Mr. Turner (UK: 2014): Timothy Spall and a 349 degree view of an artist

Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner presents as close to a 360 view of a character as I think one can have on film without employing a cat scan. It is outstanding, if a bit long. I am not certain who is going to be nominated next month for best actor for the Academy Awards, but if Timothy Spall isn’t at least in the mix, I am not certain what an actor has to do to get there. I guess maybe he could talk more and grunt less, but my goodness, he takes to the role of the English painter JMW Turner with zeal.

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The film is a domestic and social portrait of one of the pivotal artists in history during the last 25 years of his life. Turner kept sketchbooks but he was not a diarist, so we don’t have any deep insights into what he was thinking at any particular time. The movie is true to that mystery. The social scenes in the movie are probably drawn the letters and diaries of others who met him. But even without the deep psychological study, Leigh has produced one of the most advanced profiles of an artist and his times that I have seen.

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REC (Korea: 2011): The night belonged to them

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The trailer I found actually isn’t very helpful to understanding REC, Joon-moon So’s 2011 short film about two men on their fifth anniversary. Young-joon (Sam-dong Song) and Joon-seok (Hye-hun Jo) have rented a hotel room and in their own little world, make a video recording of their night. They joke that in gay-relationship years, one year equals ten years of heterosexual marriage, so in a sense, they have outlasted most marriages. In the first half of the movie, they are happy, a little too playful, even. Beyond a record of their sexual encounter, they interview each other about their feelings. Joon-seok’s disappointment with his partner is that he never gives in for choices of restaurants and movies, a fairly common complaint for all couples. His biggest fear however comes from the fact that even after five years, Young-joon still believes that this relationship is only temporary. That offhand joke about gay relationship equivalent years isn’t actually so funny in that context.

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The Great Passage (Japan: 2013): Love and Loss for Lex·i·cog·ra·phers

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Yûya Ishii’s the Great Passage was Japan’s submission for Best Foreign Language film last year. It received a very limited release in the US one weekend and has played a few film festivals. I couldn’t find the name of a US distributor for the film and ended up ordering a copy of the Hong Kong version from Yesasia.com so that I could finally see it. It’s a shame, really, that the film hasn’t been picked up. I could see people adding it to their list of beloved films. It is a very easy film to like. It sums up the hopes and dreams of all of us-that we will find a task that we can be devoted to and share that devotion with others. It is an optimistic film, not lofty enough to be awe inspiring, but the world it offers up is as much a fantasy dream world as the most magical love story or futurist utopia. It’s a world worth believing in.

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The Homesman (USA: 2014): Swank and Jones shine in a journey to th

Set in the Nebraska Territory of the 1850s, Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman is about hardship on the plains and the difficulty of maintaining civilized relationships on the frontier. There are many movies about the time period of the post Civil War west – with cowboys, farmers and railroads. Pre-civil war, we are in the transition from pioneers and frontiersmen to the farmer settlers who probably would have been better off staying at home. The movie captures the challenges of farming this particular area of the Great Plains. Treeless and unlike anything the Europeans were familiar with, the Nebraska Territory was the heart of what was called the Great American Desert, not the Breadbasket that it known as today. The difficulty of this life takes a mental toll on the wives of three farmers, who need to be taken back east in the hopes that returning them to their families will restore their health.

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Force Majeure (Sweden: 2014): Unexpectedly breaking the contract

Force Majeure is Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s take on a husband and wife reanalyzing their marriage after a breach of trust. Told over a five-day ski holiday to France, the story follows a low point in Ebba and Tomas’ marriage (played by  Lisa Loven Kongsli and Johannes Kuhnke) after he “accidentally” abandons the family when a controlled avalanche appears about to engulf a restaurant where they are having lunch with their two children. While he is filming the event on his iPhone, he panics and leaves his children and wife at the table, but remembers to pick up his ski gloves as he flees. Even though a marriage contract doesn’t spell out what is supposed to happen in these circumstances, we know that there has been a breach somewhere. The question is whether or not Tomas will realize that and whether Ebba will allow him a chance to fix it.

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The Cold Lands (USA: 2013): A stray boy tries to find a home

Set in the region of Upstate New York and New England, Tom Gilroy’s The Cold Lands tells the story of a sheltered teen-aged boy making a transition to new adult role models after the death of his mother. When the movie opens, Atticus (Silas Yelich) and his mother, Nicole, (Lilly Taylor) are living off the grid. She is home schooling him, but he is entering a stage where socialization with his peers is important to him. They aren’t survivalists, but are getting by without electricity and supplementing the income she earns as an office cleaner by recycling and beekeeping. It is an existence without many conveniences, but hardly a simple life. Beyond financial pressures, Nicole has diabetes and feels hassled by  public health nurse who believes she as complications from the disease that may need additional treatment. She is managing to hide the pressure she faces from Atticus, while devoting her life to his education and cultivating his values.

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I am Happiness on Earth (Mexico: 2014): My Patience is Wearing Thin

If someone were to ask me what kind of movie I am Happiness on Earth is, I would respond that it is a Julian Hernandez film. I suppose that I could say that he makes “art house” or “festival” films, but he also belongs in that category of director where the style and subject become established patterns such that their films are classified off by themselves. No one makes films like them.

If you haven’t seen one of his movies, I don’t know if I would recommend this one, but Happiness does follow what I’ve come to expect from Hernandez. He is very good at creating stories of attractive men pursuing sex with each other – in fact he probably has no equal in that. There is a certain style to these pursuits in his films that evoke  a very raw sexuality that barely even rises to the level of Eros. It is more instinctual than Eros, which should involve some passion and pleasure. Men (and in this movie, women, too) in pursuit of sex are like animals in heat. They prowl. Stare. They crawl on all fours. Consume as if they aren’t certain whether what they hunt is prey or a rival beast.  Since there is hardly any dialogue in this film or any of his films, the actors must physically convey this animalism as well as any emotional states they might have. It makes sense then, that part of this movie involves an affair with a dancer since modern dancers are trained in the art of physical communication.

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