Images (1972)

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In Robert Altman’s Images, Susannah York plays a woman named Cathryn who’s married to a man named Hugh (René Auberjonois). Marcel Bozzuffi plays Cathryn’s former lover, René, and Hugh Millais plays Marcel, a friend of the family. Rounding out the film’s central quintet is Marcel’s daughter, Susannah, played by Cathryn Harrison. And so we come full circle: five characters, each one bearing the name of the actor who doesn’t play them. Considerably less thinking, apparently, went into the film’s storyline, an overwrought character study dealing with schizophrenia, paranoia, grand designs and underwhelming dream theatrics. Said study features lots of shock zooms, an utterly unhinged score (courtesy John Williams; it was nominated for an Oscar), and an aggravating telephone that rings off the hook, at least during the film’s opening fifteen minutes. It has that brash, British-sounding ring… Images was shot in Ireland by cinematographer par excellence Vilmos Zsigmond. The film is crammed and then some with other jangling, dangling objects—metallic wind chimes and glassy sun catchers and crystal car hangings draped from rear view mirrors. It’s a pretty noisy affair all told; Stomu Yamash’ta is credited with “Sounds” early on (a better title for the film, perhaps?). But for all its deliberately-crafted sonic motifs and mad mise en scène, Images—a genre departure for Altman even at this early stage of his career—doesn’t amount to much. It’s a jumble of psychological hyperbole despite Susannah (York) winning the Best Actress award at Cannes that year, no doubt for giving the thing her all.


(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

 

Hard to Be a God (2013)

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Trudge, sludge, murk, mire, for three generous arthouse hours. It’s true: Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God goes where few cinematic visions have gone before, or are likely to again. This unique Russian film professes to be a science-fiction parable (based, as it is, on a sci-fi novel by the brothers Strugatsky, whose book Roadside Picnic was the seed for Andrey Tarkovsky’s Stalker), but it feels more like Jabberwocky’s eastern bloc cousin than any trek through some shiny star system, the mucky, muddy parts of Monty Python and the Holy Grail scrutinized, lionized, and revitalized to the Иth degree—call it the Knights Who Say “Nyet!” After a voiced-over preamble we’re quickly plunged, rough and tumble, into the diasporic drudgery: a distant planet, similar to our own but one stubbornly stuck in the Middle Ages, is visited by traveler Anton (Leonid Yarmolnik), posing as a divine dignitary named Don Rumata. His mission: to help the Kingdom of Arkanar’s societal advancement without direct political or cultural intervention. German obsessed over Hard to Be a God for the last 15 years of his life, never quite applying its finishing touches (he died in 2013). The film was completed by his wife and son and premiered at the Rome Film Festival in November of that year to almost universal acclaim (the Russian critics, however, were mixed). There’s something oddly compelling about the single-mindedness of German’s phantasmagoria; Hard to Be a God never feels quite as long as it might (unlike, say, parts of Bela Tarr’s Sátántangó, another dirt-ridden dreamscape that unfolds at a pace a snail might consider leisurely). That’s not to say its 177 minutes exactly fly by, for they don’t. Hard to Be a God is an immersive cinematic experience like no other, a massive, messy slog through fundament—the unaltered, natural features of a world’s surface—measureless (as per Coleridge) to man.


(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Just Mercy (2019)

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Destin Daniel Cretton’s screen adaptation of Bryan Stevenson’s bestseller Just Mercy: a Story of Justice and Redemption is a sobering, by-the-books affair that never quite reaches the heights of greatness to which it aspires. Cretton’s 2013 film Short Term 12, which he wrote and directed, was quiet and small and powerful, and introduced us to Lakeith Stanfield (FX’s Atlanta). Just Mercy doesn’t have the same subtlety despite deft turns from its hard-working and well-cast cast—Michael B. Jordan (as public interest lawyer Stevenson himself), Captain Marvel’s Brie Larson, and (most notably) Jamie Foxx. SAG nominee Foxx is sublime as Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian, the real-life pulpwood worker turned death row inmate whose murder case young defense attorney Stevenson takes on after graduating Harvard Law and relocating to Alabama. Together with local advocate Eva Ansley (Larson, with a convincing drawl) they form the Equal Justice Initiative with the express goal of providing legal representation to prisoners on death row. Their clients, marginalized and abandoned, are often falsely accused and always poorly represented. Just Mercy is a powerful true story of one man’s dogged dedication to The Truth in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds—overt racism, Southern-style hostility, and a broken judicial system bent on ignoring the little, pertinent things in a case, like facts and evidence. This injustice is given proper prominence in the film despite the director’s predictable approach to the material. What’s on trial in Just Mercy is important, even if the overlong and, at times, overly-earnest film itself turns out to be less so.


