Movie Reviews - 2014 postsThursday May 29, 2014
Movie Review: I Origins (2014)
Let’s imagine a few things:
- That reincarnation is real
- That the eyes are truly the windows to the soul
- That our eye signature—as unique as our fingerprints—follows us from life to life
What would you do with this set of circumstances? What story could you make out if it?
Writer-director Mike Cahill (“Another Earth”) envisioned a movie set in the near future when people would know who they had been in past lives. They would know the mistakes they had made, the crimes they had committed, who they had loved and what they had lost. It might explain why they acted the way they did. And from that, a story. He planned to call it “I.”
He also envisioned a movie set in the present, or near-present, when we finally had scientific proof that reincarnation was real. He thought of it as a prequel to the other movie.
Unfortunately, he made the prequel first.
$11.11 on 11/11
“I Origins” isn’t a bad movie but it is disappointing. Michael Pitt plays Ian Gray, a floppy-haired, hipster scientist with a habit of taking pictures of people’s eyes. Does he do this with animals, too? I think just people.
At a costume party early in the 21st century, he meets a mask-wearing free spirit, whose eyes he photographs, and who then kisses him, takes him to the bathroom for sex, and then abandons him there. He’s stricken, stunned, but he doesn’t know who she is. The next day at the university lab, where he’s a star grad student, he meets his new first-year lab assistant. Her name is Karen (Brit Marling of “Another Earth”), and, unlike the others, she gets what he’s up to. He wants to show the evolution of the human eye, in all its complexity—its irreducible complexity, according to Intelligent Designers. Here’s the trouble: on a scale of 1 to 14, with 14 being the complex human eye, he needs a zero point: a creature without eyes but with some aspect of our eye signature. Karen begins researching an answer.
And no, thank God, she’s not mask-wearing free spirit. He doesn’t find the girl that easily.
He finds the girl this easily. He’s in a convenience store, a 7/11, buying smokes, etc., and the price comes to $11.11. And the date is 11/11. And he goes outside and the windows on the building across the street all look like 11s. Then the No. 11 bus pulls up. He gets on, as if in a trance, then gets off, in a daze. And he sees the mask-wearing girl’s eyes again. They’re on a billboard for Devonne of Paris. She’s a fashion model.
I never did get this “11” thing. Why 11? Because it looks like two “I”s? Or eyes? Because of “Spinal Tap”?
Anyway, we now get two stories: the love story with the free spirit, Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), and the work story with Karen. In the latter, he’s trying to disprove the Intelligent Design community; according to Sofi, he’s trying to disprove God. But she wants to turn him on to a life beyond science and data; to a world of coincidence and spirituality, and, yes, God. She talks about him being in a closed room, and there’s a door with light on the other side; and she urges him to walk through this door.
Sadly, I found all three characters annoying. Karen was too serious and severe, Sofi was too impetuous, Ian never seemed like a scientist to me. A true scientist isn’t interested in disproving X or proving Y. He’s interested in what the data shows. Sofi, as beautiful as she is, didn’t seem like a model, either. How come she never has to go anywhere? A fashion show? A fashion shoot? Of the three, only Karen fits her profession. But she hides, and not well, a secret love for Ian.
I’ll cut to the chase: On the day Ian and Sofi attempt to wed, Karen finds an applicable zero-point creature, so they all wind up in the lab together. Sofi is not a fan of the lab. “You torture worms?” she asks in her childlike French accent. During a clumsy moment, Ian gets a chemical solution in his eyes and can’t see for 24 hours; then he and Sofi get stuck in an old freight elevator at her apartment. It begins to creak. He forces open the doors to the hallway above and urges her up. She won’t. Him first, she says. Eventually he goes, and he’s in the act of pulling her up when the cable snaps and the elevator crashes down. He cradles her and she seems to sigh. But he can’t see properly. So he can’t see she was cut in half. That’s the end of Act I.
In Act II, it’s seven years later, he and Karen are now married, and they’ve published a book about their findings. (Stubbornly, God still lives). They have a baby.
