I’ve long been a fan of the movies that Neil LaBute adapts from his plays. In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, and The Shape of Things all show off his command of dialogue, characters, and relationships, and use them to probe into some of the shadowy, uncomfortable spaces of the human soul. In this, Some Velvet Morning is a welcome return to form.
Indeed, it’s easily the darkest, most disturbing of LaBute’s plays-turned-movies. The film — and possibly any review of the film — should come with a trigger warning: anyone who has experienced an abusive relationship or a sexual assault may do well to avoid this one. If you want to take your chances, watch it on-demand or on DVD, where you can at any point stop and walk away until you feel ready to return. This should not be taken as any sort of slam against the film; rather, it’s a testimony to the power both of LaBute’s script and of the performances delivered by Alice Eve and Stanley Tucci.
Some Velvet Morning is also the sparest of LaBute’s films, with all the action taking place within a single townhouse, in basically real time. A woman (Eve) is listening to music on her sofa: a selection from Truffaut’s La peau douce — The Soft Skin — about an affair that ends badly. The doorbell rings. A man (Tucci) is at the door, loaded with baggage. He says he’s left his wife; it seems to take a while to dawn on the woman that he intends to stay with her.
The man calls the woman “Velvet”, though she insists that she “isn’t that person anymore”. The woman calls the man “Fred”, and we wonder if maybe that’s just as much of a pseudonym. They know each other; they have a history together. It comes out that Velvet is a high-priced prostitute, and Fred a former client. They both had fallen for each other, but things got out of hand. They’d met through Fred’s son, with whom she claims to have a continuing friendship. And then something happened that led to Velvet insisting that Fred stay away, which he has for the last few years, but now he’s back and determined to have his way.
The relationship is clearly abusive, and the breakup angry and hateful, if not physically violent. Velvet is scared of Fred now, but feels she cannot simply call the police lest he expose her “unearned” income. And there are further layers of complication; some part of her does still care for him, while another part works out how to placate him into leaving of his own accord.
The film is an acting masterpiece, with Tucci and Eve diving together into some deep, scary places. Tucci’s performance is the more obvious; he portrays the abuser’s manner with a disturbing perfection. It’s not just in his rages and the way he breaks a trinket to remind her of his physical strength, but in the way he uses space to control and manipulate her movements. It’s his mercurial swings from angry recriminations to playful joking, but with a shark’s grin to remind us what’s behind the smiling face. Tucci is not a large or imposing man by nature, but he feels here like a tightly-coiled spring: compact but powerful.
Eve’s performance is subtler; Velvet lives in the quieter spaces between Fred’s outsize bluster. Eve manages to compose her face and body on at least two levels. Velvet remains superficially pleasant and deferential to placate Fred’s temper, but we can see the fear in her eyes, feel the shake in her stride, and hear the hitch in her voice as her mind races to try and stay one step ahead of this man’s fists for as long as she can. She protects her space as vigilantly as he invades it, even when in a completely separate room. We see her anger leak out one moment, and watch her quickly backtrack the next. She throws up verbal smoke to distract and allow herself a moment’s freedom while he’s off his guard. At every point she wonders if this will be what sets him off, or sends him on his way.
True to LaBute’s form, Some Velvet Morning defies simple responses, especially about Velvet. He shows a deftness in writing her character, both as a victim of abuse, and as a sex worker, in which role she is anything but a passive victim. And even when it seems apparent where this story is heading you are both right and wrong. Just this one encounter between Fred and Velvet would be raw and powerful enough to spawn hours of conversation, but everything is more complicated than it ever appears. There are always new layers to unpack, right down to the last seconds of the story.
And the complications and resonances go deep into the writing. The name itself calls back to one of those cowboy-psychedelic duets between Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra duets like “Summer Wine” that always felt so oddly imbalanced. In that song, Sinatra croons, “flowers are the things we know; secrets are the things we grow / learn from us very much; look at us but do not touch”, in character as “Phaedra”. And Phaedra, of course, was the second wife of Theseus, who fell in love with his first wife’s son. Like La peau douce, Phaedra’s affair didn’t end very well either. The whole text of the play is just as delicately balanced as all these subtextual references, sliding back and forth between the two characters, hanging just inside the bounds of control until it finally tips over into disaster.
It’s not a movie for everyone to watch, and I have nothing but compassion towards those for whom this is just too much to endure. But those who choose to watch will have a lot to think about by the time the credits roll to the now-ominous sound of the Turtles’ “Happy Together”.
