The Better Angels

B+ Historical drama

  • Written and directed by A.J. Edwards

About half way through A.J. Edwards’ gentle exploration of our 16th president (and my namesake), it occurred to me that a native-born American who hadn’t paid much attention in history class might not realize that the film was about Abraham Lincoln. Names are seldom spoken, and if the very young protagonist was ever called Abe, Abraham, or Lincoln, I missed it.

This is the story of Abe’s childhood in the backwoods of Kentucky and Indiana; and his relationship with his mother (Brit Marling), his father (Jason Clarke), and the stepmother who came into his life a little more than a year after his mother’s death (Diane Kruger). It was these two women who recognized something special in Abe and made sure he got an education–a rare luxury for that time and place.

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Edwards finds an unusual way to tell the story. There’s little dialog, and almost no exposition. The artful, widescreen, black-and-white cinematography makes heavy use of  a Steadicam and some very short lens. The resulting, heavy atmosphere produces a distancing effect, as if we’re watching an old memory.

And that, in fact, is what the film is meant to be. What little exposition there is comes from narration spoken in the character of Abe’s older cousin, Dennis, as an old man. Cameron Mitchell Williams plays the young Dennis; I don’t know who spoke the narration.

Braydon Denney, a talented child actor who looks remarkably like a young Abraham Lincoln, plays Abe as a boy torn between the backwards life that is all he’s ever known and a larger world that pulls his curiosity. He works hard in the fields, and enjoys roughhouse play with other kids. But he has a thirst that can’t be slaked by what’s in the woods. He reads whenever he can, and that’s limited by the hard, physical work and the few books available.

More than anyone else, his stepmother sees something special in Abe, and helps him get an education. His rough-hewn father doesn’t quite understand. He’s a strict disciplinarian, quick with a switch, without enough reading to understand the value of an education. But he loves Abe and the rest of his family, and he comes to accept what is happening.

At times the aforementioned cinematography (by Matthew J. Lloyd) gets in the way of the story. Several panning and tracking shots made the distortions caused by the short lens just plain annoying. But most of the time, the technique worked, creating the sense of a distant but very personal memory, centering on a poverty-stricken but very intelligent young boy. Who he will become is almost irrelevant.

The film opens Friday.

The Mediocre Fascist: The Conformist comes to Blu-ray

Fascist states don’t really need that many committed fascists. But they do need ambitious, unscrupulous, and cowardly people.

In Bernardo Bertolucci’s brilliant character study of a man lacking character, we see political murder as an act of a bureaucrat. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Marcello Clerici as a confused, emotionally cut-off cog in the wheel of Mussolini’s government in the late 1930s.

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A civil servant with a "good" record, Marcello yearns for middle class respectability. To that end, he’s preparing to marry the bourgeois imageGiulia (Stefania Sandrelli), whom he doesn’t really love although he feels some fondness for her. Why shouldn’t he? She’d attractive and can hardly keep her hands off of him.

But their honeymoon provides an ideal tool for the government, which wishes to make a lesson out of Marcello’s old college professor–an anti-fascist activist now living in exile in Paris. Marcello, of course, takes the assignment.

While Trintignant plays Marcello as a nervous man who keeps his cards close to his chest, Sandrelli’s Giulia is an open book. She clearly adores her new husband, and doesn’t object in the slightest when he looks up an old professor. In fact, she becomes bosom pals with the professor’s much younger wife Anna, played by Dominique Sanda as a self-assured sex goddess.

Marcello soon starts ditching his wife to visit this irresistible woman (remember that this is their honeymoon). Anna lets him seduce her, possibly because she understands the danger and wants to control him. But sexually, she’s clearly interested in Giulia, who doesn’t quite understand this other woman’s advances.

But The Conformist isn’t about sex. It’s about a man desperate to fit into society, even if that society is evil.

For a serious political drama, The Conformist is a surprisingly beautiful film. The sets, clothes, and makeup are as glamorous as an old-fashioned MGM musical. Visually, the film is set in an idealized 1930s, even though the story looks coldly at the reality of that horrible decade. This gives the film a sense of people not quite living in the real world. They’re comfortable, but we know they won’t be comfortable for long.

