The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) – 8.3

I could be wrong, but I found this Proustian: a famous writer who never produces a second book until, at last, he sees his aimless life as the subject. His madeleine? the naked breasts he is shown by a great beauty when he is 18. Maybe this is a stretch, but it fits the course of the movie, as Jep Gambardella goes from celebration to interview to private party to strip club to dinner to another party to an affair to a funeral to dinner party and on and on. The plot, certainly, is Proustian: there is no story arc, we just see a life in progress; characters come and go, while the narrator holds up his world for close inspection and general, if gentle, mockery. This is Italy, after all, and most particularly Rome. The Catholic church, modern art, the literary elite, sex, death, dining, tourism – all are viewed with a jaundiced eye. “My parties have the best ‘trains’ – they go nowhere.” The clothes are beautiful, the views of Rome are beautiful, the music is beautiful, the women are beautiful. We don’t have to decide if that is enough; we can just enjoy the view.

Inside Llewyn Davis – 6.5

It’s hard to be excited about a movie, however well-made, about such a loser. He looks depressing to begin with, his songs are depressing, and he constantly makes bad decisions – starting with taking his host’s escaped cat downtown on the subway instead of negotiating with the building’s super to keep the cat or let him back in the apartment. You know, before it happens, that everything he tries will turn out badly – so who wants to watch this? Not coincidentally, the best musical moment is a PP&M-style “500 Miles,” when Llewyn – even the name sounds like “loser” – is in the audience. The movie is so dirge-like I mistakenly thought it was filmed in black-and-white. And why did the movie open with one of the chronologically last scenes? The Coens can, deservedly, get away with anything; but, like Woody Allen, it’s too bad the results are so erratic.

American Hustle – 7.9

A very fun caper movie, with an all-star David Russell-led cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. The plot alternated moments of excruciating tension and hilarity, the latter mostly coming from Lawrence. Bale was unrecognizable as the guy from Out of the Furnace, and Adams conveyed a vivid intelligence and a spectrum of emotions while somehow managing to stay in her dress. Somehow – maybe because it was ultimately a comedy – the movie lacked the depth, the gravitas, to make it seem much more than fun – but hey, what’s wrong with that?

Out of the Furnace – 7.5

Another exercise in style from producer Ridley Scott – not as extreme as The Counselor, but in the same vein. Our hero, played by Christian Bale, was the personification of Good: we didn’t see him reading to blind children in his spare time only because, between working two shifts in the steel mill, tending his dying father, covering the debts of his irresponsible brother and paying his debt to society for a crime that wasn’t really his fault, he had no spare time. His success at knocking off the personification of Bad was thoroughly incredible, but we didn’t much mind because Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of the villain was so much fun and the blue-collar-and-below atmosphere of the belching steel mill town and Deliverance-quality backwoods New Jersey was so well done. The movie was like a painting – a Grosz, an Ensor, a van Gogh: not the world as it exists, but an artistic vision.

Promised Land; Not Fade Away

I caught up with two movies that had escaped me when I flew to and from New York after Thanksgiving. Both were fine airplane movies, largely because they had subjects of inherent interest to me: fracking and rock’n’roll. The former featured star turns by Matt Damon and Frances McDormand, excellent as always, and nice support from John Krasinski and Rosemarie Dewitt. The story, however, played like a first script by actor-writers, with a neat twist at the end that unfortunately didn’t jibe with everything that came before. That Damon and Krasinski were the writers and producers as well as stars of the film led me to think this little flaw had been glossed over. Unlike fracking, the film was cute but not very deep. Not Fade Away mined the New Jersey milieu of the Sopranos, with James Gandolfini in his familiar paterfamilias role. The story was well-worn, but no less enjoyable for that, of high school friends forming a rock band in the basement, then falling apart over girls, creative differences and, well, just growing up. In the end, this is just another high school story, but there’s something in every high school story that resonates, plus this had music selected and composed by Steven Van Zandt, so it all rang pretty true.

Captain Phillips – 8.4

A remarkable film that involved me intellectually and emotionally from start to finish. Director Paul Greengrass set up an equality between the American captain and the Somali pirate at the outset, by showing both men leaving family and embarking on their collision course. Muse, in an Oscar-worthy supporting role, was never a bad guy: every man in his village wanted to go with him – it was an act that was accepted by their desperate society; and even moreso it was required by the warlord above them. His courage and Captain Phillips’s were certainly equal; and they both used their brains. If Captain Phillips won the battle, it was only because he had more worldly experience, plus the technology and firepower of the U.S. Navy behind him. Without condoning piracy, the movie made you sympathetic to the pirates: it was the Americans who tricked and lied and killed in cold blood – understandable in the circumstances, but not the kind of heroism we’re used to cheering at the movies. In short, at every stage of the movie, I had to check on my feelings: whom was I rooting for, and why? The film was also wonderfully shot and edited; I felt the claustrophobia of being on the tanker and I felt I was living through the crisis almost in real time.
Two caveats only: Tom Hanks was wonderfully expressive, but he never convinced me that he was either a ship captain or a New Englander. And although the story came from real life and must be accurate, we could never understand why the ship’s owner, let alone its insurer, would send it through pirate-infested waters without a security guard or two who could have easily gunned down the pirates before they had a chance to board.

Wadjda – 7.8

A sweet film about one spunky girl’s efforts to break through the repression of women in Saudi Arabia. By making her statement an attempt to acquire, and ride, a bicycle, the director kept the rebellion personal, low-key, understandable and touching. And by making the repressers women, not men, there weren’t villains to root against, just Saudi society. In all, it was a fascinating insight into another culture, somewhat stilted, but a small gem.