This Week in Art House Cinema: The Dressmaker, For the Love of Spock and more
Those few times a year when a film escapes from Australia and makes its way stateside, you can usually count on it being a familiar story told through a quirky filter. Based on Rosalie Ham’s novel, The Dressmaker is the story of a woman who was run out of her small town as a girl after an unexplained death and is now returning to exact a type of revenge on those who she believes wronged her. Kate Winslet (the film’s one non-Australian) plays Tilly Dunnage, who may have accidentally killed a young boy when she herself was a young girl, but neither she nor anyone else in the town seems to know exactly how it happened.
While she was away, Tilly became a masterful seamstress and dress designer. When word of her abilities gets out, the women in this rundown village line up outside her door to have her make them a touch of the glamorous. But Tilly has other motivations; she wants access to the town’s folklore, including details about the boy that died, his family, and her role in his demise. Of very little help is Tilly’s borderline demented mother Molly (Judy Davis), who stuck around after Tilly left town, but let her household and mind go to rot.
The Dressmaker is about the lengths that a small town will go to to alleviate boredom, even if it means falsely accusing someone of murder or any other number of lesser dramas and bits of gossip. Director Jocelyn Moorhouse (A Thousand Acres, How to Make an American Quilt, Proof, working from an adaptation she worked on with P.J. Hogan) has a keen sense of the energy that keeps a closed community like this going, even if there’s no truth behind gossip. While Tilly is there for one reason only, she can’t seem to resist the charms and muscles of Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth, in arguably his best work), and The Dressmaker turns briefly into a love story before the mystery solving kicks back in.
Other colorful characters that Tilly crosses paths with include the dowdy Trudy Pratt (Predestination’s Sarah Snook), Tilly’s first customer who is looking for a full-blown transformation; Beulah (Kerry Fox), the local teacher who might know more than she’ll admit about the boy’s death years earlier; and Hugo Weaving’s (The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings) Sgt. Farrat, the town’s only source of law enforcement, who also has a keen interest in Tilly’s creations. It may sound like a mish-mash of personalities, vying for camera time by out-weirding each other, but in fact, all of these character make sense together and feel like they’re part of the landscape (or soon will be).
And just as one mystery is being put to bed, and Tilly’s belief that she is somehow cursed is nearly laid to rest, an unnecessary third-act nightmare kicks in and sours a certain amount of good feeling I was having about The Dressmaker, which is a shame because it’s one of the better performances Winslet has given of late. My other major issue with the movie is that Davis’s Molly is played so broad and cantankerously that she quickly shifts from colorful to burdensome, which is a true shame because Davis really is one of the best actresses on the planet.
The Dressmaker is at its best when it functions as an existential murder mystery, with clues and remembrances being unveiled, helping Tilly complete the missing pieces of her own identity. Identity is a big theme here, with many of the locals realizing that a pretty dress can’t cover up an ugly soul. Despite its getting lost in the final act, the movie manages to be enticing and darkly humorous to the core. Not a bad entry from Down Under.
For the Love of Spock
Conceived by Leonard Nimoy and his son Adam Nimoy (an accomplished director in his own right), For the Love of Spock was originally meant to be a commemorative work about the creation, evolution, and enduring legacy of the elder Nimoy’s beloved “Star Trek” character Mr. Spock, timed for release this year to coincide with the show’s 50th anniversary. But with Nimoy’s death in February 2015, Adam decided to also make the movie a man’s loving tribute to his father and covers Nimoy’s entire acting history, from television to the stage to music recordings to one-man shows and the ever-present convention circuit.
Spock was a character Nimoy could never say good-bye to, and it honestly doesn’t seem like he was bothered by that. The first half of the movie is all about Nimoy’s career through “Star Trek,” the original series, including his years playing every nationality under the sun, tough guys, nice guys—he was a great, all-purpose character actor with a captivating voice and an unusual look. Gene Roddenberry spotting him in a one-off role on television and thought his cheek bones would accentuate a pair of pointed ears nicely. The film goes into detail about the failed “Star Trek” pilot, and why the eventual relationship between Nimoy and William Shatner was so effective, even when Spock become the breakout character of the series. There’s great discussion about Nimoy being allowed to pull back because Shatner was playing Captain Kirk so big, and as a result any fleeting signs of emotion by Spock were all the more impactful.