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Another curious aspect of this very serious drama: When it’s funny, it’s very funny. Not often, but on rare and brief occasions, it goes completely off the wall. There’s no reasonable way to explain the fascist bureaucrat with a desk covered in walnuts. But bits like this break the tension and never undermine the serious story.

The Conformist makes for great art and great entertainment. It’s sexy, vibrant, and suspenseful–with a story that makes you care not for the protagonist but for the people unfortunate enough to know him.

First Impression

imageThe Conformist arrives in a standard Blu-ray box inside a slip cover. The slip cover and the case display totally different graphics.

Inside, you’ll find one disc and a 27-page booklet, containing film credits and multiple short articles.

The first thing that comes up when you play the disc (after the FBI warning) is a logo for Video Cinema Arts Visions. Then the menu comes up.

The setup allows Italian or English audio, with English subtitles on or off. I selected the default: Italian audio, subtitles on.

How It Looks

The great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro shot The Conformist with the intention that it would be shown in dye-transfer Technicolor prints. The beautiful transfer provided by Kino recreates the saturated colors that made those prints special.

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This is a film of colorful interiors and cold, snow-and-fog whites (I’ve never seen Paris look so chilly). Storaro captured these visuals magnificently. The Blu-ray does justice to his work.

How It Sounds

The slip cover announces that the audio would be in PCM stereo, which is odd because The Conformist was recorded and released in mono. The Video Cinema Arts Visions logo at the beginning of the movie is indeed in stereo. But once the movie really begins, it’s thankfully all mono.

And that’s uncompressed PCM mono. It sounds just fine.

And the Extras

Not much here. The only significant extra is a 57-minute documentary, In the Shade of the Conformist. It’s interesting when Bertolucci is talking, less so with the voice-of-god narrator. Fortunately, Bertolucci does most of the talking.

The only other supplement shows us two different English-language trailers–one from its original American release, and one from the 2013 restoration. The first one provides a good example of how fading color film can hurt a image.

In short, this is a great transfer of a great film. But the extras are slight.

The Conformist Blu-ray goes on sale November 25. Something to be thankful for just before Thanksgiving.

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Force Majeure: Vacation isn’t what it used to be

A- drama

  • Written & directed by Ruben Östlund

The carefully controlled, not-quite-natural outdoor experience of a fancy ski resort becomes a metaphor for the veneer of a troubled marriage in this Swedish drama set in the French alps.

Tomas and Ebba (Johannes Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli) take their two young children on what is meant to be five days of fun and luxury. But on their first day, while eating lunch in an outdoor restaurant with a spectacular view, an avalanche–presumably set off intentionally by the resort–appears to get out of control and threatens the lives of everyone on that patio. In the moment of danger, Tomas fails to do what is expected of a parent; or, perhaps more importantly, of a man.

Luckily, no one is hurt. At least not physically.

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At first, Tomas appears to be in denial of his failing. But Ebba won’t let him forget. Worse, she repeats the story to other people, with Tomas sitting right next to her, becoming more humiliated with every sentence.

It doesn’t take long before the situation strains their marriage. Ebba has lost all respect for her husband, and Tomas has lost all respect for himself. The kids feel the tension, and lash out at both parents.

All this is set within a resort that appears to be just a bit more realistic than Disneyland. Almost the first things we see are tubes sticking out of the snow, sending out streams of fire to selectively melt and thus sculpt the powder. Other buried machines blow the snow. The camera often lingers on the various transportation devices that move people from one place to another without exposing them to physical effort. (I should admit right now that I have no experience skiing.)

Indoors, the resort seems warm and cozy. And the avalanche appears to have had no effect on anyone except Tomas and Ebba. No one talks about danger or evacuation, new tourists arrive, and guests who didn’t happen to be in the restaurant at the right time don’t even know that it happened.

Well after the incident, a close friend of Tomas’ arrives with his much younger girlfriend. When Ebba tells once again repeats story, the friend is clearly embarrassed for Tomas’ sake, and offers a pathetic explanation. Later, this friend and his girlfriend have their own argument about a hypothetical situation.

