Movie Reviews - 2015 postsMonday June 13, 2016
Movie Review: Women He's Undressed (2015)
How do you dramatize in a documentary without archival footage? You’ve already got talking heads, photos, voiceovers. What else? How do you make the story come alive?
In his “Civil War” series, Ken Burns takes old photos and pans across them; it works. In “Tower,” Keith Maitland recreates scenes (and talking heads) via animation; it works. In “Women He’s Undressed,” Gillian Armstrong hires an actor (Darren Gilshenan) to play the subject, Australian-born costume designer Orry-Kelly, who clothed some of Hollywood’s greatest stars in its Golden Age. And it doesn’t work. Sorry. He talks directly to the camera, often, or exclusively, from a rowboat with KIAMA (the village in Australia where he was born) painted on the side. It’s supposed to be funny and theatrical but feels cheesy and cheap. I waited out these moments rather than anticipating them.
Armstrong also withholds any photos of the Kelly until the end, when we get a rash of them, along with his speech at the Academy Awards in 1961, accepting for “Some Like It Hot,” his third. It’s a nice revelation but feels like a cheat. It makes you realize Orry-Kelly is missing for most of his own doc.
Motorboat > rowboat
What a life: Australia to New York in the early 1920s, Broadway to Hollywood in the early 1930s. He was roommate/lover of Archie Leach/Cary Grant in Greenwich Village, and, unlike Grant, never hid who he was in the more circumspect, less open (not exactly liberal) Hollywood of the 1930s. Of course, unlike Grant, his career didn’t depend on being heterosexual. As a costume designer, particularly of female stars, he was all but expected to be gay.
And what actresses he helped clothe! Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Blondell (unmentioned here), Barbara Stanwyck, Olivia de Havilland (unmentioned), Cyd Charisse, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Fonda. What movies he worked on: all the weepy Bette Davis melodramas, “Angels with Dirty Faces” (unmentioned), “Casablanca,” “An American in Paris,” “Oklahoma!,” “Auntie Mame,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Gypsy.”
In the 1930s, he did gowns for the dames in the tough-guy Warner Bros. studio; in the 1940s he moved on to Fox. There was a gap in the early 1950s—no work between ’52 and ’55—which usually means blacklist but meant detox for him. Kelly was a nice guy but a mean drunk.
Most of the talking heads are other costume designers (Ann Roth is particularly good) and a few actresses he dressed. My favorite, by far, is Jane Fonda, who talks with amazement about Kelly’s dresses for Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like It Hot”: how they made the most of her most; how she seemed nude but wasn’t. She adds that she’s not a lesbian but those dresses make you wanna ... And here she does the motorboat: shaking her head, vibrating her lips, imagining herself in Monroe’s cleavage.
If I liked Jane Fonda before, I worship her now.
Watching, I kept thinking we needed a good doc on costume designers, the way we have “Visions of Light” for cinematography and “Casting By” for casting directors.
I’d also like a serious, in-depth look at homosexuality in Hollywood. It’s a helluva story: How gay actors/writers/directors helped create masculine archetypes for America and the world.
Start your engines.
Movie Review: Truman (2015)
“Truman,” winner of five Goya Awards, including best picture, director, actor, supporting actor and original screenplay, may be the most charming movie about death I’ve seen.
It’s “My Dinner with Andre” if Andre were about to die, and the story were spread over four days in Madrid (and Amsterdam) rather than one night in Manhattan. Death hovers close, but it’s handled with a wistful shrug. It’s the asshole in the room, and the other two combat it with a shared secret and a twinkle in the eye.
Few do that twinkle better than Ricardo Darin, the Argentinian actor of “El secreto de sus ojos,” who plays Julián, a theater actor, who has decided to bypass the latest round of chemotherapy and accept his fate. Now he’s working out the details, including finding a home for his beloved bullmastiff, Truman, who is named—one assumes from his wall art—after Truman Capote. Is there a double meaning in the title? Not just the dog but Julián? The movie’s True Man? I know: the movie’s in Spanish and the pun is in English. Still.
‘Yes, you did’
I always want to be wondering in movies and “Truman” has us wondering from the start. Who is this guy? Where is he? Minnesota? Canada? I thought this was a Spanish movie. Where is he traveling and why?
He’s Tomás (Javier Camara), going from Canada back to Madrid to visit his friend Julián and possibly talk him back into chemotherapy. Well, that’s what Julián’s cousin, Paula (Dolores Fonzi, hot), hopes.
