Friday, April 7, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: JACKIE (2016); PATERSON (2016); and MAX ROSE (2016)

(US/France/Chile/China - 2016)

Affected and mannered by design, Natalie Portman's feature-length impression of Jackie Kennedy carries this artsy, dream-like collage by acclaimed Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain (TONY MANERO, NERUDA). Taking place in the week after the assassination of JFK (Danish actor Caspar Phillipson), JACKIE is a largely experimental work that isn't concerned being a straightforward biopic, and that works in its favor about as often as it works against it. A framing device has Jackie being interviewed by a journalist (Billy Crudup) at the family home in Hyannis Port several days after her husband's funeral. She makes it clear from the outset that she won't indulge the obvious ("You want me to describe the sound the bullet made when it collided with my husband's skull?"), and she will shape the story and have final edit over what is written and presented to the public. From the moment LBJ (John Carroll Lynch) is sworn in on the flight back to D.C., a shell-shocked, blood-splattered Jackie is adamant about making sure her husband is honored and his public persona preserved. Whether she's planning his memorial or telling her story to the journalist, Jackie is constructing an image, that will shape the world's perception of herself and JFK for years to come. Her goal is to present to the world "the brief, shining moment that there was a Camelot," while acknowledging "There won't be another Camelot...not another Camelot."

As intricately constructed as its subject's public image, JACKIE is equal parts Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick. The often stream-of-consciousness monologues delivered by Jackie aren't nearly as wandering and meandering as more recent Malick, and the cold, clinical presentation and long tracking shots are straight out of Kubrick 101. Shooting in Super 16 gives the film a grainy and almost voyeuristic immediacy into Jackie's grief, but the more it goes on, the more ponderous it becomes. Larrain lets Mica Levi's Oscar-nominated score do a lot of the dramatic heavy lifting, and while there's a number of striking images throughout, JACKIE's insistence on keeping everyone--from its supporting characters to the audience watching--at a distance becomes a detriment. The script by Noah Oppenheim (whose two previous writing credits are THE MAZE RUNNER and ALLEGIANT) gets lost in frequently pretentious pontification, with Jackie telling a priest (the late John Hurt in one of his last roles; he died a month after the film's release) things like "The characters you read on the page become more real than the characters who stand beside us." In JACKIE's interpretation of its subject, the First Lady is someone who always seems to playing a part or playing to an audience ("I love crowds!" she tells JFK in a flashback), and to that extent, Portman's performance is remarkable in that it conveys that sense of deliberately manufactured artifice. It's nice that Larrain attempted something more than a cookie-cutter biopic, but in using such tactics, he never lets you in, and the large supporting cast--Hurt, Crudup, Lynch, Peter Sarsgaard as an unconvincing Bobby Kennedy, Greta Gerwig as White House Social Secretary and Jackie's friend Nancy Tuckerman, Richard E. Grant as Bill Walton--exists largely to listen to Jackie wax philosophical and marvel at Portman's uncanny interpretation with her clipped, airy inflections. JACKIE is ambitious and beautifully crafted, but Larrain's technique is too distant and clinical for its own good. (R, 100 mins)

(US/Germany/France - 2016)

A quiet film even by Jim Jarmusch standards, PATERSON is a low-key character piece focusing on a Paterson, NJ bus driver named Paterson (Adam Driver) and--it's never really specified--his wife or girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), and their English bulldog Marvin (a fine canine performance by eight-year-old Nellie, who was diagnosed with cancer during production and died shortly after filming). A creature of habit, Paterson wakes up every day between 6:10 and 6:15 am, eats a bowl of Cheerios, and walks to work. In his down time and on his lunch breaks, he writes poetry in a journal. When he gets home, Laura makes dinner and tells him about her day, which usually involves her constantly changing life goals ("I need to learn how to play the guitar so I can become a country singer and be as big as Tammy Wynette," she tells Paterson, who's obviously just hearing about this dream for the first time, right between her wanting to be a fashion designer, a painter, and hoping to start her own cupcake business), then he walks Marvin and stops at a neighborhood dive bar run by Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), for one beer and some conversation before calling it a night. This is Paterson's daily routine, which we follow over the course of a week, and in the context of the film, we see little in the way of a social life (they go see ISLAND OF LOST SOULS at a revival house on Saturday) and nothing in the way of family or friends (a photo on a table tells us that Paterson is a former Marine). PATERSON is about finding heart and soul in the mundane and the everyday, whether it's Paterson being inspired by a box of Ohio Blue Tip matches or eavesdropping on slice-of-life passenger conversations while he's behind the wheel. To that extent, it feels a little like Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's 1995 arthouse hit SMOKE, but the daily repetition recalls Chantal Akerman's JEANNE DIELMAN and the general mood of the film comes off somewhat like Jarmusch's attempt at making a less-precious Wes Anderson film (the recurring use of twins gets a little too cute after a while). The atmosphere is intriguing--Jarmusch sets his scenes in old-school Jersey neighborhoods that have likely been unchanged for decades, and Paterson himself seems like a man not made for these times (he doesn't even have a cell phone). It's a film about the millions of average nobodies who have artistic ideas within them that need to come out but everyday life just happens. Flighty but loving Laura wants Paterson to publish his poetry, but he writes it mainly for himself. He's fine with that, and he's happy. There's a reverence for the history of Paterson, whether it's the invocation of revered Paterson-born poet William Carlos Williams, whose most well-known collection is titled Paterson, and in the framed photos of hometown heroes on the wall of Doc's bar. On a cursory glance, not much happens in PATERSON, but it very subtly sneaks up on you, as in a late sequence where Paterson, on one of his solitary walks, meets a kindred spirit in a traveler from Osaka (Masatoshi Nagase, who was in Jarmusch's MYSTERY TRAIN back in 1989) carrying a tattered Japanese translation of Paterson, that really carries some unexpected emotional resonance. (R, 118 mins)