At the hospital, an odd thing. They’re doing the eye signature thing on the baby when a different name, Paul Edgar Dairy, a sixty-ish black man, pops up. A glitch, they’re told. But later they get a call from Dr. Jane Simmons (Cara Seymour), who tells them their baby has early signs of autism. Could they come in for a test? Stricken again, they watch an odd test being conducted—the baby’s reactions to a series of images—and after some research Ian winds up in Boise, Idaho, and the Dairy farm, which is not a milking farm at all but a farm owned by the Dairys, whose patriarch, Paul Edgar, died a few years earlier. And look: there’s the dog whose photo in the lab made the baby smile; and look, there’s the wife whose photo made the baby eventually cry. Dr. Simmons isn’t testing for autism. She’s testing for reincarnation.
(She’s also causing undue stress for parents like Ian and Karen by using the autism angle. Enough to get her license revoked? The movie glosses this over. It goes off into other things. I know, only so much screentime, but it still bugged me.)
Anyway, Karen, Ian and their friend Kenny (Steven Yeun, a standout in a small role), do their own research testing eye signatures and get one from Sofi’s: in New Delhi, India, three months earlier. Off Ian goes. Now he’s out to prove, if not God, at least reincarnation. He’s out to prove the eternal nature of the soul.
Eyeless in Gaza
“I Origins” is certainly smarter than the average movie, but given the vastness of its subject it also feels reductive. The pretty love interest who died young is reincarnated as a pretty, shoeless girl in India (of course), rather than, say, an ugly girl in Alabama, or a firefly in Pennsylvania, or an eyeless worm in Gaza. Are people only reincarnated as people? Never other animals? Is there a hierarchy to reincarnation? Was Sofi’s a demotion? The movie wants to wake Ian and us up to possibilities, to the open door, but it feels like a closed room. It feels tied up in a bow.
The trailer didn’t help. Ninety percent of the plot is in the trailer. It takes us all the way from the love affair, through the death, to Ian seeing the girl in New Delhi. That’s about 15 minutes from the end. So there were few surprises for me. Shame on the people who make these things. They’re trying to get people to see it—I get that—but they’re ruining it for the people who do.
There is a moment I thought profound. Ian and Sofi are in the lab and Sofi is talking about spirituality and the soul, which Ian dismisses, so she points to his test subjects. She asks if these worms, which have no eyes, know anything about light. He says no. Even though light is all around them? Yes, even though that. So maybe, she says, human beings are like these worms. Maybe God is all around us but we don’t have the proper sense with which to see Him.
I liked that bit.
And I’m still looking forward to “I.” I’m curious to see what else Mike Cahill might do with this concept.
Movie Review: Klumpfisken (The Sunfish) (2014)
The most macho thing I expect to see in the movies all year happened in “Klumpfisken” (“The Sunfish”), a slice-of-life Danish film from first-time writer-director Søren Ball.
Kesse (Henrik Birch), a third-generation fisherman from Hirthals, a provincial town in northern Jutland, is moving around on his boat at night too quickly, and falls and cuts his hand. Badly. Later he gets 20-25 stitches in it but now he doesn’t have the time. So what does he do? He duct-tapes it.
Take that, John Wayne.
Kesse, by the way, is moving around on his boat at night too quickly because he’s been illegally fishing over his quotas and selling the rest on the black market. Not because he’s shady but because he’s upstanding. He’s a decent man being squeezed by forces beyond his control: international economics, government regulations, and big fisheries.
A dying way of life
The movie opens on a typical day. Here’s Kesse on his boat on the ocean. Here he is telling first-mate Lars (Lars Torpp Thomsen) to watch the lines. Here’s the catch, the transfer, the inspection, the clean-up. He gets a meal, the same meal, goes home, watches TV, goes to bed, starts over. He’s a hard man to know. He also owes 100,000-150,000 krone. Because he’s a gambler? An alcoholic? Nope. It’s just what we’ve seen. He doesn’t make enough money to support the making of it.
