Category Archives: Reviews

Tomboy

Review: Tomboy

[Rating:3.5/5]

[Tomboy opens in limited release in the US this week, so I’m reposting and expanding my LAFF review; x-posted from Row Three]

Moving into a new neighborhood means new kids to play with, and a chance for ten-year-old tomboy Laure (already androgynous with cropped hair, tank top, and shorts) to pretend to be a boy with her new friends. Introducing herself as Mikael, she passes quite well, playing sports with the boys and hanging out with new friend Lisa in a perhaps more than friendly way. At home she continues to be Laure, and her parents have no idea that she’s lying about her gender elsewhere – though they do perhaps have something of an inkling that she is not particularly comfortable identifying as a girl.

Ten seems fairly young to experience gender identity issues as strongly as this, but writer/director Céline Sciamma wisely keeps the film focused on identity rather than sexuality. Yet this also introduces a certain ambiguity that may or may not be a good thing – when I initially saw the film in June at the LA Film Festival, I left the film confused as to whether Laure really did identify as a boy, or whether she simply wanted to do “boy” things and wear “boy” clothes. In other words, is she really just the tomboy of the title living in a society that for some reason restricts girls from doing boy things while still identifying as girls, or does it go deeper than that? I’m more inclined now to see that ambiguity as a plus than a minus, but it’s still definitely there for me. Others are seeing the film as a fully LGBT film (in fact, it played in an LGBT sidebar at LAFF), but I don’t think it’s necessarily that simple.

As the summer goes on and school looms on the horizon, Laure resorts to increasingly elaborate attempts to keep her secret, but eventually it comes out, and the pain of both returning to her female gender and having to tell her friends (and their families) that she lied to them is almost palpable. It’s a great central performance from Zoé Héran, who gets across both the joy in the early scenes of small things like being able to take off her shirt to play football and the humiliation of having her secret revealed in subtle and believable ways. It’s a very still performance a lot of the time, but she breaks out when she needs to for emotional impact. Even better, though, is Malonn Lévana as her little sister Jeanne. In between cavorting outside with Lisa and the boys, Laure stays home and takes care of Jeanne, drawing and playing with her without pretense. Jeanne is a live-wire, all smiles and giggles where Laure is very quiet and solemn. She steals nearly every scene she’s in, and the film (which sometimes threatens to lose itself in its own stillness) comes alive whenever she’s on screen. She figures out Laure’s secret before long, but keeps it, somehow intuiting even at her young age how important this is to Laure.

The very end adds to the ambiguity, suggesting that Laure actually has a long way to go before she figures out her own identity, but that’s okay. It holds forgiveness and tentative friendship, the rebuilding of bonds that could well have been severed completely. The film stays fairly aloof from its own gender politics, something that frustrated me a little on initial watch but that I think is ultimately a strength – a willingless to simply observe Laure without making overt statements of its own. At the same time, it also seems like it’s trying to be a little more profound than it actually is – gorgeous cinematography make it quite watchable despite the slow pacing, but also lend it a veneer of depth that the film doesn’t entirely earn.

Writer/Director: Céline Sciamma.
Producer: Bénédicte Couvreur.
Starring: Zoé Héran, Malonn Levana, Jeanne Disson, Sophie Cattani.
Country: France
Running Time: 82 min.

Trip-featured

Review: The Trip

[Rating:4/5]

originally posted on Row Three

With no other knowledge about the film, the title “The Trip” might, to unsuspecting American ears, conjure up images of Road Trip and frat boy humor, possibly even the thought that Todd Phillips has snuck in a second movie this year to compete with his own The Hangover II, but one need only note that this one is directed by Michael Winterbottom and stars two of Britain’s best comedic actors (not nearly well enough known, sadly, in the US), and it’s immediately obvious we’re in for a different sort of experience here. And yeah, that’s a very good thing.

After working with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on his brilliant adaptation of Tristram Shandy, Winterbottom brings them together again for a largely improvised comic journey through rural England, the two actors playing versions of themselves with so much real-life detail brought in that it’s difficult to tell where the line between fiction and reality lies. After his girlfriend returns to America for a job rather than join him on a restaurant tour of England (he’s writing an article or doing publicity or something in between acting jobs), Coogan cajoles Brydon into going with him, despite the fact that neither of them are particularly keen on the idea.

The trip takes a week, and the film divides up into days, each day basically having Coogan and Brydon drive cross-country to a new inn, sample lunch, maybe take in a sight or handle some publicity business, and head to bed, ready to do it all again the next day, all the while carrying on an ongoing conversation full of comedy bits or impressions. The trailer is basically an excerpt of the pair arguing over their Michael Caine impressions, and that plays a recurring part in the film (a too-often recurring, some will think), but there are plenty of other bits that play out, too, and the pair are so unassuming that you easily believe they just do this style of banter naturally in real life.