But after an early effort goes poorly, Tomás more or less drops the subject. He’s an agreeable sort and why waste the four days? The last days they’ll be together? Early on, Julián turns to Tomás and tells him what he loves about him: that he does the favor for the favor; he doesn’t expect payback. Tomás nods and accepts this. Then, beautifully, Julián asks, “So what do you like about me?” Tomás struggles at first, then answers from the heart; and the answer is in the way the question was asked: It’s Julián’s straightforward nature.
The exchange resonates throughout the movie as we see Tomás paying for almost everything (and expecting nothing in return) and Julián confronting not only death but the people around him. A couple he knows from the theater ignores him at a restaurant—because death: icky—but he can’t ignore them. He greets them at their table, and when the man says he didn’t see Julián, Julián responds, without heat, “Yes, you did.” Here’s what I love: Later that day, Julián, too, ignores a man at a restaurant. (I know: a lot of restaurants—it’s Madrid.). Years before, Julián schtupped the guy’s wife, so Julián doesn’t want to deal with him. But the man has a lovely new fiancée, he’s forgiving, c’est la vie. There’s still some hurt in his face, but their conversation is grown-up and rooted in the knowledge that life is short.
I think I probably got most emotional when Julián leaves Truman with the lesbian couple so their adopted son can “try him out.” The look on Truman’s face, and on Julián’s: neither wants this. Pets always kill me because we can’t tell them why things are happening; we’re left with the emotional component. We’re as helpless as they are. A close second: the good-bye from Julián’s son, Nico (Oriol Pla, hot), in Amsterdam. Julián was unable to tell his son that he was dying, but the hug let us know that Nico knew.
We anticipate a lot of the third-act stuff: Paula and Tomás sleep together; Tomás takes Truman back to Canada with him. I didn't mind guessing all this. There's an inevitability to things. Watching, we feel our own inevitable deaths on a deeper level while being reminding of what makes life worth living.
Movie Review: The Brand New Testament (2015)
It’s a little like “Amelie”: A young girl (10 instead of 20-something) fixes the situations of the small, sad people in her city (Brussels rather than Paris), and we get a happy ending with a bit of magic. The difference is the girl is the literal daughter of God so the magic is often real. But the movie itself is much less magical.
Nice premise, so-so execution. God (Benoît Poelvoorde, “Man Bites Dog”) is a dick and lives in Brussels with his wife, the Goddess (Yolande Moreau, “Seraphine”), a put-upon Edith Bunker-type, and daughter, Ea (Pili Groune), a little spitfire who hates the old man and relies upon the counsel of her older brother, J.C., who hides in her room as a statuette.
God, or Dieu, spends his days in his office down the hall, a massive room with files expanding into the heavens, and, in the center, a small table with a single computer on it. There, cackling to himself, he creates laws for all of the petty annoyances of the world, such as:
- the phone always rings when you’re in the bathtub
- a jelly sandwich always falls jelly-side up
- the other line always moves faster
Except: 1) it doesn’t (and this seems like a pre-cellphone joke anyway); 2) it doesn't; 3) logically impossible since the law applies to all of humanity, including the people in the faster-moving line.
No mention of things beyond petty annoyances. Like Hitler. This is a comedy.
So one day, after the Old Man beats Ea (offscreen, this is a comedy), she decides to stick it to him. She sneaks into his office, releases everybody’s death dates, and freezes his computer (the source of his power); then she escapes through a laundry chute to Brussels, where she plans to put together the new testament of the title while gathering six apostles. Angry, Dieu follows but never gets close.
The death dates provide some good bits, particularly an “extreme” kid who is supposed to live another 70 years, and who keeps testing it by jumping out of higher and higher windows. (someone breaks his fall; he lands in a truck carrying sand, etc.). I also like the interaction between Dieu and a priest, who becomes so angry he winds up choking God.
But the apostle thing falls flat. She’s not gathering converts to spread the Word, she’s just fixing lives:
- One man follows birds to the Arctic Circle, where he meets an impossibly pretty Eskimo girl.
- A self-described sex maniac, who became that way when he saw a beautiful German girl at the age of 9, is reunited with her in middle age.
- A lonely older woman (Catherine Deneuve) leaves her businessman husband for a gorilla. A real gorilla.
- A guy who wants to kill people falls in love with the first apostle, a pretty girl with a fake arm, and they become a couple and he stops wanting to kill people.
Love love love. There is no problem in the world so difficult that an ordinary/ugly man uniting with a beautiful girl won't solve it.
Nothing but blue skies do I see
Bad things keep happening to Dieu, who ends up working a factory job in Uzbekistan. Good things happen to everyone else. When the Goddess is cleaning in the office, she reboots the computer that resets everyone’s death dates. She also gets on the computer and begins to change the world for the better, starting with the sky.