Kesse’s real problem, besides being squeezed by all of the above, is Lars. He can’t afford to have him on but he can’t let him go, either. Lars’ father had been Kesse’s first mate, and he’d died in the nets, right in front of Lars when the kid was 13. There’s a sense that more than 150,000 krone is owed.
Kesse, in fact, doesn’t just not fire Lars; he takes on another hand, Gerd (Susanne Storm), a biologist from a university in Copenhagen doing a study on fishing populations. Initially he views her as the enemy: Someone who cares more about fishing populations than fishermen. But he warms to her, and she to him, and eventually a romance develops. He’s got charm but he’s truly provincial—rarely having traveled 15 km from Hirthals. They go for walks (where he misses all her signals), go to an aquarium, and scuba dive there. They watch the Ocean Sunfish, a huge, ghastly-looking creature, swim slowly by.
But the money he gets by having her temporarily on board won’t save him, so he succumbs to the inevitable: He lets Lars go. The precariousness of their situation apparently comes as news to Lars, who curses him, gets drunk, curses him some more. Lars is truly a waste of space; he’s there to make Kesse look good. Then Kesse makes a bad choice. Does he agree to take Lars back because he’s fishing over the quotas or is he fishing over the quotas in order to take Lars back? I assume the latter. He’s going to save his friend, or “friend,” and his business, by embracing illegality. The downfall of every good man.
This works well once, twice. The third time, his contact doesn’t show, and he’s forced to move the extra fish to his home, where Gerd awaits. “I thought you were better than this,” she says, leaving. So did he, he realizes, and lets Lars go again. With the illegal fish still in his garage? Bad move. That night, instead of his contact, it’s the inspectors who arrive, tipped off by Lars. Kesse is fined and temporarily loses his license. But he can’t afford temporarily so he loses it all.
These are the circumstances that finally propel him out of Hirthals and onto the train to Copenhagen. To be with Gerd? Will she take him? Who knows? The point for writer-director Søren Ball is to get him out of town. Fin. No pun intended.
The Ocean Sunfish is apparently the biggest, heaviest bony fish in the world, but ... Is it also supposed to be Kesse? Something that shouldn’t exist anymore? Something almost prehistoric? Early on, Kesse’s friend calls him a dinosaur. So maybe that’s it. Even so, as a metaphor, it hardly resonates.
“Klumpfisken” is a quiet, matter-of-fact film that’s altogether too quiet and matter-of-fact. It’s interesting only in a “National Geographic” kind of way. For me, there’s just not enough story there. The better story—what does a man who has lost everything, including the only home he’s ever known, do?—begins exactly at the moment we leave.
Movie Review: Dior and I (2014)
Frédéric Tcheng’s documentary “Dior and I,” whose title is a play on Dior’s own memoir, “Christian Dior and I,” concerns the first haute couture collection from Belgian fashion designer and new Christian Dior S.A. creative director Raf Simons in the summer of 2012. It’s a behind-the-scenes look, a “How things get done” documentary, that misses, or glosses over, or assumes we know, the high drama surrounding it all. But we don’t. At least I didn’t. I had to look it up. I had to keep asking Patricia.
It’s rare when anything in our culture does this, by the way: ignores the gossipy drama for the quotidian detail. I feel like I should applaud.
Will the couture be haute enough?
Here’s the drama: In February 2011, Dior creative director John Galliano was recorded spouting anti-Semitic remarks to a Jewish woman, including “I love Hitler,” and “People like you would be dead today.” Two days later, the House of Dior suspended him. A week later, he was fired. Bill Gaytten was hired as head designer interim but his first show (for Fall-Winter 2011) was poorly received, and into this mess Raf Simons was hired to save the fashion house. He had eight weeks in which to create his premiere fashion line.
Most of this backstory is glossed over. One wonders if there was a quid pro quo. Sure, kid, you’ll get access to the House of Dior ... just don’t mention Galliano.
