Considerations of the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline, by Montesquieu (translated by David Lowenthal). I learned about this book the same way I learned about Memoirs of Hadrian—from Joseph Epstein’s book The Ideal of Culture. This one didn’t impress me like Memoirs did. The book is only about 200 pages long and purports to sweep from Rome’s humble beginnings to the fall of the Byzantine Empire some 2000 years later. As a result, it moves quickly and lightly over events, and it made little impression on me. Epstein calls it a work of genius, but if it is it went over my head.
Autumn Sonata (C). I have a shelf full of classics by the Criterion Collection, and it is high time I got more use out of them. So I pulled down this one, which is now the first Ingmar Bergman movie I have ever seen. It was a good choice for a cold, grey January morning. Autumn Sonata is a claustrophobic little family drama centering on the painful relationship between a woman and her grown daughter. Ingrid Bergman (Gaslight), appearing in her last theatrical release, plays the mother, Charlotte. She’s a world-class concert pianist, and it doesn’t take us long to figure out that her art always took precedence over her husband, her daughters, and pretty much everything else. Liv Ullman (Lost Horizon) plays her daughter, Eva, who is married to a minister in a small rural town. Charlotte and Eva haven’t seen each other in seven years, and when Charlotte accepts Eva’s invitation to come visit it doesn’t take too long before the two are hurting each other all over again. It’s a very talky movie, with some long monologues and lots of extreme close-ups. I didn’t love it, but it was worth seeing. The Criterion Collection version I own is a two-DVD set that include a three-and-a-half-hour “making of” documentary on disc two. I’m not sure I’m ever going to get around to watching all the bonus content….
The Big Green Tent, by Ludmila Ulitskaya (2010; trans. 2015). This is a big old novel about life in post-Stalinist Russia. I liked it. At first, the book is a cohesive story about three boys who befriend each other around the time of Stalin’s death in 1956 and the teacher who inspires them to love Russian literature. But after a few chapters the novel gets fragmentary, jumping around in time and sometimes following other seemingly minor characters on long (but interesting) tangents. Many of the characters are involved in one kind of dissent or another, and the danger of exposure, arrest, and imprisonment is always right around the corner. I haven’t read that many Russian novels, but the characters in them always seem fascinatingly larger than life to me, especially in their passions and appetites. I read this 500+ page novel in fits and starts over a few weeks, so I was often confused about who the various characters were, but I don’t think it diminished my enjoyment of the story very much.
The 39 Steps (B). Well, I intended to see a movie at the theater today, but I got some bad information from the internet and wound up seeing nothing. So I decided to get some use out of my DVD collection and pulled down The Criterion Collection edition of this 1935 Hitchcock thriller. Robert Donat (Goodbye Mr. Chips) stars as Hannay, an ordinary Londoner caught up in a web of intrigue when he takes a beautiful woman back to his flat one evening and she turns out to be a spy—and gets herself murdered that very night! Suddenly, Hanney is on the run—wanted by the police on suspicion of murder and by sinister spies who are trying to steal British military secrets. On a train to Scotland he has a meet-cute with Pamela (Madeleine Carroll, Secret Agent), and they later team up to try to foil the foreign plot. The film is not terribly suspenseful but has some pleasant romantic-comedy aspects to it. And at 86 minutes, it’s quite efficient. I didn’t watch all the extras that Criterion packed onto the disc, but a short feature about Hitchcock’s film career in England before moving to Hollywood was interesting, and a critic’s discussion of The 39 Steps itself was also interesting and entertaining.
Their Finest (B+). It doesn’t have the grabbiest title, but this picture by Danish director Lone Scherfig (An Education) is my favorite of the year so far. The year is 1940, and Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton, Quantum of Solace) has moved from Wales to London with her artist husband Ellis (Jack Huston, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). But his dour art isn’t selling, so Catrin gets a job as a screenwriter on a propaganda film about the evacuation of Dunkirk. She clashes with the obnoxious head screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), learns to massage the bruised ego of past-his-prime movie star Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy, I Capture the Castle), and generally gets a crash course in the trials and tribulations of moviemaking. Jeremy Irons (Appaloosa) pops up unexpectedly as a pompous war minister. The sexism of the era is conveyed effectively without being overdone. On the whole, I quite enjoyed the movie.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (B-). Somehow I missed this 2014 black & white foreign-language vampire flick during its original release, but happily a friend invited me to a special showing last night at the Alamo Drafthouse. (Actually I tried to talk her into seeing Logan instead, but she wasn’t having it. She’s been a big vampire fan ever since New Moon.) It’s a weird movie, but interesting. Our hero is some ordinary guy living in a bleak industrial town called Bad City. His father is a junkie, and a drug dealer takes our hero’s beloved car because dad can’t pay his debts. Then the drug dealer abuses a prostitute who works for him. This draws the ire of our vampire (Sheila Vand, Argo), an ordinary-seeming woman who ghosts around town at night and can sprout fangs in a jiffy. Later she menaces a little boy and takes his skateboard. After that she meets our hero after he has gone to a costume party (as Dracula!), and instead of making a meal out of him she actually seems to start liking him. But you’re never really sure if she’s eventually going to chomp on him or not; her affect is pretty flat. More stuff happens after that, in a slow, moody, artsy kind of way. It held my interest.
