbage on an empty bed, as if in some go-for-broke audition, but it’s his palpable sense of sleeplessness and directionless that hits home more.

Scene to scene in a bedraggled, rainswept metropole, of which we glimpse the geographical and psychological margins, we take for granted that these human beings are embedded in immovable surroundings: a grassy far-flung lot, an abandoned building strewn with trash and roved over by dogs, even a fire-damaged apartment with walls warped and streaming black like mascara. But rather than the lump-in-throat melancholy (or lost-soul perversity) of past films, Tsai’s feature here qualifies almost as a kind of contemporary rubble film, a summa of the exhausted and the damaged. Tsai’s imagery strikes with such force—you feel the densely warped wide angles and scarifying expressionist detail right in the gut—that he ranges past the limitations of techniques which over the years have threatened to congeal into mannerisms.

Opens September 12 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

08/27/14 4:00am

God Help the Girl
Directed by Stuart Murdoch

Stuart Murdoch’s directorial debut sets up delicious expectations (or dread) for the delicate porting over of his deft sketch artistry and wry-vulnerable voice as a singer-songwriter. After all, God Help the Girl has been a long time in the making, as an extension of Murdoch’s band project by the same name, whose songs are performed in the film—a tame yet respectable combination of whimsical low-budge let’s-make-a-band caper and fragile singer-songwriter’s coming-of-age.

Kewpie doll Emily Browning is hardly offscreen for a minute as Eve, the girl in dire need of something as a string-bean jean in treatment at a mental health home. No need to be alarmed: the state that she is in is treated more as a pretext for making radio an escape, and as a source of affectionate, bemused worry by her adoptive pal, froomp-haired guitarist-noodler James (Olly Alexander). Cassie (Hannah Murray), a toothsome upper-class lass who’s taking lessons from James, gets on board and the gang of three is complete, with a few numbers along the way that romp about with the informal, homespun air of Bande à part.

Halfway in, these three are still mulling over making that band—wouldn’t want to rush the perfect pop group, must do it right. And the songs do indeed progress from Eve’s solos (including the opener, inspired by boredom) to goofily 50s-themed, full-band barn-raiser in an all-ages dance hall. The layers of 60s nostalgia aren’t stifling, and the poses feel quaint and casually worn; were there an American indie incarnation ten years ago, we’d be zapped with boldfaced color and elbowed in the ribs, but not so much in Glasgow.

It must be said that Browning is not the most expressive of interpreters, in appearances at least, her face having a sculpted stillness compensated for by her crescendoing songs. Murdoch has an understated take on storytelling, maybe because Eve’s ultimately less interested in her romantic choices (James or a Francophone singer who outfits her at a thrift shop) than making a go of a career, encouraged by a curiously PSA-prominent social worker character. In a way, the film feels like more of a surrogate for Murdoch than the album project does, and when his voice floats in with the end-credits song, you half-expect it as a voiceover instead: “I’m the singer in the band / You’re the loser.”

Opens September 5

08/13/14 4:00am

Directed by Philippe Garrel

It’s amusing to learn from an interview with Philippe Garrel that the title of his latest film was a producer’s suggestion, as if meant to be emblazoned in green, slanted script on a poster. No matter, says Garrel: “I didn’t exactly understand who had contempt for whom in Contempt, but that didn’t bother me much more than this does.” The top-billed feeling in Jealousy is indeed present in this coolly drawn portrait series of familial bonds and love dissolved, channeled from Garrel’s life as throughout his scarifyingly intimate oeuvre. But what we get is not righteous rage or amour fou cathartically acted out on screen—on either side of the relationship in question, Garrel gives us the side that cuts: the panic, or the break.

Louis (Louis Garrel, Philippe’s son) begins the black-and-white film by walking out on Clothilde, the mother of his daughter, in what amounts to an opening primal scene. The precocious moppet, Charlotte, becomes a naïve-shrewd commentator even as a bystander (of one of her father’s lovers, she suggests: maybe she could be the babysitter?). Claudia (Anna Mouglalis), with a deep voice to rival Nico, is Louis’s next love. She’s an actor like him, sacrificing material comforts for the art—bona fides prized among his fellow stage performers yet becoming a trying burden for her in the absence of steady roles. Claudia and Louis share a top-floor walk-up that she calls a “hovel,” though the filmmaker’s fond familiarity comes through in the fact that those cramped quarters have a noble spareness as filmed by DP Willy Kurant.

