The Safdie Brothers’ Heaven Knows What was one of the singular films of VIFF 2014, a harrowing, grimy, close-up look at the life of a homeless junkie and her estranged boyfriend, enlivened by a remarkable performance from Arielle Holmes, upon whose life the film was largely based. With a pounding score and aggressive handheld close-up images from cinematographer Sean Price Williams, the film delivered a kind of extreme realism, like a Neveldine/Taylor movie for the socially conscious art house crowd. The Safdies’ follow-up, which premiered at Cannes and opens at SIFF this week, is more explicitly a genre film, if only because instead of a real person playing the lead, they now have a bona fide movie star, Robert Pattinson. It’s a One Crazy Night story, with Pattinson digging himself ever deeper into trouble in the wake of a bank robbery he pulls with his brother, played by Benny Safdie. During the escape Benny is arrested, and later hospitalized after getting into a fight in jail. Pattinson tries to sneak him out of the hospital, which leads to the kinds of unanticipated snags and increasing lunacy that is the hallmark of this kind of film (the movie’s poster explicitly points to Martin Scorsese’s After Hours). As an exercise in suspense filmmaking, the movie is excellent, the music (this time by Oneohtrix Point Never) and Williams’s images perfectly suited to the manic nervousness and driving obsessions of the scenario. Pattinson is, as always, equal parts charismatic and deeply disturbing (would be interesting to pair this with his other great city film, David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis). The supporting cast as well is marvelously weird, headlined by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Oscar nominee Barkhad Abdi, but also including newcomers like Taliah Webster, Eric Peykert, Peter Verby, and Buddy Duress (who was also in Heaven Knows What), who has rightfully drawn comparison’s to the great oddball character actor Timothy Carey. One performance though has me baffled, and that is Benny Safdie’s as Pattinson’s developmentally- and hearing-impaired brother. I don’t know what to make of the film’s bookends, with Benny in a hospital undergoing treatment, first answering free-association questions from his psychiatrist (Verby), later in a group exercise. It’s been a couple weeks and I still haven’t come up with a satisfactory explanation for these scenes, but they don’t feel right to me at all. But in-between them lies the most exciting American movie of the year so far.
…a voice, as bad as Conscience, rang interminable changes
On one everlasting Whisper day and night repeated—so:
“Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges—
“Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!”
–Rudyard Kipling, “The Explorer”
And the women all were beautiful
And the men stood
straight and strong
They offered life in sacrifice
So that others could go on.
Hate was just a legend
And war was never known
The people worked together
And they lifted many stones.
They carried them
to the flatlands
And they died along the way
But they built up
with their bare hands
What we still can’t do today.
And I know she’s living there
And she loves me to this day
I still can’t remember when
Or how I lost my way.
He came dancing across the water
What a killer.
–Neil Young, “Cortez the Killer”
James Gray’s adaptation of the story of early 20th Century British explorer Percy Fawcett, based on a New Yorker article and subsequent book by David Grann, is as beguiling, beautiful and ultimately confounding as the Amazonian jungle in which it is largely set. Shot on actual film by the great Darius Khondji (Seven, My Blueberry Nights) the film has a granular opulence rarely seen in the Hollywood cinema today, lush details of both the rain forest wilderness and the rich dark warmth of the woods and leathers of English libraries that are overwhelmingly tactile and mesmerizingly immersive, which, combined with the film’s languorously fluvial pacing washes away all the gaps and inconsitencies and oddities in the screenplay, leaving only the impression of the grace and tragedy of the human impulse toward transcendence.
Continue reading “The Lost City of Z (James Gray, 2016)”
Werner Herzog’s biopic of British archeologist Gertrude Bell premiered more than two years ago at the Berlin Film Festival to poor reviews, and is only this week making its way onto American screens. Why this should be is not immediately clear, the ins and outs of which international art house films make it into domestic distribution is far too complex a matter for my mind to comprehend, but I believe it involves some combination of corporate nepotism, the star system and random chance. The stars in this case are what make the film worth watching, as Nicole Kidman can enliven even the deadest of features, and this might be her most heroic effort in that vein to date. There’s almost nothing of Werner Herzog in the film, though there might have been once: Bell superficially appears to be his kind of a hero, obsessed with a harsh landscape, driven outside the bounds of society to do something remarkable, but at nearly every level the film feels compromised. Herzog is the only credited writer, but this has all the hallmarks of a film written and edited by a committee.
Continue reading “Queen of the Desert (Werner Herzog, 2015)”