The drama in the doc is much less scandalous. Raf (he’s always Raf) is hired away from Jil Sander, which makes ready-made rather than custom-designed clothing, so there’s some concern that his couture won’t be haute enough. He likes simpler designs than the more flamboyant Galliano. He’s also a bit distant, with doubt and concern in his eyes. He reminds me of some combination of a shorter Daniel Day Lewis and a minor James Bond villain. Plus he’s Belgian but doesn’t speak French? You don’t quite know what to make of the guy.
His right-hand man, on the other hand, Pieter Mulier, has big, wide-set eyes, and a quiet, friendly manner, and you find yourself warming to him even before the various Dior ateliers reveal their love of Pieter and their own doubts about Raf. For a time, I wondered if the Raf/Pieter dynamic would be like the Anna Wintour/Grace Coddington dynamic in R.J. Cutler’s excellent 2009 documentary “The September Issue”: the assistant who makes things work for the haughty boss. Nope. No one ever warms to Anna Wintour—it’s not encouraged by her nature or name—but by the end of this doc we warm considerably to Raf. Even before he breaks down. Even before he reveals his heart.
We get bits of the fashion-house history—Dior’s post-World War II “New Look” that took the world by storm—but nothing on when Dior died (1957), or how many creative directors the House of Dior has had (Raf is the seventh), or what premiere fashion shows generally look like. But this tendency to film the present rather than regurgitate the past reflects Raf’s own philosophy. “The past is not romantic to me,” he says at one point. “The future is romantic to me.”
Spray paint and duct tape
Shouldn’t it be “Dior and Us”? Early on, Raf says fashion is about dialogue, it’s a collaboration, and we get a long-running exchange between Raf, Pieter and the various ateliers who make it all work. (A direct translation of atelier, by the way, would be seamstress, but that’s a more loaded word in America, conjuring up immigrant drudgery rather than couture artistry.)
Dior has two head ateliers, both of whom manage large staffs and take care of not only the demands of Dior’s creative director but its many wealthy clients. At one point, for example, days before his premiere, Raf can’t find one of his head ateliers. Turns out she’s in New York. A client, who spends €350,000 a year at Dior, wants a personal fitting and gets one. That’s a fascinating dynamic. Which client do you serve: the wealthy patron or the creative director? Raf, at this point, feels short-changed.
There are other frustrations for him. Parisian engravers can’t give him the fabric he wants when he wants it. He recreates Dior’s classic Bar jacket in white but days before the show he wants to see it in black. Can’t be done, he’s told. So they improvise: they spray-paint it black. It may be high fashion in Paris, but we’re only a step or two above duct tape here. One of his more outlandish requests is a wall of flowers in the beautiful old French building where the premiere will take place. It seems absurd in theory but magical in practice. Maybe that’s what fashion is all about.
So? Is Raf’s premiere show a hit? It is, but I can’t tell you why, anymore than someone from, say, Togo, can tell you why the Seattle Mariners won last night. The skinny models are dressed up in Raf’s designs, they walk up the stairs and past the walls of flowers and the various studious celebrities in attendance; then there’s applause. And that’s it. Success! The new New Look.
Je n'adore pas “Dior and I” but I appreciate it. It’s about people who work. It’s an unglamorous look at the creation of the glamorous life.
Movie Review: Jimi: All Is By My Side (2014)
John Ridley’s “Jimi: All Is By My Side,” a biopic of Jimi Hendrix starring André (3000) Benjamin, is a bit like touring with a rock band: You get flashes of electricity and excitement amid long stretches of tedium.
The movie gives us the life and times of Jimi Hendrix in the year before he broke at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967. That alone got me interested. A biopic that’s not the whole life? That’s not this reductive childhood scene, and that reductive teenage scene, and then the long slow rise leading to the burst of fame and recognition? Ah, but then the problems. Drugs? Exhaustion? Family strife? All of the above? The fall from grace. But then the speech! The resurrection! The return! And the final concert scene. And the star ascendant in his or her glory.
Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “12 Years a Slave,” has created a movie that is of its time in form as well as content. He uses the cinematic tricks of the New Wave, ascendant in ’66, to tell Jimi’s story: quick cuts and overlapping dialogue and silent flashbacks creeping bit by bit into a character’s consciousness. It gets in the way, to be honest. I became overly conscious of it. Ridley kept jolting me out of the story to tell me he was telling me a story.
