Dr. Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), whose early-’60s study of adherence to authority — disguised as a study of the effects of “punishment” on learning — remains a go-to reference point in discussions of evil, is the focus of this unconventional biopic from director Michael Almereyda. The sequences detailing that experiment, from implementation to equally chilling post-mortem, are remarkable; watching these subjects sweating and struggling is, indeed, a very different experience that reading about it. Sarsgaard manages to find the man at his character’s chilly center, while Winona Ryder impresses as his devoted but troubled wife. Some of Almereyd’s formal experimentation doesn’t really work (I’m gonna need someone to explain the elephants to me, sorry), but if nothing else, it serves to stylistically separate this odd little film from the Troubled Genius Biopic pack.
Microbe & Gasoline
Those who’ve found director Michel Gondry’s recent work to be too self-consciously quirky/zany will be relieved to hear that his latest is set in the “real world,” a coming-of-age/friendship story that nonetheless manages to mostly transcend cliché, thanks to the filmmaker’s cockeyed way of seeing the world. His title characters are schoolboys thrown together by common enemies; they’re outcasts, picked on, one for being small for his age, the other for being a lower-class new kid. “We are totally underestimated,” one tells the other. “We can’t stand out in this environment.” So they hit the road in a homemade car, taking a summer road trip that becomes a voyage of discovery — without ever telegraphing that outcome. Gondry can’t resist throwing in dashes of surrealism here and there (which, by the way, mostly work), but his style doesn’t overpower the substance; it’s a charming, agreeable, engaging picture.
“These are the men who built the tunnels, the bridges, the highways,” says the kind priest (Jim Broadbent), regarding the broken-down fellows who file in for the charity Christmas dinner. Most immigrant stories are about them; John Crowley’s (adapted by Nick Hornby from Colm Toibin’s novel) goes a generation or two later, telling the tale of an earnest young Irish woman (Saiorse Ronan, marvelous) who sails for New York in the early 1950s and finds her life is not quite as simply solved as she thinks. Crowley does lively romance, earthy humor, and tearjerker with equal finesse, and he’s an enormously efficient filmmaker; even the slightest side characters pay off. It’s an enrapturing piece of work, and its closing moments wring the kind of joyful tears that most movies can only hope for.
In its first hour or so, the unapologetic echoes of The Searchers ring cloud and clear: Director Thomas Bidegain tells the story of Alain, tough, stoic French cowboy — there’s a subculture I wasn’t aware of — whose 16-year-old daughter runs away with her Muslim boyfriend, prompting a multi-year, multi-continent search to “rescue” a young woman who by all indications doesn’t want to return. The transition is fairly seamless (Ethan Edwards’ racism translates into Alain’s Islamophobia quite effortlessly), with her father and young brother hitting brick walls and dead ends all the way, ignoring all indications that “she’s not your daughter anymore.” But it’s his obsession, ruining his life and his relationships — and then Bidegain suddenly veers, tinkering with the homage before dispensing with it all together to become something quietly devastating, and (especially in its final scenes) staggeringly powerful. But even when it diverges from it source, the thematic link is clear: this is ultimately a story about responsibility, and the humanity that must compel it.
In the Shadow of Women
Director Philippe Garrel’s domestic drama wears its French New Wave influences on its sleeve: crisp black-and-white photography, unobtrusive on-the-fly photography, an articulate and omniscient narrator, and a markedly cynical perspective on male/female interactions. Pierre (Stanislas Merhar) and Manon (Clotilde Courau) have a seemingly idyllic marriage — they work together, live together, and love together — but his initially casual extramarital affair becomes something stickier (as these things always do), revealing the cracks in the union that both have chosen to ignore. Garrel eloquently captures the desperation and loneliness found in the other half of such an affair, but his keenest observations are reserved for Pierre and Manon, particularly in the gendered notions of who cheats, and why. And a seemingly unrelated subplot about their French Occupation documentary project masterfully reveals the picture’s real subject: the deceptions, large and small, that can come to define our lives.
The Forbidden Room
The latest from director Guy Maddin (and co-director Evan Johnson) begins with a quote from the Book of John, concluding with the phrase, “gather up the fragments that remain.” True to those instructions, Maddin’s mock-comic phantasmagoria is a bizarre, baroque, and frequently funny journey through cinematic styles, playing at times like a random assemblage of floor scraps from a film lab — in another dimension. He begins in facsimiles of recognizable genres (educational film, submarine drama, adventure tale, Expressionist horror, mad scientist thriller, war movie) before spinning off in his own, odd directions, disappearing through doors and wormholes that lead to bizarre fantasies and familiar tropes turned inside out. It’ll only work for a very specific kind of viewer, obviously — but if this is your thing, this is really your thing.
Everything Is Copy
I’m something of an agnostic when it comes to Nora Ephron, and even this cold heart was moved and inspired by this frisky, funny, and heartbreaking bio-doc, written and directed by son Jacob Bernstein. His first-person perspective is initially somewhat off-putting, but ultimately to the film’s benefit; his familiarity with his interview subjects makes it looser and funnier than it might’ve been in other hands, creating a spirit akin to a chatty party where you keep stumbling into all the good stories. And it’s also not a soft-soap job; he doesn’t shy away from the human toll of his mother’s confessional work, her occasional prickliness with family and collaborators, and the questions of ownership of “material.” In the end, it’s not just a film about this writer; it’s about all writers, and the boundaries we often have trouble maintaining with those we care about.
Ingrid Bergman In Her Own Words
Director Stig Björkman is a film historian, but this is no dry run through Bergman’s impressive filmography; instead, it falls firmly into the recent style of intensely up-close star bio-docs (Amy, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Listen to Me Marlon) that favor the person over the career. Like Marlon, it’s taken from a treasure trove of Bergman’s private materials — in this case, diaries and home movies (she was always shooting, as evidenced by a wonderful montage of her on sets, often in period garb, with still and movie cameras to her eye), alongside rare interviews and previously unseen archival materials (even her screen tests are riveting). Focusing more on her inconvenient romances and rootless nature — she called herself a “bird of passage” — than Casablanca or Notorious, Björkman’s film is dreamlike and lovely, unfolding like a trip through her photo albums, or even a log of her dream-life.
The big, bold letters of his name scroll across the screen — rendered in blood red, of course — as the mad violins of Bernard Hermann fill the soundtrack, and it’s hard to remember the last time I felt so safe in a movie’s hands, so quickly. Directors and acolytes Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow spent five years fashioning a week of interviews with their friend and idol Brian De Palma into this informative and affectionate documentary, which manages to both cover his entire career (even the movies we’d all probably rather forget) and to discuss, with great detail, iconic shots and aesthetic trademarks. His is the only voice heard, which certainly forces us to take his word, but also allows a real sense of the man’s personality; he still sparkles and giggles like a kid getting away with something, telling great stories, imparting valuable wisdom, and surveying a career with honesty and candor. A movie geek treat.
Don’t Blink: Robert Frank
Asked for advice on how to take a good picture, Robert Frank responds wryly, “Make sure they’re smiling. Say cheese!” He’s taking the piss; in a more serious mood, he admits that the key is finding people off-guard, because “when someone’s aware of the camera, it becomes a different picture.” Laura Israel’s documentary portrait looks at his influences, his films, and his life, but it’s funkier, more loose-limbed and free-form than the norm — she slips in and out of time frames, stone-skipping through his career, matching his story and images to music and vibes. The clips from his films are remarkable and the archival footage is a hoot (particularly when comparing the laid-back elder statesman he’s become with his prickly younger self). But most of all, it’s propelled by his images, which maintain their considerable power after decades of analysis and imitation.