The Last Honest Businessman

A Most Violent Year isn’t as good as Margin Call or All Is Lost, the two previous films by J. C. Chandor, but it is still a fine film. What stands out here is the screenplay: there is very little actual violence, no grandstanding, no soul-searching, no deus ex machina, and no lucky coincidence. If Abel Morales can save his NYC heating oil distribution business, it’s by smarts and perseverance, not by some last-minute con. The threats to his firm come from outside: someone is stealing his trucks. There are armed goons observing his mansion at night. The DA (David Oyelowo) waves a warrant in his face during his daughter’s birthday party.

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The film evokes the early 1980s effortlessly: Reagan, street crime on the radio. It features a lot of meetings, talks, negotiations. At the same time, crime is never far away: truck drivers get beaten up, trucks get stolen, a newbie on his sales team is hijacked. Abel Morales, played by Oscar Isaac, wants to keep his nose and his books clean at all costs. His wife and business partner’s goal (Jessica Chastain) is the same, but she is ready to do what needs to be done. A Most Violent Year has been compared to The Godfather: Part II – maybe because it is its opposite. It’s hard not to think of Scorsese or Coppola or Tony Soprano, especially if you cast Jerry Adler, but Morales is the principled center of the story while things fall apart around him.

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The film’s weakest spot is its plot: if everyone around you turns out to be cheating, you can no longer stay clean. The fact that everyone is dirty is the opposite of a spoiler – it’s a stereotype. And the DA’s work does no longer seem to be a smart move, but a lazy, random stab: take any businessman to court, and you will find the dirt on him eventually. Seen that way, the movie slowly deflates. Juding from his earlier movies, J. C. Chandor’s strength is racking up tension by showing us characters who have created situations that slowly turn uncontrollable, so what will be their fate? Morales might give in to backroom deals, or he may refuse and go bankrupt.

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This film is probably too predictable if you compare it to Margin Call, but it is interesting to watch. I’ve had my problems with Oscar Isaac, but he plays his role understated and straightforward. Jessica Chastain reminded me of Lady Macbeth because if her husband can’t take care of business, she will. And I didn’t recognise Albert Brooks or Jerry Adler until after the movie. New York City looks derelict, on the edge; apparently, 1981 was the year with the most murders. There is an early scene in a hospital where the corridor is strewn with litter. The outlook is bleak, not because business is bad, but because the people around you make it so hard for you and your business.

The fact of the meta

François Ozon’s Dans la Maison (In the House) makes for an interesting companion piece to his Swimming Pool. Both films are highly meta, both are about the process of storytelling, and both highlight the tenuous relationship between what makes a good story and What Really Happened. Based on these films, and on Ozon’s career as a filmmaker, his loyalties lie with the former – which is an attitude I very happily endorse.

Dans la Maison is a cheeky variation on the tale of Sheherazade: Germain Germain (Fabrice Luchini), a jaded teacher in late middle age finds himself becoming first intrigued and then well and truly hooked on the essays of the one student of his that shows promise as a writer, in a sea of bored, uninterested pupils that would give even mediocrity a bad name. Claude (Ernst Umhauer), who appears to come from a less privileged background, recounts in a waspish tone how he insinuates himself into the decidedly middle-class home of a classmate, eyeing the seemingly happy family – and especially the attractive though fading mother – like an underage Tom Ripley. The very first of these essays ends in a teasing, even flirtatious “A suivre…” – To Be Continued.

Dans la Maison

Surely, it is no accident that the teacher’s name echoes that of another fictional middle-aged man who enters decidedly murky ethical waters in an ongoing affair-of-sorts with a teenager – but Germain is no Humbert and his student is no precocious twelve-year-old. The seduction we witness is done by means of storytelling, and while Germain says, and may even believe, that he’s letting Claude continue his story and his infiltration of the titular house only to help him become a better writer, it is only in part the intimate but controlling act of teaching that motivates him. Germain is hooked on the illicit voyeurism of observing this middle-class family through the eyes of a transgressing young man whose attitude is partly desire, partly envy and partly disdain of what he sees.