Kurant’s open-air photography of Louis strolling with his daughter and Claudia has its own idyllic appeal, but these scenes of a new, hip family unit offer only temporary solace. While we might be primed for an instance of inscrutably adored male artiste having it all—skirting harder questions, posing a not-so-innocent one about what happens when infidelity occurs—it’s Claudia who brings down the hammer with an emotional pragmatism that startles Louis in his underplayed entitlement. It’s a case where Louis Garrel’s moody act (his hair ever ready for a David Levine illustration) is satisfyingly flattened out by the swift cuts of Mouglalis’s line delivery.

So too does Garrel père etch his 76-minute film’s bare assortment of scenes with efficiency and with what Eric Hynes aptly calls “intergenerational empathy” (part of a “legacy of longing”). (Contrast with Garrel’s Variety detractor, who tires of Garrel’s “shtick” of “people gabbling about nothing in choppy little scenes,” concluding that trenchant line of argument with “really, what’s the point?”) Garrel begins and ends scenes with Louis and especially Claudia earlier and later than one might expect, lost in a monologue we can only watch on their faces as it unfolds within. As Garrel brings his film to its abrupt close, it’s like he’s just scratching down one final picture before pushing it aside impatiently.

Opens August 15 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

07/30/14 4:00am

What Now? Remind Me
Directed by Joaquim Pinto

Portuguese cineaste and veteran filmmaker Joaquim Pinto calls his new movie a “notebook” of the year he participated in a clinical trial for an HIV treatment. It’s an apt term for the languorous observations, daily doings, pensées, list-like reminiscing, pocket histories, and bare jottings that make up What Now? Remind Me. Shuttling between a sunny farming plot and Madrid for treatments, Pinto counters the mental fog of the side effects (the key drug, ominously: Interferon) with multiple trains of thought, intimations of mortality, and undercurrents of irony.

More than many filmmaking endeavors, What Now? is an effort to make sense of things, or at least appreciate some of them, as the drug leaves Pinto having to “want to want” and to breathe with conscious effort. Morbid as that may sound, he’s supported by a great love: his husband, Nuno, supportive, cheerful, tirelessly working the field of their little plot of land, and eventually assisting in the filming. The nature of Pinto’s own presence ebbs and flows, shifting from first-person chronicle to literary commentary to simply being alive alongside others, most notably the four dogs that are family to him and Nuno.

Pinto’s rich career in filmmaking (as sound recordist, producer, director) links him to greats such as Raúl Ruiz and João César Monteiro, and they and many others are name-checked in a voiceover that sometimes sounds like lines lifted directly from a diary (“I’m fed up with psychology. I want
action.”). Throughout he favors hard cuts between disparate sequences in the film’s Boyhood-length running time, plus the odd psychologically motivated superimposition, and layers in a bountiful soundtrack of classical music with some key anthemic pop. Through to its fugue-like ending, it’s Pinto’s delirious vigil for himself, a confession of bodily and mental weakness that becomes a declaration of spiritual and philosophical resilience.

Opens August 8 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

07/16/14 4:00am

Mood Indigo
Directed by Michel Gondry

While the Great Quirk Wars fought over Wes Anderson in the aughts seem of ever-dwindling consequence alongside his actual achievements, whither Michel Gondry? An enthusiastic tinkerer with the oddities and wonders of digital and analog, he’s put forth alternate popular filmmaking models of sorts with Be Kind Rewind and The We and the I, and put himself out there as cub reporter in the Noam Chomsky documentary Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? and family portrait The Thorn in the Heart. With Mood Indigo, he returns to fashioning homemade valentines (The Science of Sleep, Human Nature) but as a filmmaker still falls far short of the widely acknowledged peak of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Adapting Boris Vian’s 1947 surrealist novel L’Écume des jours, Gondry enlists veteran French cutiepies Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou for a kind of obstacle course of whimsy. This is the romance of Colin (Duris), who lives in a kooky house with a mouse and a lawyer-cook (Omar Sy), and Chloé (Tautou), a cipher who falls ill with the Björk-esque ailment of lily-on-the-lung. Gondry compulsively punctuates scenes with little stop-motion and digital-Marx Bros. bits of business, and a typewriter chorus; with its self-conscious French nostalgia (including the rabble-rousing existentialist parody, Jean-Sol Partre), you might be put in mind of Gondry precursors Jeunet & Caro, with some morbid flights of fancy suggesting a debt to the Quays.

