Thursday, April 3, 2014

Finding Vivian Maier, Cesar Chavez, Noah, Just a Sigh, A Birder's Guide to Everything, Big Men, It Felt Like Love

Finding Vivian Maier
Cesar Chavez


Just a Sigh

A Birder's Guide to Everything
It Felt Like Love
Big Men
Two fascinating documentaries highlight the week in film:

"Finding Vivian Maier," by Charlie Siskel (Gene's nephew) and John Maloof, is the best of the bunch, a marvelous mystery that turns into a compelling character study. Maloof, with the trained eye of one who spent his childhood at flea markets, purchased a storage box at auction for $380 that contained hundreds of thousands of photographs, many of them exceptional, by a woman named Vivian Maier. When he searched for her on Google, she turned up zero hits. This sent Maloof - a historian by avocation - on an odyssey that only intensified when he discovered Maier had spent her adulthood in the suburbs of Chicago, working as a nanny. 

He set out to "find" Vivian Maier, to catalog and comprehend a great artist who toiled in self-imposed secrecy. What makes the film so memorable, in addition to entirely entertaining, is that Maier resolutely defies neat categorization. Through interviews with her former wards and employers, the directors paint a portrait of both a photographer of wit and perspective - an intrepid interloper into others' personal space - and an intentionally cryptic packrat who, when asked her profession, told one man, "I'm sort of a spy." She could be caring and cruel; when two of her charges asked where she was taking them, she said, "It's a surprise." It turned out to be the stockyards, where lambs were sent to slaughter. The more you know about Maier, the less you know, the rougher the edges. Here's a great example of the power of documentary to shine a light - welcome or not.

One could scarcely ask for clearer evidence of the advantages of documentary over fiction film than in the contrast between "Finding Vivian Maier" and Diego Luna's preachy, prosaic and platitudinous feature "Cesar Chavez," a film with good actors in major roles but without a pulse. Michael Peña - whom I've been touting since "30 Minutes or Less" and who arrived in a big way in "End of Watch" - plays the voice of California's farm workers without energy or point of view - seemingly, without interest. Rosario Dawson has virtually nothing to do as Chavez' colleague Dolores Huerta - herself an important figure - while America Ferrera, as Cesar's wife Helen, gets such lines as, "Talk to your son - please!" John Malkovich plays a self-made vintner by way of Croatia, who finds himself the target of one of Chavez' boycotts. The film teaches us nothing about Chavez' organizing tactics, the strategy of the boycott, the growers' arguments, the public's reaction, the terms of the ultimate agreement or the negotiations that led to it. Instead of this juicy stuff, we get paint-by-numbers scenes of Chavez' eldest son, Fernando, being called names and harassed at school; instead of dialogue, we get speeches.

If you've never been a kid in Sunday School - itching to get out - then Darren Aronofsky's "Noah" will simulate the experience. Ponderous, pointless, and preposterous, it's two and a half hours of sheer torture. Russell Crowe plays Noah, and of his performance let me simply say that no statue has ever shown greater range. He conveys emotions here from A to A, a case study in morose, eschatological self-certainty. As for the ark, I've been on longer pleasure boats. This thing wouldn't need special dispensation to enter the port at San Pedro. And throughout the first two hours (the flood doesn't hit until you're squirming in your seat), whenever Aronofsky cuts to it, it's at the exact same stage of construction. As for the animals? They basically stay in their compartment and sleep through the damn thing. We spend more time with creations called the Watchers that look like Transformers made of half clouds, half slush. Meanwhile, Noah issues a fatwa that human life shall end with his family. This creates a biblical brouhaha when the hunky son, Shem (Douglas Booth), and his inamorata - Noah's adopted daughter, Ila (Emma Watson) - find out she's enceinte, and with twin daughters, no less. Perhaps recognizing his film's total lack of dramatic interest, Aronofsky takes the opportunity to build suspense as to whether Noah will kill the neonates (right down to a knife blade pointed at the girls' eyes as the music crescendos), while his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly, failing to rekindle the magic of her performance opposite Crowe in "A Beautiful Mind") beseeches him to spare the tots. A despicable climax to what will surely stand as one of the worst films of Aronofsky's career, and of the year.