(I’m categorizing it as a foreign film because it’s in Farsi, but I have read that it was actually shot in California. The director, Ana Lily Amirpour, is Iranian-American.)
This was my first trip to an Alamo Drafthouse, and it was a pretty interesting experience. We got to our theater pretty early, and before getting to the real previews they showed a bunch of film clips and trailers from cheesy old horror movies back-to-back. It was fine to set the mood, I guess, but it made conversation difficult. I got food, which I seldom do at movie theaters, and got a mediocre Royale Burger with Cheese and some cold fries out of the deal. The seats were comfy, though.
The Innocents (A-). This French-Polish co-production, which is based on true events, packs a powerful punch. It’s December 1945. A young nun sneaks out of a little Catholic convent in the Polish countryside and hurries to the nearest town, desperately seeking a doctor–and one, she insists, who is neither Polish nor Russian. Against all odds, she finds a young French doctor named Mathilde who is willing to leave her Red Cross station and visit the convent. Mathilde is shocked at what she finds there: seven pregnant nuns. When the Soviet Army “liberated” Poland several months earlier, the marauding soldiers invaded the convent and raped the nuns. Now, the nuns who conceived are reaching full term. And no one outside the convent can know, or else the the convent will be shuttered and the women shunned in society as disgraced. It’s a horrible situation, and still more horrible things happen as Mathilde tries to help the nuns in their hour of crisis. There are a few happy moments, and Mathilde strikes up an unlikely friendship with Maria, the second-in-command at the convent, but the movie is largely bleak and upsetting. Still, I found it a compelling cinematic experience. But please do exercise discretion in deciding whether to see this movie, especially if scenes depicting sexual assault are triggering for you.
If you like this movie, I encourage you to look up Ida, a Polish movie from a couple of years ago, focusing on a single Polish nun discovering some family secrets going back to WWII. Also, A Woman in Berlin, another based-on-a-true-story movie, about the fall of Berlin at the end of WWII and the fate of the ordinary Germans who lived there when the Soviets arrived.
A Bigger Splash (C-). Or perhaps more aptly, Lifestyles of the Rich and Decadent. Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive) stars as Marianne Lane, a big rock-n-roll star who is vacationing on a remote Italian island with her lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts, Black Book) after surgery on her vocal cords. Their quiet interlude is shattered by the unexpected arrival of Marianne’s former lover, manic record producer Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes, Hail, Caesar!) and his 22-year-old daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson, How to Be Single). Sexual tension runs in all sorts of directions as the quartet drink in the Mediterranean sunshine and, of course, large amounts of alcohol. Watchable, but it didn’t really seem to add up to much.
The Lobster (C-). This movie has too much critical buzz–and sounded just too weird–for me to miss. It’s an allegory or satire or something about the pressure society puts on people to pair off romantically. In the alternative universe of The Lobster, everyone has to pair off. If your partner leaves you for another person, you get shipped off to a hotel where you can mingle with loads of other single people. And if you don’t find a partner within 45 days, you get turned into the animal of your choice and set free. Remember, I said it was weird. Anyhoo, Colin Ferrell (Total Recall) is our guide to this insane asylum. He lands in the hotel at the very beginning of the movie, where he sort-of befriends a guy with a limp (Ben Whishaw, Spectre) and a guy with a lisp (John C. Reilly, Chicago). Some hotel residents desperately want to find someone, while others seem more or less resigned to their fate. Oh, and there’s a band of “Loners” (including Léa Seydoux, Spectre, and Rachel Weisz, Agora) running around out in the woods around the hotel–defiantly (and illegally) single people who have their own weird code of conduct about relationships. What will Ferrell do? Seek love, join the Loners, or settle for becoming a lobster? It’s all very weird and artificial and sort of interesting, but I really can’t say I really enjoyed it all that much.