But it’s hard to get too invested in a movie that feels like discrete miniatures put together, and there’s just not much room for people to breathe. (Casting himself as a house-calling doctor, Gondry does reserve himself the amusing moment of sheepishly offering a refund because of a mistake.) A music-video veteran is not going to botch weaving in Duke Ellington or any of the (two-disc) soundtrack selections, but while the handmade gadgetry has a droll appeal, it all ends up keeping one at arm’s length.

Opens July 18

07/02/14 4:00am

Directed by Richard Linklater

Boyhood opens with a shot of the sky from the point of view of a tousle-haired kid lying in the grass. That may seem to lay down the track for Richard Linklater’s twelve-years-in-the-making magnum opus, bearing out the title’s down-home lyricism and particular focus. But the daydream is immediately complicated by a cut to the boy’s mother walking up and rounding a corner to meet him after school. You can imagine him listening to her steps, and knowing just how long it’ll take her to reach him, yet at the same time, you watch her casually confident stride, its lightfootedness suggesting an open mind and somehow pointing to the future, and so learn a bit about her, too.

That subtly filtered perspective, evoking the layers of literary discourse, is typical of the film, which is much more than a fictional stunt on the Up! documentary series. Though pegged to one Mason (Ellar Coltrane), Boyhood is also very much Motherhood (thanks to Patricia Arquette’s career-topping performance), not to mention Fatherhood (via Ethan Hawke), with glimpses of Girlhood through Mason’s sister, Sam (Lorelei Linklater). Much of Mason’s Texas childhood is punctuated and tracked through Mom’s re-marriages to jerks and hangouts with soliloquizing Dad, in addition to seeing him feel out his own roles (friend, son, worker, boyfriend). Linklater devotes the most time to Mason’s (and Coltrane’s) teenage years, and while that might be partly a result of the unusually intermittent shoots—and perhaps some tipping point when everyone realized it could all actually work—it also reflects special sympathies for the self-awareness and questioning that shadows a personality like Mason’s
during adolescence.

Mason’s is a liberal family, his mom studying and becoming a teacher, his rambling dad settling down into a religious family, which leads to grandparental gifts of gun and Bible (eliciting a couple of hilarious gasps at my press screening). Remarkably seamless for its production circumstances—the casting a great leap of faith, especially considering one is Linklater’s daughter—Boyhood drifts clear of magic-of-childhood idyll or divorce drama, sustaining longer-term emotional contours and its own moving study in memory. The director of the Before trilogy, Waking Life, and other deceptively free-form experiments is often pegged as having a fixation on time, but another way of looking at him is one of our great American diarists, in a tradition stretching back to the age of Emerson. That reflective tendency, and openness to philosophizing, doesn’t preclude a deft feel for what’s experienced in a moment of fear or wonder or joy, even as lanky Mason grows into a reflexive, perhaps divorce-influenced casualness towards conflict.

Linklater’s soundtrack (opening with Coldplay wallpaper “Yellow”) isn’t meant to be good music, it’s the music that was there. And it’s a feat that the film does not feel constrained by the different times of its creation (for which dangers just look at any given local newscast from five or ten years ago), even as Linklater shapes the tone for many scenes as they might be imprinted upon Mason’s memory for metonymic recollection later. Yet as a late scene of Mason leaving home and Mom reconfirms—in an echo of that opening sequence’s shared perception that underlines this as partly a deeply felt appreciation of mothers—Boyhood belongs to a greater flow of experience than any one individual’s.

Opens July 11 at IFC Center

06/11/14 1:37pm

Dormant Beauty, a film by Marco Bellocchio

With a career spanning half a century and delving into Italy’s thorniest legacies, Marco Bellocchio seems to embrace the potential, as melodramatic as it sounds, of being a country’s cinematic conscience. The tendency is vividly embodied by the multiple points of view in Dormant Beauty, which weaves stories around the moral (and media) conundrums in the right-to-life case of coma patient Eluana Englaro. Despite a premise that suggests a TV movie (a perhaps outdated term, its form replaced by instep-history documentary), there’s a sustained effort to plumb different levels of political awareness, personal insight, and even sanity. One protester (Alba Rohrwacher) falls for another, after a confrontation with his mentally unstable brother, their duties to political issues and familial obligation momentarily put in the background by the liberating flicker of attraction. That protester’s father, a senator (Toni Servillo), in turn presents a notably idealistic model of political service, weighing, behind the scenes, his principles and his debts.


