Sony Pictures Classics

The Winslow Boy (1999, David Mamet)

The Winslow Boy utilizes all the trappings of a stage adaptation without ever being stagy. Director Mamet opens the film with a family entering their home–there’s some muted conversation before they get completely inside, then the introductions begin. So it’s a very play structure too, at least as far as the first and third acts go, but Mamet perfectly matches that structure. The way Mamet paces the film is exquisite. He anticipates story beats with stylistic choices, often infusing Winslow with indeterminate foreboding.

The first act sets up the cast. Nigel Hawthorne is the stern but loving and proud father, Gemma Jones is mother, Rebecca Pidgeon is the oldest, a pre-WWI feminist and suffragette, Matthew Pidgeon is the disappointing middle child, and Guy Edwards is the (much younger) pride of the family. Mamet and his actors deliberately establish their characters, with Mamet moving the narrative focus among them for best result. As the actor establishes their character–the beginning Winslow Boy is sort of a rapid, pre-Christmas ground situation exposition dump; Mamet keeps it moving through dialogue speed, repetition, Barbara Tulliver’s editing, and especially Benoît Delhomme’s photography. Winslow Boy only has the one main location–the family’s house–and Mamet is inventively pragmatic composing shots in it. Again, he emphasizes the actors’ performances, even when it’s an off screen actor.

After the setup, the film jumps ahead four months. There has been some hint of the main plot–young Edwards is expelled from the royal naval academy for thievery, a crime he maintains he didn’t commit–but not how it will play out. Hawthorne fights the expulsion, at great expense to the family and to great publicity. It’s Edwardian England, between wars, and it all causes quite a stir. Enough of one to eventually threaten Rebecca Pigdeon’s love life.

Mamet and the cast have a great deal of fun with Edwardian propriety, with Pidgeon getting the best lines. There’s a thoughtfulness and gentleness in the propriety and how the actors essay it, something the film technically emphases. The music’s different, the photography and composition are more intimate–even when it’s set during a bright day, Mamet and Delhomme find a way to focus just on their subjects. The rest of the world is far away.

About halfway through the film, Winslow Boy introduces Jeremy Northam’s barrister. Winslow is never about the process in getting the expulsion reconsidered, it’s about the effects of that process, both immediate and collateral. Northam’s character lets Mamet take the film into the House of Commons, to hear the debate–otherwise, news of the case is usually shown through expository shots–supportive buttons, political cartoons, branded umbrellas.

Thanks to Mamet’s established repetition device, he’s able to not just get the information across of what’s happening offscreen, but he’s able to give it the necessary context for viewers not well-versed early 20th century British law. Pidgeon and Hawthorne are learning about it too. It’s a great way to make the characters more sympathetic too; it puts characters and viewers at the same point on the learning curve.

The performances are all excellent. Rebecca Pidgeon and Jeremy Northam have a lovely, gentle romantic subplot. They’re both great, though never as good with anyone but each other. Their timing, how Mamet handles their peculiar flirtation, anchors the third act of the film.

First act lead Hawthorne spends the second act in obscured transition. In addition to straining his family to defend Edwards’s honor, he’s got his own aging character arc, which he never gets to play on front burner, and then he’s got to deal with the publicity fallout. So he has these relationship arcs with almost every character. Sometimes just for a quiet joke.

Jones is the film’s unsung glue for the first half. She’s mom, she’s always sympathetic, she’s great with all her costars. Her comic timing is phenomenal. Matthew Pidgeon’s good, Edwards’s good, everyone’s always good and often better. Mamet directs for his actors.

