Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)

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Who would win in a fight: tough guy Tom Hardy, who played Mad Max, the masked militant Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, and Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the notorious British twin gangsters of the swinging sixties… or Thomas Hardy, the beloved English novelist who penned the likes of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Jude the Obscure?
     The question, it turns out, is largely academic, since (Tom) Hardy doesn’t appear in Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Vinterberg’s moneyed update of (Thomas) Hardy’s classic tale of headstrong beauty Bathsheba Everdene simultaneously juggling three disparate suitors.
     That surname is unfortunate, of course, since nowadays we immediately jump to The Hunger Games conclusion, despite the slightly different spelling of (Katniss) Everdeen and Bathsheba’s much longer history as a powerful female literary icon. That said, it’s not hard to imagine Hardy’s heroine brandishing a bow and arrow, hungering to survive. She does like to do things her way, no doubt about it—”It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in a language chiefly made by men to express theirs.”
     Adaptations of the much-lauded Hardy tend to be “handsomely mounted” affairs by nature, and Vinterberg’s film is no exception. It stars Shame‘s Carey Mulligan as the fiercely independent Bathsheba, with Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone) as her steadfast sheep herder Gabriel Oak, Michael Sheen (The Queen) as the neighborly and persistent middle-aged bachelor William Boldwood, and Tom Sturridge (Pirate Radio) as the swarthy Sergeant Francis Troy. Before the hour is up, Bashsheba has been proposed to twice and felt up in a ferny grotto once. Those latter attentions come bundled with an impromptu haircut as part of a bizarre mating ritual by the dashing, duplicitous Troy.
     Far from the Madding Crowd is storytelling on a grand scale and this new translation is generously faithful to the book, although Troy’s back story, in which he’s unwittingly jilted at the altar by his fiancée Fanny Robbin (Juno Temple), is a lot sketchier. The film also looks great, with all the gathering storms, swaying cornfields, and spectacular sunsets you’d expect to find in 1870s Dorset. No disrespect to the S-Men (Schoenaerts, Sheen, and Sturridge, all of whom handle themselves admirably when presented with Mulligan’s deftly proffered cold shoulder), but I could quite easily imagine Tom Hardy playing any one of their roles, perhaps even all three! In fact, he’s such a chameleon I bet he could pull off a pretty decent Bathsheba too.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Gored (2015)

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Gored is Ido Mizrahy’s disquieting documentary about Antonio Barrera, the most gored matador in modern history. Barrera has been “pierce[d] with a horn or tusk” a total of twenty-three times; eighteen of those witnessed by his wife (an ashen woman seated in the stands, expecting each day’s bullfight to be her husband’s last). That’s twenty-three times this particular toreador has been pierced with a horn of an angry, 500-pound bull, in the stomach or in the groin, lifted clear off the ground and tossed into the air like a ragdoll, stamped, kicked, and trampled upon before being left for dead. For most, once would be one time too many. Twenty-three times sounds like a death wish.
     Mizrahy’s film opens in Leon, Mexico on December 12, 2012. “This was his final performance” announces a foreboding subtitle. That setup contributes significantly to the film’s uneasy vibe if you don’t already know the ending (I didn’t), but the director ups the discomfort level by sparing us few examples of Barrera’s bovine run-ins through unsettling archival footage.
     Barrera’s father couldn’t cut it as a bullfighter, so he ushered his son into the bullring at an early age in order to vicariously play out his own dashed dream. Yet Barrera defends his father’s actions: “My father never told me: Let yourself be killed. I learned that on my own, to let myself die in the bullring.”
     Barrera forged his craft in Mexico, but the lust for fame and prestige drew him to Spain’s bullfighting capital. While lacking the aesthetic grace of the Andalusian matadors, he more than made up for it by taking courageous, or perhaps ridiculous, risks. To be a star, one must eventually fight the terrifying El Alamo bulls, which are unusually large, with huge horns, and the inexperienced Barrera’s first encounter with one leaves him close to death, his femoral artery severed.
     “Every time my heart beat, my blood splattered onto my face. And I realized I couldn’t get up. When they carried me to the infirmary, everyone was really nervous, but I was very relaxed. When it comes this way… when you’re bleeding to death… You die… peacefully… A peaceful death. A death… that’s beautiful.”
     Time and again we see Barrera brutalized by a bull in the ring and rushed to receive medical attention, only to return, bloodied and emboldened, to finish the job.
     Is bullfighting a sport, or a religion? Are matadors insanely brave, or merely insane? Where does this controversial and arguably barbaric practice sit with modern generations? Gored touches on these questions, but never attempts to answer them, choosing instead to focus on the man and his own murky motivations. I don’t get bullfighting myself and I’m none the wiser after watching Gored (and that’s not a slight to Mizrahy’s finely-honed documentarian skills). I do get one thing though: witnessing Antonio Barrera putting in a day’s work is not unlike watching Grizzly Man‘s Timothy Treadwell hunkering down with his bears.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Serena (2014)