For the Love of Spock moves between Nimoy’s reading of his own autobiography, newer and archival interviews between him and his son, as well as new conversations with the surviving “Star Trek” actors and a small handful of “Trek” fans, including a surprisingly devoted Jason Alexander. Some of the best analysis of the series, the relationships Spock has with Kirk, Dr. McCoy and other characters on the show, and the character’s mark on science fiction and pop culture comes from the current cast of the Star Trek movies, in particular Simon Pegg (big surprise there) and director J.J. Abrams, who was adamant about bringing Nimoy’s Spock back into the fold in order to show Zachary Quinto’s incarnation that pushing down his emotions was not always the best way to live.
The second half of the film is perhaps the most interesting, as the director moves into Nimoy’s post-“Star Trek” musical theater years. No embarrassing stone is left unturned, and the brief glimpse into Nimoy’s recording career is actually quite revealing. But Adam Nimoy also allows himself to open up about the rocky relationship he had with his frequently absent father—a relationship that ultimately was rediscovered and thrived in later years. This section of the movie also walks a path through the original Star Trek movies, including how a lawsuit between Nimoy and Paramount also kept them from happening. Nimoy was deeply disappointed with the first film, only came back for Wrath of Khan because he was promised a spectacular death scene, and only came back after that because Paramount allowed him to direct the third and fourth film.
Part of the reason Adam Nimoy is the perfect person to have made For the Love of Spock isn’t just because he’s Leonard’s son. He was also exactly the right age to fall in love with the original series as a kid, and he never stopped being a fan. The photos and brief video clips of a young Adam on the bridge set, complete with his own set of Vulcan ears, next to his smiling father defines heartwarming. Watching the filmmaker recently walk the halls of his first “Star Trek” convention and seeing people dressed up as his father’s character while seeing Spock’s face on every possible piece of memorabilia is wonderful.
The most moving material is toward the end, when the filmmaker recounts how his father helped him through the toughest time in his life, when his second wife was struck down by cancer within months of them getting married. We see Adam interviewed periodically throughout the film and we just assume he’s talking to an unnamed producer, but it is revealed that he is talking to Quinto, a man who both Nimoy men walked through the process of carrying the Spock character into the future, and in the process, began to see him as a part of their family.
For the Love of Spock doesn’t forget that Nimoy’s career was great fun for him. We get glimpses of him hosting the “In Search Of…” series, which was one of the first to blur the lines between fantasy and reality; his short time on the “Mission: Impossible” show; his terrific work in the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers; and even his infamously jaw-dropping performance of “Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.” Fascinating. On the other end of the spectrum, Leonard Nimoy talks quite candidly about his many years of alcohol abuse and his painful divorce from the mother of his children.
Rather than build to the sadness and outpouring of tribute upon Nimoy’s death, the film ends with Adam asking each subject to describe his father in one word. There are some choice answers to that, but the one that comes up the most is simply “Love.” Without sparing us many of the painful truths about his imperfect life, For the Love of Spock reveals, not surprisingly, that Leonard Nimoy was a good man who made sure that the last decades of his life were devoted to his extended family of people he loved and loved him back. Much as his appearances in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek films revealed, the human side of Spock won in the end, which didn’t keep him from making smart, logical decisions most of the time. This is a truly special film for “Trek” fans, and for those who just love a great Hollywood story.
The film opens today at the Gene Siskel Film Center. On Saturday, September 24, director Adam Nimoy will discuss the film via Skype after the 7:45 screening.
To read my exclusive interview with For the Love of Spock director (and Leonard Nimoy’s son) Adam Nimoy, go to Ain’t It Cool News.
