(With thanks—and apologies—to Stanislaw Lem)
Director: Gilbert Manfred
Cast: Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Scarlett Johansson, Ricky Jay
Running time: 133 minutes
Writer: Gilbert Manfred
By Bethany Dale
When, if ever, is a forgery a work of art? That question looms large over the characters in Gilbert Manfred’s new film Timeless. Though he has yet to fulfill the promise of his debut (the sublime indie thriller Shadowing) Manfred has become a reliable delivery system for middle-brow, high-concept dramas like The Impresario (2006) and Privation (2009), the latter receiving an Oscar nod for best adapted screenplay. Manfred’s films have always dealt with the question of authenticity. With Timeless, his complex story of a time-traveling art forger, Manfred seems to be calling into question the entire idea of genuineness.
Christian Bale stars as Timothy Brechten, an art historian and forger who uses a time machine to make his counterfeit paintings more authentic. Initially Brechten imitates the style of past masters in his modern day studio, using pigments and brushes he has “liberated” from a given era to ensure that his paintings will hold up to scrutiny. He then returns to the past and hides the paintings in cellars and attics where he knows they will not be discovered until he to returns to the present day and retrieves them. The first third of the film is a fascinating look at the ins-and-outs of art forgery as scenes of Brechten creating several “original” Vermeers are intercut with examples of the battery of tests the paintings must pass before they can be sold. Trouble arises when a stylistic inconsistency in one of the Vermeers attracts the attention of art dealer Nicholas Feist (played with effete malice by John Malkovich) who becomes obsessed with exposing not only the painting but also Brechten himself as a fraud. When Brechten seeks refuge in turn of the century New York he initially hopes only to regain his composure and escape Feist’s accusations. Eventually, however, he hatches an elaborate scheme to establish himself as a master in the past so that he can profit in the present. Yet the longer Brechten remains in the 19th century, the more obsessed he becomes with the details of his paintings and the fuzzier the line between forgery and authenticity becomes.
Shot in lush colors by cinematographer John Toll, Timeless is beautiful to look at and works best when it sticks to its central plotline. Brechten’s love affair with an attractive socialite (Scarlett Johansson) seems to have been shoe-horned into the story for purposes of pleasing test audiences while Brechten’s rivalry with painter Thomas Eakins (Ricky Jay) is never fully developed. In the end, Timeless feels like a popular film that desperately wants to be more, an entertainment that tries too hard to justify itself as Art.
* * *
from Northwest Weekly
87 min. | Rated R
TeamKilling Exercise, the latest rush job from Schlockmaster-General Shoj Kalesh, proves that even the shittiest slasher movies need a hook. Unfortunately, it’s all hook. No line, no sinker. The hook? During an office retreat the staff of a small tech company are stalked by a deranged killer. Not a bad idea as slashers go. Most people think company retreats suck and almost everyone fantasizes about killing a co-worker or two, so there’s loads of potential for campy fun. Yet somehow Kalesh and his small army of six credited screenwriters can’t deliver anything beyond the “strong horror violence, and language” promised by the MPAA rating.
Beginning with a nearly lethal rope course accident, Kalesh wastes no time maiming and/or killing one employee after another in a series of (you guessed it) team-building exercises gone horribly wrong. Why the entire retreat isn’t canceled after the first serious injury is anyone’s guess but eventually plucky receptionist Amber Bright (played with ample breasts by newcomer Chloe Bream) begins to suspect that her suffocated, impaled, and decapitated “team-mates” might be the victims of more than a series of freak accidents. As usual, Kalesh relies on a cast of scantily clad unknowns to do the heavy lifting while B-List celebrities and character actors receive top billing for brief (read: cheap) cameo roles. “Performance” is too generous a word for Kirstie Alley’s turn as a shrill office manager. “Behavior” is probably closer to the mark. And she behaves badly. The always reliable JK Simmons—who must have owed someone a favor—deserves an Oscar nomination for keeping a straight face while playing an accountant with lines like “something doesn’t add up.” The less said about Heidi Montag’s appearance, the better (oops, said too much).
Again and again, TeamKilling Exercise shows it is content to turn a first-weekend profit based on its premise and poster art. But whenever it looks like Kalesh might actually make the most of that premise he simply delivers another improbable and poorly lit death scene capped with a pun. It might have helped if Kalesh had been forced to endure a weekend of egg tosses, three-legged races, and trust falls. Then he would have some idea of what true horror should look like. At the very least he would have suffered a little.
