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Richard Gere (#110 of 8)

Berlinale 2017: The Dinner Review

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Berlinale 2017: The Dinner Review

The Orchard

Berlinale 2017: The Dinner Review

In The Dinner, Oren Moverman wastes no time in establishing a tone of grandiose scabrousness. Right in the opening scene, history professor Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan, sporting a rather jarring American accent) articulates his profoundly anti-American view of American history; and to his wife, Claire (Laura Linney), he calls his politician brother, Stan (Richard Gere), an “ape” as they both prepare to meet Stan and his new wife, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall), for a fancy dinner. Paul, at least at the start of the film, seems positioned to be the grim—and grimly funny—truth-teller among a group of people who prefer to hide their true natures behind a veneer of high-class civility.

Summer of ‘89: For Queen and Country

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Summer of ‘89: <em>For Queen and Country</em>
Summer of ‘89: <em>For Queen and Country</em>

Early in his career, Denzel Washington played characters that often found themselves embedded within an environment of significant political import. In 1986’s Power, his Arnold Billing stood in the way of an ambitious media consultant played by Richard Gere; in 1987’s Cry Freedom, he received an Oscar nomination for portraying political activist Steve Biko; and 1989’s The Mighty Quinn suggested a more multi-faceted Washington, an actor capable of the charisma, humor, energy, and virility he would come to be best known for in the films of Spike Lee and Tony Scott. Thus, it’s unsurprising given such precedence that For Queen and Country found Washington inhabiting a role that requires a quieter, less fiery energy, often in service of a narrative that has little clue as to how such dynamism could be utilized. It would be a year later, in Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, before Washington’s talents would be fully actualized.

Perhaps it’s fortunate for Washington’s career, then, that For Queen and Country was both a commercial and financial failure. Critics generally praised Washington while denigrating the film, which makes sense because director Martin Stellman, perhaps previously best known as a credited screenwriter for 1979’s Quadrophenia, addresses the racism inherent to Britain’s 1981 Nationality Law, which denied citizenship to those born in the West Indies, as fodder for the most banal sort of, what film scholar James Naremore calls, “male melodrama.”

Review: Jaimey Fisher’s Christian Petzold

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Review: Jaimey Fisher’s Christian Petzold
Review: Jaimey Fisher’s Christian Petzold

Although he’s generally considered among the most critically acclaimed of contemporary German directors, Christian Petzold and his films remain relatively unknown to North American audiences. Perhaps that’s because of the exceedingly specific cultural formations within which Petzold’s films take place, namely the neoliberal spaces of contemporary Germany, where places and setting play just as significant a role as the characters, themselves. At least, these are the foundations of analysis laid out by Jaimey Fisher’s excellent new book examining Petzold’s entire filmography; Fisher seeks to contextualize Petzold’s films within prior scholarship, which has generally discussed their “movement spaces” (space remade by systems of mobility in modern society), but perhaps more importantly, he examines the ways in which neoliberal developments have “changed how individuals experience work, relationships, and themselves.” These combined help articulate what Fisher deems Petzold’s “ghostly archeology,” and terms his films “art-house genre cinema.”

The latter point is likely Fisher’s most provocative and reflexive, given that the neoliberal dimensions of Petzold’s cinema are seemingly their most explicit elements. In films like Yella, these financial motivators are made literal within the narrative, but in Jerichow, they’re more firmly filtered through a genre prism—in its case, film noir and, more specifically, The Postman Always Rings Twice. In fact, Fisher goes so far as to name a genre film in relation to nearly Petzold film, as a barometer for the levels of genre engagement. Sometimes they’re more obvious, as with Jerichow or even Yella, which takes Carnival of Souls as its basis. In other cases, however, the relationships are more opaque and unusual, as with the comparison of The Last Picture Show and Near Dark to The State I Am In, not because of directly identical narrative parallels, but more due to sensibility and style; thus, with Petzold, as with Peter Bogdanovich and Kathryn Bigelow, Fisher talks about each director’s refusal of nostalgia and recognition of creating art at the end of either a cycle or time period—“a fading western lifestyle.”

The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part I

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The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part I
The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part I

“Think of a tree, how it grows round its roots. If a branch breaks off, it don’t stop but keeps reaching toward the light.”