The latest film by Andrew Neel (Darkon, King Kelly) is a much-needed slap in the face at a male culture that might not be born in a fraternity environment, but it’s certainly finely honed there. Based on the memoir by Brad Land, Goat is a sometimes vicious examination of the modern definition of brotherhood as seen through the eyes of Brad (Ben Schnetzer, also currently in Snowden and seen previously in Warcraft and Pride), a 19-year-old college student who was brutally assaulted over his summer break and is committed to getting his life back on track with the new school year. His older brother Brett (Nick Jonas, “Kingdom”) invites Brad to his fraternity’s parties, where he shares his story of being attacked with its members, many of whom want him to rush.
Seeing the organization as a place where he’ll be protected and appreciated, Brad agrees even though brother Brett doesn’t think it’s the best idea given Brad’s mild PTSD issues. Adapted by Neel, Mike Roberts and filmmaker David Gordon Green, Goat puts a microscope on the way ideas about masculinity have become too warped and corrupted, using violence, alcohol and forms of mild psychological torture. The end game is meant to be bonds with your captors that last a lifetime, but for some, the price for that type of security is too high.
Schnetzer and Jonas are both quite good, as the former convincingly plays a vulnerable young man trying to prove his manhood, while Jonas is the brother torn between helping his sibling and letting him go through the rituals that he did and hopefully come out the other side a stronger person, which doesn’t seem likely.
In Goat’s final third, someone reports the fraternity’s hazing rituals to the college, sparking an examination. Everyone assumes the rat was Brad, but he claims innocence. Director Neel doesn’t shy away from showing us just how bad the hazing process really is, and the tension levels in this movie are astronomically high as the film goes on. The level of graphic detail of some of the hazing stunts is often shocking (and, I have little doubt, accurate), and even a comic cameo by a recent alum played by executive producer James Franco can’t quite cut the disgust level that audiences will likely feel.
There’s a certain amount of glorification going on as well, but that comes in small doses, and it certainly doesn’t cover up the gross insecurity on display that the fraternity brothers try to bury with booze and drunken sex. Goat is not always an easy film to watch or digest, but it does seem important for some young men to view prior to hitting college. Some may see it as a recruitment video for bad behavior in general, while others (including the filmmakers) may see it as an angry cautionary tale. Either way, it’s a heartbreaking experience for so many reasons. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger
Less a biopic or profile of British intellectual and self-proclaimed storyteller John Berger, The Seasons of Quincy comprises four visual essays (by four different directors, including his longtime friend Tilda Swinton, who also acts as occasional narrator) that watched one after the other make up a fairly complete portrait of the man’s achievements, both past and present. Produced by London’s Derek Jarman Lab, the film is set primarily in the French Alpine village of Quincy, where the subject retreated many years ago.
We see Berger with various combinations of family and friends, including Swinton, his children and grandchildren, and others who have little connection with the world of art, essays, novels, history, and television that Berger has worked in for decades. No matter where he is or who he’s with, Berger is a man whose words you simply listen to, whether he talking about the desperate state of world politics or telling Swinton a memory of his father slicing an apple in a peculiar manner. No matter the subject, you take it in because there’s a quality and weight to Berger’s voice you simply can’t ignore.
Swinton, along with co-directors Colin MacCabe, Christopher Roth and Bartek Dziadosz, reveal that part of Berger’s appeal is that he is also a fantastically engaging listener as well. And he finds a way to link the thoughts of others with his own encyclopedic knowledge on so many subjects. But nothing is more captivating than when he’s going through his own personal archives of experiences, from his father’s time in World War II to more recent experiences with his own family.
The collective content of these four short films feels like it was created with a fine paintbrush. The locations of inherently lovely, but I’m talking about the content of the spoken word, which draws out thoughts and images from the listener’s mind and creates fully realized portraits that we can gaze upon long after The Seasons in Quincy is over. Let’s face it, most of us right-thinking people will watch Swinton in just about anything, so having her as a our guide into Berger’s story makes me all the more eager to step in. But I wasn’t expecting something so graceful and fulfilling. The film opens today at Facets Cinémathèque.