But it’s not all fun and games, as Coogan is undergoing somewhat of a crisis, both in his personal life and in his career – his girlfriend is successfully pursuing her own career in the United States, not missing him nearly as much as he misses her, while his attempts to break into mainstream feature films are failing and he’s not getting any younger. Calls with his agent and with his girlfriend punctuate the film, interspersed with Coogan’s existential wandering around the landscape, filling any void of conversation with encyclopedic facts – a tactic that gets turned around on him in a particularly awkward/hilarious scene later in the film). Meanwhile, though Brydon is arguably less well-known even than Coogan (it’s always Coogan that gets recognized during the course of the film, usually by people who immediately imitate his Alan Partridge character from British TV), he is much better adjusted, a fact that becomes increasingly clear as the pair’s bantering takes on an edge of subtle oneupsmanship and competition.

The way the improvised comedy interacts with the more scripted existential crisis parts of the film works much better than you might expect, lending a depth to the comedy and a humor to the drama that make the film pretty strong as a whole. However, it’s tough to get away from the fact that it’s basically these two guys talking for the whole film, and some of the bits do frankly get a little old by the end. If you don’t like their style of comedy, you won’t last ten minutes. Even if you do, as I do, you may find it wearing a little thin by the time “Friday” or so rolls around and you realize you’ve got till “Sunday.” Yet Coogan and Brydon nail every bit, and the bittersweetness that shines through more and more is great as well. The trio already did the basic concept as a 6-episode series in England; while I’m content with the hour-and-forty-five-minute version we get here, it’s entirely possible that it would work even better in half-hour chunks. In any case, Winterbottom allows Coogan and Brydon’s specific brands of comedy and acting shine, and if you fancy a bit of a hangout with these guys, it is definitely that.

Director: Michael Winterbottom
Producers: Andrew Eaton, Melissa Parmenter
Starring: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Claire Keelan, Margo Stilley
Running Time: 107 minutes

longgoodbye

New Hollywood: The Long Goodbye (1973)

[Rating:4.5/5]

originally posted on Row Three as part of the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls marathon.

Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye was not on my original watch list for this marathon for a couple of reasons – I’d already seen it years ago in a college film criticism class, I already had a bunch of Altman films on the list and I wanted to diversify a little bit, and I didn’t particularly like it the first time around and wasn’t sure I wanted to revisit it, even though I suspected I would appreciate it a lot more if I did. But after I named Altman my favorite director of the marathon so far, multiple people recommended I give this film another look, and then it happened to be playing at a local rep cinema, and I figured it was a sign that it was time to rewatch Altman’s nearly revisionist version of Raymond Chandler’s 1940s crime novel. And I’m so glad I did.

I wrote recently about how much I love The Big Sleep, and I think my original distaste for The Long Goodbye was merely an inability to envision any other version of Philip Marlowe than Bogart’s, or any other take on Chandler than a straight-up noir detective film. But the brilliance of The Long Goodbye is precisely in how it takes the Marlowe character and the detective story and drops it into the extremely different milieu of 1970s Los Angeles, turning it into an ironic, knowing version of the very cinema that took Chandler straight in the 1940s.

Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe is a mumbling, ambling fellow who’s smarter than most everyone around him, but aloof enough not to bother pointing it out, except barely under his breath in a kind of on-going ironic mutter that feels more like an interior monologue than actual speech. He’s bemused at the spacey Yoga-practicing girls in the apartment across the way, has little use for the police, and spends a great deal of time trying to please his cat. The cat is something of a substitute for human engagement; his general response to any human interaction is “it’s okay with me,” a detached statement of passive affability and implicit refusal to get personally involved.


When a friend asks him for a ride to Mexico, he agrees with little hesitation, little realizing (or perhaps just little caring) that this action would embroil him in the case surrounding the death of the friend’s wife. The police think his friend killed her, but Marlowe won’t believe it, and the rest of the film balances his casual attempts to clear his friend and his work on a seemingly unrelated case for a woman searching for her alcoholic husband. The plot gets considerably more complicated, but through it all, Marlowe maintains his sardonic “it’s okay with me” attitude, allowing himself to drift where events push him and be held static by anything that shows any initiative (note that every animal in the film basically holds him captive until someone else intervenes).

It’s an interesting approach to a character who is often quite active in 1940s films. (They may be world-weary, but still don’t rest in their quest for the truth; this Marlowe is world-bemused and takes plenty of time to follow other pursuits, treating everything with a bit of a smirk.) This isn’t to say he doesn’t ever do anything – he does his job, he circumvents opposition when he needs to, he refuses to be browbeating by the police, he continues to check in on his client even after the immediate case is complete, etc., but he does so in such a lackadaisical fashion that he almost seems to be doing it because he doesn’t have anything better to do. Yet when it comes down to it in the final few minutes of the film, as he uncovers the truth, his “it’s okay with me” changes to “nobody cares but me.” This Marlowe is a fascinating mixture of detachment and engagement, yet his shifts between the two feel organic, never forced.


