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Articles by

<Elina Mishuris>

06/18/14 4:00am

Begin Again
Directed by John Carney
Opens June 27

Begin Again begins at least three times. Just-jilted Gretta is pulled onstage by a well-meaning sidekick to strum out her pain at open-mic night in a Manhattan bar. As the movie backtracks, we learn that, like Llewyn Davis, she’s had a day of disillusionment. (Nobody in the movies now performs live out of joy.) So has record exec Dan, the one attentive member of her audience. He’s broke, drunk, and apparently suicidal (or, in one of the movie’s many gestures toward authenticity, deathly frustrated by the MTA). Dan’s gift is seeing that Gretta has a gift. In a transcendent sequence, he imagines the instruments onstage playing themselves, orchestrating an accompaniment for Gretta that turns a pretty plaint into a chartbuster. And so: motif established, scene set for a musical romance.

But John Carney, who directed Once, likes his romance unconsummated; like the leads in the Dublin film, his New York pair are not entirely untangled from a marriage to Catherine Keener (for him) and a relationship besmirched by Adam Levine’s infidelity and weird beard (for her). Dan offers to help Gretta make a demo, recording each song in a different outdoor locale, and when they end up wandering one night, listening to the same music via two pairs of headphones and one splitter, more important than their attraction is the possibility of attraction, of being alone together in a city of the solitary, and in a time when so many tinny electronic voices are vying for our love.

Gretta is meant to be a Gerwig kind of gal, but hopelessly elegant Keira Knightley gamely takes up the guitar and Diane Keaton wardrobe; Mark Ruffalo of course is likable as all hell. But there are rules of romcom, and this one too comes with chubby happy friends and Violet the estranged teenage daughter, played by the excellent Hailee Steinfeld, doing more for her role than it deserves. The movie’s one truly false note is doggedly independent/indie Gretta suggesting that Violet cover up a little. I thought this was sexy, Violet says. It’s very sexy, Gretta says disapprovingly. But sex apparently isn’t for little girls to contemplate. In the final closeup of her beatific face, Gretta on her bicycle must be envisioning a solo career.

06/04/14 4:00am

A Coffee in Berlin
Directed by Jan-Ole Gerster

What’s brave about making a slacker comedy 30 years after Stranger than Paradise? And longer still since the New Wave broke? Patience and sympathy for young, semi-attractive, deeply affected ne’er-do-wells are lacking. We quietly identify and loudly disavow: swift death or steady work for those entitled jerks. Even Jarmusch, in his latest flick about ancient entitled jerks (vampirism now being shorthand for posturing and rare vinyl) has his mortal slacker slaughtered. And yet! Jan-Ole Gerster’s freshman feature (called Oh Boy at home in Deutschlad and lauded upon its 2012 release) is more substantial than its mumbly New World relations, more daring and, importantly, more fun.

Gerster doesn’t and couldn’t conceal his influences: he shot in black-and-white, separating episodes in the life of Niko (Tom Schilling, with James McAvoy’s face and underdog trustworthiness) with jazz and Berlin cityscapes: trolleys, trains. But Niko’s no nebbish neurotic. A law-school dropout, he’s committed to staying uncommitted, and over his horrible, no good, very bad day he’s further separated: from girlfriend, bank account (parentally subsidized) and driver’s license, which a nutty shrink suspends, suggesting reticent Niko may be a dangerous alcoholic. Like most else here, the interview is played as farce, but Niko, endlessly unable to secure a cup of coffee, does go on to drink an awful lot: beer, vodka, whatever’s in other people’s unfinished glasses. The point is that it’s hard to blame him, since everyone else here is a fool, whether wise, or harmless, or boorish and mildly violent. Happiness is the plush embrace of a little old lady’s armchair—while her dealer grandson bags product in the next room.

