THE SENSE OF AN ENDING: you can’t revisit the past and guarantee closure

Jim Broadbent in THE SENSE OF AN ENDING
Jim Broadbent in THE SENSE OF AN ENDING

The veteran actor Jim Broadbent paints a remarkable portrait of Tony, the main character in the British drama The Sense of an Ending, and he makes it look easy. Retired and long-divorced, Tony is entirely comfortable is a solitary life that he has chosen, perhaps not voluntarily, by being so damn selfish and curmudgeonly. In some very funny moments, we learn that he does not suffer fools. An incident revives a brief period of passion in his youth, and he can’t let it go (although we know that he really should). As he plunges on, he unpeels the mystery, layer by layer, and discovers more emotional turmoil than he is prepared to deal with. He learns that we cannot always find closure, especially if it depends on the feelings of others and acts and words with cannot be undone.

As good as Broadbent is, the best scenes are with Tony’s ex-wife (Harriet Walker – who really shines in this film) and the romantic interest of his youth (the irreplaceable Charlotte Rampling).

You are forgiven if, after reading a capsule or watching the trailer, you think that The Sense of an Ending is another 45 Years; after all both focus on a retired British gentleman whose life is rocked by an unexpected call or letter and both feature stunning performances by Charlotte Rampling. But it is not. 45 Years meditates on the power and durability of memories and then shifts into a study of relationships; we see intimacy without the sharing of all truths, and see how the truth can be toxic and destructive. In contrast, The Sense of an Ending explores how emotional detachment is very protective, and what happens when one ventures into emotional vulnerability. 45 Years was Charlotte Rampling’s movie, while she has only a couple of brief, although hard-hitting, scenes in The Sense of an Ending.

The Sense of an Ending played at Cinequest before its theatrical release and was well-received by the audience. I like The Sense of an Ending more than does the critical consensus, perhaps because it’s the best new movie widely released in the Bay Area this week.

DVD/Stream of the Week: THE HUNT

THE HUNT

In honor of the opening of this year’s Cinequest, this week’s pick is the Danish drama The Hunt from the 2013 CinequestMads Mikkelsen plays a man whose life is ruined by a false claim of child sexual abuse. You’ll recognize Mikkelsen, a big star in Europe, from After the Wedding and the 2006 Casino Royale (he was the villain with the bleeding eye). He won the 2012 Cannes Best Actor award for this performance.

The story is terrifyingly plausible. The protagonist, Lucas, is getting his bearings after a job change and a divorce. He lives in a small Danish town where everyone knows everyone else, next door to his best friend. The best friend drinks too much and his wife is a little high-strung, but Lucas embraces them for who they are. He’s a regular guy who hunts and drinks with his buddies and is adored by the kids at the kindergarten where he works. He’s not a saint – his ex-wife can get him to fly off the handle with little effort.

A little girl hears a sexual reference at home that she does not understand (and no one in the story could ever find out how she heard it). When she innocently repeats it at school, the staff is alarmed and starts to investigate. Except for one mistake by the school principal, everyone in the story acts reasonably. One step in the process builds upon another until the town’s parents become so understandably upset that a public hysteria ensues.

Director Thomas Vinterburg had previously created the underappreciated Celebration (Festen). The Hunt is gripping – we’re on the edges of our seats as the investigation snowballs and Lucas is put at risk of losing everything – his reputation, his job, his child, his friends, his liberty and even his life. Can Lucas be cleared, and, if he is, how scarred will he be? The Hunt is a superbly crafted film with a magnificent performance by Mikkelsen.

The Hunt is available to rent on DVD from Netflix and to stream from Netflix Instant, Amazon Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and PlayStation Video.

Stream of the week: PHOENIX – riveting psychodrama, wowzer ending

Ronald Zehfeld and nina Hoss in PHOENIX
Ronald Zehfeld and Nina Hoss in PHOENIX

In the German psychological drama Phoenix, Nina Hoss plays Nelly, an Auschwitz survivor whose face has been destroyed by a Nazi gunshot; her sister has arranged for plastic surgery to reconstruct her face. When Nelly gets her new face, we accompany her on an intense quest.