In writing what he observes, Claude shapes both his material and his audience, and as the film proceeds it becomes increasingly less clear to what extent his story swerves from what he actually sees and hears towards pure fabulation. Germain prompts these changes by criticising the story Claude tells – too ironic, too predictable, too melodramatic – but it remains ambiguous whether these critical notes are indeed genuine feedback or the desperate attempts of a captive audience to maintain at least the illusion of control. Claude seems to defer to his teacher’s criticism, but he may just be giving the man what he’s asking for so he can snare him all the better. Germain wants the story to meet his standards of good fiction, yet he also wants it to be true, and the more the former is the case, the more he believes what he reads.

Dans la Maison

It’s a shame that while Ozon gets the relationship between Claude and Germain precisely right, he falters when it comes to the teacher and his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas). No doubt, there are interesting elements there: Germain is a snob who patronises his wife with respect to her fear that she may lose her job as an art gallerist, and he is oblivious of the growing rift between the two of them as he clearly favours his pupil’s fiction over the art she works with, showing off the former to her while dismissing the latter. Late in the film, Claude insinuates himself into Germain’s life, apartment and marriage, much as he inserted himself into his classmate’s family, and again it is not clear where fiction ends and reality begins – but in these elements Dans la Maison remains underdeveloped. While there is a coda that is strangely serene, reconciliatory and sad in equal measure, a fitting end for the characters and the story, what precedes it feels like a first draft, something that hints at ideas and themes but fails to develop them fully. Claude’s final story, about him and Jeanne, feels too sketchy and rushed to warrant Germain’s extreme reaction, and the teacher’s final confrontation with his wife falls uneasily  between the stools of relationship drama and French bedroom farce. It’s a shame: the film falters especially because what surrounds its resolution is sharp, smart and has the necessary lightness of touch. In this, too, it makes for a good companion piece to Swimming Pool. Regardless of the film’s third-act problems, Dans la Maison shows that Ozon still has the wit for playful meta, and I’ll gladly consider myself a willing audience to this particular Sheherazade.

The past is a black-and-white cartoon

My first impression is this: Alois Nebel wants nothing so much as to evoke the animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, with its ligne claire images and its story and themes – in both movies an imperfectly remembered historical event is key to modern-day goings-on. Unfortunately, the ambitions of the recent Czech film very much outstrip its actual achievements, in spite of winning the European Film Award for Best Animated Movie in 2012. It’s a shame, because visually Alois Nebel is moody and sometimes arresting, but too much of it ends up feeling half-baked and derivative.

It starts with the film’s look: Alois Nebel isn’t a carbon copy of Waltz with Bashir, using rotoscopy rather than the combination of Flash and more traditional animation of the latter, but it is close enough to serve as a constant reminder of a stronger film that makes better use of the medium. Bashir reflected on the gap between memory and history, using animation as a more overtly subjective mode of representation. The Czech film, however, doesn’t seem to have much of a reason why it is animated, doubly so since the actual actors, surroundings and objects are clearly visible in the rotoscoped lines. Other than the choice of black and white, there’s little obvious stylisation; form and function seem to be uninterested in one another rather than serving a common purpose. In the end, Alois Nebel mainly seem to be an animated black and white film because this gives it a more unique look, but as such the visuals come across as a vaguely motivated Unique Selling Point, not a purposeful directorial choice.

Alois Nebel

Similarly, Alois Nebel is content to leave too many things unclear. Now, I like the effects that elliptic storytelling can have, but there’s a distinction between elliptic and vague, and the film tends distinctly towards the latter. Early in the story, the titular protagonist, a quiet-to-the-point-of-sullen train dispatcher is taken to a mental institution during the last months of Czechoslovakia as a Soviet satellite state – ostensibly because he has hallucinations about an event from his childhood, but the way the film represents it the one, sole hallucination he has, and in the privacy of his privy at that, could as well be a memory, a dream or simply a flashback. Why exactly is Nebel committed? Why is he released? What difference does either make to him? If it doesn’t matter to any of the characters we see, why should it matter to us?

