This summer will largely be remembered as a period of empty theaters as COVID-19 caused many states to close public venues and studios held back most new films until they could be screened for audiences.
Business, like nature, abhors a vacuum, so we did see a wide array of films offered to consumers via streaming. These included low budget and niche audience films that might have gone the direct-to-streaming route regardless and more commercial fare that finished the festival circuit and didn’t generate the awards buzz that generally translates into widespread distribution.
Nevertheless, there is some stuff out there for the content-hungry. These films may be modest in their entertainment value, but they still have elements that recommend them:
Gemma Arterton is like that band you discovered in high school and about whom you both longed and feared for the rest of the world to catch on. She has already carried some delightful films such as Tamara Drewe and Emma Bovery. Here she plays a grumpy academic (are there any other kinds?) who is forced to care for a displaced boy during World War II. The film opens with a flash forward where the elderly version of her character tells a pair of cute tykes that come to her door to “bugger off,” so we know the lad she cares for is not going to melt her heart. Ah, who are we kidding? We know he will, but we also know she will keep some exterior gruffness to save us all from insulin shock. Arterton’s character writes about folklore, so it is no surprise that the film will have lots of self-referential dialogue about stories, where they come from, and how they shape us. Subplots are more melodramatic, and they jostle one another for screen time. Even so, Arterton is one of those performers I would pay to listen to reading the phone book.
Made In Italy
Lian Neeson is another such performer. His Irish accent is as comfortable and comforting as the lines on a loved one’s face. In Made in Italy he plays a tortured artist (are there any other kinds?) whose son begs him to sell a family home in Tuscany. Junior wants to buy an art gallery from his snobby, soon to be ex-wife. After the first confrontation between the divorcing couple, we can more or less chart the entire movie. The younger son will bond with his dad, find a prettier Italian woman to take his ex-wife’s place, and decide that the most valuable things in life cannot be bought and sold in a gallery. If it takes him bit too long to realize what seems patently obvious to us…well, at least there is plenty of Tuscan countryside to look at in the meantime.
Speaking of great actors who can carry problematic movies, Ethan Hawke gives yet another in a run of stellar performances in the odd biopic, Tesla. Hawke plays the tortured genius (are there any other kinds?) as a man distracted by the brilliance of his own ideas and all the more lonely for his inability to communicate his ideas to those impatient to see them create a profit. The film is a patchwork of interesting scenes, almost all of which work better individually than in the aggregate. They are loosely stitched together with narration from Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) who will periodically interject via voice-over that the scene we just saw never happened. Through most of the film’s 100 minutes, I thought I understood what it was going for — a story that illustrates how hard it is to separate facts from wild conjecture. But when Tesla steps to a microphone and starts mumbling Tears for Fears’s “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” I turned to my viewing partner and said, “Yeah, I got nothing.” Like it’s subject, Tesla is sure to leave a trail of admirers unsure if they are being conned or just witnessing genius so highly elevated that it is incomprehensible to mere mortals. It’s worth a look though, particularly if you liked Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime or Experimenter.
Measure for Measure
Hugo Weaving does modernized Shakespeare. Measure for Measure is so loosely adapted from the bard’s play that had they changed the title I am sure a few audience members would have not realized why the principle story line sounded familiar. Both Shakespeare’s play and Paul Ireland’s film rest on the dilemma of a devout young woman blackmailed to sacrifice her virginity to a corrupt power broker in order to save the life of a loved one. On the one hand, changing that character from a Christian to a Muslim might make the film more timely, but changing the man whose life she is bartering from a brother to a lover carries its own problems. The film comes across as a mash up of Measure for Measure and Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps that’s for the best. As in Much Ado About Nothing, the sexual politics in Shakespeare’s “comedy” doesn’t age particularly well. Resolutions in the source material usually mean economically advantageous marriages that are supposed to make up for whatever manner of mistreatment the women endure in the meantime. That’s not going to fly here, so the back half of the film has to wrench the story to explain why Duke (Weaving) would turn on his son, Angelo. Weaving does add some gravitas to the role, and the film might be an educational discussion starter.
Creating a Character: The Moni Yakim Legacy
While I am on the subject of acting, I will repeat my observation that film critics rarely discuss acting. We vote on awards for it, but when we get that coveted interview with an A-lister, rarely does the conversation turn to the craft of acting. That’s why I loved the idea of a documentary about Moni Yakim — one of the last original instructors at Julliard. Yakim teaches “movement” — and if you aren’t sure why that is a big deal, pay close attention to the mid-film comparison between his approach and that of Stella Adler — is acting more about “showing” or “being”? Yakim studied mime, and he has taught (among others) Laura Linney, Jessica Chastain, Oscar Issac, Anthony Mackie, Kevin Kline, and Peter Jacobson. It is cool to see these stars pay homage to their instructor, but only Kline illustrates some of the exercises/techniques. The others, especially Mackie and Isaac, talk in abstractions about putting “everything” they have learned “together.” At times that makes the film sound like a series of toasts at a retirement dinner — complete with slides of an abbreviated bio. But when the documentary takes us into the classroom and we see a new generation of students learning from Yakim and getting feedback, we begin to understand that there is a purpose behind these exercises. I have often wondered why certain actors have physical *presence* — why the audience is drawn to watch them even when their characters are not speaking or they are not center stage. Most academic textbooks reduce discussions of acting to method acting. I got the impression from Creating a Character that perhaps the pendulum has swung away from method acting and more towards expressionism. By that I don’t mean hamming it up. I mean expressing showing the audience with one’s body what the character is doing, feeling, thinking rather than simply internalizing it and expecting that if you feel it, it will come across to the viewer.