Kind Grandma and soused, reminiscing Grandpa at the bar are known elements, here nicely used; the costumed extras—Nazi and Jewish prisoner—sharing a smoke outside a movie set are newer, a pointedly provocative signpost toward Gerster’s concerns. Allow that Niko, inarticulate, may have real reasons for a life in indecision. And, unlike, say, the ricocheting Frances Ha, it’s never certain that Niko’s headed anywhere, though he does succeed eventually in his quest for coffee. In the end, it’s simple—he sits and takes a lengthy drink. The long dark night of the soul might yet yield to a lucid morning.

Opens June 13 at the Sunshine

05/21/14 4:00am

Lost for Words
By Edward St. Aubyn
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

The Man Booker is dead; long live the Elysian Prize! To stand in for the Man Group’s yearly tourney, Edward St. Aubyn’s latest offers a similarly haphazard competition, sponsored by a company that specializes in modified crops (like lemons crossed with bullet ants for extra zest), driving cattle to cannibalism and farmers to suicide. The committee assembled to select the winner is accordingly suspect: a platitudinous MP; a media personality sounding off on “everything from Abortion to Zimbabwe”; a government grandee’s old mistress and his actor cousin; and, to placate any bookish malcontents, an Oxbridge academic who stubbornly maintains as her standard “good writing”—or “especially good writing”—though everybody knows that’s not the point.

Most of the writers who land on Elysian’s shortlist have at best extraliterary concerns: imitating Irvine Welsh, say, or wondering how one’s vanity-press cookbook was taken for an experimental novel. The well-meaning editor (ditching his wife for one of his authors, but never mind) responsible for the cookbook fiasco travels to a book conference in Guttenberg (!) to discover a “trade fair for digital gadgets and fatuous theories.” Is the point, then, that the golden age of literature is firmly behind us?

Such sweeping satire isn’t St. Aubyn’s bailiwick. The Patrick Melrose novels, for which he’s best known, skewer a specific social class but focus on the deeply damaged eponymous aristocrat as he grows from an abused child into an addicted young man and then into a struggling adult. Next to contorted, caustic Patrick, the mad maharaja planning to avenge his book’s omission from the list, or the familiar, frenetic French theorist (“…both catastrophes, the fantastic and the actual, are deployed to distract us from the desert of the Real…!”) look lacking—but then it’s folly to seat them next to Mr. Melrose at the
award ceremony.

If Lost for Words is a slight event, as some have concluded , like all good satire it’s spillover from serious concerns. Instead of the heartlessness St. Aubyn professes to dislike about Evelyn Waugh, here two promising young writers skipping the Elysian ceremony in favor of more sex find that “all the irony seemed to have rushed from the world, restoring it to a place where things happened naturally and incomparably,” which seems to obviate the need for literature—yet here we are, and (as usual with St. Aubyn) what a lovely sentence.

05/21/14 4:00am

The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne
Directed by Matthew Pond and Kirk Marcolina

John Cheever once wrote a story about a jewel thief, “Montraldo,” in which the extraordinary conceals itself behind the banal. The story starts: “The first time I robbed Tiffany’s, it was raining.” Immediately unloading his loot, the thief sails for Italy, boarding there in a ruin owned by an ancient aristocrat who speaks “a flowery Roman” that the thief assumes is meant to distract from her present impoverished state. Doris Payne, hero and victim of this documentary, is at once the signora and the thief. A half-black, half-Cherokee woman from Slab Fork, West Virginia, she may have been fleecing Tiffany’s in 1964, when Cheever’s story was published; she started with her sleights of hand as a teenager. At present, she is in her middle 80s, beautifully self-possessed, and serving a two-year term for burglary and grand theft.

The challenge of making a documentary about Doris Payne isn’t that the subject appears to be both proud and honorable and a committed liar. No contradiction is inherent in that: like any actor, Doris believes what she says when she says it, and there’s a lengthy legal record to check her tales against. Nor were the filmmakers confounded by an excess of story. Doris recalls several international escapes from custody (one with the assistance of a nun; another from a moving train) and a wrecked affair with a partner in crime, the “only jewboy at the University of Alabama,” as she fondly explains.