Bellocchio also spotlights two other figures that are generic in their way—a grande dame actress and a hard-bitten suicidal patient—but provocative beyond their surface theatrics. Playing an admired thespian who has withdrawn to maintain a religious vigil beside her own comatose daughter, Isabelle Huppert brings her nimble screen intelligence to bear on a character that might cynically be regarded a performer finding a new role (or two, in interpreting her daughter for the world). Though less illuminating or complex, the story of a doctor wrestling his patient away from the brink yields another twist on the high stakes of philosophizing the sanctity of life. There’s a romanticizing strain to Bellocchio’s implicit belief in understanding that won’t sit well with hard-headed viewpoints that demand stylized distance or tone (though the filmmaker doesn’t hold back with his portrait of a nattering political class supplied with pills by some kind of in-house parliament shrink). It’s a worthy addition to Bellocchio’s ongoing dramatization and complication of his country’s history.

Now playing at Lincoln Plaza Cinema

05/21/14 4:00am

Gebo and the Shadow
Directed by Manoel de Oliveira

Look who’s coming to dinner in Manoel de Oliveira’s latest conversation piece: the specter of mortality. Also in attendance are shame, anguish, and just possibly bitterly earned wisdom. In this rectilinear period drama, an aging accountant, his wife, and his daughter-in-law host old friends off the street and then, unexpectedly, his derelict son, a thief. Our frontal, table-side viewpoint (theatrical like other Oliveira films, closer to The Fifth Empire), lets us observe the ethical tally of a life lived loyally versus an act that threatens a family’s name.

As usual, Oliveira gives his characters civilized discourse to chew over, which is curious, amused, or stolid by turns. Experience is written into the faces and pedigree of the stars he recruits: ever-ruminative Michael Lonsdale as the long-suffering bookkeeper, Gebo; a matronly Claudia Cardinale as his scandal-averse wife, Doroteia; even Jeanne Moreau as a playful visitor. This is the family table as first a bastion of routine and bread-breaking camaraderie, but later a site of reckoning—where you’re stuck when the knock at the door comes.

Taking advantage of HD for long takes, Oliveira and DP Renato Berta frame the table in a ground-table room: the people looking out at us, an oil lamp dominant as a domestic beacon turned memento mori. While Gebo has accumulated the trust of others through handling their money, the truculent son (Ricardo Trepa, Oliveira’s nephew) returns after an absence, light-fingered in the world at large (represented in a magnificent opening shot of a city dock). Based on a play by turn-of-19th-century Portuguese writer Raul Brandão (though omitting a fascinating final act), Oliveira’s film has the centenarian’s lazy-like-a-fox, wide-curve dramatic shape. But there’s no mistaking the gut-punch of its parental sacrifice, powerfully centerstage within Oliveira’s cinematic proscenium.

Opens May 28 at Anthology

05/07/14 4:00am

The Immigrant
Directed by James Gray

Homecomings can be arduous in James Gray’s films, and in his latest, set in 1920s New York, home is yet to be created. Ewa (pronounced “Eva,” played by a flinty Marion Cotillard) arrives from Poland on these American shores under a cloud of suspicion as “a woman of low morals” and in a flush of anxiety over her quarantined sister. A showman-pimp, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), takes her in, and before long, she’s paraded on stage in a two-bit gams-of-the-world revue—as Lady Liberty herself.

If there’s a silent-era ring to the title of The Immigrant, at once plain and momentous, that’s borne out by Gray’s melodramatic axis of shame and divided romantic loyalties, foreshadowed by an old-school overture by Chris Spelman. (The discarded earlier title: Low Life, maybe too close to the Luc Sante book that might have supplied some of the film’s period detail.) Struggling for a buck but no little girl lost, Ewa parries overtures from Bruno and his mensch magician cousin, Emil (Jeremy Renner). But neither Gray nor Cotillard leaves it at that: Ewa knows how to leverage, too, as she must, and clear-eyed, she firmly holds her own against Bruno’s manipulations.

Gray—who cowrote the screenplay with his frequent collaborator, the late Ric Menello—shades in their characters till by the end the title might apply to either, each at a different phase but still unsettled. Shot by Darius Khondji with a gently worn clarity, the New York that Ewa inhabits feels like the obstructed view of someone stuck on a track (its world opening up most in spaces of reckoning provided by a church and an immigration hall). As a film it looks forward and backward in Gray’s work, all of which is just about summarized with an extraordinary final shot that lingers on.

Opens May 16