Yet though The Long Goodbye is a clear departure from the characterization and style of 1940s hard-boiled detective films, it knows them all. Various scenes pretty clearly evoke the noir of the 1940s-1950s, from the crime noir of The Big Heat and Kiss Me Deadly to the Hollywood melodrama of In a Lonely Place and A Star is Born. Casting Sterling Hayden, dependable lead of many classic noir films, in an important role is no accident, either, nor is the gatekeeper who impersonates classic stars like Jimmy Stewart and Barbara Stanwyck. This being the ’70s, there are also signs of European influence – at least I thought of Pierrot le fou when Marlowe smeared paint over his face in passive rebellion against police authority, and the ending is a pretty clear reference to the enigmatic final scene of The Third Man.

The Long Goodbye is a perfect example of a film very much of its time that both uses and plays against expectations based on previous cinematic tropes. It’s also a very intricate mystery with a good bit of enjoyable humor, though it’s not very suspenseful, largely because the Marlowe character is so detached throughout much of the film. This is part of why it didn’t work for me when I was younger, and I’m sure a good deal of why I enjoyed it more now is my greater knowledge of film history, but the film doesn’t really depend on that. It does depend on coming to it with an open mind and a willingness to buck expectations of detectives on film. Really, the rest of the film plays it pretty straight; it’s the unusual way Marlowe is portrayed that gives it a wild card feeling. It’s also very nicely shot, with a few virtuoso scenes (many of them at the beach house, using windows and reflections to get compositional effect) that will stick in your mind visually for quite a while. I’m really glad I gave the film another chance; it’s jumped right up there with Altman’s other films as one of my favorites in this series.

Happy 100th Birthday, Akira Kurosawa!

Today would’ve been legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s 100th birthday, were he still with us. I’m the first to admit that I’m not the biggest Kurosawa fan, and this day probably would’ve passed by me unnoticed had it not been for the writers at Row Three putting together a site-wide review retrospective devoted to Kurosawa films, which has taken up most of the posts over the past week. Reading those reviews has gotten me all enthused to revisit Kurosawa more myself, and the film I reviewed for the series definitely proved to me that I had been missing something the first time around and it’s now time to move more in-depth into both Kurosawa and Japanese film in general.

Check out all the Kurosawa posts from all the writers here; and here’s an excerpt of my review of Ikiru:


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Having only seen three Kurosawa films prior to this tribute series (and not “getting” those as much as I would have liked), I embarked on my part of the series with as much a goal of discovery as of celebration. Because the films I’d already seen were all samurai films, I opted to watch and review one of Kurosawa’s contemporary-set films. Review contains some spoilers, but it’s a film that depends far more on mood and character than plot twists, so I don’t think it’ll matter too much.

“The best way to protect your place in the world is to do nothing at all. Is that all life is really about?”

The word “ikiru” translates as “to live,” and Ikiru examines what it means to really live, while also acknowledging the difficulty of actually making any difference with your life. Watanabe-san is a civil servant, the section chief for a bureaucratic city government who spends his days in a mountain of paperwork, always busy without ever accomplishing anything. The narration suggests that he’s been dead for nearly 20 years, because he just floats along without really living – he has no passion or ambition; he’s “worn down by the minutia of the bureaucratic machine.” However, when Watanabe finds out that he’s dying from stomach cancer, he has an existential crisis, experiencing flashbacks of his wasted life and punishing himself with sake (poisonous to him with his medical condition).

Two chance meetings offer him differing possibilities for how to really live in the time he’s got left. A man in a bar takes him out gambling, drinking, and into the red light district. The next day, he meets a young clerk from his office who is resigning her job because it’s so soul-deadening; her joy in life is infectious, and he quickly covets spending time with her – a desire that quickly spreads lascivious rumors though his intentions seem quite benign. When she tells him of the happiness she finds in her new job, he decides to throw himself into his work and really take responsibility for it – to do one really good thing with the position he’s got before he runs out of time.

Read the rest at Row Three, and read all the other Kurosawa entries here (most of them far more knowledgeable and authoritative on Kurosawa than I am, which is not at all).

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: Woodstock (1970)

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[Rating:4.5/5]

“But above that, the important thing that you’ve proven to the world is that half a million kids can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing BUT fun and music, and I God bless you for it!”

woodstock-5_thumb[1].jpgWoodstock exists in cultural memory as the quintessential music festival – the festival that brought together the greatest musical acts of the late 1960s with the counter-cultural generation. Every musical festival since aspires to be Woodstock-like (though sadly, most achieve the comparison only by being doused in rain and becoming mudpits as Woodstock famously did). As a current music-lover and festival-goer who is admittedly under-informed about a lot of the history of rock music and its place in culture at that time, I feel very grateful to Michael Wadleigh and others for preserving the event so well on film.

He begins with the festival set-up, interviewing the organizers as they supervise stages being built and fences being set up. The fences would quickly prove useless, as the crowd of young people entering the grounds from all directions more than doubled expectations; rather than hold off a quarter-million non-ticket-holders, the organizers decided to make the festival free and let everyone in. A pretty incredible situation compared to today’s tightly-secured festival grounds.

Read the rest on Row Three