Standing in for all this history is a reenactor in round sunglasses, packing a suitcase and smoldering from beneath a hat. (You yearn for more footage from To Catch a Thief.) And if the filmmakers were reigned in by their concern for the lady’s dignity, their attempts to maintain it amount to many shots of Doris Payne standing solitarily by small windows in the colorless hallways and waiting rooms of the law (yet toward the end of the doc, which tracks the process of an ongoing court case, Doris is asked to pose in an orange jumpsuit). At this stage in her career, the woman’s face, her voice, her silences, should—and would, if they’d been allowed—speak for themselves. But, once again, cameras are the downfall of Doris Payne.

Opens May 28 at Film Forum

04/09/14 4:00am

Every Day Is for the Thief
Teju Cole
(Random House)

Toward the end of his stay in Lagos, the narrator of this novella stumbles upon a book-and-music shop called Jazzhole. It’s a bright, welcome contrast to the jazz shop he’d walked into earlier, where none of the merchandise was for sale but all the records, for a fee, could be infinitely copied. Jazzhole is “that moving spot of sun” the narrator has sought, a Nigerian outpost of the international culture industry, where the city’s endless din of generators dies down. The novella, published now in the US following the success of Cole’s 2011 debut Open City, has been out in Nigeria since 2007, courtesy of a local press of this sun-spot kind. But though the narrator swoons over a woman on a bus carrying a crisp copy of an Ondaatje novel, this book will not fold seamlessly into the awe-struck, apolitical embrace of Global Lit; for starters, Cole’s wandering alter ego is too sharply critical of the endless graft he sees. Every Day includes a smattering of “photos by the author”—Cole is also a photographer—but they fulfill a different function. This flâneur is not a camera.

And anyway, the “creative, malevolent, ambiguous” city, which he finds to be “a hostile environment for a life of the mind” doesn’t make for carefree wandering, particularly not for this iteration of Open City’s Julius. He also is a psychiatry resident from Lagos who has long been living in the States, and must relearn how to “present an outward attitude of alertness, while keeping a calm and observant mood… there also has to be the will to be violent.” On this extended visit he’s staying with family, spending his days at bus stops, markets, and at whatever cultural institutions he can find, observing “the city’s many moods: the lethargy of the early mornings, the raucous early evenings, the silent, lightless nights.”

In short and airy chapters, the narrator flirts constantly with the thought of permanent return: to mine material, unwilling to “[hoe Updike’s] same arid patch” for stories of divorce and dishwashing. Miming one attempt, a chapter narrates the immolation of an 11-year-old: punishment for stealing. A recording of the event floats around, but he “cannot find the will to hunt the tape down.” (He wasn’t actually present at the burning.) A struggling humanist hyperaware of history, he finds at the neglected National Museum “no great reason for thinking that a single thing has been improved in the last twenty years.” Cole gives a new, intelligent voice here to that well-known melancholy figure: the intellectual who would speak for many but is thwarted by the machinery of the everyday, kept by his own awareness at a seemingly unbridgeable distance.

03/26/14 4:00am

Nymphomaniac: Volume II
Directed by Lars von Trier

With Volume II of Nymphomaniac, Lars von Trier completes his Depression Trilogy. The film wraps neatly, just as it began, in darkness. The final chapters of Joe’s erotic journey will for most audiences jog even less desire than the earlier installments: under the tutelage of clean-cut K (Jamie Bell), Charlotte Gainsbourg finds a yen for being beaten; she later goes to bed with her teenage protégé, P (Mia Goth), meanwhile working as an extralegal collections agent. Until the violent encounter that brings her to the film’s in-house pontificator Seligman’s bachelor’s cell, humiliation and Molotovs are Joe’s instruments of persuasion.