Me: Not the sky!!
Yep. She makes it all flowery. She takes away gravity. She projects her bad taste onto the world.
It's supposed to be a happy ending but it felt a little frying pan/fire to me.
Movie Review: Disorder (2015)
Alice Winocour’s “Disorder” (original, better title: “Maryland”) is my kind of thriller: drenched in atmosphere and ambiguity. We don’t who the woman is, or how she feels about the hero, or if the hero is even the hero. He could be the villain. We keep guessing. Our minds are engaged.
For most of the movie, we don’t even know what war Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts, excellent) has returned from (Afghanistan, it turns out), or what’s the matter with him (some form of PTSD), or if he will return to battle (he wants to). When he gets a security gig from fellow soldier Denis (Paul Hamy), we, and he, don’t know who they’re guarding.
Bodyguard or liability?
Imad (Percy Kemp) is rich and powerful, and high-ranking men keep drifting away from the party to talk in private. But none of the tropes of thrillers are engaged. Vincent doesn’t form a special bond with Imad, or his wife, Jessie (Diane Kruger), whom he, and we, notice at the party, wearing a backless dress. It’s Diane Kruger after all. It’s wow. Does her beauty distract him from doing his job? Does his PTSD? His ears keep ringing; he keeps putting cold water on the back of his neck. For most of the movie, Schoenaerts feels like a mass of coiled, helpless anger. He’s the guard who needs guarding.
At the gate, for example, filling in for Denis, he stops a guest trying to enter: someone not on the list, who, after impatiently getting clearance, calls Vincent a moron and flips him off. When Denis returns, Vincent immediately searches for this guy, and finds him in the middle of an argument in an upstairs room with Imad. When the guest rises, threateningly, Vincent enters the room asking if he’s needed. He isn’t, but Imad wants him close by. Is this our bonding moment? No. Imad simply wants to know how much Vincent has heard. Nothing, he says, but we don’t know whether to believe him. More, we don’t know if Vincent pursued the man because he was suspicious of him or just pissed off. Was he looking to protect or to fight?
There’s been a lot of buzz over the last few years, particularly in the U.S., about the need for women directors and writers: women-created stories. Is this a good example of that? A perspective of men that women in particular are good at portraying? Our unknowability, our silences; the strength that might protect or hurt.
The next morning Denis asks Vincent if he’d like to stick around to guard the wife for a few days. Why Vincent? The Hollywood trope would be because he’s “the best,” or because Imad (or, better, Jessie) asked for him specifically, seeing something specialin him. Here it’s because Denis knows he needs the gig—he might not be returning to the war. So it’s out of a kind of pity. Or maybe Vincent is being set up? Why does Jessie and her son, Ali (Zaid Errougui-Demonsant), need guarding anyway?
On the way to the beach, in a traffic jam, Vincent guns the engine and veers into oncoming traffic to avoid, he says, someone following them. Is this the bodyguard or the PTSD talking? At the beach, she’s still angry with him, and he drifts, and then wanders. What is he seeing? Something real? At this point, he feels like a liability.
Until the attack in the parking lot—and even then it’s not handled with Jason Bourne-style efficiency. It’s messy, as it should be, and afterwards the police are more interested in who they are rather than who their attackers were.
Imad, it turns out, is an arms dealer, he's been arrested at the Swiss border, and his empire crumbles swiftly. The estate, called Maryland, which was the setting of a glamorous party just a few days earlier, quickly becomes abandoned: by servants, friends, cops. Vincent stays. Does Jessie have somewhere she can go? Not really. A friend in Canada, she says. Are people still trying to attack her? Why? Denis is called in as backup. Can he be trusted?
That’s what I loved about this movie—the constant questioning against a genuinely thrilling backdrop. It’s a star movie—Schoenaerts and Kruger shine. There’s an early scene, where Vincent is riding a bus, lost in thought, then wakes up and realizes where he is—past his stop. Just that, but Schoenaerts does it so well. He’s the real deal. If we didn’t already know that from “Bullhead,” “Rust and Bone” and “The Drop.”
Lady or tiger?
The ending is ambiguous, too: a kind of lady-or-the-tiger ending.
In the final assault—and we never find out who’s assaulting the home, or why—Vincent lives up to the job description: He saves Jessie, Ali, even Denis. But he can’t stop. He slams an attacker's head against an unbreakable glass table until it’s basically mush. Jessie sees this, and he sees she sees. He had planned on going with them all the way to Canada (to protect, to be husband and father?) but here seems to realize it wouldn't work. He’s gruff with the boy, charmless with Jessie. He’s only needed when things go wrong. He asks Denis to take them to the airport.