The Winslow Boy is a quiet, gentle, rousing success.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by David Mamet; screenplay by Mamet, based on the play by Terence Rattigan; director of photography, Benoît Delhomme; edited by Barbara Tulliver; music by Alaric Jans; production designer, Gemma Jackson; produced by Sarah Green; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Nigel Hawthorne (Arthur Winslow), Rebecca Pidgeon (Catherine Winslow), Gemma Jones (Grace Winslow), Jeremy Northam (Sir Robert Morton), Guy Edwards (Ronnie Winslow), Matthew Pidgeon (Dickie Winslow), Aden Gillett (John Waterstone), Colin Stinton (Desmond Curry), Sarah Flind (Violet), and Neil North (First Lord).


Waiting for Guffman (1996, Christopher Guest)

Waiting for Guffman is a story of dreams and dreamers. Director (co-writer and star) Guest opens the film with shots of a small American town, Blaine, Missouri. It’s a town with a lot of history and a lot of heart. Sure, it’s all absurd history, but those absurdities just make the heart beat stronger. Guffman is a mockumentary, starting with the town council going on and on about their sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) celebration. It takes Guffman a while before it gets to the actual storyline.

Because there’s all that absurd history and absurd councilpeople to get through.

There’s going to be a play at for the celebration, directed by a flamboyant, artistically inept New York emigrant (Guest), starring a bunch of local dreamers. Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara are the town travel agents, who also regularly star in Guest’s productions. Willard’s a jerk and O’Hara drinks too much. Neither are talented. Parker Posey is another member of the regular troupe. She’s not talented. Eugene Levy (who also co-wrote the film) is a dentist who wants to be an entertainer. He’s not talented. Matt Keeslar works at the family scrapyard–he’s a hunk who Guest enlists to star then fawns over. He’s not talented. Then there’s Bob Balaban as the high school music teacher who thinks he should be in charge of the production and resents Guest.

Everyone is hilarious. Keeslar least, but he’s still really funny. He’s got a reaction part and he never gets to be in on the joke (of Guest fawning over him). Willard, O’Hara, Guest, Levy, Posey, Balaban–they’re all phenomenal. Much of Guffman is adlibbed and you can just see the actors spark these great ideas and run with them as the scenes unfold. It’s awesome.

Guest is probably the best during these scenes; he’s got the most to do–he’s directing the production, after all–though everyone with a lot of material gives him a run for the money. Meaning everyone but Balaban. He’s sort of an extended cameo, which Guest (as director–of the film, not the stage production in the film) uses to great effect.

But then it’s showtime and Guffman switches gears. Now it’s this absurd stage production and the actors are playing their absurd characters playing these absurdly (and now–intentionally–poorly) written parts. The councilpeople return to do the mockumentary interview spots because, presumably, the leads’ characters are too busy performing. The film mostly gets away with the change in tone, with Guest throwing in some backstage character moments for the actors but never quite enough.

The shift changes the film’s energy and knocks the narrative distance out of whack. Even though Guest establishes the mockumentary device and occasionally the actors even acknowledge it in their performances, it’s gone from how the stage production occurs. Without constant hilarity to distract, the mockumentary device’s problems become a lot more apparent.

When the film wraps up in an epilogue, Guest and company go back to trying to make it funny. They mostly succeed, but the pacing of the jokes is different. Guest and editor Andy Blumenthal cut the epilogue with a different pace–they’re trying to get done, trying to get to the right jokes to close out Guffman.

It works, it just doesn’t match the first act. Guffman suffers from being too funny without strict narrative pacing–even absurd pacing–and not funny enough when Guest has to implement it.

Uneven or not, Guffman’s hilarious, well-directed, and phenomenally acted.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Christopher Guest; written by Guest and Eugene Levy; director of photography, Roberto Schaefer; edited by Andy Blumenthal; music by Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer; production designer, Joseph T. Garrity; produced by Karen Murphy; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Christopher Guest (Corky St. Clair), Fred Willard (Ron Albertson), Catherine O’Hara (Sheila Albertson), Parker Posey (Libby Mae Brown), Eugene Levy (Dr. Allan Pearl), Matt Keeslar (Johnny Savage), Lewis Arquette (Clifford Wooley), and Bob Balaban (Lloyd Miller).