The Lady in the Van (B). The redoubtable Maggie Smith (TV’s Downton Abbey) stars in the title role in this British import. An introverted playwright named Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings, The Queen) has bought a townhouse, and he soon meets neighborhood fixture Miss Shepherd (Smith). She’s an eccentric, excitable, and malodorous homeless woman who lives in a decrepit old van that she occasionally moves up or down the street. The neighbors, being normal people, don’t really want her around, but, also being liberals, they can’t bear to run her off either. Somehow she eventually gets Bennett to let her park in his driveway, and there she stays–for the next 15 years. And apparently this is based on a true story! We get bits and pieces of Miss Shepherd’s backstory, which, as to be expected, is not a particularly happy one. Good performances, but the story is a bit slight and certainly a bit sad.
45 Years (A-). I didn’t see Room, so I can’t say Brie Larson didn’t deserve the Academy Award for best actress this year. But I must say that Charlotte Rampling’s performance in this quiet, understated British drama is one of the best I have seen in a long while. Rampling (Swimming Pool) plays Kate, a British woman who is only six days away from a big party celebrating the 45th anniversary of her wedding to Geoff (Tom Courtenay, Doctor Zhivago). But then a letter arrives from Switzerland. The body of Katya, Geoff’s girlfriend before he met Kate, has been found. Kate knew about Katya, and that she had died (and disappeared) in a tragic accident while she and Geoff were hiking through the Alps. But the news hits Geoff harder than seems entirely reasonable, and both he and Kate are increasingly distressed as their anniversary party relentlessly approaches. If you like dramas with no lasers or zombies, this is the movie for you.
Youth (C). I enjoyed the last (and Oscar®-winning) film by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, The Great Beauty. That was a movie about a bon vivant, no longer young, looking back and trying to make some sense of his life, the universe, and everything. In Youth, Sorrentino doubles down by giving us not one but two old-timers, played by Michael Caine (Children of Men) and Harvey Keitel (Pulp Fiction). They are old friends, hanging out at a luxurious resort in the Swiss Alps. Keitel is a movie director, still active and hard at work with a team of screenwriters on the movie that he calls his “testament.” Caine, sad-eyed and apathetic, is a retired composer and conductor of classical music, and he refuses to come out of retirement even when he sought out for a performance before the Queen of England. Rachel Weisz (About a Boy) is also on hand as Caine’s unhappy daughter and personal assistant. Paul Dano (Looper) pops up from time to time as an actor also staying at the resort. Although a few significant events do transpire, it’s a very static and artsy movie. There are lots of short, silent scenes, and lots of scenes of people just ambling around talking about this and that. It’s okay, but at 124 minutes it definitely started to feel long after a while.
Brooklyn (B). This new movie has generated tons of critical acclaim and lots of Oscar buzz for its star Saoirse Ronan (City of Ember), who also happens to be one of my favorite young actresses. But as my grade indicates, I liked it; I didn’t love it. It’s a straightforward and rather old-fashioned coming-of-age/romance tale. Around 1950, a young Irish woman named Eilis (Ronan) is leaving her little seaside town in Ireland, where her prospects are poor, for New York City. Her beloved older sister Rose has helped pay for Eilis’s passage, and Rose will stay behind and care for their widowed mother (who doesn’t seem like great company, so Rose is quite the martyr). A kindly priest (Jim Broadbent, Another Year) has arranged for a job and a boarding house to be waiting for Eilis on her arrival. She’s badly homesick for a while, but Eilis is a plucky gal, and the attentions of a nice young man named Tony ease the pain. Life throws some curveballs at Eilis, and the rest of the movie is seeing how she deals with them. This is Ronan’s picture, and I thought she gave a good performance. And yet, somehow I was never quite swept away–never quite forgot I was watching a movie. I think maybe the character is part of the problem. Eilis is smart and seems to be basically nice, but she is pretty quiet, takes her time to make her mind up about things, and definitely doesn’t wear her emotions on her sleeve. So she’s kind of hard to relate to or root for. We’ll see what the Academy’s voters think soon enough….
Z for Zachariah (C+). Many years ago, a college buddy and I were desperate for a movie rental, and we settled on an obscure sci-fi movie out of New Zealand called The Quiet Earth. It turned out to be a terrible movie about some sort of global catastrophe that caused the disappearance of almost every single human being. But—in New Zealand at least—two men and one woman were left alive, and eventually they all found each other and had to deal with their odd situation. The movie was, as previously mentioned, terrible.