Worth It: a tough call. As a movie, it’s amazingly well-done. But it’s a hard one to endure, even without a history of abuse. If you feel up to watching, I highly recommend it.
Bechdel Test: fail.
After a diversion into the English market with This Must Be the Place, Paolo Sorrentino returns to his interrogation of Italian — and particularly Roman — life and culture with La grande bellezza, subtitled in English as The Great Beauty. And while Il Divo hangs on awareness of the real life of Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, La grabde bellezza finds its subject in a topic that extends far beyond the decay of Berlusconi-era Rome.
Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) came to Rome forty years ago, writing his one novel, L’apparato umano — The Human Apparatus — and then never following it up. He instead became the self-described “king” of the city’s bourgeois would-be intellectuals, supporting himself by writing for a cultural magazine. The scene he surveys consists of drug-addled, new-age, superficially-socialist performance artists and little girls throwing paint-splattered temper tantrums at their stage parents who hawk the results for millions, but that’s all incidental. The scene is really about well-off, beautiful people drinking and dancing until dawn while congratulating each other on how enlightened and urbane they all are. And as Jep turns 65, he begins to realize — or to remember — how empty and onanistic it all is.
Sorrentino employs his characteristically gorgeous camera-work to great effect in capturing it all: the frenetic, fantastic high life; the queasy, dissatisfied hangovers as reality seeps back in; and the great beauty that we can only see when we look outside ourselves. He relies this time more on long, slow, gliding motions that are irreducibly cinematic. This breaks from his habit of staging motion within meticulously-framed static dioramas but adds a mesmerizing fluidity to the images.
The turning point of the film is a nighttime escape from the crowd, abetted by an acquaintance who holds the keys to all the most beautiful places in Rome. We linger on great works of sculpture and painting by classical masters; their art still has power today because it is rooted in something outside itself, and roots are important. And how is it that this man has been entrusted with these keys? Because he is a trustworthy man.
All the Romes of the world may be fallen cities, but it is not the cities themselves that are fallen, but rather the many rootless people who float through them, focused entirely inwards rather than out towards the cities they float through, and the great beauty that surrounds them.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.
Why did Spike Lee remake Oldboy? By this I do not mean to ask why the film was remade; as the second and most famous installment of Park Chan-wook’s so-called “Vengeance Trilogy”, it was only a matter of time before some American studio tried to monetize it. No, I ask why Spike Lee, in particular, remade this film. There is nothing about it that leaps out as a subject of particular interest to Lee, and nothing in the remake shows Lee’s particular handiwork.
Make no mistake: Lee is an artist. But this job called for a forger — a director with just enough technical ability to accomplish the task at hand and otherwise get out of the way. Lee’s and Park’s talents are not just in their impressive repertoires of cinematic techniques, but in the particular textures they infuse into their works across a broad range of subjects. The Vengeance Trilogy is so close to the heart of Park’s style, and so far from that of Lee’s; with none of his own hooks to latch onto and little fluency with Park’s, Lee’s efforts can only produce a bland, by-the-numbers imitation. Spike Lee remaking Park Chan-wook is like asking Archibald Motley to paint something that could be passed off as the work of Hieronymus Bosch.
The basic story elements are as before: Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is an awful human being in 1993. After mangling a business deal for his ad agency he gets blackout drunk and wakes up in a prison cell made to look like a motel room. He spends the next twenty years in solitary confinement on a steady diet of sugar cereal and takeout dumplings.
A television shows him glimpses of the world outside. Presidents come and go; the World Trade Center buildings fall. News reports say that his wife has been brutally raped and murdered, and the evidence points to him as the prime suspect. Some America’s Most Wanted knockoff periodically dredges up the case, Joe’s mysterious disappearance, and the growth of his daughter, Mia (Elvy Yost), into an accomplished young cellist.
Joe begins to write to Mia — letters which he can’t send, but hopes to present to her some day — and dedicates himself to getting in shape. And then one day he wakes up in a steamer trunk in the middle of a field. He’s wearing a brand-new suit, carrying thousands of dollars in cash and an iPhone, all courtesy of a mysterious wealthy man (Sharlto Copley) who presents Joe with two questions: who is he, and why did he lock Joe up for twenty years?