And what is the story anyway?
In 1966, Jimi Hendrix, with Ike Turner bangs, is backing King Curtis at the Cheetah Club in New York when Keith Richards’ model girlfriend Linda Keith (Imogen Poots) sees him and is stunned. Backstage, they talk and listen to music: Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan. She talks anyway, he barely says a thing. When he does, it’s about Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde.” Not the music but the album cover. “I dig his hair,” he says. So he lets his own go. He develops that Jimi frizz.
Is he talented? The Rolling Stones’ manager, Andrew Loog Oldham (Robbie Jarvis) is unimpressed. “He’s nothing,” he tells Linda. “He’s rubbish.” But Chas Chandler, bassist for the Animals, sees Jimi and his jaw drops. Is this because Chas knows something Andrew doesn’t? Or because Jimi is a volatile artist who is dull one night and brilliant the next? I assumed the latter. After he blows it with Oldham, for example, Keith chastises him like a mother: “I am asking you to go up there and take the stage like you actually want to amount to something!” But Jimi doesn’t seem to get it.
Does he? Most of the movie takes place in Swingin’ London in ’66 and ’67, as a band is put together and Jimi trades one white groupie for another—Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), a volatile redhead—but throughout he’s a man more acted upon than acting. White people see things in him and push him on stage even as he seems comfortable within his own cloudy thoughts. It’s less “Are you experienced?” than “Are you driven?” He has drive, of course, it’s just understated. He wants to meet Clapton, then he wants to play with Clapton, then he blows a condescending Clapton off the stage. For a show at the Saville Theater, with Paul McCartney and George Harrison in attendance, he opens with the just released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and kills it. He’s telling the best of British rock: I’m here. Make room or get out of the way.
These scenes, and the confrontation with British Nation of Islam leader Michael X that dissolves amid Jimi’s good vibes, are the best part of the movie. But if you want to hear Hendrix’s music you’ve got to wait until you get home. His estate refused to license it without script approval, which Ridley refused to give. So there’s no “Foxy Lady,” “Fire,” or “Purple Haze.” We never make it to Monterey, either, just back to the San Francisco airport. To be honest, the movie ends well for ending suddenly; for ending not on a high note but a grace note. “You have an annoying way of being quite simply profound,” Etchingham tells him.
Haze, purple or otherwise
Benjamin, by the way, is stunning in the lead. He’s got it all down: the languid, sexy charm onstage, the amused, mumbled voice offstage; the gum-chewing cool that John Lennon appropriated for the “All You Need is Love” video. There’s also a shattering moment when he beats up Etchingham with a phone. It’s one of the better portrayals of a rock star I’ve seen.
But the movie suffers from the same problem as Hendrix: a lack of drive. It’s cinéma vérité stuff: this, then this, then this. Most of the conversations aren’t profound, simply or otherwise, and far too much screentime is devoted to his relationship with Etchingham, which is dull business. Ridley seems to want to explore the enigma that is Jimi Hendrix but Hendrix keeps eluding him with a smile.
Movie Review: Fading Gigolo (2014)
In an eighth-season episode of “M*A*S*H,” a beautiful war correspondent (Susan St. James) ignores the advances of Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda) because she’s completely smitten by, and keeps making passes at, B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell). The episode was written and directed by Farrell. Nice work if you can get it.
I flashed back to that long-forgotten episode while watching “Fading Gigolo,” a light comedy written and directed by John Turturro. In it, Turturro plays Fioravante, a part-time florist/bookseller in Brooklyn, who, at the behest of his friend and mentor Murray (Woody Allen), becomes a gigolo, and winds up being paid to have sex with, among others, Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara.
Nice work if you can get it.
Should we worry about the ego it takes to create this kind of story? “I will write and direct a character, whom I will play, who is unassuming but considered sexy by everyone around him; and who will have sex with many sexy women and fall in love with one beautiful woman.” Or should we just consider whether it’s worth our time?
