Archive | January, 2015

The Duke of Burgundy

31 Jan

‘The Duke of Burgundy’: Arthouse eros brings ’60s sheen to S&M, mind games

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Water sports, S&M and mind games abound in this lushly shot tale of lesbian role play, but all is not a titillating charade when it comes to the matters of the heart. “The Duke of Burgundy” takes place mostly within the cloistered confines of a Hungarian manse – a study, a kitchen, obviously “the bathroom,” the boudoir (the pair in bed shown provocatively only in reflective and refractive mirrors and metal objects) and a coffin in an anteroom – and the surrounding bucolic meadow where the lovers occasionally meander on their euro-styled bikes. Sure, there’s also the hall of academia, where Cynthia (Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen) dishes her lepidopterology findings with her fellows, but mostly it’s a photo op for well-shined boots set to tedious scientific droning.

013015i The Duke of BurgundyThe dynamic between Cynthia and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) is ever evolving. Initially Evelyn appears the part of a maid late for work on her first day. She’s obedient and demure in her duties, but under constant scrutiny and certain to make a mistake, and when she does she’s “punished” by being used as “a human toilet.” One might wince at such an act (it takes place offscreen, but the acute sound editing registers it profoundly in the viewer’s mind), but such are the games a pair in love play, and they go on to involve shining boots and being made to bake your own birthday cake without getting to eat it. Then there’s the time spent in that coffin-like chest – and through it all, Cynthia drinks plenty of water, ever ready to dispense her form of urinary discipline.   Continue reading

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The Humbling

31 Jan

January 26, 2015  |  8:31pm
<i>The Humbling</i>

The translation of Phillip Roth’s words to the big screen has been a tricky feat for any filmmaker. You might recall the staid adaptation of The Human Stain (2003) or the bawdy spin on Goodbye Columbus (1969); many have argued that those leaps to a visual, more commercial, medium neutered the tone of Roth’s sexually torn, disenfranchised Jewish machismo. More affectingly and recent, the little-seenElegy (2008), adapted from Roth’s The Dying Animal, dug closer to the core of the author, and now The Humbling, which covers similar ground, launches another ambitious, if not quite righteous, go at the heralded American provocateur.

In the role of Roth’s alter-ego, Al Pacino plays Simon Axler, a well-regarded stage actor who struggles to remain relevant as he sails across the septuagenarian mark. Much of what Pacino has done on the silver screen over the past decade has tended towards warmed-over mush, which is cause for lament considering this is the icon of cinema who so indelibly barked out “Attica!” in Dog Day Afternoon and anchored Francis Ford Coppola’s timeless Godfather trilogy. (For the record, I’ll cite Jack and Jill and 88 Minutes and leave it at that.) The two endeavors in which Pacino has shone during that drought weren’t theatrical releases but the cable-produced biopics of Jack Kevorkian (You Don’t Know Jack) and Phil Spector, which is a fitting: Barry Levinson (Rain Man and The Natural) directed Pacino in Jack, and again steers him here.  Continue reading

A Most Violent Year

28 Jan

Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac have edgy and steamy chemistry in A Most Violent Year

 Much of director J.C. Chandor’s latest film, A Most Violent Year,lives up to its title. There’s armed hijackings, masked gunmen setting upon an isolated house, and winding car chases. If that’s not enough, it bears the indelible sheen of the films that Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola tapped out during the 70s, where the sudden and brutal eruption of violence became an art form.

A Most Violent Year is set around that time too — the New York City of 1981 — when crime and inflation were at near all-time highs. At the center of such chaos presides Abel Morales (Oscar Issac) a Colombian immigrant who owns an oil and heating company that is no easy beast to wrangle. We never get to see Abel down in the trenches, but we know instantly from his stoic posture, dress-for-success flare, and steely intensity that he’s done his time and earned his post — an assumption that folds back on itself as the story develops.  Continue reading

Whiplash

22 Jan

J.K. Simmons (right) leaves behind his affable persona to play a hot-headed jazz chair who berates his musicians, most commonly Andrew (Miles Teller, left) in Whiplash