In Jérôme Bonnell's "Just a Sigh," Emmanuelle Devos plays Alix, an actress from Calais on her way by train to an audition in Paris. Perpetually late and short of cash (she's so overdrawn her ATM eats her card), Alix is an emotional high-wire act. After she calls her longtime boyfriend Antoine and gets his voicemail for the 837th time, she notices a smartly dressed Irishman (Gabriel Byrne) in the same car. She follows him through the gare and, after her audition (one of two great scenes in the film; in the other, Devos and Aurelia Petit as her sister Diane encapsulate a lifetime of sibling rivalry in one five-minute house visit), returns to his hotel and takes the elevator to his room, where they spend most of the afternoon getting to know each other. "Just a Sigh" aims for the kind of day-that-changes-everything emotional wallop of "Before Sunrise" and its successors, but Devos, while interesting and risk-taking, is no Julie Delpy, and Byrne - bland at best since "Miller's Crossing" - can do nothing with Doug, his cipher of a character. Besides, these two live a couple hours apart, and Alix gives Doug her address and phone number! I'll save you some money and tell you the two best lines. Before hopping the train home, Alix confesses that she's pregnant, to which Doug replies, "Already?" Earlier, she tells him her line of work and he says, with a wink, that he can't tell whether her emotions are genuine or artificial. She says the same is true of him - because he's a man. 

I held out hope for "A Birder's Guide to Everything" because Luke Matheny (the deserving Oscar winner behind the great live action short "God of Love") co-wrote the script with director Rob Meyer. Sad, then, that it ends up not much better than the ornithological bomb "The Big Year." Kodi Smit-McPhee plays David, a high school student who grew up birding with his mother, who died of cancer. He tells his two only friends, Peter and Timmy - the other members of the school's birding society - he thinks he may have seen a type of duck long since believed extinct. They - in an amusing, well-written official meeting that adheres to strict parliamentary rules of order despite their age and number - agree to meet with a national birding expert (Ben Kingsley) and, if he encourages them, to spend their funds on the search. Kingsley's fun as the guru, Lawrence Konrad, pompous and prone to situational ethics. But the road trip itself consists of overly familiar tropes (the ultracompetitive "listers" who overhear their conversation and set out to scoop them, teenage sex talk) and returns home to a subplot involving David's dad (James LeGros) and his young, hot new fiancée (Daniela Lavender) that we've seen a million times. The best part of "A Birder's Guide" is the recurring idea of band guys as sex gods - that these three are so socially inept, they think band guys must score all the time. "Of course, she's had sex," David tells Timmy of Ellen (Katie Chang), who's accompanied them. "She has a boyfriend, and he's in a band!" Later, at his dad's wedding, a girl walks up to the newly confident Peter and asks, "Are you, like, in a band?"

Insider access born of excellent reporting distinguishes Rachel Boynton's superior documentary "Big Men," about a small Texas oil company called Kosmos Energy that finds oil off the coast of Ghana. Boynton chronicles their efforts to monetize the resource and the efforts of the Ghanaian government to make sure that most of the money stays in country. Both sides make compelling arguments: Kosmos reached a valid agreement with the former president, John Kufuor, and invested in Ghana at a time when no oil had been found there; having taken the risk, they should reap the reward. But the new administration, under John Atta Mills, perceives the Kosmos contract as a "sweetheart deal," mindful of the way foreigners have exploited Ghana's natural resources in the past without meaningfully enhancing Ghanaians' prosperity. Boynton secures interviews with all the key players at Kosmos, with their liaison in Accra, with Atta Mills (and perennial presidential runner-up Nana Akufo-Addo), his AG, and more. Ghana charges Kosmos and their Ghanaian affiliate EO with violations of the Federal Corrupt Practices Act; in response, Kosmos attempts to bring international pressure to bear on Ghana, asking how anyone can feel comfortable partnering with a country that reneges on its deals. At the same time, Boynton travels to the nearby Niger Delta, where bands of armed-to-the-teeth militants periodically break the pipeline and commandeer unprocessed oil for resale to poor Nigerians. She clearly put herself in harm's way to make "Big Men," a multi-faceted look at yet another fascinating aspect of contemporary Africa.

I wish I felt as much love as I do respect for Eliza Hittman's "It Felt Like Love," about a high school girl's sexual awakening. Lila (Gina Piersanti) mostly watches as her best friend Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni) explores her sexuality with new boyfriend Patrick (Jesse Cordasco). At the beach one day, Chiara talks to Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein), a hunky college kid. Patrick accuses her of being more than Sammy's friend, which Chiara denies: "He's gross. He'll sleep with anyone." This pricks up Lila's ears, and she's soon walking across town to "bump into" him where he works. She continues to find excuses to insinuate herself into Sammy's presence, culminating in the film's toughest and best scene, in which Sammy and his two friends tell her she must have come over because "she wants to suck all three of our cocks." There's material here for a deeply affecting look at a young woman, just trying on borrowed words and behaviors, hoping for love but finding something far uglier. Unfortunately, the role is so reactive - and Piersanti so inexpressive - that one connects on an intellectual level more than in resonant feeling.

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