Writer-director Christian Petzhold is an economical story-teller, respectful of the audience’s intelligence. Watching a border guard’s reaction to her disfigurement and hearing snippets from the sister and the plastic surgeon, we gradually piece together her back story. The doctor asks what seems like a very good question – Why would a Jewish woman successfully rooted in London return to Germany in 1938? The answer to that question involves a Woman Loving Too Much.

The sister plans to re-settle both of them in Israel, but Nelly is obsessed with finding her husband. She does find her husband, who firmly believes that Nelly is dead. But he notes that the post-surgery Nelly resembles his pre-war wife, and he has a reason to have her impersonate the real Nelly. So he has the real Nelly (who he doesn’t think IS the real Nelly) pretending to be herself. It’s kind of a reverse version of The Return of Martin Guerre.

It’s the ultimate masquerade. How would you feel while listening to your spouse describe you in detail to a stranger?

Nina Hoss is an uncommonly gifted actress. Here she acts with her face fully bandaged for the first third of the film. We ache for her Nelly’s obsessive need for her husband – and when she finally finds him, she still doesn’t really have him.

As the husband, Ronald Zehfeld shows us the magnetism that attracts Nina, along with the brusque purposefulness that he thinks he needs to survive and flourish in the post-war Germany.

Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss collaborated on the recent film Barbara (he won the Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear for his work). About Barbara, I wrote

“Given that’s it difficult to imagine how anyone else could have improved Barbara, I’ll be looking for Petzold’s next movie.”

Well, here it is, and it’s gripping.

The ending of the film is both surprising and satisfying. Several people in my audience let out an audible “Wow!” at the same time.

Phoenix is one of my Best Movies of 2015.  It is available to stream from Netflix Instant, Amazon Video, YouTube and Google Play.

THE TRIBE: a singular viewing experience, if you can stomach it

THE TRIBE
THE TRIBE

The Wife often mocks my taste in obscure or challenging foreign cinema, like the “Romanian abortion movie” and the “Icelandic penis movie”.  So I was looking forward to regaling her about the “Ukrainian deaf movie” The Tribe, which sparked much notice at the Toronto and Sundance film fests. Indeed, The Tribe is a singular cinematic experience – both absorbing and exhausting.

Right away, the movie tells us that, although the The Tribe comes from Ukraine, we’re not going to hear any Ukrainian. Nor will we see any English subtitles. It’s set in a residential high school for the deaf, and the entire movie is in sign language. It’s novel for the hearing to experience an entire movie in which we hear only the sound of ambient noises – footsteps, creaking doors and the like – and we know that these sounds are NOT heard by the movie characters.

Writer-director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky also employs fixed-camera shots of very, very long duration. which enhance the feeling that we’re watching something that we haven’t seen before.

At first, The Tribe delivers what we might expect in a teen coming of age film: the new kid in school, practical jokes and high jinks, the boring classroom, the class clown and raging teen hormones. The kids sneak off campus at night to prowl and party. But soon we are shocked to realize that we’re not seeing normal teen rowdiness and delinquency – these kids are operating an organized crime ring!

The Tribe is clearly meant to be a comment on the profoundly rooted corruption of post-Soviet society. Unfortunately, Slaboshpitsky piles on so much horrible behavior and brutality that it becomes distracting. There’s even an unsparing clinical depiction of a back alley abortion in real time; at my screening, I could feel the entire audience, at first frozen and then squirming in our seats. It’s a very unpleasant scene – and meant to be. And after the extreme violence at the very end of the movie, the audience exited with nervous laughter at having endured it.

Two final warnings: Women viewers should be prepared for the squat toilets in the the public restroom – not exactly a travelogue high point for Ukraine. And THIS IS NOT A DATE MOVIE – despite lots of explicit sex, no one is going to want to have sex after watching this!

[SPOILER ALERT – The ending is both a cinematic achievement and barely watchable: all in one camera shot, the protagonist climbs five flights of stairs and commits four individual up-close-and-personal and especially brutal murders.]

THE TRIBE
THE TRIBE

99 HOMES: desperation leads to indecency, then redemption

Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon in 99 HOMES
Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon in 99 HOMES

The opening scene of the brilliant psychological drama 99 Homes illustrates the life-and-death stakes of our nation’s foreclosure crisis.  It’s a topical film, but 99 Homes is emotionally raw and as intense as any thriller.  Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a working class single dad, down on his luck.  He loses his home to foreclosure and then must make a Faustian choice about supporting his family.  Can he live with his choice, and what are the consequences?