After he is allowed to leave the institution, Nebel returns to this troubling memory several times, each time revealing a bit more about what happened, but the eventual moment of clarity comes as an anti-climax: it tells us little more than the original incomplete memory did, and it doesn’t flesh out Nebel. It does provide a motive for a secondary character looking for retribution, but that character’s story equally doesn’t add much to Alois Nebel – or indeed Alois Nebel. All of it feels like first draft material in need of being elaborated on; in order to pull off elliptic storytelling successfully, the author needs to have a strong grasp of the story, to know what to leave out and why, but this one seems to have been designed around pre-designated gaps to begin with. If the mystery comes before the story, it’d better be a damn good mystery, yet in this film the mystery is too perfunctory to matter much.

Alois Nebel

The film comes into its own most during its middle, when Nebel is released from the psychiatric hospital, finds that he has been ousted from his job in the village of Bílý Potok and goes to freshly post-Soviet Prague looking for work. While this episode of the taciturn, middle-aged railway man finding companionship, momentary happiness and later disappointment may not be original, it works better at telling a story than the overall film, which includes too many elements while doing full justice to none of them. It’s in the Prague section that the film focuses on one thing rather than a shopping list of ideas, and it does so well (if somewhat predictably). Its mood does not come across as atmosphere for its own sake, as a repeated moody railway station vignette does in the early movie, and it is the better for it.

Unfortunately the filmmakers were too intent on telling their story about past crimes and present retribution, axe murder and all. It’s as if the film forgets its title character, or quite simply isn’t interested enough in him. There’s potential poignancy in a story that sidetracks its title character (I’m wondering what the Coens would do with such a story) – but sadly, Alois Nebel’s poignancy lies mostly in how most of the time it reminds you of a film that is better because it has a clear understanding of what it wants to be.

Paintings, People, Preservation

The worst thing I can say about National Gallery is that it is three hours long. It’s the latest documentary by Frederick Wiseman, a US filmmaker with more than 40 docs under his belt. It is my loss that I haven’t seen any of his work before.

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The movie doesn’t have any red thread to follow; it shows you paintings, it shows you people looking at the paintings – two portraits in one, you could say. Passionate tour guides will tell you about a detail in a painting. A restorer reveals the picture underneath another one. Budget meetings. PR meetings. Back to the paintings. Another film crew. Opening night. Greenpeace protesters. Morning, noon, evening and night over Trafalgar Square. Then back inside. The point is that Wiseman knows exactly where to place the camera. He has nothing to prove, nothing to press upon us. With his all-access pass, he is there to show us around, and to make our stay as interesting as he can.

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National Gallery relies entirely on its visuals: there are no title cards, no questions from the off, no introductions, no looks at the camera, and yet you can intuit what’s going on very quickly. Wiseman leaves staff and audience be, and just lets the camera roll. It’s all in the edit.

National Gallery

You cannot make a movie like this one in the Louvre because the Louvre would be too overwhelming, and any movie would have to decide on which part it wants to concentrate. The National Gallery is big, but not too big. General entrance is free. You can see all it has to offer in one day, and then you can go back the next day and have a longer look at those paintings you liked best. Every time I’ve been there, I left drunk on inspiration and with a smile on my face. This movie reminded me of that, and it made me want to pay a visit again.

Flight or fight

I guess it had to happen sooner or later: if Miyazaki’s word is to be trusted on this, The Wind Rises is the director’s final film. While it’s not his best work, Miyazaki’s fictionalised biography of the aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi is a fitting swan song for an artist whose fascination with flight is evident throughout his films (with Princess Mononoke being a notable exception). The Wind Rises is much less overtly fanciful than most of the director’s works, and its depiction of pre-WW2 Japan is striking in its prosaicness, but the film frequently soars with Jiro’s imagination. Flight is the dream that both the movie’s protagonist and its director share.