But in the end there’s nothing actually erotic, even sensual, about this four-hour sale histoire. Seligman may not lack for literary and historical reference, but a Fanny Hill-style Woman of Pleasure Joe is not. (“The Silent Duck” notwithstanding, for whimsical, pan-European, chaptered raconteurship, head one theater over, to The Grand Budapest Hotel.) She may demand more colors from the sunset, but for the purposes of Nymphomaniac’s exercise, that sunset’s only visible from the point of climax—a peak to be climbed compulsively, in company or without, until Joe’s so battered she can’t even masturbate. Which, on occasion, is all fine, and sickly funny: though Gainsbourg has inherent gravity, the writhing Joe is meant as more glyph than person. Her various exertions are a counterweight to all the nuggets of philosophy, an array of insights and lite tripe.

Massing in the stream, critics have all been biting, and with pleasure; what with Joe and Seligman’s odd-couple meta-banter, they say von Trier is having fun for the first time in years! And yes, there’s the kid on the balcony from Antichrist, this time as farce, and childhood visions Joe thinks might’ve been the Virgin Mary actually turn out to be a randy Roman empress and the Whore of Babylon. In which case, all her concern with sinning is a wash. If god’s a dirty joke, how can you offend him? Even her asexual confessor makes an infinitely foreseeable and unfortunate pass. Banter all you like, von Trier suggests, but unless you take drastic measures, interpretation will be forced upon you—critical or commercial, turning your Trilogy into a Quartet. He’s cured, all right. And the joke of Nymphomaniac is on us, as always.

Opens April 4

03/21/14 9:45am

alejandro jodorwsky dune documentary

The unmade film is a Messiah delayed in coming. Its promises of grace persist; paradisiacal new worlds would’ve been shown to us—if only we had been less venal, less obsessed with revenue! But the movies are an earthly business; after enough signs of visionary madness, funding gets withdrawn. Meanwhile, studio orthodoxies continue unopposed. Bits of the unmade film’s footage get lost, or screen in bowdlerized forms at festivals, or are hoarded by true believers like the tatters of a holy text. Orson Welles dies. Kubrick dies. And David Lynch makes Dune.

[jump]

Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel was visionary in its own way. A Hugo- and Nebula-award winner, Dune is set on a desert planet with a fragile ecosystem and the only extant deposits of a substance both universally desired and thus deeply valuable. But where others read: oil, Alejandro Jodorowsky read: enlightenment. After his surrealist Western El Topo established the midnight movie genre, and his Holy Mountain exhorted addled audiences to take charge of their own reality, Dune was the director’s ideal stepping stone into cosmic consciousness. “The most important picture in the story of humanity,” a white-haired, animated Jodorowsky exclaims in Frank Pavich’s engaging new doc, Jodorowsky’s Dune (which opens today at Film Forum). “It will change the world! And you are… eating Big Macs?”

Big Mac consumption, alas, continued. The documentary doesn’t dwell on the film’s eventual collapse; to do so would squander screen time with Jodorowsky, who in his 80s quakes with enthusiasm and an infectious storytelling élan. As he and other would-be Dunemen weigh in, Pavich animates storyboards of the Dune that wasn’t; it’s the closest we’re ever likely to get to this particular geyser of enlightenment. Cast Dino de Laurentiis as the devil here: ending up with the rights, he called in a different kind of prophet to direct; in certain cuts of the 1984 film, Lynch uses a pseudonym (the classic “Alan Smithee”) in the credits to avoid association with the finished product. The team Jodorowsky had assembled for Dune—HR Giger, Dan O’Bannon, Chris Foss—went on to work on Alien, Star Wars and Total Recall, integrating bits of Jodorowsky’s gospel into their work. But now Dali, Udo Kier, Amanda Lear, Mick Jagger and Orson Welles will never appear onscreen together—at least, not in any dimension known to us.

But then such an array was always dubious: Dali requested $100,000 per hour of work, and Welles only agreed to act in Dune when Jodorowsky promised to retain his favorite chef for daily on-set meals. By this time—the mid-70s—Welles had already been working on his own doomed Don Quixote project for nearly 20 years. But what project wasn’t doomed for him? The man’s catalogue of unfinished, recut, and otherwise derailed productions is heartbreaking. No Lear. No Cyrano. Don Quixote was first meant as a TV special, and then a feature film with time-traveling twist (no Paul Menard antics for Welles), but first the money went, and then the lead did (to his eternal rest). Welles recast, rethought, and insisted throughout his life that Cervantes’ characters were eternal: Christ will return, and Arthur, but the perennially untimely Quixote and Sancho Panza couldn’t have left.