With capitalism, where there are losers, there are also winners who have bet against the losers.  Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) has built a prosperous real estate business on legitimate evictions and flips, supplemented with schemes to defraud federal home loan agencies, housing syndicates and individual homeowners.  His world view is defined in a monologue about this nation bailing out the winners, not the losers – a cynical, but perceptive, observation.

Director Ramin Bahrani is a great American indie director, with a knack for drilling into the psyches of overlooked subsets of our society – immigrants (Chop Shop, Man Push Cart, Goodbye Solo), industrial farmers (At Any Price) and now the victims and profiteers of the Mortgage Bubble.

As foreclosure inexorably approaches, Garfield’s Nash is absorbed by dread, then desperation and, finally, to panic.  His mom (Laura Dern) takes a different tack, settling firmly into denial and then erupting in hysteria.  That denial recurs again and again in 99 Homes among those about to be evicted.   These are people who have bought homes and can’t believe/grok/internalize that one day they will actually be forced out of them.  One of the strongest aspects of 99 Homes is the use of non-actors who have lived through the nightmare.   Some of the individual stories, especially one with a confused old man, are so wrenching as to be hard to watch.

This may be Andrew Garfield’ strongest cinema performance.  Dennis Nash is a decent man incentivized to do the indecent.  Garfield takes this good man through an amazing internal journey.  Nash is forced to accept the failure resulting from his attempts to do what is right, juxtaposed with the success from conduct that he finds repulsive.  Bahrani’s arty shot of the reflection of a swimming pool shimmering in a sliding glass door makes it look like Garfield is under water –  which he metaphorically is at this point in the film.

Michael Shannon, one of my very favorite actors, is superb as a guy completely committed to pursuing his own survival/prosperity strategy – no matter that it is based on ruining the lives of other humans.  Unlike Nash, Shannon’s Carver has accepted the incentives to act badly and has overcome any qualms about either moral ambiguity or even stark amorality.

Veteran television actor Tim Guinee is remarkable as homeowner Frank Green.  Laura Dern is excellent in a pivotal role.  The character actor Clancy Brown proves once again that he can grab the screen, even when he’s only visible for a minute or two.

With its searing performances by Garfield and Shannon, 99 Homes is unsparingly dark and intense until a final moment of redemption.  It opens on Friday.

PHOENIX: riveting psychodrama, wowzer ending

Ronald Zehfeld and nina Hoss in PHOENIX
Ronald Zehfeld and nina Hoss in PHOENIX

In the German psychological drama Phoenix, Nina Hoss plays Nelly, an Auschwitz survivor whose face has been destroyed by a Nazi gunshot; her sister has arranged for plastic surgery to reconstruct her face.  When Nelly gets her new face, we accompany her on an intense quest.

Writer-director Christian Petzhold is an economical story-teller, respectful of the audience’s intelligence.  Watching a border guard’s reaction to her disfigurement and hearing snippets from the sister and the plastic surgeon, we gradually piece together her back story.  The doctor asks what seems like a very good question – Why would a Jewish woman successfully rooted in London return to Germany in 1938?  The answer to that question involves a Woman Loving Too Much.

The sister plans to re-settle both of them in Israel, but Nelly is obsessed with finding her husband.  She does find her husband, who firmly believes that Nelly is dead.  But he notes  that the post-surgery Nelly resembles his pre-war wife, and he has a reason to have her impersonate the real Nelly.  So he has the real Nelly (who he doesn’t think IS the real Nelly) pretending to be herself.  It’s kind of a reverse version of The Return of Martin Guerre.

It’s the ultimate masquerade.  How would you feel while listening to your spouse describe you in detail to a stranger?

Nina Hoss is an uncommonly gifted actress.  Here she acts with her face fully bandaged for the first third of the film.  We ache for her Nelly’s obsessive need for her husband – and when she finally finds him, but she still doesn’t really have him.

As the husband, Ronald Zehfeld shows us the magnetism that attracts Nina, along with the brusque purposefulness that he thinks he needs to survive and flourish in the post-war Germany.

Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss collaborated on the recent film Barbara  (he won the Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear for his work).  About Barbara, I wrote

“Given that’s it difficult to imagine how anyone else could have improved Barbara, I’ll be looking for Petzold’s next movie.”

Well, here it is, and it’s gripping.

The ending of the film is both surprising and satisfying.  Several people in my audience let out an audible “Wow!” at the same time.

DVD/Stream of the Week: WHIPLASH

Miles Teller and JK Simmons in WHIPLASH
Miles Teller and JK Simmons in WHIPLASH

J.K. Simmons deservedly won an Oscar for his performance in Whiplash , the drama about the line between motivation and abuse and the line between ambition and obsession. A young jazz drummer (Miles Teller of The Spectacular Now and Rabbit Hole) attends an elite music academy (think Julliard) and comes under the attention of a drill sergeant-type of instructor (J.K. Simmons). The teacher-tormentor pushes the kid toward perfection through tough love and, ultimately, abuse. To what extent is the teacher trying to get the kid to excel? And how much of the teacher’s behavior is just sadistic bullying? And how will the kid respond? (The movie’s title reflects both a jazz song and the teacher’s instructional technique.)

J.K. Simmons is a guy whose name you may not recognize, but whose face you will. He has 143 screen credits, most memorably as the of the ironic and supportive father in Juno and Vernon Schillinger, the Aryan Brotherhood leader in the prison series Oz. This is Simmons’ movie; it’s an exceptional performance, that will probably land Simmons an Oscar nomination.

How good a movie is Whiplash? It’s a very good one – taut, and intense. The fact that it’s extremely focused on the two characters and the fundamental questions about their characters is a strength, but also limits it from being a great movie. Still, Simmons, Teller and the unrelenting tension makes Whiplash definitely worth seeing.  Whiplash is available on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and streaming from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, Xbox Video and Flixster.

Cinequest: THE LIFE AFTER

THE LIFE AFTER
THE LIFE AFTER

In the Mexican drama The Life After, two brothers are raised by a very unreliable single mom.  When she disappears and leaves them on their own, they go on a road trip where the emotional damage she has wreaked on them is exposed.   It’s well-acted and well-photographed, but grim and slow-paced.  Ultimately, I’m just not convinced that this story needed to be told.

 

TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT: the limits of emotional endurance

Marion Cotillard in TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT
Marion Cotillard in TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT

In the Belgian drama Two Days, One Night, a factory worker (Oscar winner Marion Cotillard) finds out on Friday afternoon that she will be laid off unless she can convince nine of her sixteen co-workers to sacrifice their bonuses. She must make her case to each of them before a vote on Monday morning. It’s a substantial bonus, and every one of her colleagues really needs it; their spouses are expecting it, too, and many have decided how they are going to spend it. The vote is going to be close, the stakes for each family is high and the tension builds.

Our protagonist is anything but plucky. She needs to be coaxed and prodded by her husband and a militant co-worker. She is buoyed enough by an early victory to keep going, but she’s constantly on the verge of giving up.

She hasn’t been been well, which also complicates things. Because the filmmakers wait until midway to explicitly reveal her illness, I’m being careful not to spoil it here. But the precise illness is important because it affects both her own stamina and the confidence of her co-workers about how well she would contribute to the workplace.

Two Days, One Night is the latest from two of my favorites writer-director filmmakers, the brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes. They specialize in contemporary dramas of the Belgian working class. Their The Kid with a Bike was #1 on my Best Movies of 2012. And I think that their 2002 The Son (Le Fils) was pretty much a masterpiece, too. The Dardennes’ hand held (but NOT shaky) cameras intrude right on top of the characters, bringing an urgency and immediacy to every scene. Hyper realism contributes to the verisimilitude and thereby builds more power into the stories; here, a tense conversation in the doorway to an apartment building get interrupted by someone walking in – just as it would be in real life.

At its core, Two Days, One Night explores the limits of emotional endurance. What does she need to rebound form her malaise – the adrelin surge of battle? Or the power from getting to make her own choice?

[Anyone who has visited France or Belgium will recognize the remarkable politeness of the characters – observing all the formalities of greeting, shaking hands and saying thanks and goodbye even in the most awkward and emotionally charged encounters.]

