Playing Catch-Up — Clouds of Sils Maria; 13 Rue Madeleine; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington


Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014). In this wryly funny and wise rumination on aging and celebrity, the grand Juliette Binoche plays Maria, a movie star who is coaxed into a production of the play that made her a star, albeit now playing the older role while her former ingenue part is giving to a credibility-seeking starlet (Chloë Grace Moretz). As Maria goes through oscillating moods on the way to the production, she confides in her ever-present assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart). Assayas indulges in some arthouse pretension here and there, but Clouds of Sils Maria is mostly a set of straightforward character studies, each a gift to the performer. Predictably, Binoche is strongest, working little marvels in every scene.


13 rue

13 Rue Madeleine (Henry Hathaway, 1947). An espionage drama produced while the memories of World War II were still mighty fresh, 13 Rue Madeleine is about a group of agents developed under a new U.S. military initiative. As it happens, one of the trainees is an undercover German spy, and an European mission gone awry forces instructor Ray Sharkey (James Cagney) to dispatch himself to solve it. Henry Hathaway brings an admirable sturdiness to his direction, striking the right balance between stern seriousness and pulpy glee. Cagney brings his trademark intertwining of deft and brutish qualities to the lead role, giving the proceedings a grand boost. And the ending, in its rare and peculiar celebratory grimness, feels like it’s straight out of the Cagney guidebook, too.



Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939). Frank Capra’s film about a regular gentleman appointed to the U.S. Senate with the mistaken expectation that he won’t disrupt the order of slippery ethics in the U.S. capitol building is often tagged as an exercise in aw-shucks patriotism. The actual mechanics of the narrative are far trickier than that, especially in a tone that slaloms into earnestness, bustling comedy, and half-hearted romanticism. James Stewart is in his comfort zone as the titular character, especially when it comes time for the famed filibuster scene, which Capra plays out with impressive patience. The best performance, though, belongs to Jean Arthur, playing Smith’s office manager who’s grown jaded with Washington until she gets a dose of her new boss’s brand of sterling integrity. She strikes the exact right balance, showing how sardonic appraisals of the world can still leave room for glimmers of hope that can transform an outlook. The film’s trajectory can easily stir skepticism, but she makes it believable. And she has a great drunk scene, too, itself a minor master class in crafty comedic acting.

Spectrum Check

I spent much of this week in recovery, in a sort of spiritual and mental hangover over the insanely busy stretch of work that preceded it. So I’m a little worried that my contributions to Spectrum Culture were a touch discombobulated.

On the music side, I wrote a piece on the new album from Montreal’s No Joy. It sounded pretty good to me, but I did struggle in the writing process to find the hook of the review. It’s definitely one of those times when I wanted to write, “It’s pretty good,” and be done with it. The chatting-with-buddies version of a review.

The new movie I drew for review this week was the latest from Olivier Assayas. I’ve seen a couple of the director’s prior efforts, but I kept feeling like it would have been helped had I seen Carlos, his acclaimed miniseries about terrorist Carols the Jackal. Given a slightly similar focus–acts of insurrection in the nineteen-seventies–being able to compare the two would have been helpful. The movie is okay, just missing a plot.

On the other hand, the other film I wrote on is lousy with plot. In the “Oeuvre” series, we’ve been tracking through the films of Brian De Palma. I took my fifth (I believe) and final turn in the series, writing about Femme Fatale, a film I’d heard and read good things about at the time of its release. I should have remembered that there’s a whole passel of critics–most of them proud descendents of Pauline Kael–who were always willing to grade De Palma on a curve. Like every other De Palma film I wrote on for this series, it’s quite bad.

Assayas, Berg, Cassavetes, Chressanthis, Derrickson

Deliver Us From Evil (Amy Berg, 2006). Amy Berg’s challenging, often painful documentary tracks the damage done by a Catholic priest who was quietly shuttled to different churches in the same general region of California whenever accusations of sexual assault emerged, an occurrence that was tragically commonplace from the late nineteen-seventies through to the early nineties. With a methodical, thoughtful approach, Berg illustrates the ways in which the priest exploited the automatic trust his parishioners gave him, and, more damningly, the craven indifference the church leadership had to confronting the problem in any meaningful way. Berg’s portrait of the priest, Oliver O’Grady, is the film’s most potent and chilling element as he stares right into the camera, confesses his crimes, and acknowledges the damage he’s done, and yet betrays no sense of remorse, no fragments of pained empathy. He considers his multiple acts of cruelty purely in the abstract, as if his collected transgressions are little more than an especially awful philosophical conundrum to ponder.

No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos (James Chressanthis, 2008). This documentary is about cinematographers Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond, who together fled Hungary when it was invaded by the Soviet Union in the mid-nineteen-fifties. Their life stories are inherently compelling, but the film somehow renders them blandly. It’s far more successful when it becomes a sort of compact, ready-made film school, tracking through their most impressive accomplishments as artisans with film cameras. Of course, I would have happily watched a ninety-minute film about nothing more than Zsigmond’s cinematography on Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, so consider my opinion accordingly.

Opening Night (John Cassavetes, 1977). A grand actress experiences a shattering emotional breakdown in slow motion as the New York unveiling of her latest play approaches. She’s gone astray in part because the age of her character represents a complete break from her youth, her bygone vitality, a hollowing sensation exacerbated by an accident that causes the death of a teenage fan. Cassavettes approach to the material is typically raw and unpolished, letting scenes play out with few cuts and fewer embellishments. The opening of the film places the camera in the center of a theater audience, points it at the stage and just lets a big swatch of the play unfold. It’s a choice that gives the actors room to build nuance into their roles, and makes the later scenes of mounting problems nearly unbearable in their verisimilitude. It’s also a wonderful showcase for Gena Rowlands as the rapidly deteriorating star. As with the earlier A Woman Under the Influence, she’s given a role that’s about playing roles, and invests the resulting inner conflict with a confused ache that’s all too real.

Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, 2008). This gentle French film about a family that must determine what to do with the estate of their recently departed mother demonstrates that the most piercing, affecting drama sometimes emerges when the volume is turned down. There are some different opinions among the three sibling about how to proceed, but the conflicts never escalate to histrionics. These are the measured conversation of people who meet each other with affection but also distance. They are of a generation where familial togetherness and the sentimental preservation of heirloom and history has given way to the ongoing machinery of getting through a modern life. The script by Assayas renders no judgment on this point. It simply is this way, and the characters move through it with a certain resignation of spirit, a sense that their curiosity and adventure is eternally tempered by a need for pragmatism. The attentive direction by Assayas almost seems to live with them, accompanying rather than observing.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (Scott Derrickson, 2008). Hold this up next to the original 1951 film version and see all the ways that the culture of Hollywood filmmaking has devolved from cleverness to bombast. In some respects, a remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still actually seems like a good idea. Certainly its storyline involving extraterrestrials that have decided human beings are irresponsible caretakers of planet Earth couldn’t be more relevant. As befitting its blockbuster wannabe reworking, the film is busy and fussy without ever aspiring to much beyond plodding lessons in between set pieces. The various actors just seem bored with the minor exception of Jaden Smith, who, perhaps unintentionally, creates a portrait of one of the most intolerable brats in cinematic history.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)