With the help of his old school buddy (Michael Imperioli) and a young charity worker who came from some hard times herself (Elizabeth Olsen), Joe begins to track down the answers — and his daughter — starting with his jailer (Samuel L. Jackson) and ending with the secrets buried in his own past.
Obviously, some of the details have been rearranged from Park’s version. Normally this might be to provide some new interest to those familiar with the original, but anyone who remembers that will have no trouble seeing exactly what’s coming here, so I’m not sure what the purpose is here.
The underlying story Joe must discover is also tweaked in a way that, along with Copley’s mincing performance, comes off as more than a little homophobic. Mark Protosevich’s rewritten screenplay seems to know that Oldboy is supposed to shock, but it doesn’t know what purposes the shocks are meant to serve.
Similarly, the film has plenty of graphic and even gory violence like the original did, but Lee really doesn’t seem to have Park’s taste for horror and depravity. It feels like everyone is just going through the motions. Even the famous corridor scene is recreated in a single, continuous shot — well, almost — which drips with technical proficiency, and yet it comes off as lifeless and staged.
Yes, it’s true that the producers carved over half an hour off of Lee’s version — leading to its billing as a Spike Lee “film” rather than the usual “joint” — and so the blame can’t be laid entirely at his feet here. Still, it’s hard to see what Lee was supposed to bring to the project in the first place. The result is a tepid rehash with nothing to offer fans of the original, and nothing to show newcomers why anyone would be.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.
It’s been a few years since the last Disney princess movie, Tangled, took the series in two new directions. Obviously it was the first to use computer animation instead of the classical style last seen in The Princess and the Frog, but it was also the first that felt so much like Broadway show. And while there was never much question that computer animation was here to stay, it’s exciting to see that the new film, Frozen also returns to this Broadway style music, with songs composed by The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez and his wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez. It may not hold together quite so tightly as Tangled did, but it’s great fun, and it even manages to avoid all of the classic complaints leveled against princess movies.
This is the culmination of a long effort to adapt Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, which doesn’t lend itself as easily to the princess treatment as, say, The Little Mermaid. And, as such, it’s a rather loose adaptation, but it flows from the capable hands of Wreck-It Ralph‘s Jennifer Lee. The Nordic kingdom of Arendelle has two princesses: Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell). Elsa was born with powers over ice and snow, but after an accident that nearly kills Anna she hides away in the castle. Anna survives, but at the cost of her memory of her sister’s powers.
The king and queen die, and the whole of Arendelle shuts itself away until Elsa comes of age and takes the throne herself. But on the day of her coronation, when the kingdom cautiously opens itself to the outside world again, everything goes wrong. Anna meets Hans (Santino Fontana), a prince from the Southern Islands and immediately agrees to marry him, but Elsa refuses her permission. And as tempers flare, Elsa’s powers run amok, plunging the kingdom into winter as she flees to the mountains.
The visiting Duke of Weselton (Alan Tudyk) quickly declares Elsa a monster and calls for her head, but Anna is sure she can reach her sister. She asks Hans to take care of things and rushes off. In the mountains, she enlists the aid of the ice-cutter Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer, Sven, and Olaf (Josh Gad), an animated snowman accidentally created in the wake of Elsa’s flight.
The songs are fantastic, split about evenly between soaring orchestral numbers that call back to the best of late twentieth-century Disney and smaller, poppier pieces. Menzel’s bold, brassy voice is unmistakable, but Bell may be a surprise to those more familiar with Veronica Mars than her work on Broadway. And Gad has his own stage cred from The Book of Mormon; his Olaf provides a delightful slapstick counterpoint that avoids overwhelming the main scenes.
The style is gorgeous, with a cleaner line reminiscent of classic Disney hand-drawn animations. The dresses are lovely and simple, calling back more to Snow White and Sleeping Beauty than the “princessy” ball-gowns of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, and yet they’re not without their own unique details that should keep costume designers busy all next year. And, appropriately to the subject, the filmmakers spent a lot of time studying the optical properties of ice and snow; while it doesn’t feel quite right in the largest scales, they’ve clearly advanced the state of the art here.
If I reach, I can find things to complain about. The story takes a bit long to spin up, and then feels comparatively rushed near the end; some sections of the plot feel perfunctory and convenient, but at 100 minutes the movie may already be stretching the attention spans of younger viewers.
But these are minor issues, and overall this film is nearly perfect. It’s clearly among the finest of the Disney princess stories, if not the finest itself, and definitely one not to be missed.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.
