Let it not be said that I only have critical and ambivalent in my repertoire. There were 3 movies I liked so far (Dallas Buyers Club falls into my just okay category, though Jared Leto was FAB). Here’s what I have to say about them:
Enough Said: The star of Enough Said is writer/director Nicole Holofcener. I don’t mean that the actors weren’t good. But Nicole Holofcener is that rare voice in contemporary film-making: female-centered, blindingly intelligent, razing open the field of perception with attention to the details of ordinary lives and relationships.
The history of women-centered work contains within it these factors–the women are foregrounded instead of left in the background of men’s lives, domestic life is more the focus than the grand sweep of war, espionage, finance, etc., and sharp observation of relationships takes the place of more traditional plot builds with big dramatic events. Think Pride and Prejudice vs. War and Peace. Jane Austen, confined by her sex to the experience and observation of the lives around her, found within the details of those lives all the moral and spiritual questions that human beings face. And she told her stories with wit.
The highest praise I can give Nicole Holofcener is to say that she is the Jane Austen of contemporary film-making. Her work focuses very much on daily life, on relationships and intimacy–and make no mistake, her work contains real violence, though her violence reveals itself through words and decisions instead of guns and bombs. What I love is that you can hear the audience moan and cringe as characters betray themselves and each other–she makes it that poignant and painful.
Enough Said is the story of Eva, a massage therapist and divorcee, who meets a man she actually likes. Almost anything I say beyond that is a spoiler, so suffice it to say that the revelation and connection, the wit, the betrayals, the insight into criticism as violence and fear as the sabotager of love forces all of us to look at ourselves. Julia Louise Dreyfus surprises with the best work I’ve ever seen her do, Catherine Keener is…well, Catherine Keener (she’s in every single one of Holofcener’s films), and James Gandolfini is charming and sweet–he’s my type (personally and romantically) and a Meisner actor so I was in love with him already and am sad that he can’t show us ourselves any longer.
The writing and directing are excellent from start to finish, and while none of the performances are perfect, the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts. This is the smartest movie out this season–like Jane Austen, a combination of insight, wit, and heartbreak. A+++.
Philomena: Here, I will start with acting. Judi Dench is my favorite actress. Period. I fantasize about writing a script for her and casting myself so I can sit across from her for one minute. I’m jealous that Steve Coogan actually got to do that.
Dame Judi Dench’s acting in Philomena stands out as fully human. Now, I didn’t think her Irish accent was impeccable, especially in the beginning of the film. And, looking back, I spent some time confused about her origins in general. (Mind you, I saw the film with a friend of mine from Ireland, and he said, “As a native speaker, I have to say that the accent mistakes were few, and the work she did to be physically smaller, with the gestures of an Irish woman of that generation, were perfect.” He also said he’d be willing to, “Watch that woman fold her underwear,” so I think he might love Judi Dench even more than I do if that’s possible. I was more critical.)
Anyhow, I think character work, as defined as taking on the accent, physicality and gestures of someone of a certain ethnicity or social background, is tougher than people think. As the film went on, I believed more and more in Judi Dench’s choices, and in her Irishness. What I love is that she knows how to inhabit a character in a way that is calibrated–she doesn’t expect the mannerisms and accent to do the work for her, she doesn’t appear to be thinking about them (as, this season, Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep did). She does just enough, and her ability to be fully human never falters. I was silently screaming for the bad to not happen because I was so on her side in Philomena, my heart broke with her, and I could feel, from the screen, her suffering…and I joined it, because I couldn’t not. I can’t tell you how rare I find this to be, and how, finding it, how little I’m willing to settle for anything else.
Of course, the movie itself, the writing especially, fell short of Nicole Holofcener’s kind of insight. I have to question whether this is intrinsic to the creation of the bio-pic. I just never accepted Philomena’s forgiveness or practice of the religion that had harmed her–I never accepted the world view of the movie. I find this to be true in bio-pics, especially if the subject is 1) still alive or 2) beloved and famous. I occasionally fell out of the movie saying, “Come on! People just aren’t like that!” And whether it’s the fault of the genre or the writing itself, which could, I would argue, have convinced me if it was better done, the fact remains that I fell out of the movie. Can’t blame Judi Dench–it was the words, not her delivery, that made me fall out.
Still, I spent much more time fully engaged than outside the story thinking about its lack of understanding of human reactions. And Steve Coogan was smart enough to strongly develop the polarized points-of-view about forgiveness, letting go and injustice, and then bring them together, so that I couldn’t and didn’t want to write off the movie as a whole. Irish nuns, unwed mothers, a search for family…it’s great stuff for a story, and the movie came so close to making sense of a big human question. Since I have a personal interest in the nature of forgiveness–which I still regularly seek to understand–I wish it had said more, but it was very, very good. A-.
American Hustle: Here’s the scoop on American Hustle–fantastic ensemble, standout performances by Christian Bale (he’s one of the best alive) and Amy Adams, interesting and multi-layered conflicts, a strong female lead in a story about con men, FBI, politicians and the mob–what’s not to like? This movie keeps you on the edge of your seat, and there are points in which you truly have no idea how anything is going to resolve–it could go one of many ways. Perhaps that’s the rarest experience with American Hustle–that someone like me, who can sit in a movie and state, out loud, where the story is at in the screenplay format (plot point 1, pinch point 2), became so engrossed all I could think was, “Where is this going?”
So perhaps the star here is David O. Russell, who takes the crime genre somewhere new and original, and even includes some of the detailed emotional violence that Nicole Holofcener describes (in a very different world). The psychological assault implicit in the cons, the lies, the betrayals and the stupidity, makes the story and characters relatable even while the world is over the top. I love David O. Russell’s vision in general–it’s psychologically dark, and very contemporary–always aware of mental illness and fragility in a modern way, always understanding the power of love to save us, always understanding how we want to take revenge when those we love hurt us. I like him best when he’s inside the screwed up ways people relate and dislike him most when he ends his dark movies happily and betrays his own stories (I loved Silver Linings Playbook except for the stupid dance contest and how that ends the movie). In American Hustle the film-making and shots, the style of the acting, go fully frantic (like the sports fanaticism in Silver Linings Playbook), ramping up the pace, the stakes and the excitement to a mad sort of suspense. The ending this time is mixed–good people suffer and other people go free. I have referenced this movie over and over in my other blogs because I found it to be artistically impressive and innovative. I hope David O. Russell stays true to his own vision, because like Nicole Holofcener, he has a strong point-of-view and real insight into human relationships. A++.