However, while the depiction of flight is often exuberant in Miyazaki, in some cases there’s a dark undercurrent to it, and this is definitely true of The Wind Rises. In his dreams, Jiro talks to the Italian engineer Count Giovanni Caproni, who tells him that “airplanes are beautiful, cursed dreams”, and that curse is the weaponisation of flight. In several of Miyazaki’s films flight and warfare are in close proximity to each other, and even the innocence of Laputa‘s air pirates’ ship or Porco Rosso‘s scarlet biplane and its whimsical pilot already hint at the violence of aerial combat. Although The Wind Rises doesn’t come out and say so explicitly, Jiro’s work will lead directly to the Zeros bombing Pearl Harbour and those piloted by kamikaze pilots. Even when the film is at its most elated, it is streaked through with sadness that man’s dream of flight so often serves only to come up with new and better means of inflicting death and destruction.

Except for a couple of scenes, the film keeps this as subtext rather than making it overt; if it had presented a more blatant pacifist message, The Wind Rises could easily have become preachy. Instead, Miyazaki weaves the theme throughout the film without forcing it onto the audience. However, it’s not clear to me to what extent the director wanted his protagonist, who can easily be read as something of a surrogate figure for the director, to come across as naive at best, and blithely self-centred at worst. The film wants us to like Jiro, clearly, but his actions and decisions come at a price that he never quite acknowledges. He is aware that his airplanes will be used for battle, yet he makes himself ignore this. Miyazaki’s depiction also seems to absolve Jiro too readily: he creates dreams, yet it is faceless others that pervert these dreams into killing machines. There is another, equally troubling instance of the film appearing to absolve Jiro’s actions, after he falls in love with and marries a Nahoko, a young woman who has tuberculosis. She leaves the sanatorium where she is supposed to get better to be with and support her husband, knowing that this is likely to worsen her condition, and while Jiro’s sister (a fictional addition to Horikoshi’s real biography, like Nahoko) blames her brother for allowing Nahoko to endanger her health even more, Miyazaki’s depiction of the couple’s love for each other suggests that everything is as it should be: Nahoko’s needs come second to Jiro’s dreams, just like these dreams come before any moral qualms that the airplanes he designs will be used as weapons. In his final imaginary encouter with Count Caproni, Jiro sees Nahoko again, smiling and waving, having fully become the beautiful ideal rather than a real, flesh-and-blood partner, but even here she subsumes her own needs to Jiro’s obsession:she conveniently dissipates in the wind so Jiro can continue talking shop with his idol.

It’s intriguing: The Wind Rises presents its protagonist as a good guy, but you don’t need to scratch the surface much to see that for all his charm and passion Jiro serves his own dreams before anything else. The film doesn’t present this as its preferred reading of the character, to my mind, but it definitely gives its audience enough space to interpret Jiro as increasingly self-absorbed. This tension between the presentation of Jiro as a Miyazaki stand-in and the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t subtext of his more questionable qualities is interesting but also somewhat troubling; it’s still not clear to me whether The Wind Rises seeks this tension or whether it is at cross-purposes with itself. Miyazaki’s films usually don’t shy away from ambivalent characters, but I’m not sure this is what is going on in what is likely to be his final work.

Regardless of this, though, The Wind Rises is a beautiful, poignant work, and while I’ve only seen the English dub so far, I’d say that it is one of the better Miyazaki dubs, with one surprise voice actor especially that almost made me clap my hands in delight at how perfect the choice was. While I have the exuberant flights of fancy of Porco Rosso, Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro to return to, if Miyazaki makes good on his announced retirement I will miss seeing his imagination soar on the screen.

Goodbye, Miyazaki-san

March Variety Pack

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, especially since being joined at Eagles on Pogo Sticks by my assiduous co-blogger, but due to an attack of what the Germans call ‘spring tiredness’ (in the German-speaking world spring makes us tired, not horny) I don’t have entire full-length posts on each of these in me right now. So, without much further ado, here are some thoughts on Japanese child-swapping, Cumberbatch cryptography and teens with superpowers.

