As I’ve confessed before, I’m a movie geek. I love quirky, obscure films as well as the critics’ darlings. I revel in the technical, behind-the-scenes details about filmmaking. That’s why I enjoy the discussions at my Meetup film group. People like Al, Brad, Julie, Celine, Rebecca, Rui, Peter, Marisa and Kristine bring new insights to our discussions.
Here’s my perspective on some of the current batch of award winners and nominees, as well as some that should have made it but didn’t.
But first, something completely different….
The Kevin Smith trilogy: Clerks, Chasing Amy and Dogma
The film group had a rousing discussion of Kevin Smith’s work recently, focused on these three films. I watched them all again and discovered new things about each. If you think Smith’s films are goofy and sophomoric, I would like to disabuse you of that idea.
Clerks (1994) is about two convenience and video store clerks, Dante and Randal, trying to get by and figure life out. Best line: “This job would be great if it weren’t for the fucking customers.” Jay and Silent Bob appear as two stoners. Dante and Randal occasionally engage in philosophical musings about life and love. It’s shot in black and white on a very low budget and filmed in and around Monmouth County, New Jersey. Scene cards announce mood changes like Syntax, Purgation, Catharsis and Denouement.
Chasing Amy (1997) has more plotline and higher production values as it follows two friends and partners who have created a popular comic book series, Bluntman and Chronic. Their Holdup Studios is in Red Bank, NJ. The main plot concerns Holden (Ben Affleck) falling in love with a bisexual woman who turns out to prefer girls, much to Holden’s distress. Jason Lee is terrific as his partner. Jay and Silent Bob play pivotal roles when Silent Bob finally speaks and explains to Holden about why he’s still “chasing Amy” and why Holden should recognize his mistake and deal with it.
Dogma ((1999) is on my all-time favorite film list. I will tell you just a snippet of the story: Two fallen angels (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) want to return to heaven and think they have found a theological loophole that will get them back in. The cast is amazing (Chris Rock, George Carlin, Alan Rickman, Selma Hayek, plus Jay and Silent Bob.). I have always thought of Dogma with glee as an anti-religious film and that suits my irreligious attitudes. But it is really a film by a disappointed Catholic who wishes his church would do better. Well, I still love it.
Dogma opens on the boardwalk in Asbury Park and continues to a church in Red Bank. It’s set in Springsteen country, the geographic soulmate to Chicago.
The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)
This film has already won the Golden Globes’ award for best foreign language film. As I wrote in my letterboxd.com diary, this is a gorgeous film meditation on love, life and death, written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Toni Servillo plays Jep, an Italian journalist who would be called a flaneur in 19th century Paris. He’s a party animal, but after his glorious 65th birthday party near the beginning of the film, he begins to reflect on his life … and what lies ahead. Rome has never looked so beautiful with this splendid cinematography and amazing tracking shots. The film is poetic, sad and very funny as Sorrentino takes witty jabs at the church, journalism and anti-aging techniques. The film is often compared to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, but I think that comparison is superficial. Jep is a much more self-aware person than Fellini’s Marcello.
Sorrentino also wrote and directed one of my favorites (a possible cult film?) of 2013: This Must Be the Place (2011). I wrote about it here.
Two documentaries: The Act of Killing and 20 Feet from Stardom
The Act of Killing is a stupefyingly chilling film about the men who led the death squads that killed more than a million people in Indonesia in the 1970s and are celebrated as heroes. Director Joshua Oppenheimer gets them to reenact their deeds in whatever dramatic genre they choose, in costume and makeup. The result is goofy and horrendous.
20 Feet from Stardom celebrates the backup singers (almost all women) who give rock and roll stars the sound we love. Several singers are profiled in the film, as are many of the musicians they worked with, including Bruce Springsteen. The singers nearly all worked in the background for their entire careers, as my review describes. But nevertheless it’s a great, happy film and now is available on DVD.
Five best-picture nominees (I won’t pick winners)
Nebraska, directed by Alexander Payne. How often do you see a film in black and white? It takes some audacity to do that in a straightforward way. The film is partly striking road movie and partly wrenching human story. Excellent performances by Bruce Dern, Will Forte and June Squibb.
American Hustle, directed by David O Russell, has been called homage to a wig factory. The re-creation of ‘70s hair and fashion is outstanding and cringe-inducing. Did we really dress like that? American Hustle has a great, witty script and a joyous set of plot twists and turns. A lot of great acting, but Christian Bale’s personal transformation is amazing. His extra 40 pounds and the elaborate comb-over make him unrecognizable. For two other films—The Machinist and The Fighter—he lost so much weight that he looked near death. The physical changes almost make you overlook the acting, which is superb.