(US - 2016)

Screened at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and shelved for three years until it hit a few theaters in the fall of 2016, MAX ROSE marks the first significant big-screen role for Jerry Lewis since 1995's little-seen FUNNY BONES. Lewis brings much emotion and poignancy to the title character, a forgotten jazz pianist who had a brief day in the sun in the late 1950s but never became a star. As MAX ROSE opens, 87-year-old Max is dealing with the death of Eva (Claire Bloom), his wife of 65 years. He's understandably hit hard by it ("I can't even remember my life without her," he says) and despite the doting attention of his adult granddaughter Annie (Kerry Bishe) and attempts at bonding from his somewhat estranged son Chris (Kevin Pollak), Max grows obsessed with something he uncovered in the days before Eva's death: a makeup compact with a hidden inscription from a "Ben," dated November 5, 1959, the day he was in across the country in a NYC studio cutting his only record. Max is haunted by the notion that Eva had a secret lover and questions the whether his marriage and his entire life has been a lie, even breaking down and airing this potentially dirty laundry during the eulogy at Eva's funeral. A health scare permanently sends cantankerous Max to a retirement home, where he's not enthused about knitting and cooking classes but finds some buddies in a likable trio of fellow old-timer widowers (played by Rance Howard, Lee Weaver, and legendary political satirist Mort Sahl, and watching guys like Sahl and Lewis riff provides some of MAX ROSE's best moments), but he can't get "Ben" out of his mind. When he eventually finds out who Ben is and that he's still alive (Dean Stockwell turns up in the third act), Max realizes he can't have any kind of closure until he gets to the bottom of Eva's relationship with him.

MAX ROSE was written and directed by Daniel Noah, a producer on recent notable cult films like TOAD ROAD and A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT. Noah based the Max Rose character on his own grandfather, so there's no doubting his sincerity in the project, which was probably key in getting an essentially retired Lewis onboard. While things take a decidedly predictable turn (there's obviously an explanation for the inscription and no way the film will turn the saintly Eva into a cheating wife) and grow increasingly maudlin in the home stretch, with a closing scene that's audience manipulation at its most shameless, it's hard to not like MAX ROSE. This is almost entirely due to the sentimentality of seeing Lewis in a starring role once again after all these years. Like Clint Eastwood in GRAN TORINO, it's a film that sinks or swims on its star, in each case a cultural icon with decades of familiarity working in his favor. Lewis is a joy to watch here, even if he's grown notoriously prickly and abrasive with age, and he's convincing and heartbreaking in the small, quiet moments where Noah really nails the emotional impact of losing someone after so long: Max sitting alone in the living room, the house eerily silent; or deciding it's time to throw out Eva's toothbrush and her things in the medicine cabinet; or spotting the book she was reading, left on the coffee table with its bookmark sticking out at the halfway point, and realizing she'll never finish it. This is the kind of film that probably would've gotten a big push a decade or two ago, with a sentimental Oscar nod for Lewis all but guaranteed. But after some significant retooling following its panned Cannes screening in 2013 (which resulted in Fred Willard being cut from the film completely, which may be a factor in its truncated running time), there's no place for something like MAX ROSE in today's market. Some movies skew old and still get wide releases (the recent Shirley MacLaine-starring THE LAST WORD and the new remake of GOING IN STYLE come to mind), but is anyone under 80 going to pay to see a new Jerry Lewis movie in 2016? And while there are no doubt a good number of tech-savvy geriatrics, how many are into streaming and VOD? My dad is 73 and shakes his head and makes a face like he's sniffing Limburger when you mention "streaming" to him. MAX ROSE isn't any great shakes, but it's awfully hard to dislike, and a must for Jerry Lewis fans...if they're even aware of its existence. (Unrated, 84 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

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