Tomas’ self doubt seems extreme at times. In one sequence, he’s locked out of their room for apparently hours, and he never thinks to go to the front desk and get another key.

 Force Majeure comes very close to having a too-convenient ending. But writer/director Ruben Östlund sidesteps the issue in an unexpected way.

On one level, Force Majeure is about courage and fear, and about the destructive behavior that can (but doesn’t have to) destroy a marriage. On another, it’s about the artificial worlds we create for our own enjoyment. But on a deeper level, it’s about what we hide in order to go on with our lives.

Jayne Mansfield’s Car

I wrote this review in 2012, expecting that the film would eventually be released theatrically. It never happened–at least not in the Bay Area. However, as it’s available on disc and pay-per-view, I’ve decided to publish the review.

C Drama

  • Written by Tom Epperson & Billy Bob Thornton
  • Directed by Billy Bob Thornton

When Sling Blade came out in 1996, we all though that writer-director Billy Bob Thornton was the new auteur to watch. Instead, he became a movie star–or at least a well-known character actor. Every so often he returns to writing and directing, but he has never matched the promise of Sling Blade.

Consider his new film, Jayne Mansfield’s Car. A southern gothic about the long-range mental effects of war, it provides little more than a chance to watch great actors struggle with a shallow script.

Robert Duvall stars as Jim Caldwell, the aged, stern, remote, and possibly loving JMC_03951.jpgpatriarch of a prosperous, small-town Alabama family. Two of his three sons, deep into middle age, still live with him. One of those sons is married, and his wife and son live there, as well. As far as I could tell, no one in this family works for a living.

Early on, Jim gets an important, overseas phone call. His ex-wife, the mother of his children, has died. Although she left him decades ago, moved to England, and remarried, she wanted to be buried back home in Alabama. Why? Because otherwise there would be no movie. So along with her corpse comes the Brits–her second husband and his children from a previous marriage.

So you get a funeral, a culture clash, sex between people slightly related by marriage, and the unintended use of a psychedelic drug. It’s like Death at a Funeral without the laughs.

The film is set in 1969, so youthful rebellion also plays a part. The picture even opens with a very small anti-war march. Jim’s son Carroll (a long-haired Kevin Bacon) represents the counterculture, even though as a World War II veteran, he’s clearly too old for it. He seems to spend most of his time smoking pot, meditating, and running light shows. He has a son in danger of being drafted.

This picture is really about the long-term effects of war. Both Jim and his ex-wife’s second husband served in World War I. That second husband, with the very British name of Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt), walks with a cane from a battle wound.

Their sons are also war damaged. Although in some ways Carroll is the most together of Jim’s three sons (he’s the only one not living with his father), Jim suggests that his problems are war-related. His brother Skip (Thornton) has serious scaring all over his body and seems to have never matured past adolescence. The third son, Jimbo  (Robert Patrick), didn’t serve and feels that he missed something. Kingsley’s son Philip spent most of the war in a Japanese prison camp–which permanently ruined his digestion and his relationship with his father, who accuses him of cowardice.

The cast is uniformly terrific, or as terrific as the weak writing allows. Among the standouts is Frances O’Connor, whom I’d never seen before, as Bedford’s daughter. Unlike everyone else, she seems to happily embrace life. However, among cinematic sex scenes that I never want to see again, I have to include O’Connor, naked, enthusiastically reciting The Charge of the Light Brigade while…never mind.

Thornton wanted to make a great drama, but he didn’t succeed. Conflicts are heavy-handed and overly explained. And everyone, from the generous but bigoted southerners to the stiff-upper-lip Brits, are stereotypes. The excellent cast pulls the weak script up to the point where it’s reasonably entertaining, but a drama with too many conflicts and not enough depth can only go so far.

The Two Faces of January: The Best Thrillers Take Their Time

A thriller

  • Written by  Hossein Amini, from a novel by Patricia Highsmith
  • Directed by  Hossein Amini

The less you know about The Two Faces of January when you walk into the theater, the more you’re going to enjoy it. So I’m going to try talking about this thriller without giving away much of the plot.