Her by Spike Jonze. I’ve written about this and compared the “Her” story to that of the Richard Powers novel, Galatea 2.2. This is an excellent film and really thought-provoking, both about our attachment to technology (mea culpa) and our difficulties with personal relationships. It deserves a lot of awards–for the film, for Joaquin Phoenix as the lead, and for the original script. Her has generated much online discussion, about the film and its implications, including this insightful article about Spike Jonze in Paste Magazine.
Gravity by Alfonso Cuaron, who directed two of my favorite films ever—Children of Men (2006) and Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001). I saw Gravity in 3D at an Imax theater and the physical effects are simply breathtaking. Sandra Bullock’s performance is very good. But I don’t think this film in any way deserves the best-film award. It’s simply too much bells and whistles, too little drama, plot and character development.
12 Years a Slave by Steve McQueen is also breathtaking in a different way. It’s a shocking slap in the face to those who forgot what slavery was like—the human condition that the United States enabled for so many decades. At least two excellent performances—by the leading actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o as supporting actress. 12 Years won the Golden Globe for best film and it may be the sentimental favorite to win the Oscar.
Three films that deserved more attention
Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers’ film about Greenwich Village in 1961 was one of my favorites of the year and many critics placed it in their top five or ten for best film. But it didn’t get much Oscar love. Just a couple of nominations for technical awards. I acknowledge my own bias—the film is about the music business and lets me reminisce about life in the sixties. But I still think it deserved better. If not best film, then for directing and original screenplay.
Blue Jasmine, an excellent film by Woody Allen, may earn a well-deserved best-actress award for Cate Blanchett. There are other fine performances in this film—Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Carnevale and Andrew Dice Clay (yes, really!), as well as an excellent, thought-provoking script.
Blue is the Warmest Color by Abdellatif Kechiche was shockingly neglected in every category. I was surprised that it wasn’t nominated in the best foreign language film section. It did win some regional film awards in that category, including France’s Lumiere Award and the Palme d’Or. And the young lead–Adèle Exarchopoulos—received several regional acting awards.
I reviewed Blue here briefly in December and said: This controversial film about a young woman and her older woman lover in Lille, France, is beautifully filmed and to my mind, too long at three hours plus. The much-discussed sex scenes are quite beautiful and almost painterly in their composition. Most importantly, the film raises issues of male viewpoint, social class and life choice between the two lovers and their friends and families; those issues are fruitful discussion topics.
It was a good year for films, in my opinion. Perhaps that’s why some of my favorites were neglected.
Samantha vs. Galatea. My review of Spike Jonze’s fanciful and fascinating film, Her.
Reliving the Sixties: My review of Inside Llewyn Davis, in which I compare Llewyn Davis’ story to Bruce Springsteen’s–only with a better ending. Imagine how happy I was to hear Bruce say exactly that in his long interview with Ann Powers, NPR’s pop music editor. Bruce says: “My life was, it was Inside Llewyn Davis with a happy ending, you know. I was, you know, I was that guy. I was the guy sleeping on the couch in midtown and taking the subway to Greenwich Village.”
Yes, I was there in the ‘60s, but not in Greenwich Village where Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan hung out and where the new film Inside Llewyn Davis is set. I spent the ‘60s in northwestern Wisconsin in River Falls, a small college town that I now think of as Brigadoon, a magical place. Well, at least a very good place to live and raise two small boys. We lived in a series of comfy old houses with big back yards on tree-lined streets with names like Cedar, Maple and Main.
We didn’t go to the Gaslight Café to hear up-and-coming musicians. But we did go to a local coffee house to listen to folk music and poetry by students, faculty and occasionally visiting talent. And there was always some kind of musical or theatrical event to attend on campus. Eugene McCarthy campaigned in River Falls in 1968 and we went to the parade on Main Street to cheer him on. What a lovely place to live.
You can’t help but think of life in the ‘60s as you watch Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen brothers film that you could only have missed hearing about if you have been in a cocoon for the last month. But for once, the hype is worth it. It’s a smart film, mostly historically accurate, and the music is worth the price of the ticket. Even though I generally prefer music that rocks, these are lyrical, traditional folk ballads (with one exception) arranged for today, with T Bone Burnett as the musical czar and Marcus Mumford (of the eponymous Mumford & Sons) as co-producer. Best of all, you hear full-length songs in the film, not 30-second samples.
The Llewyn Davis character is patterned after a folk singer of the time, Dave Van Ronk, whose memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, was one of the Coen brothers’ historical sources. Van Ronk’s second album, Inside Dave Van Ronk, provided the cover art idea for the movie version of the Llewyn Davis album, Inside Llewyn Davis. And the poster for the new film is a dead ringer for the cover of Bob Dylan’s album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (with a cat instead of Suze Rotolo). The similarities are striking in both cases. My friend June Skinner Sawyers writes about the Freewheelin’ photo shoot in her book, Bob Dylan: New York (2011, Roaring Forties Press).