Jason Bellamy: Terrence Malick’s next film, due soon in theaters, is called The Tree of Life, and coincidentally or not it is set up by the final shot of Malick’s previous film, The New World. In both the theatrical and extended cuts of that 2005 film, Malick closes with a shot at the base of a tree: gazing up the side of its mighty trunk as it stretches heavenward. It’s a quintessentially Malickian shot, both in terms of the camera’s intimacy to its subject and in the way that it presents nature with a spiritual awe, as if the tree’s branches are the flying buttresses of a grand cathedral. But the reason I mention that shot is so I can begin this discussion by acknowledging its roots. We’ve been regular contributors to The House Next Door for almost two-and-a-half years now, and, as loyal House readers know, Terrence Malick’s The New World is the seed from which this blog sprouted. What began in Janurary 2006 as Matt Zoller Seitz’s attempt to find enough cyber real estate in which to freely explore his passion for The New World—a rather Malickian quest, if you think about it—became something much bigger, until now here we are: writing about the filmmaker without whom this blog and thus this series might not exist.

I make that acknowledgement en route to this one: By the very nature of its origins, The House Next Door has always been something of an unofficial Terrence Malick fan club—nay, house of worship. Many of us first gathered at this site because of this subject matter. (Any immediate kinship many of us felt with Matt was inspired by a shared religious experience with The New World, not to mention the holy awakening of seeing serious criticism posted to the Web by amateur means.) I make this observation in the interest of full disclosure—less an acknowledgement of the House’s origins, which so many of its readers know already, than an indication of my awareness of it—in the hopes that by doing so I can convince the Malick nonbelievers that they are welcome here. Because, see, Malick is one of those filmmakers who seems to inspire two reactions: genuflecting reverence and head-scratching ennui. Is there room between the two? Or are total immersion and deference to Malick’s filmmaking elemental to its effect? In Part I of this discussion, we will look at Malick’s first four films, Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (the theatrical cut), and what I hope we begin to uncover is why Malick’s filmmaking inspires such divergent reactions.

I am, admittedly, a singer in Malick’s choir. His films don’t move me equally, but when they do move me I’m profoundly affected. You come into this conversation having just watched most of Malick’s films for the first time. So let me ask a question that will cause the Malick agnostics to roll their eyes and the Malick believers to raise their hands to the sky like Pocahontas in The New World: Did Malick’s filmmaking inspire you with a unique sense of awe, or do you feel like you’re on the outside looking in, or something else?

Take Two #11: Breathless (1960) & Breathless (1983)

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Take Two #11: <em>Breathless</em> (1960) & <em>Breathless</em> (1983)
Take Two #11: <em>Breathless</em> (1960) & <em>Breathless</em> (1983)

[Editor’s Note: Take Two is an occasional series about remakes, reboots, relaunches, ripoffs, and do-overs in every cinematic genre.]

In a word: balls. A quarter-century after its release, pretty much any controversy surrounding Jean-Luc Godard’s debut feature had long passed, and it was a firmly entrenched, immovable classic of the cinema. Which is to say, it was due for the kind of irreverent treatment that Godard himself mastered in the ’60s. I reclined, popcorn in lap, as the 1983 Breathless began, and hoped that director Jim McBride—whose biggest credits include the 1989 biopic Great Balls of Fire! and some relatively recent work directing Six Feet Under—might pick up the original and shake it by the lapels, as Godard’s film had done for gangster and romance movies a generation earlier. For a while, the new Breathless coasts on attitude alone. Then it just coasts.

Rather than the irrepressible Jean-Paul Belmondo, we now get the thinking man’s Keanu Reeves, Richard Gere. In his early work with demanding directors like Richard Brooks, Paul Schrader, and Terrence Malick, it seemed that Gere’s status as a Brando-level talent was all but foreordained; the meaty, emotionally wrought parts just couldn’t come fast enough. As an acting opportunity, playing the lead in a remake of Breathless couldn’t be juicier, and you can almost see the gears cranking as Gere hustles, steals, grifts, flirts, and grins, playing the world’s biggest deluded asshole. This is acting—showy and sweaty and entirely superficial.

When Roxie Met Sally: Chicago vs. Cabaret

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When Roxie Met Sally: <em>Chicago</em> vs. <em>Cabaret</em>
When Roxie Met Sally: <em>Chicago</em> vs. <em>Cabaret</em>

Rob Marshall’s Oscar-winning movie Chicago is a workhorse. In a better Holly-world every film would be this good. But in a more perfect Holly-world, only films that went beyond competence would merit 13 Academy Award nominations. No visionary himself, Marshall’s strategy consisted of aping Fosse, calling it homage and hoping for the best. It was a canny decision. Fosse’s filmmaking style—perfectly cut to the moves of dancers synchronizing flawless steps to Kander and Ebb’s exhilarating score—might have yielded an impressive result no matter who directed. But a movie musical is more than the sum of its numbers. Fosse knew this, which is why his own film version of another Kander and Ebb musical, Cabaret, shot over three decades ago, feels less dated than Marshall’s 2002 Academy darling.