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Bradley and Jennifer
sitting in a tree,
K-I-S-S-I-N-G.
     Serena must have looked like a can’t-lose proposition by the time director Susanne Bier’s cameras first started rolling in the Czech Republic (doubling for North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains) circa 2012. This Depression-laden 1929 lumber drama stars Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, both of whom had been nominated for their lead performances in Silver Linings Playbook earlier that year (Lawrence took home the coveted award). They would be nominated again for their supporting performances in American Hustle the following year—talk about your red-hot property values!
     Bier, who occasionally makes movies in America (Things We Lost in the Fire) in addition to her native Denmark, is no slouch when it comes to emotionally-ravaged human dramas—her films Open Hearts, Brothers, and After the Wedding are all exceptional.
     So what the heck happened with Serena?
     For one thing, Bier does not have her regular screenwriter, Anders Thomas Jensen, on hand to help handle the gravitas; Serena‘s screenplay is by Christopher Kyle, based on Ron Rash’s book—the previously-quoted playground song would have admirably sufficed as source material if you ask me. And unlike her other films, Serena is also a period piece, so the costumes and the props and the overall look of the film must have distracted Bier from the task at hand, i.e., telling a compelling story with more than capable performers.
     Cooper plays George Pemberton, a logger baron who falls hard for Lawrence’s mysterious Serena Shaw. So hard, in fact, that the second words out of his mouth are “I think we should be married.” Serena, “beautiful, wounded, mad for trees,” has ties to the logging industry herself: her Colorado family perished in a timber camp fire. George and Serena make a profitable go of it until an indiscretion from Pemberton’s past serves to drive a wedge between the hopelessly romantic newlyweds.
     Try as it might, the film never rises above its paper-thin conceit of Brad and Jen in a period timber drama. While the scenery is often lovely to look at, especially the way the mist rolls in off those faux North Carolina hills, our leads appear oddly out of place, as if they’d just struggled through the mud from Hair-and-Makeup, had their wardrobes adjusted, and been bundled onto the set. Explain how else they could look so immaculate amongst all that wood and industry. The dialogue is lacking, the chemistry is lacking, the whole raison d’être is lacking. There’s no fizz, no emotional edge, just standard situations populated by pretty people going through the motions. This might be part of the reason why the film sat on the shelf for two years, despite the presence of its bankable stars.
     When Rhys Ifans doing a Carolina accent is the best thing in your movie, you know you’ve got a clunker on your hands.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Durant’s Never Closes (2016)

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Jack Durant was a Phoenix restaurateur who opened his namesake eatery in 1950. It had a fancy awning over the front door like you see on those foofy Manhattan apartment buildings, and served exquisite, melt-in-the-mouth steaks. It never closed.
     Married five times, Durant was an irascible ladies’ man with likely ties to organized crime whose life story was first chronicled in a book (by Mabel Leo), then a play (by Terry Earp), and now a film (by Travis Mills). Unfortunately, the intrigues of his colorful life receive little more than lip service in the third of these translations, Durant’s Never Closes.
     Jack, sizably played by a ruddy-faced Tom Sizemore, is a foul-mouthed obnoxious brute who takes more pride evicting customers from his establishment than he does in serving them a memorable meal. Throughout the film, Jack mostly sits at the end of the bar quaffing beers and trading barbs with his regulars. His tirades are wanting, neither noteworthy nor Mamet-esque—Jack simply reacts, deflects heckles, or makes inane small talk. The closest we come to seeing any actual food, heaven forbid, is when our prickly proprietor opens a Styrofoam container and pecks at the contents a little before a patron distracts him.
     Always a best man, never a groom (to coin a phrase), Sizemore has long deserved a juicy leading role, having more than paid his dues with literally hundreds of strong supporting performances over the years, often playing sweaty-necked grunts (Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down) or flat-headed Mafiosi (Enemy of the State, Witness to the Mob). But Jack Durant isn’t that role, at least not as written here.
     Over the film’s end credits we’re treated to what appear to be “real” people reminiscing about the real Jack Durant. These individuals seem genuinely enamored of the big lug, yet their stories are embarrassingly trite—”…he came at a guy with a cleaver,” “…even though he knew my real name he always called me Kid,” “…he backed his car into a water heater and blamed his dog.”
     That dog, a slobbery English bulldog called Humble, was named heir to its owner’s house and most of his worldly goods when Durant died in 1987. It’s too bad we have to suffer through some eighty minutes of vapidity before learning that intriguing tidbit—Tom Fitzpatrick’s 1989 Phoenix New Times article is eminently more fascinating, and will take up considerably less of your time. Maybe a documentary about Durant’s dog would have been a wiser choice for writer/director Mills, for by the time his film has reached its ignominious conclusion, one thing remains as clear as the steakhouse crystal: it’s time to close the book on Jack Durant.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Good Morning Karachi (2013)

