Breaking the Silence, Sort Of: Whit Stillman’s DAMSELS IN DISTRESS

Breaking the Silence, Sort Of: Whit Stillman’s DAMSELS IN DISTRESS

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Wherefore art thou, O Whit Stillman? Though never exactly a blur in motion, the minor auteur managed to generate three hyper-stylized, hyper-talky meditations on manners, morality and money throughout the ‘90s—the last of which, Last Days of Disco, proved his best known and arguably finest. After that, rumors about him licking his wounds in Europe swirled for years, though little was definitively known about his goings-on. Now, after a nearly decade-and-a-half gap in his curriculum vitae, Damsels in Distress marks his first venture back into cinema. And lo! what an odd re-entry it is.

It’s not that this series of vignettes about a year at Seven Oaks University, a fictional liberal arts college, is terrible. Nor does it mark much of a departure in form or function for Stillman, who’s always liked to focus on old-fogeyish young people. It’s just that, despite its many clever bits and terrific cast, including mumblecore siren Greta Gerwig, this film sounds a wan echo of Stillman’s earlier work. Intentionally or not, he has fashioned here an auto-valentine to his already-established tropes (a murky mentor and her ingénue; the watered-down Kool-Aid of an elite subculture; the questionable merits of nostalgia; the healing power of dance), and it comes with less certitude and many more protestations than does his previous work.

Take the film’s opening minutes, in which 50s-style elevator music swells while big-co-ed-on-campus Violet (Gerwig), flanked by her lackeys Heather and Rose (all three clad in floral prints, lest we not get the flowergirl motif), approaches transfer student Lily (Crazy Stupid Love’s rubbery faced Analeigh Tipton).  “You were unhappy at your old school,” Violet says. “Would you prefer our guidance or to sink or swim on your own?” Predictably, Lily opts for the former, and she preens and then bristles under their tutelage as she stumbles through the university’s rarified ecosystem of body-odor-afflicted education majors, aggressively moronic fraternity brothers, tap-dancing depressives, anal-sex-fixated foreign grad students, and, yes, damsels in distress.

Like all of Stillman’s characters, the girls and boys of this world speak in a halting schoolmarm-ese (no contractions, no cussing, no colloquialisms) that betrays the vehemence of their fastidiously parsed paragraphs. On topics ranging from the acceptable plural of doofus (doofi? doofuses?) to the human tendency to seek those cooler than ourselves, Violet and her peers deliver speeches and aphorisms with strangely ineffective hand gestures and a minimum of flair. Says eighth-year ed student Fred (Adam Brody, whose apparent nose job reinforces his blank, tabula rasa demeanor): “I do romanticize the past. It’s gone, so we may as well romanticize it.” Says Lily: “We value idiosyncrasies and uniqueness but really such people are pains in the asses.”

As you watch, you get the sense that Stillman has been chomping at the bit for years to serve up these unique, idiosyncratic, pain-in-the-ass gems, and so he wishes them as unadulterated as possible.  To that end, these kids are oddly indistinguishable, although each bears one branding characteristic. Rose is haughty (and black! With this film, Stillman has finally broken his racial barrier); Heather is cheerily dimwitted; Lily is a reluctant ingénue; and Violet, who, as Stillman’s most overt stand-in, is also most fully fleshed out, prevails as an earnestly flawed Jane Austen-style heroine. Say what you will about Stillman, he does know his Austen.

The girls’ stances and passions, if they have them, seem to spring from nowhere and just as quickly evaporate, while their many beaus prove interchangeable—liars or dolts, all of them. Even such marginal characters as campus policemen and waitresses utter Whitticisms in the writer-director’s patented cadences. Obviously cats like David Mamet feature a similar homogeneity in tone, but Mamet Stillman is not. And I don’t even like Mamet.

The problem is that since all these kids are so blank, only Stillman, as the narrative voice, is in on his many jokes (“I fled to a Hotel 4, even more economical than a Hotel 6,” states Violet flatly in an account of post-breakup despair.) It’s a pat-himself-on-the-back device that quickly rings hollow: Characters as cogs.  The fact that, as a technician, he doesn’t produce much to write home about here doesn’t help. Pastel and bracingly bright, the film often resembles a Lifetime TV movie—sun-splashed is the name of the game—and its pacing is as ungainly and stiff-legged as these young people’s gaits. (Sharp editing proved a saving grace in his earlier trifecta.)

Near the end, Damsels abruptly transforms into a paean to Fred Astaire, complete with a few inexpert ensemble musical dance numbers. At that point, not uncharmed, I threw up my hands. Just like the paper-thin storylines of Astaire’s movies always functioned as mere filler between his dance numbers, plot and character are apparently mere conduits for Stillman’s signature shouts and murmurs. Lest this connection not be fully drawn, one morose Seven Oaks student even insists upon being referred to as Freak Astaire. Fuck subtext, Stillman seems to be saying. Whit Disney world is my oyster, and herein lie my pearls.