The Catholic Church in Ireland is in a bad way, and to a great extent that’s it’s own fault. For all of our own concern about the sexual abuse scandal here in the United States, it’s nothing compared to the rage in Ireland over the cover-up. And that’s not the only way the church has run roughshod over the Irish people: through the middle of the twentieth century, thousands of pregnant girls were sent to convents. Their babies, if they survived, were sold to Catholic donors, the girls were pressed into indentured servitude, and the government paid the convents a stipend. Stephen Frears’ film Philomena traces the discovery of the full history of one of these women and her long-lost son.
Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) was a real Labour government advisor who got caught up in a bit of a mess and was pushed out into the general population again. Casting about for a new project, he stumbles on a woman with a story: her mother, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), recently came clean that she’d had a child as a teenager, and that the boy had been adopted away from her after a few years.
At first, Martin scorns a mere “human interest story”, but these things do sell better and faster than the Russian history books he wants to write. A little digging at the Roscrea convent turns up nothing; most of the records were destroyed “in the big fire”. At the local pub, though, a regular lets slip that this was actually a giant bonfire, intentionally covering the sisters’ tracks.
Martin also finds that most of the children were adopted by well-off Americans, but he can only get so far without Philomena being along in person. He gets the interest of a news editor who puts the two on a plane to Washington, DC to track down the story, which still has more than a few twists left before it all comes out.
Coogan and Dench are both at their best. Normally seen in more supporting roles, this is one of Coogan’s best dramatic leads, and the script he wrote with Jeff Pope has a lot to do with that. And Dench gets a real character workout, playing the working-class Irish pensioner with the perfect mixture of wide-eyed wonder and common-sense honesty.
The screenplay sets Martin’s worldly cynicism against Philomena’s simple faith without placing either one in the superior position. If it weren’t for Martin’s tricks — whatever their motive — Philomena would never have learned of her son’s fate. If it weren’t for his righteous anger, the truth would never have come to light. But it’s Philomena’s calm, generous heart that keeps Martin’s story from becoming an easily-dismissed screed, and focuses it instead on honesty and reconciliation, which cannot be so simply brushed aside. Outrage is a valid response, but an easy one; Philomena’s eventual forgiveness is harder, but it sticks to its target.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.
Hey, did you know that Sylvester Stallone was nominated for two Academy Awards? One of them was as best actor in Rocky, but if you haven’t heard it before you might be surprised that the other was for best original screenplay. Seriously, for all his big-dumb-bruiser movie roles that made him famous, Sly has actually written a huge number of scripts, both for his own movies and for other action stars, and some of them are pretty great.
In particular, he wrote the new Jason Statham vehicle, Homefront, and the script is impressive. Statham is in his stoic, badass element. James Franco is playing the kind of sketchy character he’s best at. There are so many things going for this movie that it’s a real shame that director Gary Fleder had to go and ruin it all.
We find Statham in his protector mode here as former undercover agent Phil Broker — I assume we’re meant to translate his Midlands accent to Midland, Louisiana. Broker’s just moved from New Orleans out to Rayville, about two hours east of Shreveport, with his young daughter (Izabela Vidovic) after the recent death of her mother. He has — laudably — taught her to stand up for and defend herself, so when a schoolyard bully (Austin Craig) tries to pick on her she warns him twice and then drops him without breaking a sweat.
The problem is that the bully’s mother is Cassie Bodine (Kate Bosworth), a hotheaded tweaker whose brother, Gator (James Franco) runs all the local meth production while the local sheriff (Clancy Brown) seems more interested in maintaining the peace than enforcing the law. By the time Broker manages to extend an olive branch to Cassie, she’s already asked Gator to take a look around, and Gator has realized that this is the guy who got Louisiana kingpin Danny T (Chuck Zito) arrested and his son killed.
Gator is sort of a mid-level cook and dealer but wants to expand to statewide distribution and get out of the street-level game entirely, and he sees Broker as just the sort of favor to the king that can make this happen. But instead of a lone hitman or something low-key like that, Danny T sends a whole biker gang with submachine guns loaded for bear, and everything gets way out of hand.
There’s a lot of interesting texture here. This is not a classic cat-and-mouse game between two powerful men. Gator is not a leader, but a local thug who plays with forces beyond his control; Broker is not acting as an agent trying to shut down Gator’s business, but just a man trying to live his life in peace. We touch on the frustrating reality that, in a culture run by bullies, attempts to defuse confrontations with compromise or concession will be seen as weakness and invite even more bullying. And even the bullies themselves may be acting out of even worse threats and stresses than those they exert on their victims.
