Locke (2014)

So I’m not entirely sure, but I think the moral of the story is that when you have an affair, make sure to leave your mistress alone and scared in the maternity ward and continue lying to your wife. Sure, one might say the moral is fidelity, but infidelity is in large measure biological, while reactions to infidelity are social constructions, in a purely literal sense, the wife’s insistence on the traditional all or nothing approach to monogamy is the wrecking ball here.

Thankfully, this film is metaphor rather than a dubious morality tale. Whether you think the metaphor is too forceful or not, it is not incidental that Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is a construction site manager. As he at one point stresses, even one slight deviation in a skyscraper’s foundation can be catastrophic. The film, more or less in real time as Locke drives to London, balancing family, mistress and business over the cell phone, is an act of watching his life crumble due to cracks in his foundation.

As a basic concept, this is a powerful one, because it is really true of life that momentary lapses of judgement, or often even things out of one’s control (as some of Locke’s challenges here prove to be), can fundamentally alter the path of one’s life in irreconcilable ways. Key the the story’s effectiveness is that once you take his sexual indiscretion as a given, he’s trying to be a stand-up guy, being there for his imminent child even though he has no affection for the mother. It is his noble effort at least as much as his potential vice that destroys him.

In terms of effectiveness though, I did feel held back by a couple things. Hardy’s accent here just has a certain off aspect to it. While the phone conversations mostly work as the structure of the dialogue, a few scenes where Locke vocalizes comments to his father, who we learn was never there for him, fail pretty badly. I get the importance of his father as driving his own need to make this choice to drive to London, and driving his own insecurities, but the execution of these scenes just feels out of place and I do feel like the possible suggestion that his father’s absence is the crack in his foundation is a bit traditionalistic. Ultimately Hardy does pull off an engaging enough performance that combined with the basic ideas makes it a worthwhile film, but it doesn’t really pull things together just right to be more than that.

B-

Boyhood (2014)

When Boyhood started filming early in the 21st Century, I was almost exactly the age that Mason is when this film ends. Watching Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) grow from childhood into early adulthood, during an era of my own adulthood, serves as a strong reminder of how old I am, far more than a film using multiple actors to display progression over such a span would. Techniques like using hit songs from various years (as this film does) are nice steps to show progression, but there really is no substitute for showing the passage of time than showing the passage of time, as worn on the faces of both children going through adolescence but parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) passing from relatively early adulthood into solidly middle-aged.

Even as the film begins, we know we are watching a broken family and this journey is one of a certain degree of economic and emotional instability, with the Great Recession feeling a perfect thematic complement, though no doubt it shaped the direction the story went. It is a story with some very challenging dramatic moments, but leaves some of the biggest or heaviest just off screen. Yet it has a certain idealism about it as well, both in a certain “it takes a village” attitude, and especially the way certain rites of passage for Mason seem much more meaningful within his life than at least within my own. It is a film that manages an amazing humanistic naturalism but also has a certain aura of cinematic remove.

I suppose this is Linklater’s trademark. The Before Sunrise trilogy similarly hits moments of great, subtle realism wrapped up in something a bit too perfect to be reality. Films like Slacker and Waking Life are a bit too philosophically verbose or coherent to pass as real discussion, and a bit of that voice finds its way into the mouths of the characters in Boyhood. This might sound like a complaint, but it isn’t. True realism is likely to be boring, too painful, or thematically random. Linklater’s skill at polishing just the right places to shape story while largely leaving the essence of reality is what distinguishes him as a director and makes Boyhood stand right alongside the Before trilogy as definitive films.

A

Viridiana (1961)

This is a challenging film, and I can’t claim a partiality for being challenged, preferring to feel inspired by articulate clarity. Still, whereas Under The Skin is a film that provoked too little (I do think that is a film I’ll have to go back to), Viridiana provoked quite a bit, but the pieces don’t go together snugly.

The first half, where Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) visits her uncle and benefactor Don Jaime (Fernando Rey), seems like a pretty clear condemnation of the Catholic Church and probably Franco Spain’s patriarchy. When Viridiana subsequently takes up the mission of direct service to those in need, it seems to be an act castigating organized Christianity for its failure to remain committed to the true purpose. This is all very interesting but the turn taken in the second half leaves me unsettled, both in interpretation and in part because the second half gets a bit anarchic and disrupts my desire for order. Is this chaos a warning of what would happen if Franco were to lose power? This kind of pro-authoritarian statement hardly seems the kind that Bunuel would make. Alternatively, maybe it is casting further doubt on the entire notion of self-sacrifice or even charity. An ending that hints at the sexual revolution of the late 60s and perhaps a rise of hedonistic approaches may well confirm this. It makes for a coherent through-line, though a somewhat depressing one that makes me feel less engaged.

As a film to spark discussion (and I hope we get a couple people watching this month such that we might get a spoiler thread going) it is quite well enough. It does feel a bit like a film where the discussion is more rewarding than the actual film. Even as I was intrigued by the ideas I wasn’t actually that invested in the story or the characters and didn’t feel in awe of the filmmaking in any notable way. This fits into a type of viewing of which I’m certainly appreciative, but not something that would lodge the film among those I champion myself.

B

It Felt Like Love (2013)

There is nothing more lonely than being the third wheel (or relevant odd number to a group of couples). Even if you aren’t otherwise love hungry, just being surrounded by their little romantic gestures is enough to throw one’s mood out of whack. Add to that the pressure of adolescence, with its keen need to fit into an identity, and the feeling that others are going places you aren’t makes it that much more isolating. Let’s just say that this isn’t the most rational state of mind and for LIla (Gina Piersanti), it leads to pursuits that aren’t exactly the most healthy or nurturing.

