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Articles by

<Benjamin Mercer>

12/04/13 4:00am

Nuclear Nation
Directed by Atsushi Funahashi

In one of this Japanese documentary’s most devastating passages, the mayor of the township of Futaba recounts the recent history of a community whose prosperity was tied to the nearby Fukushima Daiichi plant. The late-60s construction of the nuclear facility meant residents no longer had to leave town for work, and a robust program of reinvestment in the community followed—a library, a train station, and a marina house were among the structures that rose in the shadow of the cooling towers. But as property values around the plant gradually depreciated, the town approached bankruptcy, forcing it to seal a 21st-century deal to break ground on Reactors 7 and 8.

Of course, that construction would never commence. Nuclear Nation finds the inhabitants of Futaba as they’ve established temporary residence at a far-flung abandoned school, still reeling from the events that began on March 11, 2011, when an earthquake triggered a tsunami that in turn precipitated the meltdown of a large portion of Fukushima. The movie follows a handful of these refugees as they mourn what they’ve lost, rail against officials performing empty crisis-spin on TV, and confront the realities of more permanent resettlement. Filmmaker Atsushi Funahashi sticks to a biding-time rhythm that prevents this course-of-a-year portrait (which premiered in 2012 at Berlin in a 145-minute cut, nearly an hour longer than the version playing in New York) from becoming wholly engrossing. Nuclear Nation is not, like the recent German documentary Under Control or Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s extraordinary 1999 Pripyat, a locked-in nuclear doc in which nearly every observational image conveys its own current of alarm.

Funahashi’s film is not always visually stunning, but he does present some startling and affecting footage. The scale of the radiation and the ruin becomes clear when many Futaba residents go back to their hometown on “temporary return permits,” suiting up in full hazmat regalia before boarding a bus that takes them through a rolling field of devastation—ships washed ashore on terrain that’s been singed to the color of rust, with structures flattened to the skeletal traces of their foundations. We follow one man as he revisits his still-standing exclusion-zone home to reclaim a few items of sentimental significance from among the disarray, bagging up a bunch of his DVDs, including the footage from his two daughters’ wedding receptions. Later on, back on safer ground, he cues up one of these discs. It’s a simple action, but one that’s mind-scramblingly sad to witness—here is a commemorative item that’s also now become a relic recovered from a lost world.

Opens December 11

11/20/13 4:00am

Cousin Jules
Directed by Dominique Benicheti

Observing a day-to-day that has long since bound two people to a place—and more tightly still to each other—this nonfiction film presents a patient record of purposeful gestures. Director Benicheti followed the subjects of his first feature from 1968 to 1973, shooting in crisp CinemaScope and documenting a kind of comfortable austerity as it’s taken shape over the years in a bucolic corner of Burgundy: the elderly blacksmith Jules shuffles over to his workshop, where he peaceably wields the tools of his trade—hammer, vise, massive leather bellows, etc.—his day’s industry carried out without a movement wasted; his wife, Felicie, tends house and garden, stoking a fire of her own to boil some potatoes. There are few words spoken between the couple, but they often appear lightly bemused by the presence of the camera, never more so here than when they afford themselves a minute to stop and think during an afternoon coffee break.

Cousin Jules, recently restored and only now receiving its first commercial release, itself feels admirably workmanlike in its approach, its observations long-haul, providing startling evidence of the years’ toll. A ways into the film, Benicheti surveys the winter landscape before cutting to a view of the local cemetery, where a gravedigger commences his task after a resounding clap of his hands. When we pick back up with Jules, he’s engaged in a widower’s abbreviated housekeeping, moving items (a shaving mirror, a large pillow) from one part of the room to another as the task at hand demands. There appears to be a drag on the man’s movements as he mends his leather apron, but he otherwise doesn’t seem to flinch much from the drawn-out silence, a black cat sitting beside him as he peruses a tradesman’s newsletter through his reading glasses. Jules’s workshop may no longer stand today, but thankfully this remarkable document, at once becalming and bleak, does.