Indeed, footage of the Quixote resides presently in Munich, Italy, Madrid—and Paris, where the existing footage of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s unrealized L’Infer also decayed for decades, until a producer’s stalled-elevator encounter with Clouzot’s widow brought it to light. Serge Bromberg’s 2009 doc is less enticing as a film than as an artifact: a frame of witnesses and scene readings (with Bérénice Bejo and Jacques Gamblin) around what Clouzot managed to make of his design. The Nouvelle Vague piqued the man who’d considered accomplishments The Wages of Fear and Diabolique, and Clouzot’s plan for his tale of ravenous jealousy called for technologies that didn’t yet exist in 1964.

His legion technicians and all three of the movie’s crews rigged lights in such a way that actors’ faces seemed to morph in shadows; makeup was required to make skin look again like skin; the manmade lake which featured prominently in the film was red. It was soon to be drained, too, by the municipality, so more than usual Clouzot had to work against time; in response, he seems to have rebelled and shot the same scenes over and over, torturing his actors in a bid for perfection that was finally curtailed by a heart attack. Bits of Clouzot’s polychrome nightmares made it into his final film La Prisonnière, just as research done for Stanley Kubrick’s never-made Napoleon wound up informing his 1975 adaptation of Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon. But—with no disrespect to Ryan O’Neal—think of those candelabras lighting the Emperor of the French!

The hopelessly terrestrial may suggest that the whole project—film, art—is itself quixotic, the onscreen image forever an approximation, a futile struggle to approach something irreplicable, glanced briefly in the mind’s eye. This is absurd, of course. Where cinema’s concerned, the world is indeed “a million possible things,” as Terry Gilliam said some time ago, before he hinted that his own long-delayed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote may be revived soon. Let’s hope this iteration of a world beyond ours isn’t shown the door back into the void.

03/12/14 4:00am

Nymphomaniac: Volume I
Directed by Lars von Trier

Criest thou after knowledge? From her first foray into what becomes a life’s pursuit, Joe the self-declared nympho (a waifish Stacy Martin in the character’s younger incarnation) only learns pain; this is, after all, a von Trier film. Jerôme (Shia LeBeouf) thrusts into her with minimal enthusiasm; hundreds of keener men will follow. Sometime much later, in the movie’s frame story, Joe (now Charlotte Gainsbourg) sits bruised in the flat of a bookish Good Samaritan while he, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), Nymphomaniac’s in-house pontificator, offers interpretive structures for her carnal capers.

Is sex like fly fishing? Sure, if you’re angling for quickies on a moving train. Is grief like Poe? Perhaps, if you’re watching your father (Christian Slater, un-aging) die in delirium. But really, sex has been Joe’s one and only structure, consequences be damned; Seligman’s highbrow references (and fishing footage, and Aubrey Beardsley drawings) are, to her, variably interesting impositions. Like the woman Gainsbourg played in Antichrist, Joe is mostly inclined to think herself a sinner. She seems very lonely. Love, she proposes, is like lust with jealousy added.

And all over, Nymphomaniac is full of formulas, chapter headings, split screens, mythology and formal elements that von Trier shuffles for fun: opening with a gurgle of rainwater, then breaking through with Rammstein’s pounding “Führe mich.” But that’s all right—we’re all masochistic aesthetes here in his audience, I imagine. We are in fact a bit relieved not to find Melancholia’s one-note ponderousness, even if we’ve also lost some beauty, and sit constantly watchful against swerves. We’re certainly not bothered that the setting is some vague Europe, further abstracted through a set of incompatible accents.

