Friday, March 28, 2014

On My Way, Jodorowsky's Dune, The Missing Picture, Anita, Blood Ties, Enemy

On My Way
The Missing Picture

Jodorowsky's Dune


Blood Ties

Capsules on the week's new films, most of them worth seeing:

The wistful, unhurried Catherine Deneuve road trip movie “On My Way” posits the legend as Bettie, proprietor of a slowly failing family restaurant. She walks out one night during the dinner rush in search of cigarettes, which prove as scarce as (French) hen’s teeth out in the countryside. At a honky-tonk, a group of women in their forties befriend Bettie until a man less than half her age plies her with drink and gets her, much to her surprise (she laughs while it’s happening), into bed. Her estranged daughter asks her to pick up her son, Charly (Bettie’s grandson), and bring him to his grandfather’s. He is played with great naturalness by a young man named Nemo Schiffman, who without fear allows Charly’s boundless energy to express itself in highly effeminate behaviors (he also has a long, girlish mop of hair). Further adventures ensue, including a reunion of the 1969 beauty pageant winners from each region of France (Bettie was Miss Bretagne). The movie doesn’t have anywhere earth-shattering to go, and it takes its time getting there, but its humor is unforced and well-earned, its characters free to be true to themselves.

It saddens me that so many people hear the word “documentary” and tune out. To them, the word connotes cinematic broccoli, a movie that’s good for you – informative, educational, even enlightening – but probably not particularly enjoyable. In rebuttal, I offer “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” the incredible and wholly entertaining behind-the-scenes saga of the making of the greatest science fiction film never made. The Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky (love the name) was best known for the hallucinogenic films “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain” when, in 1975, French producer Michel Seydoux gave him artistic (and, largely, financial) carte blanche to choose his next project. Jodorowsky – a great storyteller across a continent’s worth of languages – chose Frank Herbert’s “Dune” without having read it, and proceeded to enlist the acting services of Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali (who demanded $100,000 an hour before Seydoux offered $100,000 a minute), Orson Welles (found inhaling a restaurant in Paris and bribed by Jodorowsky’s offer to hire the chef to cook for him every day on set), and his son Brontis. He also procured pioneering visual effects artists who, when the project ran out of money before filming, incorporated ideas from Jodorowsky’s storyboards into sci-fi classics from “Alien” to “Star Wars.” See “Jodorowsky’s Dune” the way I did, at a late-night weekend showing full of film students and cineastes. When the lights went up, the guy next to me summed it up best: “That was fucking awesome!”

Though the foreign language Oscar nominee “The Missing Picture” comes to us from Cambodia, the narration (read by Randal Douc) is in French, sparing us 95 minutes of Khmer, truly one of the world’s ugliest languages. Rithy Panh’s film is a uniquity: a first-person memoir of a childhood of abundance and insouciance that became, in a blur, one of suffering and dehumanization at the hands of Pol Pot, whose vision of Kampuchea – a land without problems – left no room for individual identity. Names became numbers. The old and weak were isolated and left to die. Any expression of self was crushed instantly and remorselessly. Panh plays with mixed media to tell this story of systematic genocide of the soul, carving and decorating hundreds of clay miniatures and placing them within dioramas or juxtaposing them with the regime’s own artlessly staged propaganda films. The result is a film of occasionally great power. Not all of Panh’s poeticisms, though, hold one’s interest equally, and at times boredom sets in. Still, the image of a miniature of Panh’s free-spirited brother, murdered by the Khmer Rouge, floating over the lush vegetation and flowing waters of his childhood village is one I won’t soon forget.

Anita Hill is so likable – intelligent, principled, with a self-effacing sense of humor – and carried herself with such poise and grace in her moment in the national spotlight -- it’s a shame that Frieda Mock’s biodoc “Anita” is a muddled and misbegotten mess, 45 minutes of television footage from the week of the Hill-Thomas hearings followed by 30 minutes of “Anita Hill Day” celebrations and speaking engagements across the country. Mock, you may recall, chaired the Academy’s documentary branch before resigning just in time to accept the Oscar for her biography of Maya Lin – one of the most dubious chronologies in recent Oscar history. Here, her work lacks reportorial rigor (and she didn’t come off any brighter in a post-screening Q&A). She fails, for instance, to interview the additional corroborating witnesses subpoenaed by then-Judiciary Committee Chair Joe Biden. And, while a cursory review of the facts establishes the correctness of Hill’s version of the relevant events of her employment under Clarence Thomas at the EEOC, any reporter worth her salt would both allow Thomas’ supporters to be heard and connect the dots between the nominee and his Republican advisers. (The name of John Danforth, Thomas’ leading Senate sponsor, goes unmentioned.) Who wrote Thomas’ speech decrying what he called a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks,” perhaps the crudest and most effective use of the race card in modern history and one that (I hope) couldn’t possibly work today. Watching this movie, you’d never know.

Until Matthew McConaughey's 2013 (and 2012, for that matter), no actor had had a better movie year since Billy Crudup's 2000, with completely winning lead performances in the two best films of that year, "Almost Famous" and "Jesus' Son." I truly believed he would become the next big thing in film (and, yeah, I had a major crush on him). In Guillaume Canet's old-fashioned Cain-and-Abel saga "Blood Ties," Crudup reminds me why, meticulously crafting a portrait of the good, responsible brother (the cop to Clive Owen's career criminal) who's spent a lifetime internalizing resentments and seeking approval he shouldn't need from one who can never provide it. We used to get movies this strong - with a creditable name actor in each key role - far more frequently than now. There's James Caan as their father, happy just to have Owen out of stir and willing to overlook transgressions he wouldn't abide in Crudup; the too-rarely-seen Lili Taylor as their peacekeeping sister; Mila Kunis as Owen's new girlfriend, the receptionist at the garage where he cashes in a favor for a work furlough; Zoe Saldana as Crudup's once and future girlfriend (Saldana seems to date only white men in movies); Matthias Schoenarts as Saldana's interim beau, whose promised release from prison she's no longer willing to wait for; and Schoenarts' "Rust and Bone" co-star Marion Cotillard, a cut above the rest as Owen's ex and the mother of his children, who wants more than anything to stop hooking and live a respectable life. I appreciate that Canet makes the crime scenes secondary to the human relationships at the core of "Blood Ties," but still delivers the goods; the action unfolds unpredictably from moment to moment, with immediacy and tension and occasional genuine excitement. 

Denis Villeneuve reteams with his "Prisoners" star Jake Gyllenhaal for the moody, creepy "Enemy," about a Toronto history professor who sees his doppelganger in a bit part in a video he rents and seeks him out, only to find - himself? I love the look Villeneuve creates of a city nearly empty but for this beleaguered man and his double (and their SO's), and the final shot will send you scurrying to the IMDb message board for answers.

N.B.: I've now seen "Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1" but will wait to post my review until seeing Vol. 2 in a little over a week.

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