Clouds of Sils Maria an Epic Fail

Directed by Olivier Assayas
CG Cinema/IFC Film (USA); 124 minutes, R (language, brief nudity, tedium)
* *
This film should have been about them!
Here’s what good about this German-French-Swiss production (in English): gorgeous views of the Swiss Alps and strong performances from Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart. Here’s what’s bad: the script, the ham-handed metaphors, the (lack of) direction, any story line not involving Binoche and Stewart, and everything else about this numbingly obvious and boring film. This is a two-hour film that feels like a climb up the Matterhorn.

The setup is that glamorous actress Maria Enders (Binoche) is on her way to honor her mentor, playwright Wilhelm Melchior. Twenty years earlier Wilhelm hurtled Maria to fame by casting her in Maloja Snake, a play and film in which a teenage girl named Sigrid fell in love with an older woman named Helena (who is eventually driven to suicide). Enders is now world-famous, though she’s a scattershot whose life is, by her choice, micromanaged by her devoted personal assistant Valentine (Stewart). As the two make their way toward Zurich to honor Melchior, word comes that he has died. There is also a rumor that Melchior wrote a sequel to Maloja Snake with Binoche in mind as Sigrid at age 40—the age at which Helena committed suicide. But, as it turns out, that’s not quite the case. Maria is told there were just “notes”—though we suspect that Melchior’s widow, Rosa, actually burned the script—and a hot young director named Klaus (Lars Eidinger) plans to direct a revival of the play with Enders this time playing Helena.

Thank me now, as I’ve just made more sense of the script than the film does. What follows is Maria’s retreat to Sils Maria, Melchior’s home deep in the Alps generously donated by Rosa, who wishes to flee Wilhelm’s memory. There, Maria and Val hole up so she can have an existential crisis over aging and decide whether she wants to do the play. Sils Maria is stunning and, as we learn, the Maloja Snake is a cloud formation that slithers through an Alpine valley and entombs the region in wispy shrouds. It is one of the film’s obvious metaphors, representing the inexorable sweep of time, Maria’s clouded judgment, and Maria’s inability to see the potential for another kind of beauty when the postcard panoramas (her youthful visage) fade. Even more, she cannot see that Val is deeply in love with her. Get it? The play within the play…. Nor can she appreciate Val’s attempts to bring her up to date; Maria finds social media, tabloid sensationalism, and new concepts in how to present plays and movies to be shallow. She’s absolutely oblivious to the charms of Jo Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), whom Klaus wishes to cast as the new Sigrid. What Val sees as freshness and intensity, Maria sees as a boorish bad girl who confuses F-bombs with complexity. (Ironically, that’s right—Moretz is only minimally competent in the film and has all the appeal of Lindsay Lohan in her train wreck phase.) Needless to say, Maria and Jo Ann will have a parting of the ways. Ooohhh—how profound! A play within a play within a play….  

If this sounds like a one-trick pony, it is. The film’s various subplots—Maria’s disdain for another actor, Jo Ann’s scandalous affair with a married man, Klaus’ attempt to articulate his “vision”—have less weight than the Sils Maria clouds. It’s hard to care about anything in this film except Maria/Val dynamic and, frankly, this film would have been much better as a lesbian love story rather than what it is: a series of rambles across the Alps that always end just short of the hike’s stated destination. I suppose it’s also intended to make us muse upon culture and the gap between sheen and substance, but by attempting to make that point through nothing but gauzy surfaces, Clouds of Sils Maria manages to fail on still another level. –Rob Weir


The Wailin' Jennys: Beauty Beyond Measure

Bright Morning Star
Red House 234
* * * * *

The Wailin' Jennys is a great name for a country/folk trio. It's also deceptive, as these three "Jennys" (Nicky Mehta, Ruth Moody, Heather Masse) are angels, not outlaws like Waylon Jennings. In fact, they put me in mind of the voices dubbed onto the Sirens in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and I do not lightly compare anyone to a power trio like Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and Alison Krauss. The Jennys most recent album, Bright Morning Star, was released in 2009 in Canada, but not in the U.S. until 2011 and it still hasn't gotten half the attention it deserves. This isn't just a pretty album; it's drop-to-you-knees-and-cry-your-eyes-out gorgeous.