Of most concern is the chop that rends the film in two; until the second two-hour volume of Nymphomaniac gets released on April 4, it will be hard to make the brave critical assertions Seligman attempts—and which von Trier mocks preemptively. In the meantime, Volume I bears rewatching, but not because of the penetration shots it’s borrowed from hardcore; those are all just body doubles boning. Uma Thurman’s turn, however, as a politely hysterical jiltee is genuinely raw, and weird,
and horrifying.

Opens March 21

01/29/14 4:00am

Vic + Flo Saw A Bear
Directed by Denis Côté

Because Vic + Flo never see a bear, should you feel cheated? Should you accuse Canadian director Denis Côté (Curling, Bestiaire) of jumbling genres, not delivering a straight thriller or an updated chicks-in-jail ‘sploitation flick? Should you wander so far afield that Wes Anderson comes up as a comparison (though Côté’s forests are bleak and his whimsy blood-splattered)? You should not: Vic + Flo is masterfully paced and caustic and, for the most part, surprisingly fun—fun all the way through for the milder gorehounds. Like Victoria, an ex-con who just wants to live peacefully in the woods, avoiding people, it’s subject only to its own hermetic logic.

But poor Vic’s constantly thwarted; for a movie set in rural Canada, Vic + Flo gets quite crowded. Moving into her paralyzed uncle’s shack, Vic (Pierrette Robitaille) is joined by Florence (Romane Bohringer), the younger girlfriend she met in prison. Flo, you gradually gather, is also hiding out; Vic’s been released early from a life sentence. A friendly parole officer intermittently visits, as do less friendly neighbors and, finally, a violent force, sweeping in after restless Flo picks up a dude at the local bar. Because both Vic’s crime and Flo’s fears of retribution are a given, causes untold, it’s tempting to see lovelorn Vic as some kind of middle-aged poltergeist; first Flo’s punished for banging bar guy, then the lovers are brought together in a way neither would’ve probably preferred.

But if it’s not Anderson, it’s (thankfully) not a Québécois High Tension, either. The vindictive Jackie (Marie Brassard), though she agrees that people like her aren’t supposed to exist, may be real enough. Then again, Vic’s vision of a quiet jailhouse exercise yard must feel more real to her than life on the outside, with a wizened long-haired uncle propped up in the corner. And all the woman wanted was to see some wildlife.

Opens February 7

12/18/13 4:00am

The Past
Directed by Asghar Farhadi

Retrocausality is an unproven hypothesis whereupon the future may, under certain circumstances, affect the present and past. But what if there is no future? Inadvertently, that’s what Asghar Farhadi asks in his sixth feature, scrambling pieces of his accomplished, award-winning A Separation—divorcing couple, another troubled relationship, their children—and reconstructing the scene on the outskirts of Paris. But The Past’s dwellers cycle through their crises aimlessly, lacking not only the previous film’s immediacy and threat of incarceration but also momentum in general; this is life and love in aspic.

Ahmad returns to Paris after a four-year absence to grant his estranged wife Marie a divorce so she can marry Samir, whose young son lives with her and two daughters from a previous marriage. Samir, however, is already wed—to a woman whose suicide attempt has left her comatose. Information about these relationships comes to us gradually, necessitating constant revision of all we thought we knew. But somehow this doesn’t even provide intellectual pleasure; the prevailing sensation is inertia.

Farhadi’s cinema is a skillful spectacle for adults: it sounds and looks like life, if only we were slightly more introspective aestheticians. Separated by layers of glass and plastic, his characters live in half-painted houses and feed messy children who exhibit little gratitude. And the past doesn’t imply nostalgia or sentimentality; it’s its inherent inscrutability that keeps Ahmad and Samir—and, despite her struggles, Marie—unable to progress. But this limits Farhadi, too. As usual, his men are rational sadsacks, his women relentless and prone to rage, all pulled into three dimensions by talented actors. They can’t quite reach that fourth dimension, though. The extended shot following Samir down a hospital corridor should be the film’s most harrowing moment—it should freeze the blood. But the blood flows, sluggishly. Farhadi has perhaps done too good a job—by miring his characters, he’s mired the entire movie.

Opens December 20