As I left the screening, I described myself to a colleague as feeling “vexed.” “Now you’re talking like the movie,” he replied drily and, indeed (even in the paragraphs above), I’ve fallen prey to its sticky vernacular. Despite myself, I have to admit that I’ll probably be happily charmed by this world for years to come—albeit most likely, and most preferably, in 15-minute snatches on 2 AM cable. Just the gems, ma’am.

Lisa Rosman writes the indieWire film blog New Deal Sally and has reviewed film for Marie Claire, Time Out New York, Salon.com, LA Weekly, Us Weekly, Premiere and Flavorpill.com, where she was film editor for five years. She has also commentated for the Oxygen Channel, TNT, the IFC and NY1. You can follow Lisa on twitter here.

‘SHOULD WIN’ VIDEO ESSAY SERIES: PRESS PLAY picks the Oscars

‘SHOULD WIN’ VIDEO ESSAY SERIES: PRESS PLAY picks the Oscars

null[EDITOR'S NOTE: Press Play presents "Should Win," a series of video essays advocating winners in seven Academy Awards categories: supporting actor and actress, best actor and actress, best director and best picture. These are consensus choices hashed out by a pool of Press Play contributors.]  

 

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‘SHOULD WIN’ VIDEO ESSAY SERIES: Best Supporting Actress Janet McTeer, ALBERT NOBBS

‘SHOULD WIN’ VIDEO ESSAY SERIES: Best Supporting Actress Janet McTeer, ALBERT NOBBS

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Press Play presents "Should Win," a series of video essays advocating winners in seven Academy Awards categories: supporting actor and actress, best actor and actress, best director and best picture. These are consensus choices hashed out by a pool of Press Play contributors. Follow along HERE as Press Play decides the rest of the major categories including Best Picture, Best DirectorBest ActorBest ActressBest Supporting Actor and Best Documentary. Important notice: Press Play is aware that our videos can not be played on Apple mobile devices. We are, therefore, making this and every video in this series available on Vimeo for these Press Play readers. If you own an Apple mobile device, click here.]

Narration:

Pretty much all of this year's Best Supporting Actress nominees are great, although a puking, pooping Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids may not exactly be the stuff of Oscar dreams. Bérénice Bejo offers a charming modern take on a silent film ingenue-turned-star. Jessica Chastain especially can do no wrong as The Help's Marilyn Monroe-style damsel in distress. And in that same film, Octavia Spencer offers a terrific steadying subversion as a maid who won't tow the line. But it is Janet McTeer who should take this award. Albert Nobbs itself is nothing to write home about; its depiction of a woman masquerading as a male servant feels as dated as the myth of the tragic mulatto. McTeer is so subtly wrought as Hubert, a lesbian passing as a male painter, that she redeems the film. Too bad that Hollywood loves to lavish accolades upon straight people who play gay or transgendered, but rarely rewards actors who remain mum about their sexuality, as McTeer has. Wry and doggedly watchful, hers is the sort of unobtrusively generous performance that should define this category.

Lisa Rosman has reviewed films for Marie Claire, Time Out New York, Salon.com, LA Weekly, Us Weekly, Premiere and Flavorpill.com, where she was film editor for five years. She has also commentated for the Oxygen Channel, TNT, the IFC and NY1. You can follow Lisa on twitter here. Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of Press Play. He is also a film critic and award-winning filmmaker. In addition to editing Keyframe, Kevin contributes to film publications and produces online video essays.

‘SHOULD WIN’ VIDEO ESSAY SERIES: Best Supporting Actor Christopher Plummer, BEGINNERS

‘SHOULD WIN’ VIDEO ESSAY SERIES: Best Supporting Actor Christopher Plummer, BEGINNERS

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Press Play presents "Should Win," a series of video essays advocating winners in seven Academy Awards categories: supporting actor and actress, best actor and actress, best director and best picture. These are consensus choices hashed out by a pool of Press Play contributors. We'll roll out the rest of the series between now and Friday. Follow along HERE as Press Play decides the rest of the major categores including Best Picture, Best DirectorBest ActorBest ActressBest Supporting Actress and Best Documentary. Important notice: Press Play is aware that our videos can not be played on Apple mobile devices. We are, therefore, making this and every video in this series available on Vimeo for these Press Play readers. If you own an Apple mobile device, click here.]