Wish me luck.

The Two Faces of January is the best new thriller I’ve seen since Headhunters, but it’s a very different kind of thriller. Headhunters was funny and outlandish, telling a preposterous story in an entertaining way. But the events in January feel like they could happen, and if you make the wrong mistake, they could happen to you. The picture gives you time to become familiar with the characters, then draws them into a life-or-death situation that seems entirely likely, but impossible to escape.

Screenwriter/director Hossein Amini adapted the story from a novel by Patricia Highsmith. Her other novels include Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley–quite a track record. It follows the fortunes, and mostly the misfortunes, of three Americans spending leisure time in Greece in the early 1960s. The period setting doesn’t play an important role; the film could have been set it in the present without losing any atmosphere.

I think I can safely tell you a bit about the three lead characters. When we first meet them, Chester and Colette MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst) are a wealthy, attractive, and happy couple on vacation in Greece. Rydal (Oscar Isaac) has been living in Greece for a year, is estranged from his family back in the States, and is scratching out a living as a tour guide–with some petty larceny thrown in for good measure.

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Rydel knows the culture and speaks the language. In one early scene, he helps Chester buy Colette a bracelet, and uses his linguistic skills and knowledge of the currency to pocket a considerable amount for himself.

Of course there’s going to be a triangle. All three stars are exceptionally good looking (that’s why they’re not just actors but stars). And Colette, much younger than her husband, is obviously attracted to the young and handsome Rydel.

But no, the love triangle doesn’t drive the story. That’s a job for crime and deception. Who’s the criminal? And who’s deceiving who? I think I better stop there.

The Two Faces of January marks Amini’s debut as a director, although he has been an established screenwriter for years (The Wings of the Dove, Drive). Yet he handles the film like a pro. Marcel Zyskind’s photography captures both the beauty of the locations and the terror of the characters’ predicament. The editing by Nicolas Chaudeurge and Jon Harris holds and builds the suspense despite the relatively slow pacing by thriller standards.

The slow pacing does a lot to make The Two Faces of January such a wonderful film. Not only does it allow the story and the characters to breath; it also adds to the suspense.

And if you love to be scared at the movies, you really need to see The Two Faces of January. And you need to see it with as much ignorance as possible.

Five Came Back: Great film directors go to war

It’s hard to imagine an America so entirely at war that every aspect of the economy is affected. Where GM and Ford stop making cars to concentrate on bomber planes and tanks. Where healthy young men all but disappear from civilian life.

And where five of Hollywood’s top directors (along with multiple screenwriters, cinematographers, and even one studio head) left their mansions and high-paid jobs to join the army and make training and propaganda films.

imageLast week, I finished Mark Harris’ new book, Five Came Back, where he describes the military careers of Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler. All but Huston were major, established directors when Pearl Harbor was bombed; Huston was an exciting new director who had just burst onto the scene. All of them would be changed by the experience.

Harris also wrote Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, which I reviewed back in 2011. The two books have a similar structure, chronologically weaving five slightly interconnecting stories about filmmaking and society. With this second book, Harris has become one of my favorite film historians.

(A bit of trivia: Harris has some marital connections with Hollywood. He’s married to playwright and frequent Spielberg collaborator Tony Kushner.)

Capra had the easiest military experience of the five. Hollywood’s most popular and successful director through much of the 30s, his star was beginning to wane (according to Harris) by the early 40s. He spent most of the war stateside, producing and sometimes directing his Why We Fight and Know Your Enemy series, made up from old newsreels and other existing footage. The closest he came to combat was a few months in London, when the Germans were still regularly bombing that city.

By contrast, Stevens and Wyler (and to a lesser extent Huston and Ford) spent large portions of the war on the ground with troops or flying in bombers. In what is probably the best film of the group (at least the best I’ve seen), The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, Wyler films a bombing raid from inside a plane. The sense of flight and of danger are palpable.

The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress

Wyler paid a lot for his patriotism. He lost all of the hearing in one ear and most of it in the other. But that didn’t stop him from making Roman Holiday, Friendly Persuasion (very much an anti-war movie) and Ben-Hur.