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Against the backdrop of Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s re-election campaign and assassination in 2007, a headstrong young woman (played by Amna Ilyas) strives to build an independent life by entering the workforce in Good Morning Karachi, the new film from Sabiha Sumar (Silent Waters).
     Rafina (Ilyas) lives life simply under the watchful eye of a raven-haired beauty on a huge billboard that dominates the view from her window. It’s a constant reminder of the wealth and social status that Rafina can only dream of—her mother insists she be married, to the very traditional political activist Asif (Yasir Aqueel), that being a wife is the only work a woman needs.
     But Rafina is resolute, badgering her older neighbor Rosie Khala (Beo Raana Zafar) into taking her to work with her, to the exclusive salon Radiance, where Rosie Khala paints the nails of Karachi’s movers and shakers. Functioning initially as the busy salon’s girl Friday, Rafina catches the eye of a client seeking a fresh face—the look of “enlightened innocence”—to help sell his ichai tea… and a star is born.
     It’s no surprise that Rafina gets noticed, of course. Ilyas is herself a supermodel with an arresting gaze and little effort is made to drab down her stunning good looks.
     On paper, the film’s plot is delicately simplistic, even corny, but as crafted by Sumar—who studied filmmaking and political science at Sarah Lawrence University and has built a reputation for barbed social commentary, especially surrounding women’s issues—Good Morning Karachi grabs hold, with Ilyas’s confident performance the driving force. We also get a rare look at Pakistan in all its colorful, volatile glory, with the local radio station (from which the film’s title originates) keeping us appraised of the daily political unrest.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

The Man in the Orange Jacket (2014)

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Who is the man in the orange jacket? A disgruntled dockworker with a tool caddy of brutal-looking hardware? A simple psycho killer, qu’est-ce que c’est? Or perhaps a flashback, a vision, or a doppelganger? I slowly began to imagine that maybe he was simply a recurring case of mistaken identity. All of these suggestions feel plausible in Aik Karapetian’s economic horror puzzle The Man in the Orange Jacket, which revels in its own obtuseness as an appropriately-attired male exacts bloody revenge. His victim is the affluent harbor board official responsible for several hundred layoffs; the businessman’s wife is more or less collateral damage in this art house home invasion thriller.
     Post-rampage, the orange-jacketed man subsumes his victims’ opulent lifestyle, and then watches blindly as history repeats itself. Or does it? He does a poor job of combing the house for extra tenants, that’s for sure.
     At barely 71 minutes, this Latvian film—which won the Jury Prize for Best Director at last year’s Fantastic Cinema Fest—is short by feature-length standards. But through sparing use of dialogue and stark cinematography, it quickly establishes a grim, gray mood brimming with bitter despair. Without a doubt, The Man in the Orange Jacket raises more questions than it answers, but genre lovers will get off on the film’s uncompromising approach (graphic gore, with just a hint of necrophilia, perhaps?) as much as the intelligentsia will appreciate its blurred themes of class and capitalism (the niceties of food, fine wine, and female company prove nothing but dust in the mouth).
     There’s some interesting stuff here, but Karapetian would have done well to extend the piece by twenty minutes or so, eliminating some of the rampant ambiguity that peppers this intriguing hack job.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2008)

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A few years before they hit Oscar gold with the anachronistic silent movie The Artist in 2011, director Michel Hazanavicius and star Jean Dujardin made a couple of smooth spy spoofs based on the novels by Jean Bruce. Bruce wrote some ninety-odd straight-laced espionage sagas featuring secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, codename OSS 117, and Dujardin sends him up deliciously in 2008’s OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, returning a couple of years later for OSS 117: Lost in Rio. In ‘Nest of Spies, OSS 117 is dispatched to Egypt, posing as the owner of a chicken factory, to investigate the death of a fellow agent. The dashing Dujardin mugs his way through the film with aplomb, more Inspector Clouseau than James Bond, and he’s joined by Berenice Bojo (Hazanavicius’s wife; she co-starred with Dujardin in The Artist) as unimpressed aide Larmina El Akmar Betouche. OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies is sublimely silly and inoffensive, which is impressive given the political incorrectness of our hero. Scriptwriters Hazanavicius and Jean Francois Halin deserve a lot of the credit; there are sight gags (“business time” in a hotel room) and flashbacks (paddleball on the beach) and double-takes (every time Hubert enters a room) that work marvelously, and for every gag that falls flat (unless you’re French I daresay) there are at least two immediately following to make up for it. This is fun, gleeful entertainment and I’ll be heading to ‘Rio the first chance I get.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com