Now along comes Z for Zachariah, a movie with a very similar premise but starring some bona fide movie stars—Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), and Chris Pine (Into the Woods). When the movie begins, a young woman named Ann (Robbie) is living alone on a farm in a remote valley that has somehow been spared a nuclear catastrophe that seems to have ended all other human life. But one day she encounters another survivor, John (Ejiofor), and at first they have to work at getting comfortable around each other. And then their careful equilibrium is destroyed by one more arrival, a handsome scamp named Caleb (Pine). That’s all I can say about the plot without committing any spoilers. (As another reviewer has said, Pine’s picture is on the movie poster, so describing his character isn’t a spoiler.) Anyway, I thought the movie was okay—certainly better than The Quiet Earth—but still nothing to get too excited about.
Phoenix (B+), This German film got a great write-up in the Dallas newspaper, so I made a point to check it out. Sure enough, I thought it was very good. WWII has just ended. A concentration-camp survivor, her face wrapped in bandages, is taken to a plastic surgeon for reconstructive surgery. Her name is Nelly, and she is obsessed with finding her husband, Johnny. Her friend Lene tries to warn her off, even suggesting that Johnny might have been the one who betrayed Nelly (an assimilated Jew) to the Nazis, but Nelly will not be deterred. When she finds Johnny, he doesn’t even recognize her. Still, “Esther” (as Nelly calls herself) resembles Nelly enough that a plan occurs to him. Nelly’s whole family is dead, but Johnny can’t inherit Nelly’s family’s estate because he has no proof that Nelly is dead (although he is sure she is). So he will teach Esther to impersonate Nelly, she will claim the inheritance, and they will split the money. Nelly goes along with the scheme, simultaneously wanting and not wanting to find out the truth about Johnny and her arrest. The points of similarity between this film and Vertigo are mentioned in every critic’s review, so, there, I’ve mentioned it. Anyhoo, I thought it was a very good drama, although perhaps not quite as good as last year’s Ida. Well worth a look.
Strangerland (D+). The beautiful and talented Nicole Kidman (The Others) returns to her roots Down Under for this unsuccessful tale of suspense and family dysfunction. Katherine (Kidman) and Matthew Parker (Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare in Love) have moved their 15-year-old daughter Lily and their somewhat younger son Tom to a tiny god-forsaken town in the middle of nowhere Australia. Tom is miserable, and Lolitaesque Lily is plainly way too fond of the skeezy older boys at the makeshift skatepark outside of town. Then the two kids go missing just before a wicked duststorm shuts the place down. The local lawman Rae (Hugo Weaving, The Matrix) is in way over his head as he tries to coordinate post-storm search efforts, figure out what the parents are hiding, ignore the fact that his girlfriend’s brother may have been involved in Lily’s disappearance, and control his attraction to the not-quite-all-there Katherine. Kidman throws herself into her crazy role with abandon, kind of like she did in The Paperboy, but she unbalances the picture and blows Fiennes off the screen whenever they have a scene together. The film is 112 minutes, but it feels WAY longer. Skip it.
Tracks (B). Well, this movie has already disappeared from Dallas-area theaters, but you can probably still catch it on one of those newfangled “netflicks” or something. Anyway, it is based on the true story of Robyn Davidson, a young woman who set out to walk across Australia, east to west, with four camels and a dog back in the late 1970s. Mia Wasikowsks (Stoker) stars as Davidson, and although she turns in a nice performance, I was left a little unclear what would possess someone to want to do such a crazy thing. Adam Driver (Frances Ha) co-stars as a National Geographic photographer who pops in from time to time to take some pix of the adventuress and her camels. The flick also gives you a close-up look at what camels are really like—big, ornery, and possessed of big, pointy, nasty teeth. There were surprisingly few snakes, spiders, and crocodiles, though. Anyway, I enjoyed it, and I look forward to comparing this film to the upcoming Wild starring Reese Witherspoon (Mud).
The Trip to Italy (C+). Steve Coogan (Philomena) and Rob Brydon (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) play a couple of Brits who get the plum assignment of spending a week in Italy, driving through the countryside, staying in great hotels, and eating at great restaurants, all for the purpose of writing some review articles for a magazine back home. Amusingly, they play versions of themselves, so there’s a lot of talk about the movie biz and a little submerged rivalry that emerges as Brydon learns he is up for a part in a major American movie. The friends debate the merits of Alanis Morissette, occasionally muse about their own mortality, and do tons of celebrity impressions. It’s not a particularly weighty film, but it’s a pleasant enough way to spend a couple of hours. It’s a sequel to The Trip (2010), in which the guys apparently did the same thing in the north of England.