Take Shelter (2011, Jeff Nichols)

Take Shelter is relentless; sort of an anti-Field of Dreams. Michael Shannon is a husband and father, respectable, employed member of a somewhat rural community. There’s not tons of money (wife Jessica Chastain pays for their summer vacations by selling her sewn goods) and daughter Tova Stewart has lost her hearing and needs expensive implants, but things are all right.

For about six minutes. Take Shelter runs two hours. By minute seven or eight, it’s clear there’s something really wrong. Shannon’s dreaming about the apocalypse and is compelled to build out his home’s existing storm shelter (the title’s a little cute).

It also turns out Shannon’s mom–Kathy Baker, who’s only in one scene but she’s great in it–is a paranoid schizophrenic and Shannon’s worried he’s similarly afflicted.

Director Nichols, who also wrote the script, gives Shannon a whole bunch to do. Almost eighty minutes of the film is entirely driven by toxic masculinity. During the second act, Chastain barely gets anything to do except react to Shannon. It’s too bad, because she gives an entirely solid performance in an underwritten role. Nichols gives her just enough to do to be taken seriously, then stops giving her stuff to do.

It’s the Michael Shannon show, which makes for two hours (or so) of excellent acting, but not necessarily the best way of telling the story. In the third act, Nichols has to put up or shut up as far as the MacGuffin. He doesn’t exactly forecast where it’s going–the film’s beautifully made–but there’s a real reductiveness to how he finishes it out.

Excellent photography from Adam Stone, editing from Parke Gregg, music from David Wingo.

There’s a lot of great stuff in Take Shelter (like Shea Whigham’s supporting performance), Nichols just fumbles the third act. Right after giving Shannon and Chastain an amazing scene together. It’s frustrating.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols; director of photography, Adam Stone; edited by Parke Gregg; music by David Wingo; production designer, Chad Keith; produced by Tyler Davidson and Sophia Lin; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Michael Shannon (Curtis), Jessica Chastain (Samantha), Tova Stewart (Hannah), Shea Whigham (Dewart), Katy Mixon (Nat) and Robert Longstreet (Jim).


SLC Punk! (1998, James Merendino)

SLC Punk! is controlled chaos. Or chaotic control. Director Merendino is incredibly careful about everything–how he uses crane shots to open up the low budgeted film, how he and Esther P. Russell cut scenes, which flashback footage goes where, how protagonist Matthew Lillard’s narration works (hint: it’s in an Austenian sense), how the film fits together. SLC runs just over ninety minutes and the first twenty-five of them are precisely layered flashbacks and flash forwards. Merendino’s meticulous.

But the secret of SLC Punk! isn’t how its not really an extreme comedy or how its Jane Austen with eighties punks, it’s the film’s sincerity. Merendino structures the film–and Lillard’s character and performance–to force an investment and an interest from the viewer. SLC isn’t a passive viewing experience; it isn’t set up to function as one.

The film gets serious once Merendino runs out of fast jokes–not even cheap ones, just fast ones. At the same time, Lillard gets serious too, only since he’s narrating in the past tense, Merendino’s forcing an examination of the previous (comedically played) events. The film’s final flashback, ostensibly promising the great reveal, instead just further shows Merendino’s sincerity and his dedication to it.

Great performances all over–Lillard, Michael A. Goorjian as his best friend and alter ego, then Jason Segel, Adam Pascal, Til Schweiger as their sidekicks. Merendino’s enthusiastic about the actors and in how he showcases them.

SLC Punk! is excellent. Merendino, Lillard and Goorjian do outstanding work.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by James Merendino; director of photography, Greg Littlewood; edited by Esther P. Russell; production designer, Charlotte Malmlöf; produced by Sam Maydew and Peter Ward; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Matthew Lillard (Stevo), Michael A. Goorjian (Bob), Annabeth Gish (Trish), Jennifer Lien (Sandy), Jason Segel (Mike), Adam Pascal (Eddie), Til Schweiger (Mark), James Duval (John the Mod), Devon Sawa (Sean), Summer Phoenix (Brandy) and Christopher McDonald (Stevo’s Dad).


