In later seasons, The Sopranos would too often threaten to disappear up creator David Chase’s asshole as he ruminated, sometimes vigorously, sometimes ponderously, on the mysteries of American family life. But the first season has none of that leisure, expertly modulating stretches of comedy and drama en route to those crucial moments that leave you gasping.
The American horror movie, so vital in the 1970s, is still enjoying its recent and long-running resurgence in popularity, although the market is glutted with skillful but unambitious exercises in nihilism (The Strangers, the Final Destination series) and dull rehashes of existing horror properties (examples are too numerous to mention, but the recent My Bloody Valentine and Friday the 13th reboots are basically what I’m talking about). So with the whole genre keeping a safe distance from anything like risk or relevance, it’s a relief to see a movie like Orphan, which is on fucking point from its very first scene. If you’ve seen the trailers and TV spots, you know that Orphan is ostensibly the story of a very bad little girl. But this film is really about Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga), a very sad Connecticut Mom who was profoundly traumatized by the stillbirth of her third child, and it opens with a harrowing nightmare sequence that begins with Kate going into labor, making her way to the hospital, etc. Events on screen quickly turn gruesome. It’s an effective horror-movie gambit. If the film is this unhinged from the first reel, the audience wonders where else the director might be willing to go before it’s over.
Summer Hours is what’s generally referred to as a “small” film, but for Olivier Assayas, it represents a comfortable return to form after several self-conscious attempts at rethinking and reinventing the boundaries of his work. Demonlover was a sort-of thriller about the international sex trade; Clean was a combination Anglo/Francophone recovery drama; and Boarding Gate was aggressively marketed as a globetrotting thriller about a girl (Asia Argento) with a gun and a paucity of clothing. I haven’t seen Boarding Gate (yet), but Demonlover and Clean both felt like somewhat contrived exercises in arthouse empire-building.
After a recent screening of Rachel Getting Married in Pleasantville, NY, Jonathan Demme confessed that, for several years following his remake of The Manchurian Candidate, he lost interest in fiction films. (During that time, he made the documentaries Neil Young: Heart of Gold and Jimmy Carter Man from Plains.) That helps explain the directorial departure that is Rachel Getting Married, a film with a present-tense title that helps convey the immediacy of its documentary style. Shooting to HD tape rather than 35mm film magazines, Demme and his Man from Plains cinematographer, Declan Quinn, let the camera roll through long takes, staging a momentous family gathering and capturing it in a warm, disarming fly-on-the-wall style.
Writer/director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale)
goes Woody Allen one better with this dysfunctional-family dramedy that manages
to be psychologically astute as well as wickedly funny. Margot (Nicole Kidman)
and Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are estranged sisters reunited on the
occasion of Pauline’s marriage at their childhood home somewhere in
little ball of insecurity.) The needy, scattered Pauline doesn’t have her life
together, but Margot is a real piece of work, lashing out at her sister, her
brother-in-law-to-be, and even Pauline’s redneck neighbors. The story
occasionally embraces cliché and stretches credulity, but Baumbach’s incisive writing
and direction tease out the character notes that underlie Margot’s cruelty,
adding depth to a woman who becomes less and less sympathetic, spinning her
wheels desperately in an effort to find traction in the failings of those
around her. You feel for the gawky but sweet son she keeps in tow (even as she
cuckolds his father), but not for Margot herself — it’s a rare American film
that revolves around such an unlikable character. Evocative cinematography — no
shadows, only shades of gray — by Harris Savides rounds out a unique and unsettling
This review originally appeared in the White Plains Times.
Fanny and Alexander, Ingmar Bergman’s ostensible valedictory film, is most clearly and obviously about the pleasures of family — even the farting, adulterous and shame-faced family that’s so often exposed here. In that respect, I suppose, it’s an old man’s film. Bergman may identify, to some degree, with the matriarch of the Ekdahls, who is seen early on gazing out her window as her relatives stumbling noisily through the snow outside toward home. She murmurs happily, “Here comes my family.” What surprises, then, is the way the story becomes a sort of fairy-tale-cum-horror-movie – this is a ghost story whose subjects are the living and the dead, magic and imagination and the nature of God.