Narration:

Almost all the nominees for Best Supporting Actor do terrific work in roles that feel tailor-made to highlight their strengths. Kenneth Branagh's early work as director/star on stage and screen earned him comparisons to Laurence Olivier; he fulfills his destiny by actually playing Olivier in My Week with Marilyn. Nick Nolte reminds us why he's one of the last great tough guys as the hard-ass recovering alcoholic father in Warrior. Jonah Hill gets the MVP award as a baseball-loving numbers cruncher in Moneyball. And in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Max von Sydow gives a master class in "less is more." But Christopher Plummer does something extra in Beginners. As Hal Fields, who at 75 becomes a widower and decides to come out of the closet to his sad-sack son, Plummer masterfully avoids bad laughs and cheap sentiment. Instead, he uses his experience in life and as an actor to wipe away the dignified fad that was the hallmark of his acting. In a relatively short amount of screen time, Plummer allows us to experience a man's life in full, from the regret of not being more courageous, to the casual cruelty that a father can inflict on his son, to the passion to not let a little thing like death prevent you from enjoying life. It is such a classic example of an actor and a role being perfectly matched that you realize that you've seen something more than Plummer's best performance – he's just getting started.

Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of Press Play. He is also a film critic and award-winning filmmaker. San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.

OSCARS 2012: PRESS PLAY contributors argue for their favorites

OSCARS 2012: PRESS PLAY’S staff picks their favorites

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After last week’s announcement of this year’s Oscar nominees, a handful of Press Play contributors gathered together via email to discuss the highs and lows in some of the major award categories.  Below are some of the highlights of the conversation, and as always, we encourage you to keep the discussion going. The site's consensus picks for the films and individuals that should win be announced next week, starting Monday.

Matt Zoller Seitz: Has anybody seen A Better Life, for which Demián Bichir was nominated as Best Actor? That seemed out of left field. I feel like Gary Oldman might be a lock for that one, what do you think?

Glenn Close and Rooney Mara nominated for Best Actress is interesting, too. Some thought Close's work was too stunt-y. Mara seems a total surprise for me, as her character is so not Academy-friendly (in terms of looks and demeanor), and Mara is not anywhere close to a known quantity.

nullAli Arikan: Rooney Mara has been lauded by the critics and the industry, and the studio had been hyping her since the summer, so I'm not at all surprised that she got a nomination. Despite the fact that the Millennium books are terrible, people seem to love them, and Lisbeth Salander has become an iconic character. Plus, she also did sterling work in a solid film. What is interesting, however, is that either she or Glenn Close edged out Tilda Swinton for We Need to Talk About Rosemary's Omen. I thought she would be a lock.

I am happy about Moneyball, a film I thought I would hate, but ended up loving. I am one of the few in "our circles" who felt The Tree of Life was lacking, and I don't think it deserved a Best Picture nomination over Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Extremely Loud and The Help are just risible. The latter was always going to be in there, but I thought Bridesmaids might have snuck in instead of Extremely Loud. Either way, having nine nominees obviously shows that the field is still pretty wide open.

nullMatt: I like The Tree of Life best of the Best Picture nominees, though I know opinion in this thread is mixed. It's the most unconventional of any nominated film, so much so that I am pleasantly surprised that it became a sort of event when it hit theaters. I think more films that experimental should be made at the Hollywood level. There are not too many directors holding down the fort for that kind of experience, not even Malick's fellow '70s movie brats Spielberg and Scorsese.

Aaron Aradillas: I would argue that in their own ways, both Hugo and Tintin are experimental films. I mean, if it wasn't for their directors, I seriously doubt a studio would've rolled the dice on 'em.

Sarah D. Bunting: Margin Call got a Best Original Screenplay nod. Shut up, Oscars. Barf.

Ali: I also second Sarah's barf. Ewww.

My feelings about Melissa McCarthy mirror Scott Tobias' thoughts on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I disliked Bridesmaids, but I despised her performance.

Aaron: I've yet to fully grasp the dislike for her performance. I know it exists, but I don't get it. I don't remember anyone being offended when Kevin Kline won for making a mockery of being a dumb, sexist man.

Nick Nolte is terrific in Warrior, but it is clearly a great performance of something he does well. He makes look effortless what Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton huff and puff and make look so tiring. Besides, Nolte did a better version of this in Affliction.

nullChristopher Plummer gives his career performance. There's no fat on it. Unlike The Insider, where he's a hoot, Plummer doesn't push it in Beginners, and that's why he leaves such an impression on those of us who love the movie. The way he embraces life at such a late date is funny, touching and ultimately quite sad. Ewan McGregor's character never acknowledges it, but he learns his father's final lessons and that's what leads to the movie's astonishingly hopeful and romantic ending. He is finally his father's son. Plummer's presence is felt in every scene. It be McGregor's story, but it's Plummer's film.