Opens November 27

11/20/13 4:00am

Photo Courtesy Film Forum


Cousin Jules (1973)
Directed by Dominique Benicheti

Observing a day-to-day that has long since bound two people to a place—and more tightly still to each other—this nonfiction film presents a patient record of purposeful gestures. Director Benicheti followed the subjects of his first feature from 1968 to 1973, shooting in crisp CinemaScope and documenting a kind of comfortable austerity as it’s taken shape over the years in a bucolic corner of Burgundy: the elderly blacksmith Jules shuffles over to his workshop, where he peaceably wields the tools of his trade—hammer, vise, massive leather bellows, etc.—his day’s industry carried out without a movement wasted; his wife, Felicie, tends house and garden, stoking a fire of her own to boil some potatoes. There are few words spoken between the couple, but they often appear lightly bemused by the presence of the camera, never more so here than when they afford themselves a minute to stop and think during an afternoon coffee break.

Cousin Jules, recently restored and only now receiving its first commercial release, itself feels admirably workmanlike in its approach, its observations long-haul, providing startling evidence of the years’ toll. A ways into the film, Benicheti surveys the winter landscape before cutting to a view of the local cemetery, where a gravedigger commences his task after a resounding clap of his hands. When we pick back up with Jules, he’s engaged in a widower’s abbreviated housekeeping, moving items (a shaving mirror, a large pillow) from one part of the room to another as the task at hand demands. There appears to be a drag on the man’s movements as he mends his leather apron, but he otherwise doesn’t seem to flinch much from the drawn-out silence, a black cat sitting beside him as he peruses a tradesman’s newsletter through his reading glasses. Jules’s workshop may no longer stand today, but thankfully this remarkable document, at once becalming and bleak, does.

Opens November 27 at Film Forum

11/06/13 4:00am

The Great Beauty
Directed by Paolo Sorrentino

The idle rich have rarely appeared so idle: this film’s protagonist is a man who, 40 years ago, wrote a slim novel called The Human Apparatus and has spent the intervening decades squandering his charm and wit in what he calls “the whirlpool of the high life.” The atmosphere is thick with literary pretensions: the failed writer, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), is fond of relating how Flaubert himself failed at writing a novel about nothing; a friend works on a doomed D’Annunzio adaptation for the stage; and a statuesque actress speaks of her plan to write a Proust-like piece. But nobody musters the energy to do anything but drink the night away. The ennui on display here is distinctly new-look, as Sorrentino’s episodic film observes party people of the Berlusconi class as they line up for what seems like an endless conga line.

The director (also the cowriter, with Umberto Contarello) has made a film about indolence that moves smoothly and swiftly—the sweeping camera captures a curious rhythm of exchanged glances and crossed paths in laying out its Rome. There’s a poignant sense that, in its rushing forward, time has finally stranded the Eternal City ashore, though the film as a whole is moving almost in spite of itself. Sorrentino keeps refusing to dial back his depictions of decline-phase excess from near-cartoonish levels. It often feels like he’s stress-testing his film’s deeply melancholy core: Jep sheepishly waits in a lavish room for his appointment with the high priest of Botox injections; he attends a performance-art piece where a woman slams her naked body into the side of a looming aqueduct; he chances upon a magician friend as he practices making a giraffe disappear.

Still, however off-the-mark some of the non-literary vignettes, there remains a stubborn integrity to The Great Beauty. Sorrentino, who also made the acid political thriller Il Divo (starring a less suave Servillo) and the magnificently off-putting revenge road trip This Must Be the Place (starring a bummed-out and brain-fried Sean Penn), intends to do nothing less than take the cultural temperature of the nation, yet what lingers here is hauntingly concrete: a snapshot of a city, long ago chiseled from stone, that has both stoked its inhabitants’ dreams and snuffed them out. (In this sense, the portrait of Rome pairs well with the fleeting one on display in Matteo Garrone’s recent Reality—there, the capital is home to the mesmerizing LED light box of the Grande Fratello house.) It becomes clear that Jep and his high-society cohort live in a kind of gilded cage, as they gather on his deck, overlooking the stage-lit Coliseum, overshadowed by a Martini Rossi billboard, for yet another party.

Opens November 15

10/23/13 4:00am

Blue is the Warmest Color
Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche

Ever since this Palme d’Or winner debuted in spring, passions have flared regarding its graphic lesbian sex scenes, in which the two main characters feverishly demonstrate the variety of ways they might join their bodies. One of these sequences in particular—the film’s several-minutes-long centerpiece—just keeps going, giving audience members ample time to contemplate why the bedroom lights are on and the window is open. In other words, cowriter-director Kechiche (loosely adapting a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, who has called the movie’s depiction of lesbian sex “a brutal and surgical display”) does not make narrative economy a priority; this story of first love is intimate in scale but, at three hours, epic in length.