The film shows us the quest of Llewyn Davis (played by the very talented Oscar Isaac), a folksinger who wants to perform authentic folk music, in the era before the genre became commercial. He goes everywhere, with his beatup guitar case, a knapsack, and usually a cat over his arm. The cat, who acts like cats do, is also on a quest—to escape from Llewyn’s grasp and, maybe, to get home. The fact that the cat is named Ulysses, which we don’t find out until the end of the film, adds to its charm. We could analyze Llewyn’s quest as that of a modern-day Ulysses or Odysseus, but we don’t need to do that to enjoy his quest for someone to listen to his music and pay him for performing. He just wants to make his living as a musician.
His journey includes performing at the Gaslight, a “basket club” where performers’ remuneration is in the tip basket; trying to get his manager to sell his solo album; and taking a road trip to Chicago, which is a short film in itself. He finds his way to the Gate of Horn on Dearborn Street to audition for its owner, Bud Grossman (played by Murray Abraham), who is known to be an effective manager of musicians. In an empty club, in sunlight and shadow, Llewyn plays an old folk song, “The Death of Queen Jane” for Grossman. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong song. Grossman says “I don’t see much money in that,” when Llewyn finishes.
The Grossman character, like most of the characters in the film, is patterned after a real person. Albert Grossman, the man who ran the Gate of Horn, managed Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and created and managed the trio Peter, Paul and Mary. At the end of Llewyn’s audition, Grossman tells him he’s forming a trio of two guys and a girl singer. “If you trim that beard to a goatee and stay out of the sun, we could use you,” Grossman tells Llewyn. Llewyn declines the opportunity.
There are many parallels to the quest of other young musicians to gain an audience. Bruce Springsteen spent years playing in small bands and performing on his own before finally getting to audition for John Hammond, the legendary Columbia record producer and civil rights activist. Bruce’s manager, Mike Appel, pressured Hammond to audition Bruce in May 1972 and the result, after Bruce played for Hammond, was a 10-record contract with Columbia. Bruce was lucky; he had a manager who fought for him (even though he and Appel later split in a contentious contract dispute). If he hadn’t, he might have ended up like Llewyn Davis, wandering the streets of New York with his guitar and playing for tips.
In a 1998 interview with MOJO magazine, Springsteen remembered the session: “It was a big, big day for me… I was 22 and came up on the bus with an acoustic guitar with no case… I was embarrassed carrying it around the city. I walked into his office and had the audition, and I played a couple of songs and [Hammond] said, ‘You’ve got to be on Columbia Records.’ – See more here. The audition tracklist and the tapes themselves were part of the Bruce Springsteen exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum that ran from April 2009 thru February 2011. (I visited three times.)
At the very end of the film, after Llewyn leaves the stage at the Gaslight, we see the next performer in shadowy profile—a young Bob Dylan; the song playing is Dylan’s unreleased version of “Farewell” aka “Fare Thee Well,” an 18th century English song that’s played several times in the film. Playing over the credits is Dave Van Ronk himself, singing “Green Green Rocky Road,” which Llewyn sings in the film.
The Coen brothers have created a film that immerses you in 1961 Greenwich Village with their obsessive attention to detail. It’s a good film to just enjoy; you’re sure to find some elements that apply to your life, even though you may disagree with others. There have been many reviews of this film and interviews with its star. Plus Showtime is running an excellent concert film (Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of “Inside llewyn Davis”) with music and performers from the film plus other related music and performers. My favorites in this splendid cast are the Punch Brothers, fronted by Chris Thile, the mandolinist and composer who won a MacArthur Fellowship (the Genius Grant) last year. I’ve had discussions, arguments even, with friends who want to overanalyze the Llewyn Davis character. Or the cat. Don’t do it. As Steve Prokopy says at the end of his Gapers Block review:
“The movie manages to be rough around the edges, yet poignantly elegant. Many audience members may not be familiar with Isaac’s work: he’s been around for a few years in supporting roles. But he rises to the importance of this role, in a way that Davis himself probably never could have. The parallels between the character and the person playing him are not lost, but one is rising to the occasion while the other is frequently buckling under pressure. Inside Llewyn Davis is easily one of the best films you’ll see this year, but it may be difficult to pinpoint why. So don’t try — just let the music, the humor, the look and feel of it all wash over you and take you to a place that feels like another world.
I couldn’t agree more.
Two theater recommendations
The Seafarer is a Christmas play by an Irish playwright. Given that, you know that there may not be a happy ending or a lot of tra-la-la. And there most likely will be consumption of alcohol. I hate stereotypes, but there you are. The Seafarer, by Conor McPherson, is a terrific production by Seanachai Theatre Company at The Den Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue. My Gapers Block review gives all the details. The play is running until January 5. I gave it a “highly recommended” for theatreinchicago.com, as did all the other reviewers.