Breakfast on Pluto (2005, Neil Jordan)

Breakfast on Pluto starts with talking robins. They’re subtitled, but talking. Robins can talk–or these two robins can talk (they show up from time to time), in which case they just live a long time. Before the talking robins, who director Jordan uses to keep the viewer off balance, the film opens with Cillian Murphy’s protagonist. During the rougher portions of the film, it’s hard not to think they opened with Murphy–playing a transgender woman in sixties and seventies UK–to give some hope the character isn’t going to have a bad end.

For a while, the film seems to be a distant character study, set against the Irish troubles. While Murphy’s life is separate from the troubles, she keeps getting drug into them. Only when the two collide does the film begins to define itself. Before that moment, Pluto is a connected set of vignettes, as Murphy tries to navigate the world, having a series of adventures (some amusing, some devastating) with various people.

The collision reveals–rather grandiosely–subtle insight into the protagonist. The film never shies away from insight as Murphy moves to London to search for her mother; the later revelation is about the film itself. Pluto is incredibly complex. And without talking robins, one might not digest it properly.

Great supporting turns from Ruth Negga, Liam Neeson, Ian Hart and Steven Waddington. Gavin Friday, Brendan Gleeson and Stephen Rea each have extended, fantastic cameos.

Murphy’s spellbinding.

Jordan crafts a spectacular film with Pluto.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Neil Jordan; screenplay by Jordan and Pat McCabe, based on the novel by McCabe; director of photography, Declan Quinn; edited by Tony Lawson; music by Anna Jordan; production designer, Tom Conroy; produced by Alan Moloney, Jordan and Stephen Woolley; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Cillian Murphy (Patrick ‘Kitten’ Braden), Stephen Rea (Bertie), Brendan Gleeson (John Joe Kenny), Ruth Negga (Charlie), Laurence Kinlan (Irwin), Ruth McCabe (Ma Braden), Gavin Friday (Billy Hatchett), Steven Waddington (Inspector Routledge), Ian Hart (PC Wallis), Liam Cunningham (1st Biker), Bryan Ferry (Mr. Silky String), Eva Birthistle (Eily Bergin) and Liam Neeson (Father Liam).


The Devil’s Backbone (2001, Guillermo del Toro)

The Devil’s Backbone takes place at an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War (in Spain, obviously). The film follows Fernando Tielve as he arrives and has conflicts with the other boys, before everything gets worked out. For about half the film, one of the other boys, Íñigo Garcés, is the antagonist. But everything with the boys is basically a misunderstanding and, in the second half, the film introduces the real villain.

There’s also a ghost, some political unrest, unrequited love between the school doctor and the headmistress, lust, greed and an unexploded bomb. Director del Toro goes overboard with the symbolism; for much of the film, it works too. He tries to be way too tidy in the end, however, and it doesn’t work. He refocuses the story away from Tielve and Garcés and the other boys–greed and lust are the (literal) apple here–but the boys have nothing to do with them. They lose their story.

It’s too bad, but there’s still a lot of great work in the film. del Toro’s direction, Guillermo Navarro’s photography and Javier Navarrete’s music are all phenomenal. Luis de la Madrid’s editing hangs a little, but usually for symbolism’s sake, which might be del Toro’s fault.

Tielve and Garcés are both excellent. As the adults, Federico Luppi and Marisa Paredes are great. In the film’s most difficult role–an orphan grown-up and returned–Eduardo Noriega does okay, but better when it matters.