Kechiche follows his protagonist, Adèle (newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos), all the way from high school through her early years as a teacher, a period defined by her romance with the more poised and sophisticated painter Emma (Léa Seydoux). In particular, Exarchopoulos’s portrayal of the struggle to contain the grand passion in navigating the demands of professional and family life is frequently moving. Adèle (broadly receptive, but prone to making safe choices) and Emma (more privileged, and more fiercely devoted to a creative life) are not perfect in themselves—or, necessarily, for each other—but they are people you come to admire. Their gradual self-realization, both helped and hampered by their relationship, feels distinctly hard-won.

Blue might often be so perceptive, but it’s not particularly well-proportioned. Much of the criticism has run along the lines of Maroh’s, focusing on Kechiche’s purportedly leering male-gaze setups, but less remarked upon has been the awkwardness of his attempts to sustain an atmosphere sensitive to sensual delights, so that the film’s open style takes its cues from Adèle’s achingly visceral, head-on engagement with the world as she grows into it. The lingering close-ups proliferate: Adèle sleeping in bed, splayed out on her stomach; Adèle surrendering herself to the music on the dance floor; Adèle scarfing down spaghetti and slurping oysters. Kechiche spends far too much time simply reaffirming this resilient young woman’s coming of age as a banquet that’s constantly careening off course, both for better and for worse. It’s off-putting that a film of such emotional energy should so often feel adrift.

Opens October 25

10/09/13 4:00am

The Fifth Estate
Directed by Bill Condon

Right away, this dramatization of WikiLeaks’ quick rise to prominence (also explored by Alex Gibney’s recent documentary We Steal Secrets) reverts to online-thriller cliches. During the site’s early days, Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) hops the globe while Daniel Berg (Rush’s Daniel Brühl) gives him hacktivist assistance from a supply closet at his cartoonishly terrible IT-guy job. Soon the two are squeezing their way through what look like anarchist meet-ups, toting their laptops to back rooms to work all night on the site that Julian built, their encrypted chats scrawled across the screen as they work to expose government corruption in Kenya and shady practices at a Swiss bank. Director Condon also frequently visualizes the website itself, where whistleblowers might submit documents anonymously, as a vast, no-frills office on a beach, with rows of fluorescent-light fixtures suspended against the dusk. This is meant to show WikiLeaks’ back-end as both patched-together and sophisticated—a cathedral built by keystrokes—but it calls to mind nothing so much as the brown-out cube farm that Keanu flees in The Matrix.

Brühl plays the audience’s point of identification (Josh Singer’s screenplay is based on two books, one of them by the real-life Daniel Domscheit-Berg), but Cumberbatch is, naturally, the main attraction here. The actor makes the best of what he’s given, incorporating a lot of little behavioral eccentricities without letting them muddle his portrait: his Assange is the prophet of a new way of combating institutional corruption, but he’s also something of a tyrant, the kind of guy who drops by unannounced, puts on your blazer when you’re not looking, and dips his finger into the casserole your girlfriend made for dinner (as he does to Daniel
one night).

Julian and Daniel eventually butt heads over a matter of journalistic ethics, so that this overstuffed blow-by-blow history finds a surprisingly concise home-stretch hook. The white-haired Australian, here depicted as increasingly megalomaniacal, refuses to redact from classified documents the names of people who might be put in harm’s way by their publication (because editing reflects bias!), despite the pleas of his new traditional-media partners at the Guardian (David Thewlis among them) and just about everyone else affiliated with the WikiLeaks organization. But even as this central feud emerges, there remains too much going on: a perfunctory subplot also gives us the viewpoint of two State Department careerists (Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney), overwhelmed by—but eventually philosophical about—the release of the classified Afghan war logs and diplomatic cables. It’s no surprise that a commercial feature about this subject might take pains to appear evenhanded, but it’s disappointing that in the process it should also be so dramatically uneven. 

Opens October 18

09/25/13 4:00am

All is Bright
Directed by Phil Morrison

It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Phil Morrison, whose 2005 debut feature, the returning-home character piece Junebug, rightly remains one of the aughts’ most fondly remembered American indies. This minor-key follow-up—which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring as Almost Christmas—stars Paul Giamatti and Paul Rudd as haggard small-time criminals taking a crack at an honest living: hawking Christmas trees in North Brooklyn, on a stretch of pavement in the long shadow of Manhattan’s sparkling skyline. Dennis (Giamatti) has just been released from prison to find former partner Rene (Rudd) planning a life with Dennis’s ex-wife and daughter. But, because it’s the only work he can find, and he wants to buy a piano for his daughter, Dennis nonetheless talks his way into Rene’s (relatively) aboveboard tree-hauling scheme.