J.K. Simmons, the gummy affable bald guy who frequently crowds your TV in those semi-humorous Farmers University Insurance ads, has been a long-toiling character actor waiting for his thick slab of meat. In the interim, he has projected a similar amiable persona as the dad in the indie hit Juno and conjured up something a bit more cantankerous and angry as the news editor J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Rami’s Spider-Man trilogy. With Whiplash, Simmons finally gets his steak, and a hunk of Kobe at that.  Continue reading

American Sniper

19 Jan

‘American Sniper’: Clint’s a good shot, but we don’t get man behind the scope

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It’s pretty amazing the quality of films Clint Eastwood has been belting out as he sails well past the octogenarian mark, not just because he’s making movies at that age, but because of the ambition and scope of those films. “Invictus” (2009) took on the shifting tides of apartheid in South Africa, “J. Edgar” (2011), the biopic of America’s long-standing top dick, spanned eras and presidential regimes as America was shaped during the mid-1900s – and then there was the ill-fated but well-intentioned musical “Jersey Boys” (2014). Now we get “American Sniper,” the true story of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL in the Iraq War whose remarkable gift is the ability to take out anther human being a mile away. As the billing has it, Kyle, as a marksman,  has the most confirmed kills in U.S. military history.

011615i American SniperKyle’s a pretty good shot; so is Eastwood, conjuring up some hellish gun battles and tense door-to-door incursions with Kyle on the roof keeping his boys safe from the jihadist around the corner with an assault rifle or RPG. He’ll even take out a woman or a child with cool professionalism (but not without a touch of nervous deliberation, to denote his humanity and the conundrum of such an act) should they prove to be the chosen chalice of hateful mayhem. The scenes, rich and rife with conflict and drenched with sun and sand, feel borrowed from Katherine Bigelow’s haunting wartime chronicle “The Hurt Locker,” yet there’s no plumbing of the soul or genuine crisis of conscience in Eastwood’s endeavor. Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper – a fine enough actor, but likely destined for the Kevin Costner outpost of shaggy good looks, nonchalance and zero range – is a square piece of paper, dedicated in his mission to serve, tough, resilient and skilled at what he does, but not much more. Sure he’s got a wife and a mindset, but as the film has it, they’re like hastily chosen add-ons when buying a car.

The book about Kyle (which he penned with two other writers) was a New York Times bestseller and much has been made about the subject in many circles of the press challenging Kyle’s credibility (visit Slate for a start) and virtue. Eastwood, you remember, spoke comically and boldly to a chair at the 2012 GOP National Convention, and you can only guess that there’s a degree of skewed political undertow in the film’s patriotic envelopment. Like the 2013 film “Lone Survivor,” the ostensible pursuit of jingoistic justification and boundaries of true events limit the expansion of character and sociopolitical exploration of war and intertwining of diverse cultures with mismatched agendas. As a result, both films detail harrowing ordeals without being so. From the film, there’s little doubt as to Chris Kyle’s commitment as a protector of his country or as a father, but when the film ends (and it’s on a (and it’s on a tragic note that developed as the film went into production), the definition of who Chris Kyle was remains a mystery.

Inherent Vice

9 Jan

There’s drugs and free love a’plenty in Inherent Vice, but the characters steal the show 

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Joaquin Phoenix takes the audience on a trip in  'Inherent Vice'

Warner Brothers Pictures

Joaquin Phoenix takes the audience on a trip in ‘Inherent Vice’

Clearly Paul Thomas Anderson has a thing for the storied eras of America’s past. Boogie Nights welcomed in the rise of the porn industry during the flared-pant, disco-fueled 70s; the more nuanced The Master took up the arc of an L. Ron Hubbard-like charlatan in the wake WWII; while There Will be Bloodnegotiated the nasty, avaricious early roots of the American oil grab. Anderson’s latest, Inherent Vice, is no exception. In texture it’s an ode to the psychedelic 70s of free love and rampant recreational drug use.

Anderson’s always been a contemplative filmmaker with a keen sense of perverse quirk, and those qualities really come to the fore in Inherent Vice, a gumshoe noir on LSD if ever there was one. The stalwart indie director —who proved his ability to handle the opus works of literary lions by spinning Upton Sinclair’s Oil! into There Will be Blood — delves deep into Thomas Pychon’s far-roaming 2009 novel with baroque gusto. Continue reading