But then Jessie returns, puts her arms around him, says his name. Screen goes dark. Directed by.
It’s the tiger. To me, the embrace is in his mind. More, it’s his raison d’etre, the reason he’s done all of this. For her. As if we didn’t know that already. I mean, just look at her.
Movie Review: The People vs. Fritz Bauer (2015)
“The People vs. Fritz Bauer” is a solid-enough historical drama, with a meaty, central performance by Burghart Klaussner. It sheds some light on: the capture of Adolf Eichmann; the prevalence of Nazis in prominent roles in postwar West Germany; the politics of the Cold War. It makes Mossad seem slightly ineffectual. We learn—or I learned anyway—about the title character, the Jewish district attorney of Hessen in Frankfurt during the 1950s and ’60s, who was instrumental in bringing about the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials of 1963-65.
But it’s too neat. It feels like writer-director Lars Kraume bends history to fit a cleaner, less-interesting narrative.
And what’s with the casting? The role of a male transvestite is played by a woman: Lilith Stangenberg. So certain segments of the audience don’t get squeamish during love scenes? Aren’t we honoring a homosexual hero here?
The question the movie turns on
Bauer is that hero, and for a time his homosexuality, all but repressed, is seen by his enemies as a way to bring him down; but ultimately it may be his zealousness in pursuit of justice.
Early on, via letter from Argentina, Bauer finds out where Adolf Eichmann is hiding, and he wants to extradite him and put him on trial in Germany. He wants to force Germany to confront its past. The problem: Who does he share this information with? “No one, from Bonn to Washington, wants Eichmann on trial,” Bauer tells Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld of “Phoenix”), his one loyal assistant. “My own agency is enemy territory.
So he goes to Israel/Mossad. Two problems: 1) sharing intel with a foreign government is a treasonous offense; and 2) Mossad hears the intel and shrugs. Like Ben Bradlee in “All the President’s Men,” they want a second source, and they leave that up to Bauer. (He finds it in an interesting place: the HR department at Mercedes-Benz.)
Both friends and enemies accuse Bauer of being obsessed with Eichmann but it’s a shame the movie isn’t similarly obsessed. Instead, we keep meandering into the Angermann subplot: the slow revelation that he’s gay; testing the waters in the transvestite bar; the beginning of something with Victoria (Stangenberg), then being traduced to the authorities. Bauer’s enemies, Paul Gebhardt and Ulrich Kreidler, both ex-SS, strike a deal with Angermann: Give them proof that Bauer is working with Mossad and Angermann’s crime, his career-ending scandal, will go away.
That’s what the movie turns on: this question. Earlier, Bauer told Angermann his own tale of capitulating to power. In 1920, Bauer, only 17, became the youngest district judge in 1920, and by 1933 he and Kurt Schumacher were leaders of the Social Democratic Party; but a May general strike against the Nazis went nowhere and they were put into a concentration camp, where Schumacher remained for the entirety of the war. Bauer got out in 1933. He wrote something nice about the Nazis in the paper, fled to Denmark, then Sweden. His capitulation spared him the Holocaust but it gnawed at him. In the movie he says it’s the great embarrassment of his life.
Angermann avoids that embarrassment by turning himself in. But we don’t see the consequences of that act of courage, just the act, which makes the courage seem easy. It makes you wonder why more people don’t have such courage, and I would argue that, per Frederick in “Hannah and Her Sisters,” that’s the wrong question. The better question is: The few who have it, how do they have it? A good discussion on this topic can be found in Eyal Press’ 2012 book “Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times.” Essentially Press argues that’s it’s often conservatives who believe in the original system who stand up to power, rather than rebels. It’s people who believe in the myth rather than cynics who know the shitty way the world runs.
Losing by winning
Anyway, Mossad gets Eichmann (as we know), Germany refuses to extradite him so he goes on trial in Israel (as we know), and Bauer, fired up again by Angermann’s loyalty and bravery, becomes more determined to put Germany on trial. We hear about the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials in an afterword, yet that business seems more interesting than what we’ve just watched—particularly since Bauer wasn’t happy with its outcome. He said the trials supported the “wishful fantasy that there were only a few people with responsibility ... and the rest were merely terrorized, violated hangers-on, compelled to do things completely contrary to their true nature.”
This movie, nominated for five German Film Awards, ends with a fierce determination to exact justice; the reality is messier and more interesting. A movie in which Bauer lost by winning might’ve resonated.