Two Days, One Night is a fine film, just outside the Top Ten on my Best Movies of 2014. Unsurprisingly, Cotillard’s glammed-down performance is brilliant. It’s a compelling story as we walk her tightrope of desperation, heading toward redemption. Two Days, One Night opens widely in the San Francisco Bay Area tomorrow.

DVD/Stream of the Week: BOYHOOD – the best movie of the decade?

Eller Coltrane, Ethan Hawke and Lorelei Linklater in BOYHOOD
Eller Coltrane, Ethan Hawke and Lorelei Linklater in BOYHOOD

Boyhood is a profoundly moving film – and I’m still trying to figure out why. It’s a family drama without a drop of emotional manipulation – there’s no big moment of redemption and no puppies are saved. It’s just about a boy growing up in a family that we all can recognize and going through a series of moments that all of us have gone through. Still, I found myself responding very emotionally and, hardass as I may be, I had a lump in my throat and moist eyes during the last half hour or so.

There’s a sense of fundamental human truth in Boyhood that comes from the amazing, risky and groundbreaking way that writer-director Richard Linklater made this movie. Boyhood traces the story of Mason (Eller Coltrane), his big sister (Lorelei Linklater) and their divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) from the time when Mason was six-years-old to when he is going off to college at age 18. Linklater and the cast shot the movie in 39 days over a TWELVE YEAR PERIOD. So the cast members actually aged twelve years without the need for creating that effect with makeup or by switching the child actors. Other than Linklater’s own Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight series of romances spaced nine years apart, he only movies that have used this technique of aging-in-real-time have been documentaries, most notably the 7 Up series and Hoop Dreams.

Besides the authenticity that comes from the aging-in-real-time, the key to Boyhood is the reality of each moment. Each scene in the film is universal. Every kid has had to suffer the consequences of the life decisions made by his/her parents. Every kid has felt disrespected by a parental edict or disappointed when a parent has failed to come through. Everybody has been bullied in the school bathroom. Everybody has felt the excitement of connecting with a first love – and then the shock/humiliation/heartbreak of getting dumped. No scene individually moves the plot forward. But each scene helps complete our picture of who Mason is and how he is being shaped by his experiences.

Of course, when parents divorce and when a kid’s family is blended with that of a step-parent’s, those are especially big deals. All those things happen to Mason in Boyhood; he has control over none of them, but they all have a lasting impact on his life and development. And when his mom decides to better herself by working her way through college and grad school to become a college instructor, her self-improvement makes her less available to her kids – and that’s a big deal, too. (This part of Linklater’s story is autobiographical.)

As we trace Mason’s early years, we relate to these universal experiences and, without noticing it, start rooting for him and his sister. By the time he is 15, we are hooked and so seriously invested in him that it’s easy to feel as much pride in his high school graduation as do his fictional parents.

The actors who begin as children and age into young adults – Eller Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) – are very good. Arquette and Hawke are also excellent in playing warts-and-all parents; each parent grows (in different ways) over the twelve years as much as do their kids.

So what’s it all about – as in, what’s life all about? That question is addressed explicitly by four characters in separate scenes in the final 35 minutes of the movie – by Mason as a brash and cynical, bullshitting 17-year-old, by his mom in a self-reflective meltdown, by his dad in a moment of truthful humility and by a potential girlfriend wise beyond her years. Whether any one of them is right and whether any one of them speaks for the filmmaker – that’s up to you.

Linklater has made other films that are exceptional and groundbreaking, most notably the Before series. His indie breakthrough Slacker followed a series of characters, handing off the audience to one conversation to another – a structure seemingly without structure. He followed that his Waking Life, another random series of conversations with his live actors were animated by rotoscope. Even his recent dark comedy Bernie is offbeat – a sympathetic take on a real life murderer (who is now out of prison and living in Linklater’s garage apartment). But Boyhood is Linklater’s least talky movie – and his masterpiece.

Boyhood is an important film – a milestone in the history of cinema. (I sure didn’t expect that I would ever write that sentence.) It may turn out to be the best film of the decade. It’s a Must See.  Boyhood is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.  Settle in and turn off all distractions for the next two hours and forty minutes – you’ll be glad that you did.

Eller Coltrane in BOYHOOD
Eller Coltrane in BOYHOOD