Backbone’s almost an excellent film. Very, very close.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Guillermo del Toro; written by del Toro, Antonio Trashorras and David Muñoz; director of photography, Guillermo Navarro; edited by Luis de la Madrid; music by Javier Navarrete; production designer, César Macarrón; produced by Agustín Almodóvar and Bertha Navarro; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Fernando Tielve (Carlos), Íñigo Garcés (Jaime), Marisa Paredes (Carmen), Eduardo Noriega (Jacinto), Federico Luppi (Dr. Casares), Irene Visedo (Conchita) and Adrián Lamana (Gálvez).


Tim’s Vermeer (2013, Teller)

Tim’s Vermeer is simultaneously an intensely personal look at a guy–the titular Tim, Tim Jenison–and also not an intensely personal look at him. Jenison sums up his hypothesis in the first few minutes of the film–what if Vermeer (and some of his contemporaries) were less hippy dippy artists (my term) and more inventors? They were using cutting edge technology to make what we now consider fine art, but at the time they were creating the form.

The documentary, which barely runs seventy minutes, doesn’t really discuss any specific friction caused by Jenison’s venture. It mentions general friction at the idea, but I think I remember from art history classes the idea of Vermeer using science to accomplish his paintings. What Jenison does himself could be handled far more like Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, only director Teller and co-writer (and narrator) Penn Jillette don’t go that route. Because it’s not actually a personal look at the guy or even a questioning one about the cultural connotations of his experiment.

The film has three sections–the introduction, the building of the set, then the painting. The de facto fourth section is the abbreviated reaction to the final product. The fourth section could be the whole picture. But the film’s not grandiosely ambitious, it just wants to show this guy’s experience. Only not too personally.

Technically, Vermeer is decent. Teller has fine composition. Lousy editing from Patrick Sheffield though. Conrad Pope’s music is awesome.

It’s cool stuff.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Teller; written by Penn Jillette and Teller; director of photography, Shane F. Kelly; edited by Patrick Sheffield; music by Conrad Pope; produced by Jillette and Farley Ziegler; released by Sony Pictures Classics.


Blue Jasmine (2013, Woody Allen)

There are a lot of interesting things Woody Allen does with Blue Jasmine–genre shifts, a somewhat fractured narrative style where he reveals lead Cate Blanchett’s past in glimpses–but the most surprising one has to be when she ceases to be the film’s protagonist and becomes its subject.

Blanchett sort of shares the picture with Sally Hawkins, who plays her sister. Blanchett was a rich New York wife, now she’s down and out and having to stay with working class Hawkins in San Francisco. For the first half hour or so, Allen plays it like he’s working on the relationship between the two women. Or maybe something to do with Bobby Cannavale as Hawkins’s current boyfriend or Andrew Dice Clay as her ex.

Allen gets some exceptional performances in the film. Blanchett’s peerless in the lead. She’s a target for derision, for pity, for anger, often with Allen having her change gears immediately during a scene. Hawkins is good as the sister; she doesn’t have much to do except react to Cannavale or Clay. Both of them are fantastic, with Clay being something of a revelation.

In other supporting roles, Louis C.K. and Peter Sarsgaard are both good. Baldwin’s fine in his part too. There’s just nothing to compare with the intensity of Blanchett, Cannavale or Clay.

Allen’s use of San Francisco is muted. Javier Aguirresarobe’s photography is excellent, but it’s just a setting for the story. Most of the shots are close-ups.

Jasmine’s quiet, loud and excellent.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Woody Allen; director of photography, Javier Aguirresarobe; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production designer, Santo Loquasto; produced by Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum and Edward Walson; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Cate Blanchett (Jasmine), Sally Hawkins (Ginger), Bobby Cannavale (Chili), Peter Sarsgaard (Dwight), Andrew Dice Clay (Augie), Louis C.K. (Al), Tammy Blanchard (Jane), Max Casella (Eddie), Michael Stuhlbarg (Dr. Flicker), Alden Ehrenreich (Danny) and Alec Baldwin (Hal).