I'm a fan of Midnight in Paris, but Woody Allen's screenplay is not entirely original. It's kind of a variation on The Purple Rose of Cairo. Margin Call is a script written about how we're living right now. It trumps Mamet by not getting all tangled up in being clever with its verbal scenes.

Mara's my second choice in the Best Actress category, but Viola Davis is the only lead actress who literally has to create a character from scratch. The other performances all have something already existing that they're working off of.

Ali: I am not basing my dislike of McCarthy's performance on a curve. It was too easy, without any nuance and did not add anything to a film that definitely needed some sort of a breakout-star factor to make it less boring (and, you know, funny). So, I'd love to hear the case for her.

nullAaron: The beauty of McCarthy's performance is there isn't a trace of self-loathing or self-doubt that would probably get in a dozen other comedies with a character like hers. She is the most confident and aware person in the circle of Bridesmaids.

I'm willing to make a gentleman's bet that Meryl Streep will not win Best Actress. I think Viola Davis is going to "surprise" everyone and take it home.

Kevin B. Lee: If anything, Davis is the odd sober person surrounded by a carnival of sass, crass and crazy in The Help. Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain are like intrepid migrants from John Waters-land, while Davis anchors it in gravity and respectability ‒ she's the whipped cream atop the shit pie. I'm not sure whether she saves the movie or adds a layer of Oscar-mongering disingenuousness to what really should be an all-out camp farce. But her final scene standing up to Bryce Dallas Howard is a feat of acting gymnastics, going through a series of emotional states in lightning succession.

In contrast, The Iron Lady is pretty much all Meryl Streep (and everything that implies, good and bad). But it's an MVP performance; she actually made me like Margaret Thatcher for two hours.

Lisa Rosman: The Help is a tepid movie at best, offensive at worst, but as is so often the case, the performances far outstrip the film. Viola Davis never gives up an inch ‒ she may cater less as an actress than anyone else in Hollywood ‒ but so much goes on behind the eyes that she ignobles what could be a wretched role. And on that note, I love Rooney, but this is not the film for which she should win an Oscar. It's a one-trick-pony role and though she does it well, it doesn't have enough shades to win a golden naked man.

nullI hate hate hate hate the idea of McCarthy winning this. The role is not just unfunny; it's mean-spirited and she executes it more poorly than she's done anything else in her career. (Wherefore art thou, Sookie?) Nay, for me it's Janet McTeer, who does everything that Close herself fails to do in the otherwise craptacular and super outdated Albert Nobbs. It's a finely tuned performance that brings real pathos and humor and at least three dimensions to the kind of person that Hollywood always, always gets wrong.

The rest I am less adamant on. I love Malick but The Tree of Life is not legible in ways that actually matter to me. Scorsese should take Best Director for Hugo, but I can understand why others do not agree. Gary Oldman should, of course, take it; it's a terrific performance, and Tinker Tailor the Thief Cook should get Best Adapted Screenplay. I don't love any of the Best Picture nominees but think Moneyball comes closest to being what I want a big movie to be. And sorry for the barfers, but I love Margin Call for Best Original Screenplay.

Aaron: I'm for Brad Pitt. I think he gives a star turn and acting powerhouse at once. George Clooney is great (and I have no problem if he wins), but he was going deeper into a character he does best: the good-looking asshole who is brought up short by life.

nullThere is real mystery to Pitt's take on Billy Beane. He loves the game, but knows the game is changing. He knows he has to get wins in order to keep his job and is more than willing to modernize for that reason. But he also knows there is something you can't calculate about the game of baseball. The scenes of Pitt driving to work or sitting in the locker room show a man who is constantly trying to figure out the odds and knowing deep down that there are some things you can't figure out. Also, Pitt is a great subtle comic performer in the scenes where he's making deals or bossing around others in the room. Like Jesse Eisenberg, he is a natural when it comes to Aaron Sorkin's writing.

Kevin: I think Pitt's performance falls under the same school of acting I endorse. (Clooney, on the other hand, is on autopilot).

Aaron: Clooney's not on auto, but I'll leave it at that. I do know Pitt is happy as can be to be nominated in the same category as Gary Oldman. His death scene in Fight Club is inspired by Oldman. Pitt says on that film’s commentary, "No one dies like Gary!" It should also be noted that Pitt gets a slight advantage in that his work in both Moneyball and The Tree of Life show how wide a range he truly has.

Lisa: I actually agree Clooney's not on auto, but I disliked the conceit of the casting of that film immensely. (Alexander Payne loves to get notoriously charismatic actors to play schlubs; it underscores his misanthropic view of "average people.")

nullAli: I, too, am for Pitt, even though I liked Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Doo-Dah Doo-Dah more than any other American film this year. Goldman is magnificent as George Smiley, closer to John le Carré's vision than Alec Guinness' portrayal, and he explodes with understated pathos (paradoxically) the one time he shows his emotions (the incredible Soviet national anthem scene where he sees his wife having it on with Colin Firth).