Statham is as solid an action hero as ever, here defending against a home invasion with strong echoes of Straw Dogs. Franco is always at his best when he plays sketchy, sleazy roles, and this is no exception. We even get some deliciously pulpy character performances from the likes of Winona Ryder and Frank Grillo. What’s not to like?
Well, what’s not to like is the action, which is just awful. Every time a fight breaks out, the handheld camera shakes wildly and the editor cuts every quarter-second. It’s impossible to tell where anything is, with the one notable exception being part of a confrontation between Omar Benson Miller and a bad guy. Worse, most of the action happens in really dark night scenes, and often with flashing police lights around to make it even harder to make any sense of what’s going on. It doesn’t even have to be this way; Statham is plenty capable of carrying an action scene under good lighting and a steady camera.
For all the potential in the script and the cast, an action movie lives and dies by its action scenes. In choosing chaos and disorder over more honest ways to excite an audience, Fleder ruins what might otherwise be a perfectly serviceable action drama.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.
Almost all of Alexander Payne’s films concern aging and disappointment in some way. Sometimes it’s more of an undercurrent, as in The Descendants, but in Nebraska it’s right out in front. This time around, Payne tackles that certain middle-American, working-class sense of masculinity, and how the march of time drags it further and further from our grasp. It’s a tight story with a phenomenal cast, and it will enjoy a place among the best films by this acclaimed filmmaker.
It’s been a long time coming, too. Bob Nelson’s screenplay made its way to Payne’s desk while he was producing About Schmidt, and it’s easy to see why. With no more than some minor touch-ups, the script has Payne’s bittersweet, dry-absurdist style all over it. But with the road-movie Sideways already queued up, Payne delayed on Nebraska until now, and it’s well worth the wait.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is old. It’s never clear exactly how old, but Dern himself is 77; add unruly, fly-away white hair and haphazardly-shaven stubble and he looks as beaten and worn as his faded old flannel shirts. He’s a cantankerous old man with a cantankerous old wife in Kate (June Squibb), who’s finding him increasingly unmanageable. Things only get worse when he receives a magazine sweepstakes letter and, deciding he doesn’t trust the mail with his million dollars, starts trying to walk from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick it up in person.
Of course he never makes it far; the police keep picking him up and returning him home, where Kate starts threatening to put him in a home. Their older son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), is all for it, but David (Will Forte) thinks that maybe if he just drives his dad out to Lincoln to see that there’s no million dollars they can put this all behind them.
Life intervenes on the road, and David realizes they won’t make Lincoln by the weekend. They decide to stop off in Hawthorne, the small town where Woody and Kate grew up, and have Kate and Ross come out to join them for a little reunion. Over the weekend David meets all the extended family and family friends — including his father’s old business partner, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) — that he hasn’t had much contact with since before he was a man himself. The conversations quickly fall into the normal, middle-American rhythms of gossip between the women and talk about cars and machinery between the men, and David sees it all from the outside. But in meeting all these people he comes to a deeper understanding of his parents, of himself, and of why this prize is such a big deal to Woody.
Payne shoots in black-and-white — a first both for him and for his regular cinematographer Phedon Papamichael — and he does a brilliant job of it. He quickly adapts to the use of texture in black-and-white pictures, and puts it to great use from the costumes the to wide-open landscapes. Both of these provide important parallels to the story, by the way: as Woody and David proceed, the country around them opens up from the confines of downtown Billings to the South Dakota badlands to the sky-to-sky horizon of the great plains. Meanwhile, David’s clothing changes gradually until it’s almost the same as his father’s: beaten and faded, weary and worn, but also more comfortable.
Dern and Forte are both garnering high praise for their performances, and it’s well-deserved. Forte does benefit a bit from the whole comedic-actor-goes-dramatic thing, but he does bring a wide-eyed vulnerability to his portrayal of an adult child of a difficult family. But some notice should also be paid to Squibb, who is consistently charming as the brash, no-nonsense Catholic girl who married into a whole mess of Lutherans.
But the greatest achievement in the film is Nelson’s story itself, which turns us slowly around as it plays out at its slow, small-town pace. We go in knowing that we’ve seen Woody Grant many times, in many films, but we come out realizing that we may not know him at all.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.