To Rome with Love (2012, Woody Allen)

To Rome with Love is sort of hostile to its viewer. Allen sets up three (or four, depending on how you want to count) plots and plays them all concurrently. However, these three (or four) plots don’t necessarily coexist in the same Rome, certainly not at the same time they linearly play out in the run time. He’s also a little dishonest in how he introduces them–Alec Baldwin’s plot gets a big introduction but it immediately shifts gears.

Wait, there are four plots. I keep losing count….

There’s Alison Pill as a young American tourist. Allen and Judy Davis play her parents. Allen and Davis are great together, in case I forget to mention later. Davis just sits and watches him, with real laughs at his deliveries.

Then there’s Alec Baldwin, who gets entangled in Jesse Eisenberg’s love triangle with Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page.

Alessandra Mastronardi and Alessandro Tiberi are honeymooners. Penelope Cruz figures in at some point.

And then Roberto Benigni is the example of the middle class Roman.

Okay, there are four plots. There are sort of five.

Anyway… the best ones are the Tiberi and Mastronardi one and the Benigni one. Or, as one might say, the Roman ones.

Pill’s not in her story enough, though it’s fairly charming.

The one with Eisenberg misfires. He’s ineffectual, Page’s woefully miscast and Gerwig’s great but underutilized.

Allen experiments with narrative here… and doesn’t seem to like the results.

Rome… and gorgeous Darius Khondji photography help a lot.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Woody Allen; director of photography, Darius Khondji; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production designer, Anne Seibel; produced by Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Giampaolo Letta and Faruk Alatan; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Woody Allen (Jerry), Alec Baldwin (John), Roberto Benigni (Leopoldo), Penélope Cruz (Anna), Judy Davis (Phyllis), Jesse Eisenberg (Jack), Greta Gerwig (Sally), Ellen Page (Monica), Antonio Albanese (Luca Salta), Fabio Armiliato (Giancarlo), Alessandra Mastronardi (Milly), Ornella Muti (Pia Fusari), Flavio Parenti (Michelangelo), Alison Pill (Hayley), Riccardo Scamarcio (Rapinatore hotel) and Alessandro Tiberi (Antonio).


Moon (2009, Duncan Jones)

Moon is quite good.

Moon’s not the most impossible film to talk about without spoiling… but some of its goodness is wrapped up in its plot developments. The viewer should get to enjoy Moon without knowing about them in advance.

I have to be very careful in terms of those developments. I’ll try to avoid talking about all of them.

While the film’s good, Sam Rockwell movies sometimes get to be about marveling at his acting skills. The film isn’t necessarily superior; his performance is startling. He’s always fresh, never resembling anything anyone has ever done before.

Jones does an excellent job directing the film, which isn’t easy since he’s awakening the quality sci-fi genre from its dormant state. His influences are visible—a clear one is Alien, but I won’t spoil it—but he ranges from 2001 to Outland. Moon feels like a return to that late sixties through early eighties sci-fi genre picture. Even the film’s unfortunately traditional conclusion makes it fit.

At a certain point, Jones loses track of the film’s successes. It’s too bad; at times, Moon is singular (again, I can’t say too much without spoiling).

The hipster music—from Clint Mansell—fails. Though I suppose a lot of Moon is, depending on how much you want to read into it, hipster. But there’s a solid core to the picture.

While it is a promising debut from Jones, Moon’s mostly just another great Rockwell performance.

It’s too bad it’s not a great film.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Duncan Jones; screenplay by Nathan Parker, based on a story by Jones; director of photography, Gary Shaw; edited by Nicolas Gaster; music by Clint Mansell; production designer, Tony Noble; produced by Stuart Fenegan and Trudie Styler; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Sam Rockwell (Sam Bell), Kevin Spacey (GERTY), Dominique McElligott (Tess Bell), Kaya Scodelario (Eve Bell), Benedict Wong (Thompson) and Matt Berry (Overmeyers).


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