This is a decidedly small film but it is well measured. I liked one set of scenes involving Lila and her friend Chiara’s dance practice. Even here Lila seems slightly out of place amid three other girls who seem older and just have a more sensuous movement. It matches a bit with her attempts at sexuality…her approach is based on imitation rather than any passion (even the naive, idealistic passion of youth). This is just one of many nice moments and Piersanti is strong here in the kind of performance Carey Mulligan (to whom I feel she bears a bit of a resemblance) might give…bordering on too understated, though in a way that didn’t irk me as Mulligan has from time to time..

B

Big Night (1996)

This movie is a real bastard. All this time building up this grand multi-course meal, and you don’t even get to try it. This stuff isn’t even on the menu at Olive Garden. Instead, it tempts you with something you have no real possibility of attaining. It is anti-Buddhism. I have a pretty successful history with food-centric film, from Babette’s Feast to Supermarket Woman. Narrative that makes my mouth water seems to appeal, even if Still Walking’s sweet corn tempura is served at no Japanese restaurants I’ve been to, and my own version falls impossibly short of what I imagine the dish’s potential to be.

The strength of Big Night is in its beginning and end, with the middle largely serving the purpose of bridging the two. The opening, of which I could have taken so much more, takes a shot at American tastes, intellectually craving foreign or exotic, but not prepared for deviations from a fairly basic standard. This is all great fun, except the restaurant run by Secondo (Stanley Tucci) and Primo (Tony Shalhoub) is on its last legs because they haven’t been willing to pander to the market. It suggests the great debate over arthouse versus blockbuster cinema or any other cultural concern about crass market forces against aesthetic rigor.

Through a bunch of plot that isn’t that important, they get set for a all or nothing night and they pull out all the stops. The final act is another I could have spent more time with, luxuriating on each and every course. As it is, the film engages in a couple but then turns to montage in order to get to a resolution, a final scene that is pretty much perfect following any big night…shared silence over some nice, quick grub; a mutual exhaustion.

Pity that middle bit.

B+

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Having endured a deluge of comic book films at this point, I have developed a few filtering measures up front, minimum threshold for feeling like they’ve managed alright. First, given the inevitable peril in these stories, is that the film needs to handle the toll to those not actively in the fight with dignity. In GotG’s climactic battle, this is accomplished first by selling the terror through the eyes of those at risk, importantly remembering that perspective, and then by showing that our heroes care about this. The second issue is treatment of female characters. GotG does pass the Bechdel Test, marginally (on account of limited interaction between female characters, with one underdeveloped exception), but aside from the presence of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) in the Guardians, the presence of Nova Prime (Glenn Close) as seemingly the highest political leader in the world, is a casual forwarding of the role of women. Hers isn’t a particularly developed character (aside from Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), this isn’t a film all that concerned with character development) but that is the kind of role that is too often assumed as male.

Beyond meeting these basic standards, there is fun to be had from this group of misfits who kind of stumble into their titular role as heroes. I do feel like the film can be a bit too carefree, leaving it without quite as much bite. The central conflict between Kree extremist Ronan and the world of Xander is minimally explained, some kind of revenge over a past wrong, though Ronan’s compatriots have since agreed to a peace treaty. I better film would have made this conflict mean something, make it a metaphor relevant to the real world. Layered on top of this are some personal vendettas, Gamora and Drax, and simple financial opportunism for Quill and Rocket (Bradley Cooper).

I don’t really mean to imply that this film needed to be more serious and artsy. Being frothy fun is perfectly viable, especially in a summer blockbuster. In fact, the film was at its best when it was fully engaging in the fun spirit. It feels hampered in part by the tonal mismatch of the heavier moments or the larger stakes. They don’t feel well executed to work in their own right and instead just get in the way of the fun.

B-

The Immigrant (2013)

Perhaps it is projecting too much to want this film, focused on two sisters immigrating from Poland in the aftermath of WWI, to speak to our current immigration situation, as a way of saying how the issues have largely been the same through our history. This is not that film. That Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and Magda are in essence refugees from violence in their homeland relates well enough to those presently trying to come from places like Somalia or Central America. But the terror of where they are from is not really a focus. Nor is the focus on some kind of “American Dream” quest to improve one’s station.

Instead, the common theme here is survival, and the moral or legal corners one cuts in the name of survival, especially when so few (the government or family included) are available to help. It is true that for many emigrating from their native country is an act of survival, and their willingness to cheat the immigration laws follows from that. The law may not show great flexibility in forgiving a thief who acts to avoid starvation rather than one that steals for greed (given the track record on enforcing white collar crime, the inverse may be true), but as humans we should be capable of that.

Aside from its lack of sociopolitical relevance (again, more by design than neglect), I do feel like between this and Two Lovers, Gray shows a somewhat weak hand on plotting. The conflict between Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) and Emil (Jeremy Renner) never quite sets up the way it needs to, and Ewa feels too sidelined at those times, to the detriment of the film. I’m also a bit conflicted over Bruno’s revelation near the end as it makes the whole thing feel a bit over-determined. Gray undoubtedly has a good visual style, and gets decent performances, but even though this represents a step forward from Two Lovers, it remains kind of middling fare.

B-

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