Listen Up Philip – Alex Ross Perry (2014)

Listen Up Philip is a strange hybrid. Stylistically, it harkens back to films of the 1970s, although it is set in the present day. However, the type of film it is recalling never actually existed; instead, it kind of recalls the 70s as a specific aesthetic amongst a specific milieu (New York literary types?). It presents as a strange love child of Tarantino and Woody Allen. Another set of echoes are the recent Whiplash, with which it shares, in transformed fashion, the themes of prickly mentorship and the obnoxious striving of youth, and the literary character of Inherent Vice. (Alex Ross Perry’s first almost-feature length film, Impolex, is an adaptation of Gravity’s Rainbow). So what is the film about? Briefly, it is a portrait of the titular Philip, a relatively young author whose second book (the pretentiously titled Obidant) is about to be published. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Asshole, it could perhaps be called. Philip happens to meet a literary idol of his, the older author Ike Zimmerman (played by Jonathan Pryce, seemingly modeled on a degenerate Philip Roth) and they strike up a friendship. At the same time, Philip’s relationship with his girlfriend Ashley (played by Elisabeth Moss) disintegrates. That’s pretty much it. Like what it parodies, the film is often insufferable and tedious, but within that gambit, it is very often truly funny as well. Faults are apparent, but are they faults or simply features? The film lacks emotional depth, but so does the protagonist. The film is often very static structurally, but then again, this might also be inherent to the subject matter. There is an unrelenting, vacuous, overly-verbose voice-over that is foregrounded, but then again… you know where I’m going. No matter its faults, if that they be, this is not an empty parody of form or surfaces. What gives it integrity and interest lies in the materiality of the film’s construction rather than within its concepts: the ill-fitting sutures that tie segments together, and the great puncta within many shots carry an internal poetry, adding to the humor by undercutting the pretension, and forming a truly distinct style. In the service of what, though? It is hard to say, as the film basically ends where it began, with some laughs along the way, and a nice side trip through the life of Ashley sans Philip. A relationship film though? Not really, unless we are speaking of how an egomaniac relates to himself. I can see this being a film that polarizes, and it is hard to deny that it is one-joke in nature, and we do get it. But is that all there is to get? That question, nagging, is the keyhole through which we might glimpse…

Three and a half stars out of five

Jauja – Lisandro Alonso (2014)

Jauja introduced me to a director I must admit I was ignorant of, although he has directed four other features; the film was entered in Cannes this past year, which is what brought it to my attention. Set in Patagonia, at the turn of the century (or perhaps before, the date is unclear), the film features stunning imagery and restrained performances, most startlingly from Viggo Mortensen, who speaks his patrimonial tongue throughout. A kind of existential western, Jauja concerns Mortensen’s journey, as a cartographer traveling with an army detachment, to locate his runaway adolescent daughter. The film begins with dreamy vibes and only grows stranger, more spare and more hallucinatory, as the saga unfolds. That said, Alonso is known for low-key storytelling and the use of non-actors, so this is emphatically not hallucinatory in the acid western stylings of Robert Downey’s Greaser’s Palace or even Jodorowsky’s El Topo. Rather, the film, by the end, reminded me very much of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Peter Weir’s masterpiece from the late 70s. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t, but I will say that the film, which I felt was going in disappointing directions by the three-quarter mark, turns around in the finish; indeed, the ending, as the best endings do, forces you to reevaluate all that has come before, and opens up a poetic dimension unimagined until that point.

Three and a half stars out of five

Interstellar – Christopher Nolan (2014)

Interstellar is certainly Nolan’s most ambitious film, in every dimension: emotionally, visually, narratively. The seriousness with which it takes itself is impressive, and I did find it very affecting in parts – the middle third manages to weave some good old fashioned suspense into the larger issues of time, loss, and planetary decline, pinging back and forth between the personal and the cosmic very ably. Nolan also makes allusions to other existential space classics (2001, notably) in the visual register in an intelligent way. That said, the script has more than a few nods to a mass audience (although hardly as bad as it could have been in terms of explanatory dialogue), and the resolution was quite disappointing. I don’t want to spoil anything, but he certainly doesn’t avoid any of the unsatisfying “closed loop” metaphysics common to most movies about time travel. At least it has more weight than the downright stupid and pretentious ending of Inception. Still, it is well worth seeing, and Nolan’s best film; he’s not a major director in any sense but attention and clout, though. (I do appreciate his allegiance to shooting on film however). Enough with movies about saving the world – it’d be refreshing to see a major budget devoted to the question of how we might live in a world beyond saving.

Three and a half stars out of five

Inherent Vice – P.T. Anderson (2014)

I saw P.T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice on Friday, with a very game audience at the Angelika, and had a blast. It does a great job of capturing the feel of Pynchon, as well as the semi-benumbed miasma of drugged-outedness. Great performances by all, with pop-ups from everyone from Michael K Williams to Belladonna to Eric Roberts, but I especially liked Josh Brolin as sad sack Bigfoot (“motto panukeiku!”). Of course, this is Phoenix’s show, and he carries it off hilariously, doing more with mumbles and long drawn out hedging groans than anyone else could have. I would guess that how you feel about the movie depends on how you feel about Pynchon, as the movie is all “dialogue” and the “action” is difficult to follow. (I have not read the book, but would wager this is realistic not only to it, but to the world of drug-fueled conspiracies generally). Like a lot of Pynchon, there is not much of an emotional core here, but no matter, this is one to see for the performances. Tons of fun, it felt an hour shorter than it is. Anderson has grown on me as a director; his early films range from the over-rated and slightly dull (Boogie Nights) to the overly-long and truly awful (Magnolia) to hit-and-miss twee (Punch-Drunk Love), but since There Will be Blood (still his finest hour) he’s redeemed himself.

Three and a half stars out of five

Force Majeure – Ruben Östlund (2014)

Force Majeure got little buzz at Cannes, and looked a mix of serious drama and satire, so my hopes were low. Happily, it turned out to be underrated; the satire is balanced by psychological nuance and writing that mines the territory in relationships between the trivial and the weighty. It’s an effective satire of the “Dad impulse” (over-explaining coupled with under-performing) but manages a level of modernist-style symbolism that both keeps the film itself from triviality and elevates it to Euro art film territory (which it easily inhabits). It works on multiple levels. Not amazing, but very solid and memorable.

Three and a half stars out of five