Stevens lost something too, although it’s harder to define. He was with the troops that liberated the Dachau concentration camp, and spent his last months in the military documenting the atrocities. Before the war, he was known primarily for comedies. Afterwards, he stuck to drama.

And Ford? Well, his politics swung from left to right over the course of the war.

But my biggest surprise came with one of the most respected, and best, of the military films to come out of the war: Huston’s Battle of San Pietro. I had previously read that most of the picture was what we’d today call cinema vérité–footage shot of what was actually happening. The linear notes in the Treasures from American Film Archives collection says as much, and it certainly looks like it. But according to Harris, Huston arrived after the battle was over, and almost everything was faked. That it fooled so many people says a lot for Huston’s talent.

The Battle of San Pietro

Something struck me as I read this book, although Harris doesn’t hit on it. For their first film after returning to civilian life, four of the five made one of the best and most iconic pictures of their careers. Harris goes into detail about two of these–Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. (Despite the similar names, they are very different films.) The two he mentions only in passing are Ford’s My Darling Clementine and Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Stevens, recovering from the emotional blow of documenting the Holocaust, took longer to get up to speed.

Harris tells his stories in an easy-to-read style. Within the context of film history, he tells us a lot about how a struggle, now on the edges of living memory, that we could hardly even imagine today.

The Zero Theorem doesn’t add up to much

C+ Dystopian satire

  • Written by Pat Rushin
  • Directed by Terry Gilliam

In the 1980s, Terry Gilliam made three sci-fi/fantasy comedies that stood with the best films of that decade. But his best work is now far behind him. His latest movie, The Zero Theorem, although visually exciting and occasionally provocative, doesn’t really go anywhere.

Quentin Tarantino’s favorite German, Christoph Waltz, stars as a brilliant but reclusive mathematician and computer programmer  sinking into some form of depression. He works mostly at home–trying to solve an impossible problem–while his corporate overlords track him closely and watch everything he does. That home appears to be an abandoned cathedral

This is one messed-up dude. He refers to himself in the plural ("we" instead of "I"), as if he were the King of England. He insists that he’s dying, even though there’s no reason to believe it’s so. He also believes that someday he’ll receive a phone call which will explain the meaning of his life.

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Despite his best efforts to stay alone, other people barge into his life. There’s his boss (David Thewlis), as well as a brilliant teenager assigned to help him (Lucas Hedges). Matt Damon plays the corporation’s ultimate boss. Tilda Swinton does another of her brilliant, chameleon, comic roles as a virtual psychiatrist program.

The very sexy Mélanie Thierry plays the most insistent want-to-be companion. She flirts with him constantly, saves his life once, and seems very eager to have virtual (but not real) sex with him. To what extent she’s acting out of her own desire, and to what extent she’s being paid for the job, is an open question.

The Zero Theorem feels in many ways like a less-effective retreat of Gilliam’s brilliant Brazil. Like that far superior film, it’s set in a dystopian society that may be in the future, but in some strange ways feels like the past. Technology–ugly and unreliable–runs everything. One huge bureaucracy rules every aspect of everybody’s life. Only this time, the overwhelming bureaucracy is corporate, not government. The corporation is menacingly named Mancom.

Gilliam fills the picture with imaginative, dazzling, and satiric visuals. In an early scene, a video commercial follows Waltz as he walks through the city. When another man passes him, the commercial changes direction to follow the new target. A party is filled with earbud-wearing guests dancing with their eyes glued to their tablets and smartphones. Every time someone discards a piece of food, a rat comes out of hiding to grab it.

But for all of these visuals, and for all of the fun play with actors like Thewlis, Swinton, and Thierry, The Zero Theorem doesn’t really go anywhere. Unlike Brazil’s protagonist, who’s caught between an evil government and its literally tortured victims, Theorem’s protagonist has little to complain about. His emotional problems aren’t dealt with deeply enough to be meaningful–or dramatic. And we really can’t care if he solves a mathematical problem that we scarcely understand.

With nowhere to go, the climax and ending disappoint in obvious ways.

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