Frank (B-). A work colleague saw this movie, hated it, and basically dared me to see it. Truly, I didn’t think it was half-bad. Domhnall Gleeson (Calvary) stars as John, a forlorn British office drone who spends his days writing half-songs in his head and dreaming of rock-and-roll stardom. Through sheer chance, he becomes the keyboardist for an extremely alternative rock band whose lead singer—Frank (Michael Fassbender, X-Men: Days of Future Past)—wears a large plastic head over his own head and never takes it off. The band’s music is unlistenable (it reminded me of a blend of The Doors at their most pretentious and early Pink Floyd at its spaciest), but John doggedly tries to build up a following on the internet while simultaneously nudging the band—mostly in vain—to produce a slightly more accessible sound. It’s not clear who’s crazier—the older members of the band, or John for thinking he can domesticate them. I thought Maggie Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart) was sadly underused as the band’s angriest member. Not bad for a matinee, if you’re up for an odd story about an odd rock band.
We Are the Best! (B+). How about a Swedish movie set in 1982? This movie is about a couple of 7th-grade girls named Klara and Bobo who are best friends and total misfits at school. Klara is the mohawked leader of the pair, while Bobo is quieter and more introspective. Neither has a great home life, and they rebel in small ways, like embracing punk and refusing to play sports during P.E. Almost by accident they form a punk band, and they eventually recruit a friendless eighth-grader named Hedvig, who can actually play guitar, to join their band and teach them a little about music. I thought it was a nice little slice-of-life kind of movie. And it’s interesting, if a bit startling, to hear Klara spouting strong atheist convictions and abusing anybody who crosses her as a conservative and a fascist, usually in the same breath. I guess that’s Sweden for you!
Ida (A-). The first movie I ever saw Emily Blunt in was a little movie called My Summer of Love. It was directed by Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, and I thought it was decent but not great. This new Pawlikowski movie, on the other hand, I liked a lot—it’s probably my favorite 2014 release so far. It’s set in Poland in the early 1960s. A young woman named Anna is a nun who is approaching the time to take her final vows. But her Mother Superior insists that Anna must first go visit her only surviving relative, an aunt named Wanda who refused to take Anna in while Anna was growing up in an orphanage. Wanda, a bitter and cynical Communist apparatchik, gradually tells Anna (whose real name, unbeknownst to her, is Ida) the story of their family, and the two go on a road trip to fill in the gaps that are unknown even to Wanda. It’s a somber movie, accented by the director’s choice to shoot in black and white. But I thought it was really well done, far surpassing My Summer of Love, and even better than the director’s very good 2000 release Last Resort, about an abandoned Russian woman who seeks asylum in England. Check it out.
The Railway Man (B). Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) and the lovely Nicole Kidman (Stoker) star in this drama, which is based on a true story. (We are told this right up front, to increase the emotional impact.) The year is 1980. Eric (Firth) and Patti (Kidman) meet cute on a train in Scotland, and straightaway they fall in love. But Eric is wrestling with some serious post-traumatic stress disorder, and in desperation Patti seeks answers from one of Eric’s old army buddies, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård, Mamma Mia!). Reluctantly, Finlay tells her what he knows. During World War II, both men were captured by the Japanese during the fall of Singapore, and Eric was brutally tortured in ways even Finlay doesn’t know about. A great deal of the movie is told in WWII-era flashbacks, and although the torture scenes aren’t terribly graphic by today’s standards, they were plenty strong enough for my taste. Ultimately, 1980 Eric decides to return to Thailand and attempt to exorcise his demons at the scene of the crime. Firth gives a nice performance, as does Jeremy Irvine (War Horse), who plays the young Eric. Kidman isn’t given a whole lot to do but be worried and loving and supportive, but she looks nice doing it. It’s really a pretty straightforward and predictable movie, but I thought it still packed enough of a punch to justify an above-average grade.
Under the Skin (D). Director Jonathan Glazer’s last movie was the 2004 release Birth, which I thoroughly disliked but saw anyway because it starred Nicole Kidman. Now Glazer is back with this creepy sci-fi movie starring Scarlett Johansson (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) as . . . well, it’s hard to say exactly. My best guess is that she is an alien in human form, kind of like Jeff Bridges in Starman, but she is definitely not just trying to get home. Basically, she drives a van around Scotland, looking for men who are unattached and won’t be missed. When she finds one, she lures him back to her lair (not difficult, since he is invariably lonely, and she looks like Scarlett Johansson with short dark hair) where something decidedly unpleasant happens to him. But that makes the movie sounds more straightforward than it is. It is extremely slow and arty and vague, and it sort of reminded me of another arty sci-fi film I really disliked, Upstream Color. But if you’re in the mood for a slow, creepy, unsettling, confusing movie, this is the film for you. Rated R for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence, and language. In short, not recommended.