The Jennys do everything right on this album. There is, first and foremost, the blend of three tone-perfect voices: Moody's soprano, Mehta's mezzo, and Masse's alto. Second, there is the aural mastery of the production of Mark Howard and David Travers-Smith, who place the vocals front and center and use instrumentation to generate atmosphere รก la Daniel Lanois. They also do unusual things such as pairing acoustic guitar and flugel horn ("Across the Sea") or opening a song ("Storm Coming") with soulful vocals that become even more so when an electric organ rolls over the mix. They also effectively use drums in unexpected ways—mixed with banjo ("Bird Song")  or added as a  poignant punctuation mark to a breakup song ("All the Stars"). Need more convincing that this record is special? How about some fine writing? On "What Has Been Done," Mehta takes on alternative views of that theme: "Have your holy, I'll have mine/soil and birch and open sky/All our stories some day go/dust from air and earth from bone." Now add musical variation: an a capella take on an honest-to-goodness traditional (title track), a splash of Appalachia-meets-gospel ("Bird Song"), a song that comes off like something the Andrews Sisters might have done if dabbling in hula music ("Cherry Blossom Love"), and an album so thoughtful that it opens with a heart-wrenching regret song ("Swing Low Sail High") and ends on hopeful note ("Last Goodbye"). Call Bright Morning Star a shimmering mix of pop hooks, country sweetness, and harmonic perfection.  Rob Weir

Those within driving distance of Northampton, MA can catch the Jenny's in concert at the Calvin Theater on May 1. Call 800-THE-TICK or check www.nbotickets.com


Filth Fails as Black Comedy Despite McAvoy's Superb Peformance

FILTH  (2014)
Directed by Jon S. Baird
Lionsgate, 97 minutes, NR (crude humor, rough language, degradation)
* *

Don't believe the box hype!
Of all movie genres, black comedy is the hardest to get right. Err on the first half of the equation and the film is too dark for the humor to ring true; err on the second half and it's hard to muster the requisite seriousness. The Scottish film Filth flunks part one–its bleakness is so dark that even occasional sharp humor cuts like a murder knife.

The film is set in Edinburgh, but not the parts that tourists see. The film opens with the fatal gang stomping of a Japanese man in an underground station. There is a witness. Cut to the local precinct, which is staffed by a band of detectives themselves just one step—make it a half step—removed from thuggery. The station is ineptly commanded by Detective Chief Inspector Gus Bain (John Sessions), a bumbling fool who longs to write film screenplays and is just riding out his days until retirement by delegating everything. Luckily for Bain, his precinct is filled with Detective Sergeants (DS) angling for promotion to Detective Inspector  (DI). Enter our anti-hero, DS Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy). "Robbie" is easily the best cop of the lot–when he's in the zone, which was years ago. Bain hands Robbie the murder case—just about as bad a decision as he could make, as Roberston embodies the filth of the movie's title. He has, to use an American expression, lost it—his wife, his kid, a younger brother, and his sanity. He is seriously bipolar, a boozer, a cokehead, a sex addict, and an amoral lowlife. The only thing that keeps him going is his intellect, which he directs toward "the games," a perverted plan to undermine his half dozen rivals for the DI position by feigning friendship and bringing them down to his level. Along the way he also seeks to humiliate an influential and wealthy Mason lodge brother, Clifford Blades (Eddie Marsan), and his wife, Bunty (Shirley Henderson). And this is just the tip of the iceberg of Robbie's secret problems.

Filth has some genuinely funny moments and searing lines. Alas, it's only McAvoy's superb performance that keeps the film from sinking under its namesake slime. McAvoy is a gifted actor—the sort who commands us to watch even when he's disgusting. But, in the end, it just boils down to whether even McAvoy can carry us past endless scenes of vomiting, male chauvinism, self-destruction, hooliganism, objectification, and generalized inhumanity. Nope–the film is too black to carry the comedy. We get a zany cameo from James Broadbent as Dr. Rossi, Robbie's drug-dispensing doctor, but his cartoony interludes feel as if someone just switched the channel to a random Dr. Who episode. These radical shifts of tone serve mainly to highlight Robbie's misanthropy to the point where we don't believe the occasional glimmers of decency we're supposed to see. Enter Mary (Joanne Froggart, Anna from Downton Abbey) as a bereaved widow who thinks Robbie might be a kind man. She's sweet, but her screen time is just another unconvincing tonal shift.

I watched this film to the end mostly because I was mesmerized by just how good McAvoy was in such a bad film. I truly admired his performance, though it wasn't in the service of much. Looking for laughs or redeeming social value? Don't look here.
 -- Rob Weir