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May 30, 2014
Film Review: Ida

Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski
Score: 6.8

Director Pawel Pawlikowski has a way of constructing his frame so that his characters appear at the bottom edge, with the widest expanse of screen over their heads, as if to suggest both the vulnerable placement of his protagonists, and also the vastness of the impenetrable world around them.

The film plays out as a bit of a mystery: A young novice named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), in early ’60s Poland, several weeks from taking her vows as a nun in the convent she was raised in, gets to visit her only living relative, an aunt in a nearby town, whom she has never met. Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza) turns out to be formidable, both a heavy-drinking and lusty firebrand, and a powerful judge at the local magistrate. Wanda explains to Anna that not only is her real name Ida, but that she is actually Jewish — her parents both being executed during the war.

Together, the unlikely pair seek out the former house of Ida’s parents, out in the rural countryside where a Catholic family now resides. In the course of their journey, Ida discovers much more about her parents’ tragic story, and perhaps the source of Wanda’s misery.

But this isn’t a simple sort of conceit, a “personal journey” wherein the closeted nun-to-be, learns about the joys of the hedonist life from her fun-loving aunt. Pawlikowski is after something much more meaningful and subtle. Ida does get to experience a significant taste of the outside world, but that hardly means it pulls her away from her faith.

It’s an old-school sort of value, enhanced appreciably by Pawlikowski’s use of the 1.37:1 aspect ratio, one favored by the silent films of the ’20s and ’30s, and the lustrous black and white cinematography from Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, which, as with the aforementioned careful framing, is often stunning.

But none of the film’s beauty masks the difficulty of its subject matter, nor the dark, ominous skies that seem ever prevalent as the characters make their way through the Polish countryside. Pawlkiowski also favors a simplified story-telling technique, whereby he cuts scenes abruptly, with very little non-essential material. As a result its 80-minute runtime feels cut to the absolute bone, a detail that works very well with the choice of brooding subject matter. With the exception of the deeply wounded Wanda, none of the characters speak much more than they absolutely have to, a way to suggest the lack of conversation on the subject of the war and the shattering guilt still felt between countrymen.

May 23, 2014
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May 23, 2014
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May 16, 2014
Film Review: Chef

Dir. Jon Favreau
Score: 4.9

Improbably, the catalyst in Jon Favreau’s food-obsessed film is a single bad review. True, it’s a notable critic — some high-powered blogger whose social media presence is considered significant — and the review itself is absolutely scathing (it ends with the memorable line: “his dramatic weight gain can only be explained by the fact that he must be eating all the food sent back to the kitchen”), but it’s the personal nature of the beat-down that causes Chef Carl Casper (Favreau), to become unglued, eventually confronting the offending critic (Oliver Platt) face-to-face in the restaurant from which he’s just been fired. The encounter gets taped, goes viral, and suddenly Chef Casper is the laughingstock of the culinary world.

The problem is, none of it was Casper’s fault. His meddling owner (Dustin Hoffman) insisted he ply the critic with the same tired menu he’d been grinding out for years. The food has been popular enough, you see, but it’s left him spiritless and dulled. Being fired allows him to take on a new food venture, one that gives him ultimate freedom and control. On the advice of his stunning ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) and his off/on again girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson), he drops everything in L.A. and flies down to Miami in order to buy a food truck.

If this premise sounds overtly analogous, you might be on to something. Favreau himself was a talented director — he made the first two very successful Iron Man films, among other things — who had more recently made one poorly received blockbuster (the critically scalded Cowboys & Aliens), and had suddenly been regulated to the C-list. One imagines this much smaller scale, personal film was Favreau’s attempt, like his Chef character, to get back to his indie roots and dig out the reason he became a filmmaker in the first place.

The trouble is, in working so hard to make such a People Pleaser, Favreau’s film has virtually no conflict, nothing to distract the viewers from the artist’s quest for meaningful work and the endless loving shots of smoked/crackled/pressed/broasted meat porn.