Just as Junebug charted a close-quarters collision of Northern and Southern values, there’s a baseline culture shock here as well: the main characters are Quebecois, eventually posing as hearty up-north lumberjacks to better market their Scotch pines to the Brooklyn clientele. Dennis and Rene spend their time just barely scraping by (scenes often accompanied by jazzy carols on the soundtrack), though Dennis’s first customer, the Russian motor mouth Olga (Sally Hawkins), begins to look out for him despite his continued thieving. (He steals any food he can get his hands on and threatens the Christmas-tree competition across the street with a saw before setting
up shop.)

The odd-couple quarreling, as devised by writer Melissa James Gibson and sold by Giamatti and Rudd (capably inhabiting types on opposite ends of the con-man spectrum), has its moments, and the depiction of a wintry-mix Greenpoint, with its diverse foot traffic, keeps the film grounded. But there’s nothing particularly fresh about setting reflexive lowlife behavior against the season’s ostensible mood of gift-wrapped good cheer—on the whole, there’s not a lot to celebrate here. 

Opens October 4

09/11/13 4:00am

Blue Caprice
Directed by Alexandre Moors

The cable-news crawl is looking more and more like this season’s go-to source for art-house inspiration: filmmakers have soberly ripped from headlines both domestic (Fruitvale Station) and international (the composite scenario of A Hijacking), while others have built out behavioral studies from elements sensational enough to make it into any broadcast: The Hunt, Our Children, A Teacher. Now arrives Blue Caprice, the bracing debut feature from writer-director Moors, based on the well-publicized early-aughts Beltway-sniper murder spree.

Placid Antigua provides the setting for the early scenes, with young Lee Boyd Malvo (Tequan Richmond) left by his gone-for-work mother to fend for himself—something he’s not exactly prepared to do, as evidenced by his vacant opening and closing of the refrigerator. From a distance, he observes the American father of two down the street, before managing to insinuate himself into the man’s care. With an abrupt months-later cut, John Allen Muhammad (Isaiah Washington) arrives in the port of Tacoma with his new charge, his two younger children conspicuously absent.
Moors diminishes our sympathy for this adoptive father as it becomes clearer that he is not, as they say, right in the head. His worldview has been warped by an ugly custody battle (he flouts a restraining order by placing calls to his kids’ school), his rage then channeled through a brand of whittled-down militarism. (Tim Blake Nelson does supporting duty as an Army-buddy target-practice partner, alongside Joey Lauren Adams as his girlfriend.) In Washington’s hands, John’s early diatribes are legitimately hair-raising: he erupts when strolling with Lee through the suburb where he used to live, and crystallizes his (incoherent) grand plan in the freezer aisle of a supermarket, with Lee eventually becoming his personal foot soldier in a campaign of patternless violence engineered to “wake people up.”

As Blue Caprice follows John and Lee cross-country in the vehicle of the title (custom-retrofitted with a removable backseat and a sniper-rifle peephole just above the license plate), Moors deftly maintains the sense of a world gone awry. He tails the car, at middle distance, as it crawls along the interstate lane lines; in due time the victims appear as bodies simply slumped to the ground. Even the Stars and Stripes’ cameo is executed with a queasy finesse, as we glimpse a flag hanging over a highway-gas-station crime scene.

Otherwise generally choosing to underplay the national-crisis angle, Moors exhumes yesterday’s news chiefly to highlight the makeshift-family dynamic at its core. A marvel of tone that’s as cold to the touch as its tarmac surfaces, Blue Caprice nonetheless comes to seem a little static in its psychology, with filial devotion never much in doubt, no matter how unsavory the patriarch’s demand. Then again, that could be in part less a dramatic failure than a function of the fact that most viewers likely remember this episode all too well—perhaps that’s the real story here.

Opens September 13

08/14/13 4:00am

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Directed by David Lowery

“This was in Texas,” a lantern-lighted parchment declares at the outset of this trying-times romance—all the ramshackle diction (also see the title) gesturing back, rather insistently, toward an old, weird America that’s long since given up the ghost. No mistaking that this is a period piece, but writer-director Lowery makes the when a little harder to nail down than the where. The rambling Hill Country itself appears here as jar-preserved, largely isolated from outside-world concerns and relatively untouched by time: creased color photographs and low-slung pickups place events somewhere in the 1970s, but the film otherwise concerns characters who appear to use minimal electricity, people who sit down to write letters by lamplight, possessed of the patience to wait and wait and wait for each other.