Chicago plays like a movie about a movie about two murderesses striving for fame in the Roaring Twenties, Cabaret is a love trangle set in Weimar Republic-era Berlin. Renée Zellweger gives a capable performance as corrupt Chicago’s good bad girl, the killer Roxie Hart. As Velma Kelly, a murderous rival of Roxie’s who schemes to reclaim the spotlight that the younger woman stole, Catherine Zeta-Jones is also capable. The same goes for Richard Gere as crooked lawyer Billy Flynn; John C. Reilly as Roxie’s suffering husband, Amos Hart; Queen Latifah as prison matron “Mama” Morton—they’re all so fucking competent! But Liza Minnelli didn’t just rise to her role in Cabaret; she reached higher, creating a three-dimensional Sally Bowles, so fake she’s real. The quality gap between Zellweger’s performance as Roxie and Minnelli’s as Sally might stem partly from each actress’ personal experience: Minnelli had the demons of her mother, Judy Garland, to escape, while Zellweger has admitted in interviews that she pretty much fell into acting. But bravery might also be a factor. As we watch Minnelli’s fearlessly self-revealing performance as Sally, we glimpse in her wild eyes and anxious body language the screwed-up childhood that Sally must have had—the past that fuels both character and performer to sing and dance or die. If Zellweger harbors comparable demons, either she refused to tap them or her director failed to demand that she try. Her performance is content to charm rather than disturb. Even though we watch Roxie kill onscreen, the actress conveys no sense that the character would be capable of committing such a deed, much less using it as a platform for tabloid infamy. Her Roxie is a one-dimensional cutie pie, a spoiled, dreaming bad seed, and her mild drive to be a star seems disingenuous.

On the Circuit: I’m Not There

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On the Circuit: <em>I’m Not There</em>
On the Circuit: <em>I’m Not There</em>

Imponderably hyperactive and indomitably hyped, I’m Not There is the indie/arthouse version of a summer blockbuster. Instead of Autobots and Decepticons, we have Bob Dylan deconstructed into a pop culture transformer, and co-writer/director Todd Haynes as the thinking man’s Michael Bay. The result is a high-concept spectacular that will geek out fanboys of Dylan and Derrida alike, a souped-up semiotics lecture, both bookishly erudite and blusteringly superficial, that is more simulacrum than synthesis of the avant garde biopic. Don’t get me wrong, though: as someone who enjoyed Transformers, I was just as entertained in the moment by this seductively shape-shifting account of Optimus Zimmerman.

Never one to be accused of modest vision, Haynes uses six actors to take on six versions of Dylan, though judging from the results it’s about three more than he really needed. For me the most stimulating embodiment is Marcus Carl Franklin as a young black prodigy aspiring to be Woody Guthrie. Despite rambling through the same cornpone mystical South from O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Big Fish (there’s even a mythical whale that swallows our musical Jonah whole), Haynes gets at something via Franklin’s teddy bear demeanor, which grants him access into black and white households alike. Here the film establishes several major themes: Dylan’s hunger for stardom and his acumen for cultural appropriation, and how others seek to possess and mold his charismatic presence in their own image. The former theme is left underdeveloped while the latter gets beaten to within an inch of its life over the two hours that follow, mostly via the film’s other teddy bear performance by Cate Blanchett.

Player Piano

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Player Piano
Player Piano

The following is a piece about the similarities between two Terrence Malick films, Days of Heaven and The New World. A condensed version of this piece also appears in the current issue of New York Press.

Despite its complexity and open-hearted spirit, Terrence Malick’s “The New World” became one of the most divisive studio movies in recent memory. Even some of the filmmakers’ admirers rejected it as opaque, choppy, unstructured, too sentimental in depicting its central love triangle, and too enamored with nature photography and Transcendental sentiments. To read some of the pans by critics who’d previously backed Malick, you’d have thought he’d started throwing lovely pictures and poetic narration onscreen and hoping something stuck.

Thanks to what The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman called the cult of “The New World,” critical consensus is already shifting in Malick’s favor. Film Forum’s repertory screening of Malick’s 1978 masterpiece “Days of Heaven” should push that process along. Some detractors cite “Heaven” as an honorable example of Malick’s talent and dismiss the “The New World” as a devolution. But a close viewing confirms that that “The New World” is in many ways an enlargement of “Days of Heaven” that revisits its situations, themes and filmmaking vocabulary from a fresh vantage point.