Not that there aren’t overtures towards a deeper story, it’s just that Favreau continually avoids anything really resembling conflict in order to surround his character with loving support: Casper also has a 10-year-old son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), who wants nothing more than to hang with his dad in the kitchen and spend time together just talking about stuff; he has a still-adoring ex-wife, who supports him every way she can, and never once seems the least bit angry or upset with him; he has his stunning girlfriend, who insists that he go off and find his happiness without her; and he has his best friend and sous chef (John Leguizamo), who drops everything at his restaurant and immediately comes down to Miami to help him set up his food truck. Things are so stacked in his favor, his young son turns out to be an absolute wiz at viral marketing, and before they know it, the trio are met with enormous crowds at every city stop on their way back to L.A.

Ironically, the review that initially causes all the trouble accuses Chef Casper of being desperate and pandering, attempting to woo customers with worn-out favorites instead of being bold and taking risks. Favreau’s film — with its upbeat soundtrack, relentlessly positive message, celeb cameos (Favreau, long a fixture in the Hollywood social scene, has called in a fair number of favors here, wooing both Hoffman and his Iron Man star Robert Downey, Jr. into bit parts) and shimmering food shots — is almost shockingly risk averse. There’s nothing wrong with keeping things light and entertaining, but there is barely a story to tell here. Any minor issues Chef has with his life are fully put to rest by about midway through the film (which eventually closes on a wedding scene, naturally). I can understand why Favreau would want to prove to the world (and the powerbrokers in Hollywood) that he’s fully capable of making a crowd pleaser, but there’s no art without challenge, and no conflict without obstacle, and virtually no film without at least something going the least bit wrong at some point.

And it’s not as if it’s beyond Favreau’s power to make a more challenging film. His first credited screenplay, for the highly-inflential mid ’90s indie comedy Swingers, is chock full of zinging consternation and desperately lonely people doing what they can to survive in cruel and largely uncaring world. What Favreau enjoys writing about is men getting together and shooting the breeze (women tend to be either plot devices — a la Heather Graham in Swingers or wildly supportive and marginalized as in here), a vehicle, like his sparkling cubano truck, that carries him far.

It definitely seems to be working for him — the film won the Heineken audience award at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival and at the screening I attended in Philadelphia, Favreau had totally won the crowd over (a scene involving a Texas BBQ reveal caused audible carnivorous gasps of gluttony from all around me) — but just because he’s made a meal entirely comprised of people’s favorite ingredients doesn’t make him any kind of great cook. It’s irony not lost that in attempting to show the struggle of the artist to craft something of substance and personal connection, Favreau has made such a gladhanded, bland popularity express designed to do little more than impress the suits upstairs that he is still in touch with his crowd-pleasin’ powers. What’s he’s created is little more than a naked wish-fulfillment fantasy (one in which he has two of the world’s most beautiful women at his beck and call), a world that loves and supports him, no matter what. His dark night of the soul is more like the rough twenty or so minutes when you can’t find your car keys before going out, only to find them in your jacket pocket after all.

May 16, 2014
Film Review: Palo Alto


Dir. Gia Coppola
Score: 6.3

Let me tell you something: James Franco simply does not care. He doesn’t care that you’re tired of seeing his leering visage on books, magazines and movie screens. He doesn’t care that you’ve grown exponentially weary of hearing about his latest interests, be they directing, painting, earning a PhD. in multiple disciplines, writing fiction, or attempting to pick up underage girls via Instagram. He likely doesn’t care that you are largely unimpressed with his ever-growing body of work, including his most recent film roles, in which he’s stretched his artistic limits in both unfortunate, would-be blockbusters (Oz The Great and Powerful) or sad-sack indie showcases (As I Lay Dying, which he also directed), or that he currently has no fewer than a dozen upcoming films in post-production at the moment. He probably also doesn’t care that you actually thought he was really good in Spring Breakers, playing a cornrowed white-boy drug baron who lives to impress the nubile ladies of his harem. 