(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Hustlers (2019)

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Everything about Hustlers feels like a hustle. It’s billed as a heist movie, but it’s really a bad stripper movie, since the “heist” part simply involves our heroes defrauding fat cat Wall Street types—first they drug them, then they max out their credit cards! It’s hardly Rififi. You might also expect to see a lot of Cardi B and Lizzo in the film, since their names are way up there on the marquee alongside those of Jennifer Lopez and Crazy Rich Asians’ Constance Wu, but they’re barely in it (a couple of scenes at best). OK, so what about J-Lo’s much touted Oscar-worthy performance? She’s good, no question about that—and I don’t simply mean in comparison to her co-stars (Wu is awkward and Julia Stiles, who plays the journalist who broke the New York magazine story on which the film is based, even stiffer). But worthy of an Academy Award nomination? I think not. And said Academy thought not too. What about “ferociously funny” (Rolling Stone) then? I suppose that depends on whether you find sad, pathetic, and depressing funny. Hustlers is extremely difficult to watch, most notably during the uncomfortable strip club scenes. But perhaps the ultimate hustle is writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s attempts to get us to celebrate the sisterhood’s questionable morality, as they steal from those who have essentially stolen from them. If I want a nice fleece I’ll go to L.L. Bean thank you very much.


(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Little Women (2019)

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Taking her lead, no doubt, from that young whippersnapper Orson Welles, writer-director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) has wisely waited until her second feature to tackle the classics (no accusations of hubris here if you please!). With Welles it was The Magnificent Ambersons, an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the decline of a wealthy Midwestern family. Gerwig has opted for another family-focused drama dealing with changing fortunes, Louisa May Alcott’s revered Little Women.
     Gerwig’s take on the popular, 1860s down-home adventures of the March sisters—dutiful Meg (Emma Watson), willful Jo (Saoirse Ronan), gentle Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and artistic Amy (Florence Pugh)—is faithful to Alcott’s vision, yes, but it’s also fresh and full of flavor. Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name) is cast as the girls’ handsome neighbor, Laurie (Chris Cooper plays his father with facial hair aplenty), with Laura Dern excellent as Marmee and a low-key Meryl Streep serviceable as the capricious Aunt March.
     Little Women (Gerwig’s film version) flip-flops between the girls’ teen years and young adulthood, a to-and-fro shift of seven years. This proves hard work in the early stages, since little effort is made to age our protagonists. Chalamet, for example, looks identical from one time period to the next, and the only notable change in the sisters is the style—or length—of their hair. But Gerwig, the headliner of such ferocious indies as Maggie’s Plan, Frances Ha, and Damsels in Distress among others, creates such a comforting, easygoing mood, and her performers forge such indelible personas, that this narrative structure becomes less distracting as the film progresses.
     Especially effective in Little Women are the familial scenes from seven years ago in which these formidable young women explore and enjoy their artistic passions, share domestic intimacies, and celebrate the bonds of family. Gerwig supports all this on the production end with some subtle stylings—overlapping dialogue (successfully), a little slo-mo (less so), etc. Nicely blending everything together is Yorick Le Saux’s sumptuous photography and it’s exactly that: sumptuous.
     Another thing’s for sure: the giddy gaggle that is the mad March clan are an easy lot to love. Both Ronan and Pugh (the latter from last midsummer’s Midsommar) received Academy Award nominations for their fine work in the film; Little Women also picked up Oscar nods for Best Picture, Score (Alexandre Desplat), Costume Design (Jacqueline Durran), and Adapted Screenplay. The last of these Gerwig had better win, if there’s any justice, since she was criminally overlooked in the Best Director category, as were many extraordinary filmmakers and performers, apparently for not being white-male enough—I’ll be skipping the awards ceremony this year.
     But back to Gerwig. It takes a lot of guts (and canny confidence?) to adapt a beloved classic for your sophomore directing effort, especially one that has seen so many successful variants on both the big and small screens over the years (all the way back to 1917 it would appear). Fans of Little Women should not be concerned, however. Gerwig and her fine cast and crew have made a timeless tale even more timely.