That said, I have a problem with his voice and accent. He sounds like a constipated baboon trying to do an impression of Ian McKellen. It was but a minor quibble when I first saw the film, but after three times, it's just grating. (For what it's worth, Tom Hardy gives the best performance in that movie.)

As for Brad Pitt, first of all, his is an almost old-fashioned movie star performance. He's charming and cheeky and funny, and hella good looking. (Yes, I've just used "hella" ‒ I am a 14-year-old kid from 1998.) I have no idea who Beane is, so this is my estimation of the character as he is seen on the screen: as Aaron said, here is a person who decides to ride the waves of change. Pitt plays him as a nexus of frustration; he never made the big time, so he is trying to make up for that lost opportunity. He is clever, though. He knows that he is unable to see the forest for the trees (the final scene with Jonah Hill, the earlier conversation with his daughter, etc.), but that's what obsessive-compulsive people are like. They know what they're doing is irrational, but they have to keep doing it.

Also, the final shot shows him in full command of his face ‒ an incredibly important skill for a screen actor.

Matt: What about this Demián Bichir fellow? Nobody's really mentioned him as a contender….

Aaron: A Better Life is good, and he's really good, but not award-worthy, especially when you consider someone like, say, the criminally underrated Steve Carell or Kevin Spacey's triumphant return to good acting in Margin Call. If one is going to label his nomination the Indie Nod, I much prefer Michael Shannon. Take Shelter is far from perfect, but Shannon is amazing.

The biggest problem with A Better Life is the character of the 14-year-old son. The actor is pretty bad and the character, as written, is pretty thin. An old-school Mexican dad would not put up with half the shit this kid gives him. Compared to the father-son dynamic in A Bronx Tale, A Better Life comes up short.

nullCan I make my case for The Help one more time? If the best 9/11 movies are not explicitly about 9/11 (Zodiac, Munich), then why can't one of the best films about race today be a movie about recent history? The outcry from so-called open-minded liberals was telling in that just because the movie was supposedly playing it safe by telling a story we all can agree on that it wasn't also making people think about the here and now.

Race is the one truly unspoken-about issue in this country. When it is spoken about, it is in an obvious safe way. The Help is about the moment when an open discussion was needed in order for change to occur. What the movie also makes clear is that discussion needs to be ongoing. And that is simply not the case right now.

Just because the movie delivers its "message" in bawdy, emotional, mass-appeal entertainment doesn't make it unworthy of praise (or awards). The Help not only attempts to keep recent history fresh in our minds, but also old-fashioned awards-worthy entertainment alive as well.

OSCARS REVISITED, 1981: REDS

OSCARS REVISITED, 1981: REDS

[EDITOR'S NOTE: In a yearly feature titled "Oscars Revisited," Press Play takes a look back at the Academy Awards race from earlier eras. Our inaugural series focuses on the five Best Picture nominees from calendar year 1981: Reds, Atlantic City, On Golden Pond, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Chariots of Fire.]

At 3.5 hours, it was the last Hollywood movie to be made that required an intermission. It cost Paramount roughly $91 million ($33 million in 1981 money). And it focused mostly on American communists and anarchists in the shadow of World War I, as viewed from the perspective of super-red American journo John Reed, author of Ten Days that Shook the World. In retrospect, it’s not shocking that a film like Reds was never made again. It’s shocking that at some point in American history, such a film was ever made.

nullChalk it up to the power of Warren Beatty. Coasting on the success of such mega-hits as Shampoo – which he’d produced and starred in – and Heaven Can Wait – which he’d starred in, produced and co-directed – he was ready to make the ultimate “one for me.” And what a one it was. He’d been fascinated with the journalist since the mid-60s, and, with his typical slow burn, had started filming interviews with old-time lefty heavy hitters like feminist author Rebecca West, playwright Arthur Miller and ACLU founder Roger Nash Baldwin as far back as 1970 on the off chance that he'd gain funding to make a film about Reed and his comrades. Somehow he convinced Paramount of the feasibility of the project – though soon after signing on the dotted line they reportedly offered him $1 million to not make it – and it not only scored the brother four Oscar nods and one actual statue, but made $41 million, which was a highly respectable box office return for the time.

For all the hoopla it garnered in 1981 – it also nailed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and Maureen Stapleton much-deserved Academy Awards – the film has since largely disappeared out of the public consciousness. In fact, it was only released on DVD in 2006, at which point Beatty finally consented to publicly discuss the film for the first time. (At a New York Film Festival screening I attended that year, he could scarcely shut up on the subject, although he mostly decried his funding difficulties.) But does it hold up?