Like Father Like Son

I’ve written about Koreeda before; Like Father Like Son is another worthy addition to his filmography. The film’s premise – two families find out that their six-year-old sons were swapped at birth – has been criticised for being too movie-of-the-week, but then, other than his inventive version of what happens after death in After Life, Koreeda’s films are rarely driven by premises as much as by characters. His strengths lie in his talent for quiet observation and his empathy for his protagonists. Ryota, one of the two fathers in Like Father Like Son, a young, ambitious salaryman who finds it easier to push his son to excel than to relate to him emotionally, could easily have been the villain of the piece, and Ryota is often arrogant and disapproving, but in Koreeda’s subtle direction and writing he never loses his humanity or becomes a stereotype. Similarly, while the film admittedly is more interested in fatherhood, the scenes that concentrate on the two mothers give them the necessary space to stand out as complex, interesting individuals. As is often the case in Koreeda’s films, though, it’s especially the child actors that amaze: they are thoroughly believable and real, with none of the preciousness or precocious quality that even good child actors display all too often.

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The Imitation Game  

I haven’t seen all the recent Academy Award favourites, but of the ones I’ve seen this is the one that brought to mind a word that I find nearly as dismissive and annoying as “pretentious”: Oscar bait. (I haven’t seen The Theory of Everything, which by all accounts is a worse offender in this respect.) There’s a lot to like about The Imitation Game, but it tries so damn hard to be worthy and meaningful. In spite of capable and even strong performances, the film is failed especially by its direction and writing. The former is pedestrian and predictable, exactly what one would expect of a respectable British historical drama; the latter is painfully hamfisted. Its central idea could be straight from a motivational poster and is repeated until it becomes a mantra, becoming more cringe-inducing with each repetition: “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” There’s interesting material there, both in terms of the historical background and the character of Alan Turing, but the film never rises above the quality of its writing, which feels like the work of a B- student in Scriptwriting 101. Also, it is difficult to like a film that has a low esteem of its audience’s intelligence, as this one seems to have: The Imitation Game tends to make the same points repeatedly, as if to make sure that everyone watching it gets it.

The Imitation Game

One additional note on The Imitation Game: the film has been criticised both for overplaying Turing’s homosexuality and for giving it short shrift. I honestly don’t think that either applies; Turing’s orientation is one aspect of his personality, and it is an important one, yet it is not singled out as his most defining feature. The film doesn’t contain any sex scenes, gay or otherwise, but this fits in with its general polite bloodlessness, rather than speaking to anything more problematic, to my mind. The Imitation Game‘s crime isn’t homophobia so much as its banality and an almost complete lack of subtlety.

Chronicle

On paper, Josh Trank’s film about three teenagers who, after a close encounter with a McGuffinesque glowing rock, find themselves able to move things with their minds reads like a high concept too far: superpowers, teenage pranks, found footage. The movie could easily have ended up straight-to-DVD (or VOD? Not sure what the most fitting term is these days) garbage, but it works due to believable characters, a plot that is simple but effective and strong leads. Michael B. Jordan is no longer the meek Wallace from the first season of The Wire; while he gets less screen time than the other leads, it is clear he is a performer of immense charisma. Meanwhile, Dane DeHaan find the right balance between sympathetic underdog and simmering rage, making him a gender-swapped Carrie for this millennium. Unfortunately, the found-footage-but-not-quite cinematography is both a boon and a bane; it gives Chronicle an immediacy that is very effective, especially when coupled with the characters’ initial uses of their powers that are far from the special effects excesses of most superhero movies, but some of the time it simply doesn’t make much sense that we’d be seeing this footage, so what’s the reasoning behind the format? Nevertheless, Trank’s movie is a smart, interesting genre piece that, together with some of the casting, makes me more interested in his Fantastic Four reboot than that premise – a Fantastic Four reboot, of all things! – ought to be.

