There often comes a time for popular actors, where their unceasing pursuit of fame and success — spurred on tirelessly by their agents, managers and the big studios bankrolling their features — begins to draw diminishing returns.
Something of a cross between a road movie, buddy picture and sobering true account of a mother who suffers egregiously at the hands of a Irish church.
As depicted in Jean-Marc Vallee’s Dallas Buyers Club, which soaked up a lot of praise during its premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Ron Woodroof was as unlikely an AIDS activist as you might imagine.
The Hunger Games series — much like its spunky female protagonist, who is required to be equal parts besotted romantic believer, cold-blooded killer, and revolutionary icon, the kind of woman who kills rabbits and eats raw fish but still appreciates a nice pearl — fashions itself a kind of multilevel crowd-pleaser.
Even by the impossibly cruel and sadistic standards of American slavery, the story of Solomon Northup, an accomplished musician and intellectual free man living in upstate New York with his family before being kidnapped in Washington and sold into slavery down in Louisiana, is crushingly upsetting.
Poor Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has a problem.
An updated remake from the De Palma original gives not much new and a much less effective psychotic teen to fear.
A quasi-biopic about the founder of wikileaks, and founder is pretty much the word.
The Philadelphia Film Festival promises some 90-plus features. One critic’s picks for some of the most anticipated, must-see entries over the next 10 days.
The last time Tom Hanks ventured out into the ocean, he ended up becoming intimately involved with a bloodstained volleyball. In Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass’ taut hijacking thriller based on a real-life ordeal, he doesn’t fare terribly much better.
Dir. Haifaa Al-Mansour
Like another pretty well known film about parents and their children, Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s drama involves a young child and a bike. It might not quite scale the heights of De Sica’s Bicycle Thief (on many critics’ top-ten-of-all-time lists, including this one), but it a deliriously entertaining and moving film unto itself, with a young child star virtually impossible not to adore.
Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is a precocious pre-teen, attending a formal, highly observant school for girls outside Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Amidst a sea of veils, dark robes and humbled minds, she stands out with a pair of jeans under her abaya and a pair of weathered, black Chuck Taylors on her feet. She’s sweet and dutiful, especially to her mother (Reem Abdullah), a beautiful woman whose husband (Sultan Al Assaf), while good-natured, is considering leaving them both for a new wife who will be able to conceive him a son, something Wadjda’s mother, damaged during Wadjda’s childbirth, can not provide.
Wadjda is smart, but also cagey. A born capitalist, she sells homemade contraband bracelets to the other girls at her school, and is constantly on the hustle with other local businesses, trying to expand her financial possibilities. When she sees and falls in love with a new bike at a local toy store, she also finally has a focus for all her considerable intelligence and guile. She enters a Koran competition, to the surprise of her somewhat beleaguered headmistress (Ahd), in order to win enough money to buy her bike, despite the fact that she lives under a strict regime that frowns mightily on girls doing anything of their own accord, including riding bikes (Wadjda is told by her mother that bike riding will ruin her ability to conceive a child, but she brushes the threat aside).
There are, in fact, a great many things Wadjda is barred from doing, including, it would seem having any kind of say in whether her father will remarry and leave them behind. Despite the oppression all around her, she happily listens to western music, walks around town without a veil and pushes the boundaries of being expelled at school. She’s not a rebel without a cause, or just another angst-filled teen striking out against authority, she’s a willful girl with a head full of dreams who sees no real cause to cut them short.
Al-Mansour, Saudi’s first female filmmaker, has certainly struggled herself in this largely segregated country (reportedly, in order to film exterior scenes, she had to be holed up in a van, as women aren’t allowed to work in the same vicinity as men), but there is nothing but exaltant joy in her frame. Some of this comes from the absolutely delightful performance of Mohammed, who brings to Wadjda a spunky irascibility that’s utterly irresistible, but a lot comes from the never-say-die spirit of her narrative.
A different, harsher film could have made these same points, but in a punishing way, something that would deeply afflict the audience with indelible images of persecution and oppression — or an emotional pitch that we’d never be able to burn out of our consciousness, a la De Sica’s masterpiece; Al-Mansour’s narrative instead gives us a delightful film of wonder and hope that makes all things seem vaguely possible. In the end, Wadjda’s triumph becomes something of our own.