Yes and no. I confess I’m most partial to Reds for the miracle of its very existence, for the fact that it managed to put the mishigas of 1910s trade unions and two warring factions of the American communist party on a big screen for all the world to see, for how it breathed life into such increasingly obscure characters as anarchist Emma Goldman (Stapleton) and American Communist Party founder Louis Fraina (a wonderfully slim Paul Sorvino exhaling great gales of Italian). And in general, the performances are wonderful. As Reed’s editor, Gene Hackman fumes with a half-grin; he should add a rider to all his contracts that ensures he gets to bellow “Dammit” at least four times, as he does here. And Reds may be the last instance in which Jack Nicholson truly disappeared into a different character. As playwright Eugene O’Neill, he radiates a booze-soaked unhappiness that is as subtly sinister, as uncharacteristically passive-aggressive, as his more recent performances are predictably bombastic.

nullAt the film’s center lives the fraught romance between Reed (Beatty) and socialite writer Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton); Beatty had to maintain that aspect of the sweeping historical epic tradition, after all. I’d never really grokked Keaton’s much-touted beauty before. Above the high lace collars of that era, though, her grey eyes widen and narrow with a sensuality that’s hard to deny, and she speaks with none of the stammering affectations that muck up so many of her performances. But because the star-crossed lovers proclaimed a “free love” relationship – an eternally naïve concept if there ever were one, and one destined to appeal to well-known lothario Beatty – scene after scene sounds the soap operatic notes of their off-and-on relationship, including some gratingly if convincingly moony love scenes (Keaton and Beatty were reportedly involved off screen) and some awfully wooden dialogue (“I'm just living in your margins! No one takes me seriously!” “Well, what are you serious about?”). In general, dialogue has never been Beatty’s strong suit; everyone tends to rat-a-tat-tat in bumperstickese here (except for him; the man is a hopeless mumbler). There’s something charming about all that ideological jargon, though. So earnest. So unfashionable, at least until recently.

For Americans in this decade have once again become a people inured to wartime, as they were in the 1910s. More, a recent Pew Research Center poll states that for the first time more people under 30 view socialism positively than view capitalism positively, a statistic certainly borne out by the insurgence of Occupy Wall Streeters, though that movement has yet to fully identify its objectives. Instead, OWS is slowly building with equal parts whimsy and will – not unlike Reds itself, whose relevance has thus finally been resurrected.

Herein lies a film – a movie, really – that builds glacially and with an elephantine grace, that lingers a deliciously long time on conversations held in the velvet-draped saloons and drafty wooden halls and plum-colored parlors of the time, and then breaks out with a sudden lightness in a revelation of mass communion and political comedy. In the tradition of all the very best American endeavors, the messiness of this film’s big aims proves most integral to its success. Boosted by its terrific visuals (all dusty refracted sunlight and lonely crowds of faces) and an original Stephen Sondheim score, Reds is a big sincere sprawl whose tragedy and ever-widening vistas will, somewhat inexplicably, always gladden the heart.

Lisa Rosman has reviewed film for Marie Claire, Time Out New York, Salon, LA Weekly, Us Weekly, Premiere and Flavorpill.com, where she was film editor for five years. She has also commentated for the Oxygen Channel, TNT, the IFC and NY1. You can follow Lisa on twitter here.

LISA ROSMAN: MY WEEK WITH MARILYN pleases while it lasts

LISA ROSMAN: MY WEEK WITH MARILYN pleases while it lasts

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These days, you can scarcely hit a Cineplex without tripping over at least one biopic, a phenomenon I chalk up to the same one that makes reality TV so proliferate: people tend to thrill over the idea that
anything really happened, like, ever. But as thrilling as some human lives may be conceptually, rarely do any produce a satisfying narrative arc.

As a species, we tend to make the same mistakes over and over until we fade out– more the stuff of early Warhol installations or daytime soaps than a two-hour feature. Most biopics are either factually sound and dramatically dull (Sylvia, Ray), or historically inaccurate (Walk the Line). The best ones limit themselves to a very specific theme or period in a person’s life (Capote, Frost/Nixon). So structurally at least, My Week With Marilyn, based on memoirist Colin Clark’s short-lived dalliance with Marilyn Monroe during the 1956 filming of The Prince and the Showgirl, seems ahead of the game.

First, the million-dollar question: how well does Michelle Williams do Monroe? For there may be nothing ballsier than playing the legendary actress—and “ballsy” is the operative term, as everyone who attempts to conjure her quintessential femininity always seems a drag queen in comparison, be they biologically female or male. Given that, Williams ain’t half bad. There may be a stridence that defines her, a wounded gravity, that exists in contrapunto to the gentle fun Marilyn always radiated on screen; her features may seem hard, her eyes hooded, in contrast to Marilyn’s delicious, eternal softness (even her nose was a sweet little blob);  but the voice, breathy and yet precise, is
pitch-perfect. And that palpable need for an intimacy she also fears, for a relief from a loneliness that at core seems inescapable, is exactly right.