Chronicle

The Music Men

Are there any movie genres that are more, well, generic than films about young, struggling musicians (and perhaps sports films)? Even the best films about musicians tend to follow the same story beats: a talented young person’s struggle against all odds, personal sacrifice to reach the top, stern but well-meaning teachers, following your dreams, making it at the big competition, that sort of thing. Whiplash was admirable for how it avoided the clichés in some ways and reinterpreted them in others, eschewing the feel-good ending for something considerably more ambiguous, but it’s a rarity in the genre.

Miloš Forman’s Amadeus, a movie that doesn’t receive anything near the recognition it deserves these days, is even more of a rarity. Here is a film that at a superficial glance would seem to fit three of the genres most prone to cliché and lazy filmmaking: the music film, the period drama and the biopic. However, while it may flirt with these genres, it is beholden to none of them. It doesn’t purport to be Mozart: A Life: The Film, nor does it tell a straightforward, inspirational story of artistic  triumph, and while it isn’t immune to the attraction of period detail, it’s decidedly not about giving the audience a touristic trip to picturesque 18th century Europe.

Amadeus

In fact, Mozart isn’t even the film’s lead; that honour falls to Antonio Salieri, in a performance by F. Murray Abraham that is still breathtaking. Quite literally, Amadeus begins and ends with him, a man who chooses to defy God out of a heady mix of spite, envy and spiritual crisis. The movie’s Salieri is a second-rate musician and composer at best, yet he has the ear to understand that this new kid on the block, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is an immense talent. For Salieri, God speaks through Mozart’s music – yet Wolferl himself is a vulgar brat. What kind of God chooses not the diligent, devout (if more than a little vain) Salieri as his instrument but a manchild giggling madly at toilet humour? It is this metaphysical insult to his ego that fuels Salieri’s wish to destroy the musical genius – like a petty child that would rather destroy that which he cannot have entirely for himself.

How much further could this be from the variation on the dreary hero’s journey that is the common-or-garden-variety music film? Salieri isn’t the antagonist standing in the hero’s way: he is the protagonist, and we watch as he successfully destroys a man whose only crime is that he’s better at what he does than the bitter, self-centred main character. And what makes this more tragic is that Salieri, for all his poisonous pettiness, has enough self-awareness to understand what he is doing. As his plot progresses and as he fuels Mozart’s own self-destructive side, he begins to feel unexpected pangs of conscience. His destruction of the young genius birthes an amazing work of art, Mozart’s Requiem, yet it also destroys the conduit for this art, in an unhealthy relationship that isn’t entirely different from the sadomasochistic teacher-student dynamic of Whiplash. In destroying Mozart the man, Salieri becomes midwife to Mozart the legend.

"That was God laughing at me. Through that obscene giggle..."

And therein lies the razor-sharp irony of Amadeus. Salieri is a man painfully aware of his own mediocrity, and in his sacrilegious envy he destroys Mozart, being the only one at the time to recognise his genius for it he is – yet in death, the composer becomes the iconic genius, while Salieri is all but forgotten. Just as it begins, the film ends with a forgotten old man who, after a fashion, killed his beloved nemesis but who cannot even kill himself; he is spirited away to an insane asylum, where we see him relating his blasphemous tale to an idealistic young priest and preaching to the insane, the self-styled patron saint of mediocrity.

In terms of its plot, and in comparison to the conventional music film, Amadeus is pretty far from inspirational – yet as an example of cinematic art, it’s joyous. It looks beautiful without succumbing to the superficial prettiness of so much period drama. The writing is witty and powerful, delivered by the actors with the right blend of naturalism and stylisation. Abraham is a sublime Salieri, moving from sly irony through self-pity to toxic hatred with an ease that is gorgeous – but the other performances, while mostly requiring less of a range, are just as impressive. Hulce’s Mozart is infuriating, oblivious and heartbreaking in equal measure, and the smaller roles are spot-on, especially Jeffrey Jones’ hilarious performance as Emperor Joseph II. All in all, Amadeus is a classic of a kind that is rarely made these days and that deserves to be better remembered than it is – not least because, like Whiplash, it is a fantastic corrective to the generic, utterly conventional music films out there.