I’m a happily married man, but if I were a divorcee looking to rekindle my sense of romance, I would only hope to be able to go on a first date with someone as vivacious and charming as Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Alfonso Cuaron is a director known for his amazing visual acuity and high-tech mastery, delighting in upping the technical degree-of-difficulty ante for himself as anyone who witnessed his bravura four-minute single-trackingsleight-of-hand car sequence in Children of Men can attest.
Dir. Joseph Gordon Levitt
The first time I ever consciously watched anything with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, it was in Rian Johnson’s brilliant Brick, a twisty film noir set in a modern high school. As fascinating as I thought the film was, Gordon Levitt was its absolute standout. I remember saying “There’s your next Hollywood leading man” to anyone I could, so convinced I was of his impending stardom.
This has proved to be one of my (extremely rare) successful prophecies. Over the last decade, Gordon Levitt has raised his profile to become one of the most interesting young actors of his generation, so it should come as no surprise that his latest effort, one in which he makes his debut as both a writer and a director, should arrive with exactly the same preternaturally confident self-assuredness as the rest of his meteoric career.
First and foremost, he’s given himself a hell of a fun character to play. “Don” Jon is a “Jersey Shore”-style meathead, all buffed bod, slicked hair and a penchant for rating every woman he and his friends ogle in clubs with a numerical designation. Only a scarce few things matter to him, as he explains to us: “my body, my place, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls and my porn.” In his lunkheaded way, he almost achieves a Zen-like simplicity, save for the fact that everything he cares about is surface deep, as clean and free of grit as the floors in his apartment that he cleans and polishes each day with OCD fervor. He’s a guy who dutifully goes to mass every week with his family, but only in order to wash away that week’s sins in his confession — sins that include a weekly count of the number of times he’s had out-of-wedlock sex and the staggering number of times he’s masturbated to porn.
In short, he’s a one-tantric pony with a serious sex addiction and a worldview as narrow as an envelope slit. When he finally spots a “dime” in the form of Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), he tries to pounce early but gets rebuffed. Not one to give in easily, he pours on the charm over the next few weeks until she finally succumbs, but only on her terms: Their friends need to meet, they need to meet each other’s parents, and he needs to start taking night courses so he can find a better job than being a bartender.
To this he happily agrees: For the first time in his life, Jon has found someone he cares about a fraction more than himself, and the feeling of powerlessness is intoxicating. That is, until she finds out about his undeterred Internet porn addiction. In the aftermath, Jon finds himself having to reach out to people he went out of his way to avoid before, including Esther (Julianne Moore), a much-older woman in his night class, who seems to have a strange affinity for him.
As a screenwriter, Gordon Levitt shows a deft comic touch (Jon’s sister, played by Brie Larson, almost never diverts her attention from her cell phone; his father, played amusingly by Tony Danza, treats him as more a romantic rival than a son). It’s also clear he’s spent some time investigating the type of personality that befits men like Jon. For all his crass carnality and swagger, he’s completely obsessive and OCD about his apartment’s cleanliness, and his own general physical perfection, which leaves him as vulnerable as a field mouse despite his best efforts. So desirous of vapid, surface perfection, he’s utterly bereft of the layers that lie just underneath the surface of things. When all you can see is the glossy shine on the mirror and never your own true reflection, you have no idea who you really are. In describing his love of Barbara to his equally lunk-headed friends, he can only describe her as a being more beautiful than anyone else he’s ever seen, as if that competition alone can justify his feelings about her.
Gordon-Levitt is less successful with the female characters in the film. Esther, in particular, is more or less a plot device with a little bit of an unconvincing backstory attached. From a narrative point of view, it makes sense to keep Barbara at emotional arm’s length, as that’s how Jon sees her, but when his focus shifts to the sensitive, mercurial Esther, Gordon Levitt is equally unable to conjure up a proper character to promote, other than fitting in smoothly as Jon’s next big life experience.
There are also moments where his inexperience as a director becomes a bit obvious, in seemingly small details, where his artistic inclination fails the immutable laws of physics (the sound of a wad of Kleenex hitting a metal trashcan shouldn’t sound like crumpled up, heavy-weight sheaf of onion skin, even if it’s a metaphorically significant sound effect in the course of the film).
Still, it’s a reasonably impressive debut, filled with a good deal of humor and candor into the kind of meathead mind most of us would prefer not to have to delve into for very long. I’m not sure it could have sustained itself much beyond its 90 minute runtime, but as a first-time film, it marks yet another auspicious earmark in the career of a kid with star-making talent.