It’s not really worth our time.
Woody on trial
The best thing about “Fading Gigolo” is Woody Allen. He’s funnier than he’s been in years.
At one point, for example, members of the Shomrim, a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood watch group, take Woody/Murray into custody, and he tells them, in his hapless, stammering manner, “I think you’ve got the wrong guy—I’ve already been circumcised.” I burst out laughing. Later, as they lead him into a basement tenement, he says, “Why are you taking me here? What holiday is this?” Are these Turturro’s lines? Did Woody improvise? Whatever, it worked.
To be honest, this should’ve been the movie, or at least the framework for the movie. Murray is being put on trial for crimes against … the neighborhood? His faith? His lack of? What power does this Hasidic court have? Woody’s lawyer, Sol (Bob Balaban in baseball cap), seems to take it seriously. But it would’ve made a great framing device: Woody on trial, and flashbacks to how he got there: the crimes real and imagined and non-existent.
Instead, in the movie, he starts out simply as a guy losing his business: M. Schwartz & Sons: Rare and Used Books. “These days,” he laments to his assistant, Fioravante, “only rare people buy rare books.” In nearly the same breath, he mentions that his dermatologist, Dr. Parker (Stone), wants her and her friend, Selima (Vergara), to engage in a ménage a trois with someone, but they can’t find that someone. So Murray tells Fioravante that he suggested him. And thus the world’s oldest partnership begins.
I didn’t buy it. Turturro as gigolo, yeah, whatever. But women like Stone and Vergara can’t find a man to engage in a ménage? Honey, open a phone book.
But I particularly didn’t buy the rest of it. Murray winds up in a Hasidic neighborhood, where he visits Avigal (a stunning Vanessa Paradis), the wife of a deceased rabbi, who’s still in mourning, and who exudes loneliness. So Murray hooks her up with Fioravante.
Does he mean for sex? Paid sex? This woman who can’t show her hair to another man and must wear a kerchief or wig all the time? Does he communicate this to Fioravante? Does Turturro as writer-director communicate it to us? It was both unbelievable and obvious: unbelievable the way it’s set up and obvious the way it turns out. I immediately assumed Fioravante would help open up Avigal, and they would fall in love, and he would give up the gigolo business.
And that’s pretty much what happens.
A sop to Spike
Dovi (Liev Schrieber), a member of the Shomrim, is the wild card. He’s in love with Avigal, and he follows her to make sure nothing bad happens to her. And she leads him to Fioravante, who leads him to Murray, which leads us to the trial. Another sex-crime trial for Woody Allen.
Ultimately, Avigal helps exonerate Murray, and near the end, Dovi drives Avigal to Fioravante’s place, where, instead of embracing Fioravante, she says her good-byes. Because she’s to be with Dovi. Does she love Dovi the way he loves her? We never got a sense of it before. But it wraps things up neatly. Like stays with like. The Mediterranean is again used to open up, sexually and spiritually, the repressed northerner.
There are other oddities throughout. For some reason—a humorous sop to Spike Lee?—Woody, who is 78, is married to, or living with, a middle-aged black woman, Othella (Tonya Pinkins), and they have … five kids? Are they his? How old is Murray supposed to be anyway? During the gigolo montage—women being pleasured, money changing hands—Fioravante has an encounter outside a hotel with a beautiful prostitute (model Eugenia Kuzmina), who is trying to solicit him, and he turns her down. Not nicely, either. At the end, in the neighborhood diner, they meet another beautiful, unattached woman (supermodel Loan Chabanol), who is the Autumn to the Summer of Avigal; she’s the future fish in the sea for Fioravante. Because that’s how filmmakers like to end these types of movies: with the unattached supermodel just waiting for the unremarkable guy to say a few unremarkable words. As in life.
“Fading Gigolo” has a certain soporific charm, and it does well by its mostly Brooklyn locations, and it has a nice soundtrack of not-bad, soporific standards. But … yeah. I found myself nodding off halfway through. I wanted to tell Turturro, who was working so hard, “Wake me up when you’re done.”