(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

All is Bright (2013)

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“Get over here and smell some memories.”
     Phil Morrison doesn’t make many movies. His last one, 2005’s Junebug (which was also his first one), was a quirky, oddball affair that featured a breakout performance by Amy Adams. That little indie was very well-received, so it seems odd that writer-director Morrison should have waited a full eight years to deliver up All is Bright (which appears to have started out life called Almost Christmas).
     The film is almost as quirky as Junebug but with fewer of its obvious charms. This time around, the enjoyment is in watching its stars Paul Giamatti, Paul Rudd, and Sally Hawkins interact. All is Bright is another downbeat ode to humanity, and once again Morrison delivers.
     Giamatti stars as Dennis, recently paroled from a Quebec prison after serving four years for breaking and entering. Upon his release, he slogs home on foot only to find that his estranged wife Therese and daughter Michi have moved on—Therese has actually told her daughter that Dennis is dead. And, to add insult to insult to injury, Therese has shacked up with Dennis’s ex-partner in crime, Rene (Rudd), who plans to marry her. Despite his “death,” Dennis wants to do right by his daughter regardless, buy her a Christmas present at least, but when he consults his parole officer about a job, he’s met with a discouraging “Good luck. Terrible economy.”
     Vowing to go straight, but struggling every step of the way, Dennis bullies Rene into letting him tag along on a gig selling Christmas trees in New York City. Hawkins is on hand as a quirky Russian housekeeper to a pair of rich dentists we never see (the star of The Shape of Water seems to be having a lot of fun with the funny accent). Surprisingly (or not), Olga takes a shine to the woebegone and sticky-fingered Dennis.
     Nothing much happens in All is Bright; Dennis and Rene bicker and fight and bicker some more, with Melissa James Gibson’s tight script giving Giamatti and Rudd consistent opportunities to shine. The humor is downplayed—All is Bright is not the rollicking holiday comedy the trailer would have you believe—but our two leads are such compelling character actors I could watch them for days.
     Yes, even selling Christmas trees on a street corner in Brooklyn when it’s five below.


(c) 2019 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

The Dawn Wall (2018)

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Watching The Dawn Wall, a jaw-dropping, sweaty-palmed documentary about a pair of death-wish mountaineers attempting to free climb the unscaled face of Yosemite’s monstrous El Capitan, I kept thinking about Ginger Rogers. In the inimitable words of Bob Thaves, “Don’t forget Ginger Rogers did everything he [Fred Astaire] did backwards… and in high heels.”
     Every crazy, nutzoid, life-threatening, and unthinkable stunt American rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson perform in The Dawn Wall, Director of Photography Brett Lowell and Principal Cinematographers Corey Rich and Kyle Berkompas had to capture on film. And they had to capture it suspended from a 10mm rope 1,000 feet above the ground, often in the battery-draining cold under a black sky with harnesses digging into their legs. And all while holding a camera, keeping their subjects in focus and in frame and, most importantly, not falling off the side of a 3,000-foot mountain. In that regard, this towering achievement is as much about the filmmakers as it is about Caldwell and Jorgeson… and everyone else who contributed to getting that final, white-knuckled footage in the can.
     With these wildly impressive technical challenges to overcome, The Dawn Wall would be a fascinating film if it was just about this one 19-day climb. But it’s much more than that.
     We learn about Tommy’s obsessions from an early age (his Dad was a climber and pushed his son to succeed; perhaps too far?), his harrowing capture by—and subsequent escape from—Kyrgyzstan rebels at the age of 22, the breakdown of his first marriage (to a fellow climber and hostage), and his subsequent need to find a replacement climbing partner when everyone thought he was mad to even attempt El Cap’s Dawn Wall. We’re told how Tommy and rookie recruit Kevin spent six years planning their ascent, climbing down the mountain to scout and document the best possible route up it. And how, just before their shot at the “impossible,” Tommy lost an index finger in a freak accident (free climbers being rather dependent on their digits, unfortunately).
     Sure, The Dawn Wall is all about the power of the human spirit, strength in the (rock) face of adversity, unfettered perseverance, belief in oneself, and—logistically—the potentially dream-shattering Pitch 13 (of 32), that section of the ascent with the highest degree of difficulty (not that any of them were easy). Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer’s film throws all those clichés at the ’Wall yet manages to make them all stick.
     This is compelling cinematic drama, breathtakingly filmed, often spilling over with real human emotion—heartbreak, euphoria, pain and suffering. The two men spent weeks on that mountain, as an entourage of family members, salivating media types, and general well-wishers gathered below. And you’ll be rooting for them too.
     I watched this film on a 9-inch screen on an airplane with questionable sound quality and I couldn’t look away. I can only imagine how The Dawn Wall would play—how it would feel—in a proper movie theater. It’s the best mountaineering film since Joe Simpson and Simon Yates first touched the void in 2004, and a pretty awesome film experience, period.


(c) 2019 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com