Franco doesn’t care because, for all his irritating industriousness, he’s not about success, at least in the strictly critical/financial sense. He’s too busy removing the creative filters and blockages that plague the rest of us and pursuing any damn thing he can conceive of, which, frankly, is exactly what any of us should be doing if we were ever lucky enough to be in his position of fame and opportunity. 

Given that, we can at least be mollified by the fact that he didn’t actually direct the film of his own collection of short stories from 2011, thankfully, that job went to Gia Coppola, who has composed an interesting if somewhat flawed teen lament. 

It’s a familiar tableau: A well-to-do community, comprised of fractured families, whose children are disaffected, damaged and, in some cases, downright dangerous. In short order we meet April (Emma Roberts), a sweet-faced girl whose hunky soccer coach (Franco, ironically the least convincing of the actors) begins to romance, not entirely against her wishes. April is good friends with Teddy (Jack Kilmer, sporting River Phoenix’ unhinged locks), an amiable stoner, who nevertheless gets himself into trouble when he hangs around Fred (Nat Wolff), the aforementioned dangerous kid, so filled with pompousness and egocentrism, he puts everyone around him at risk. There’s also unfortunate Emily (Zoe Levin), a sad girl given to finding love by any means necessary, often at the cost of her own self-worth, sliding between bathroom doors and servicing boys like the hateful Fred at his whim. 

The film skips around the lives of its myriad characters, looking in on them as they make fateful decisions and attempt to live with the results— April hooks up with her coach, only to find she’s not the only young player he’s had his eye on; Teddy gets in a car accident while wasted and has to do community service as a result; Fred goes further into self-destructive madness, a result, we are given to suspect, that comes from his father’s sexual abuse; Emily finally seems to disavow Fred, perhaps to move onto bigger and better things. 

The thing is, for all the (largely deserved) grief Franco takes for being such an artistic gadabout, there’s actually a lot to chew on here. In that, Franco’s work is aided greatly by the surprisingly assured debut of writer/director Coppola, Francis Ford’s granddaughter. The 27-year-old proves skilled in the family business, getting strong performances out of her young leads and getting the right pitch for her scenes. In a sex scene between despondent, lost Emily and the irascible Fred in her childhood bedroom, Coppola has her camera focus instead on the ceramic figurines, dried flowers, and mossy stuffed animals that still surround Emily’s bed: a painful call-back to a time when she was shrouded in hope and innocence instead of the gangly arms of a puerile emotional predator. It’s a note the film gently hits throughout, the happy innocence of the characters’ younger siblings (or, in April’s case, her coach’s son, whom she routinely babysits) in direct contrast to the lost, jaded adolescent souls they will eventually become.

But rather than continually soak her audience in the briny flush of total nihilism, Coppola is wise enough to find a range of notes in her characters. Teddy, for one, can be every bit as aggravatingly callous and irresponsible as his bud Fred (one appreciates his mother warning her son to stay away from that terrible influence), but in the same breath — as when he draws an endearing portrait of an elderly woman at the rest home he’s been assigned — he still shows signs of a residual sweetness. In teen-dirge tone we’re somewhere between the pitiless grit of Larry Clark and the sunny sweetness of Amy Heckerling. 

Coppola has also culled an interesting cast — calling in some family favors, one suspects — including a fey Val Kilmer as April’s writerly stepfather and Talia Shire as April’s guidance counselor — amongst her young charges. If Franco is indeed the cast’s weak link, she smartly steers clear of him as anything other than a basic plot device for April. Like the other adults in the film, he lies far out on the periphery of the teens’ lives, a distant narrative provocateur with little direct sway in their lives. 

The teens swerve around from house party after house party (implied: not a great deal of fully invested parents protecting their precious children from themselves), drink great gulps of booze, do whatever drugs they can get their hands on and fool around indiscriminately with one-another, but there are still enough signs of hope — at least for everyone other than Fred — to keep from total despair. 

So disparage Franco all you want, roll your eyes at whatever new scheme he’s concocted (a documentary!), and tweet about it unmercifully. Just understand that in this he couldn’t care less about your opinion: What he does, he does for reasons other than our validation, which is annoyingly commendable.

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