But Lowery himself—coeditor of the recent Sun Don’t Shine and Upstream Color (both also about troubled lovers, strong on impressions but sparing with narrative detail)—wastes no time in establishing Saints’ keynote of lazy foreboding. The inciting action, as it were, occurs before the audience has much opportunity to get their bearings: ne’er-do-well charmer Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) covers for pregnant girlfriend Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara), who clips a cop (Ben Foster) during a crime-spree-capping shootout. Bob goes to prison, pledging to return to Ruth; she pledges in turn to wait for him with daughter Sylvie. A few other stubborn types step in to delay their reunion once Bob escapes from jail: that kindly officer, unaware of who actually shot him, keeps watch over Ruth and her child; hardware-store proprietor Keith Carradine threatens Bob, his longtime associate, telling him to make himself scarce.

Aside from the proceedings’ adoption of a world-weary swagger, Lowery hints more directly that he’s consciously working in the long shadow cast by the New American Cinema: not long after Bob breaks free, keeping his distance from Ruth to elude capture, we learn that the fugitive’s accomplices were nabbed in Bartlesville, the Oklahoma hometown of doomed-outlaw-idyll specialist Terrence Malick; Carradine memorably busted out of jail himself in Robert Altman’s Depression-set Thieves Like Us (1974).

Lowery proves no slouch at setting the mood—everything here seems to fit the surroundings, right down to the perfectly proud lilt of Mara’s drawl—but the writ-large passions on display don’t take to the thick atmosphere so much as dry out in it. That’s not to say, though, that this ballad of the pretty-ugly past is entirely unwelcome—especially in a summer when so many of the blue-ribbon indies focus narrowly on native-to-the-city folk struggling against the current.

Opens August 16

07/31/13 4:00am

Our Children
Directed by Joachim Lafosse

This domestic drama, the fifth feature by Belgian director Lafosse, derives what power it has from the face of Émilie Dequenne (Rosetta)—her pained expression haunts the film, her features pinched in an anxiety of uncertain depth as she toils in the laundry room or otherwise scrambles to care for her multiplying brood. Imagining the human story behind a real-life tabloid horror, Our Children moves her to center stage as she becomes an increasingly marginalized figure in her own family.

The film’s lede, as it were, establishes that things won’t end well: an early shot observes four small white coffins being loaded into a plane’s cargo hold. Lafosse then flashes back as transplanted Moroccan Mounir (A Prophet star Tahar Rahim) falls for schoolteacher Murielle (Dequenne), the pair eventually settling down in the well-kept flat of Mounir’s vaguely shifty adoptive father, Dr. André Pinget (Niels Arestrup). One baby follows another in rapid succession, with the narrative time between a couple of the film’s several births compressed into the space of just a few shots.

The combination of an almost disconcertingly fleet pace and a general strategy of arthouse-elliptical withholding (conflicts only partially come to a head during brief can-I-have-a-word-with-you exchanges) mutes the film’s dramatic interest. But Lafosse’s emphasis on external circumstances over internal motives at least keeps the dynamics of the relationships curiously charged. Our Children comes to concern the souring, by almost imperceptible degrees, of the main characters’ domestic arrangement, even after they relocate to a larger estate in the sticks. The film zeroes in on the good doctor’s patronage as a de facto method of control, since Mounir has long been in his care and the only outside family member Murielle remains in contact with is her brassy sister. When he hears of Mounir and Murielle’s tentative plan to move to Morocco to raise their children in a less cooped-up environment, André abruptly threatens to cut them off altogether; long after it becomes clear that that plan is off, he chastises them for even floating the idea of raising their daughters—his “grandchildren”—in the developing world.

André and Mounir continue to come and go together, while André dismisses Murielle’s expressed desire for time to herself by chiding her for feeling entitled to such a thing. André’s position is that, thanks to him, the family confronts only trivial first-world problems. But, of course, the overbearing patriarch has long since become something of a problem himself—as evidenced by the speed of Murielle’s under-duress decline, played by Dequenne quietly, but effectively, as a full-body shuddering.

Opens August 2