But a character sketch, no matter how well done, does not a movie make, and ultimately this film doesn’t explore its terrain enough. Rumors of strife on the British The Prince and Showgirl set have outlived general interest in the film itself, which is at best a trifle. (Only Marilyn’s performance is remotely palatable in retrospect.) By all accounts, Prince’s director and costar Sir Lawrence Olivier (played here by Kenneth Branagh) found Monroe’s pill-popping, entourage, erratic work ethic, and method acting preparation intolerable, while she found him a cold fish bordering on cruel. The results were delays, tears, arguments, and booze, lots of booze—all of which exist in copious amounts here. Alas, little else does.
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During this shoot, Marilyn is newly married to playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), and the combination of his and Olivier’s disdain for her proves too much to bear—which only increases her reliance on such crutches as valium, acting coach Paula Strasburg (a wonderfully, appallingly vampiric Zoë Wanamaker) and, apparently, Clark (Eddie Redmayne) himself, who’s not much of a narrator as narrators go. In a very early scene we watch him watch her up on a movie theater screen (Williams shimmies a fantastic “Fever”), and that sets the prevailing, surprisingly unexamined tone. A 23-year-old third assistant director (read: lackey), he may be looking to defy his hyper-aristocratic family by, god forbid, launching a career but he hasn’t shed their inability to recognize the full humanity of Everyone Else despite his superficial congeniality. Though the film is ostensibly about the love he broached with the actress, it never transcends his lack of motivation to look behind the Marilyn curtain no matter how up and close and personal he ever got. (For the record, we never know just how close the two ever got, though we’re subjected to a monotonous number of their tender, unhungry kisses.) Instead, it bumps along in a series of oddly unrelated, too-expertly staged scenes, mostly featuring her thrashing about unhappily while British people stare bleakly into the bottom of their drinks.

That Marilyn was fragile and lonely is nothing new. That she was a massive star whose seemingly natural appeal rested squarely on a self-construction is nothing new. (When suddenly flocked by a throng of admirers, she breathes to Clark, “Shall I be her?”). That the making of the Prince and the Showgirl marks a crossroads in film, in which an old-guard Olivier was struggling to resurrect his cinematic relevance (to no avail) while movie-star Marilyn was struggling to prove her bona-fide acting chops (also to no avail) is not only nothing new but inadequately explored.

So this is a trifle of a film about a trifle of a film. But trifles can be appealing, especially English trifles, and this one is no exception. Taking its visual cues from Marilyn herself, it boasts a lovely, bleached-out aesthetic punched up by the same jewel tones she often wore. During one especially striking scene, she and Clark romp through a countryside awash in sunlight and green and a body of
sparkling water that provides the exact sort of mirror that she always offered others.  In her gorgeous receptivity, you always could feel fully alive, connected somehow, no matter how isolated she herself
seemed to be. It’s a reverie, that kind of effect, and it’s pleasing while it lasts. Just like this film.

Lisa Rosman writes the indieWire film blog New Deal Sally and has reviewed film for Marie Claire, Time Out New York, Salon.com, LA Weekly, Us Weekly, Premiere and Flavorpill.com, where she was film editor for five years. She has also commentated for the Oxygen Channel, TNT, the IFC and NY1. You can follow Lisa on twitter here.
 

LISA ROSMAN: Lars von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA is a masterpiece

Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier and starring Kirsten Dunst

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Lars von Trier is not a brother who provokes a neutral response: there are those who feel he can do no wrong, and then there are naysayers like me. Although I consider Dancer in the Dark one of the best movies of the last decade, I swore I’d never sit through another of his films after suffering through the school-play machinations of Dogville. A guy who so unilaterally criticizes America without ever having stepped foot on its soil deserves a similar boycott, I declared.  

But now that he’s taken psychological projection to unprecedented proportions, he’s become downright fascinating.  

More navel-brandishing than navel-gazing, his last two films have served as gorgeous canvases upon which his worst fears and miseries are writ so large that they articulate the human condition with a grandeur normally only achieved by Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman. In 2009’s Antichrist, for example, von Trier makes literal that most scorching of Freudian themes – castration – and his latest is by far the cleverest rendition of the strain of pre-2012 apocalyptic films circulating through cinemas. In it, he not only globalizes his own depressive and suicidal tendencies but renders them universal in the form of a deadly asteroid dubbed Melancholia hurtling directly toward planet Earth. Subtext as supertext; subconscious as supercosmos. Not to mention supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

nullThat said, this isn’t just Lars’ world that we’re living in this time. It’s also Kirsten Dunst’s. Women cast in the Danish writer/director’s films rarely fare well, as they’re typically limited to only one of the three faces of Mommy von Trier: wan, hysterical or brutal. (Should this sound hyperbolic, consider the 2009 New York Film Festival videoconference in which von Trier claimed that not even the psychotic, castrating mother of Antichristcompared to [his] mother.”) Here, Dunst is cast as a stand-in for von Trier himself, and she sinks her famously crooked fangs into his despair but good.  