That website, theatreinchicago.com, is a great resource for theatergoers. It compiles reviews of all current plays on Chicago, along with their ratings. Go to the website and click on Review Roundup in the left-hand column.
An Inspector Calls at Remy Bumppo Theatre seems at first like a smart drawing-room comedy. But J.B. Priestley’s play, written in 1945 for an English audience, soon turns into a tale about the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent. The 1 percent is the Birling family, wealthy through their manufacturing business. The 99 percent is represented by a young working woman who comes to a sad ending through actions, ultimately, taken by all the family members. (That’s a bit of a spoiler, so forget I said it.)
The Remy Bumppo cast is excellent and the production very gripping. Nick Sandys, as the mysterious inspector, plays the role very coolly. Calmly and without bluster, he terrorizes the Birlings in their dining room. Priestley was raised in a socialist family and was a writer of social conscience. As David Darlow says in his director’s note, Priestley “calls out to us to be accountable and responsible for our behavior and actions.” The play runs through January 12 in the upstairs mainstage at the Greenhouse Theater Center on Lincoln Ave.
Linguistic whine. Why can’t theater/theatre companies settle on one spelling, preferably the standard American spelling of theater, rather than the pretentious Anglified theatre. When I’m writing reviews for Gapers Block, it makes me crazy, going back and forth between the spellings, depending on whether I’m naming a theater company that persists in using that spelling (see above) or using the word generically as part of a sentence. Grrrrr.
Art with a message
The Art of Influence: Breaking Criminal Traditions. There’s a very interesting exhibit of art with a message at the IIT Chicago-Kent College of law, 565 W Adams St. I know, that’s an unusual place for an art exhibit, but it works. The exhibit is made up of 38 works in various media by 13 local and regional artists and represents metaphorically — in ways both beautiful and horrifying — the crimes perpetrated on women and girls in countries where those actions are considered part of the culture, rather than crimes. The purpose of the exhibit is to make an impact on those who may be influential in the future to help change the legal processes in those countries. My review for Gapers Block gives all the details and shows four images that illustrate the range of the work.
Films, live and DVDd
Blue Is the Warmest Color, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. This controversial film about a young woman and her older woman lover in Lille, France, is beautifully filmed and to my mind, too long at 3 hours plus. The much-discussed sex scenes are quite beautiful and almost painterly in their composition. Most importantly, the film raises issues of male viewpoint, social class and life choice between the two lovers and their friends and families; those issues are fruitful discussion topics. The film is currently on view at local theaters.
A Constant Forge: The Life and Art of John Cassavetes (DVD). This very thorough documentary of Cassavetes’ work is well worth your time as an illustration of the auteur approach to independent filmmaking. It’s almost 3.5 hours long and no, this film wasn’t too long, although I did watch it in two sittings. It was made in 2000, about 11 years after his death at 59. The doc includes interviews with many of the actors he worked with: his wife Gena Rowland, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Jon Voight and Seymour Cassel. The actors and others talked about his creativity, his honesty, and his lack of concern about making money. Many long film clips and film of scenes during the shooting process really bring Cassavetes’ approach to life.
My favorite Cassavetes quote: A reporter asks him if he’ll ever make a musical. He says he really wants to make only one musical, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. My kind of guy.
Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky. Yes, I said Noam Chomsky. But this is the avuncular linguistics professor, not the radical political activist (though just a hint of that Chomsky shows occasionally). French director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) created this animated documentary from interviews with Chomsky. He animates and illustrates Chomsky’s ideas by scrawling clever cartoons and charts.
The film title is taken from a sentence that Chomsky diagrams near the end of the film to show how children learn to use language.
The film runs at the Gene Siskel Film Center through tomorrow. I’ll watch it again on DVD when it’s available. There are places where I wanted to say, “Wait, let me replay that last bit because I didn’t quite get it.”
My coming attractions for this week
Inside Llewyn Davis. This is the Coen brothers film about the early years of the folk movement in Greenwich Village in the 1950s. It opens here Friday and I’ll be there. In addition to the film, Showtime network has been running a concert with a setlist of some of the music from the film, performed by other musicians. There’s also a Showtime making-of film called Inside Inside Llewyn Davis. And there’s the soundtrack on CD or download. I’ll review this film here soon.
Blood on the Cat’s Neck by Rainer Werner Fassbinder at Trap Door Theatre on Cortland. The always provocative and entertaining Trap Door group has been getting mixed reviews for this play; it’s Jeff recommended, however.
Burning Bluebeard by Jay Torrence presented by The Ruffians at Theater Wit. The play is about the tragic 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago. This is a theater company I have not seen before and I’m looking forward to it.
And finally, I’ve gone another whole week without writing about Bruce Springsteen. But he has a new album coming out in January. You can be sure I’ll make up for my apparent neglect.