She’s always been a more nuanced actress than is widely recognized, radiating a weary patience that elevates even her most flatfooted projects (Marie Antoinette, Elizabethtown). But as Justine, the melancholic in question, she mines new colors in her work. This would be ironic since, like most depressives, von Trier’s film is usually monochromatic in tone if not in its often-lush cinematography. But Dunst, who’s been open about her own struggles with depression, seems liberated by the dark material – much like her character as she prepares for the end of a world she finds so painful.  

The film is divided into two sections; the first, “Justine,” consists of the character’s horrific bridal party at the palatial estate of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, as green at the gills as most of L.v.T.’s heroines). From the first scene, in which she and her new husband (Alexander Skarsgård, so housebroken that he’s virtually unrecognizable from his True Blood incarnation), get stuck on a country road in their garishly large stretch limo, the point is clear: this girl doesn’t fit in the materialistic (or arguably even the material) world. And yet, also like Lars himself, she’s not terrible at manipulating these slick surfaces, a reality which only seems to exacerbate her self-loathing. (I've alway found it amusing that this pronounced anti-materialist makes films that look like Obsession commercials.) In fact, she’s such an advertising whiz that her cad of a boss (Stellan Skarsgård) weasels for her help even in his wedding toast. Capitalists being von Trier’s second-favorite scapegoat after bad mommies, this is one of the clunkiest notes of this film. Her tight smile is not.  

nullAll the bridal toasts put Justine under the table. The more others urge happiness upon her, the more she visibly cringes. (I couldn’t help but recall my Israeli ex-shrink’s words to me: “Happiness is so America! Better to aim for truth!”) Worse, her divorced parents use their toasts as a platform for skewering each other in front of an audience. A lethal contrarian masquerading as a mere nonconformist, her mother (Charlotte Rampling sporting tie-dye!) is so solipsistically scathing (“I don’t believe in marriage!”) that Justine crumples into a state from which she, and ultimately everyone around her, cannot recover. She disappears from the wedding party in order to take a bath, reappears to take a piss on the lawn as well as on her boss (only slightly less literally) and, finally, fucks a corporate lackey out on the golf course for all to see. There’s no wedding cake in the world sweet enough to take the edge off that move.  

By the beginning of “Claire,” the film’s second section, Justine is so catatonic that she can’t keep her eyes open, let alone bathe or feed herself. Claire and her ever-irked husband (a brilliantly cast Kiefer Sutherland) do their best to prop her back up, but they’re unhinged by the threat of the potentially lethal asteroid rushing toward Earth.  

nullIronically, by helming a film that basks in the depressive’s view on life, von Trier finally has created a film that legitimately allows for other perspectives as well. Claire may also recognize the weakness and selfishness of the world around her, but she still embraces its blessings. She may have been as unnurtured as Justine (and may have chosen a sheep-in-wolf’s-clothing husband to provide cold comfort) but she can still love her son and sister as well as life itself. So it makes sense that, faced with its extinction, she now needs care-taking, while Justine, whose depression has previously rendered her as cruel as her black hole of a mother, can finally exhibit compassion and vitality. She can afford to. Since she views Earth as an extension of the squalid emptiness roaring within her, the prospect of its demise is enthralling.  

In what very well may be one of the loveliest moments in 2011 cinema, a panic-stricken Claire trails her sister as she steals into the woods. There, Justine offers her naked body to the moonlight like a sylph, like a siren, like a sister of no mercy. Only what is wild, what is wholly undoctored, is real to her. The rest, all of what humankind has created, is bullshit that deserves to be put out of its misery – including herself. No wonder she surrenders to the coming maelstrom with ecstasy.

In Melancholia, von Trier has created a mission statement of a masterpiece, one that reminds us that nihilism itself can serve as a legitimate form of creation, a means as well as The End. It’s the ultimate inversion of the old hippie phrase “think global, act local,” and, against all odds, it works.

Lisa Rosman writes the indieWire film blog New Deal Sally and has reviewed film for Marie Claire, Time Out New York, Salon.com, LA Weekly, Us Weekly, Premiere and Flavorpill.com, where she was film editor for five years. She has also commentated for the Oxygen Channel, TNT, the IFC and NY1. You can follow Lisa on twitter here.