— Mike Garry
* * *
from Metropolite Magazine
“The Chill” and “Dancing About Architecture”
BY NEIL NAMBLER
Throughout their filmmaking career, Joel and Ethan Coen have returned time and again to noir. Their first film, “Blood Simple,” takes its title from Dashiell Hammett’s novel “Red Harvest” while “Miller’s Crossing,” their third film, is a masterful pastiche of elements from Hammett’s “The Glass Key.” James M Cain’s fingerprints are all over “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” The two Coen brothers’ films that have fared best on Oscar night —“Fargo” (Best Actress and Best Screenplay) and “No Country for Old Men” (Best Picture and Best Director)—are both textbook examples of the genre. Even the anarchic comedy of “The Big Lebowski” slyly borrows its rhythms from Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep.” Their latest film, “The Chill,” is based on a detective novel of the same name by another master of the genre: Ross Macdonald. Yet it would be a mistake to regard “The Chill” as a mere return to familiar territory.
Acclaimed by critics as the successor to Chandler and Hammett, Ross Macdonald (the nom de plume of Kenneth Millar) wrote nineteen books featuring private investigator Lew Archer over the course of five decades. Once praised as “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American” in the pages of the “The New York Times Book Review,” the Archer books introduced complex new elements to the private eye formula. Archer’s investigations typically center on the uncovering of family secrets and his methods have less to do with wisecracks and beatings than with subtle questioning and dogged integrity. While most private eyes are avenging heroes, Archer is a vague figure—less character than catalyst. Only an actor with intrinsic charisma could pull off such a role and here the Coen brothers have made an inspired choice by casting the infinitely sympathetic Chris Cooper.
When “The Chill” begins Lew Archer is on the witness stand, testifying on behalf of the defense. We are in the early 1960s in Pacific Point, California—a coastal college town south of Los Angeles. Archer’s face and close-cropped hair are as gray as his courtroom suit. His baleful basset hound eyes seem to droop under the weight of a lifetime of witnessing. Behind him looms the blindfolded figure of Lady Justice, her scales sharply tilted by cinematographer Roger Deakins’ artful framing. Welcome to the world of “The Chill” where Justice is not merely blind, it is teetering on the edge. As he leaves the courtroom, Archer finds his way blocked by an All-American young man named Alex Kinkaid (Vincent Kartheiser, playing a more likable version of Peter Campbell, his character on “Mad Men”). Kinkaid, impressed by how Archer handled himself on the witness stand, pleads with the detective to find his wife, Dolly, who disappeared after their wedding a week earlier. Every line on Archer’s face speaks of a man who is tired, who needs a vacation, but young Kinkaid is desperate and Archer responds to his boyish insistence.
This might be a good time to mention that Lew Archer has been brought to the screen before. Paul Newman played him twice. First, in the successful 1966 film “Harper” (Newman insisted the character’s name be changed in hopes of preserving a streak of hit films beginning with the letter H) and then in the less successful follow-up “The Drowning Pool” (1975). Newman played Archer as a gum-chewing smart-aleck, a sort of proto-Fletch meant to appeal to a postwar generation who associated brooding detectives with the Bogart movies their parents had watched. Happily, the Coen brothers understand that Archer is no role for a star. He is a supporting character who happens to be in every scene. Instead, they have cast every other character as a starring role. This approach not only adds depth, it creates tension. When every speaking part is played by an actor of note, anyone can be the killer. When characters played by major actors suddenly turn up dead (as quickly happens in “The Chill”) every character seems vulnerable.
“The Chill”, first published in 1964, is one of Macdonald’s best novels and also one of his darkest. No doubt that is why the Coen brothers felt drawn to it. Also playing to their strengths is a complex plot that spans twenty years, at least two dozen characters, and several murders. Few other filmmakers can handle a plot this serpentine with such assuredness. Archer makes quick work of finding Dolly (Rachel McAdams), only Dolly is not entirely there to be found. She has suffered a nervous breakdown. Ten years earlier Dolly testified in court that her father shot and killed her mother. Now her father (Tom Wilkinson) is out of prison and making accusations of his own. Dolly’s situation worsens when she becomes the chief suspect in the murder of one of her professors. Ms McAdams plays Dolly with striking rawness as an Ophelia figure unhinged by the manipulations and betrayals of her supposed protectors. Yet she is only the bleeding tip of an old, deep wound.
“It’s almost as though history is repeating itself,” Alex Kinkaid observes early in the film and as Archer follows clues to Nevada and Illinois, he does also seem to be moving backwards in time. As the investigation gains momentum it collects people. Dr Godwin (John Mahoney), a psychiatrist who treated Dolly as a child, becomes her most powerful advocate but his motives may not be as noble as they appear. Helen Haggerty, a college counselor whose playful banter with Archer masks a desperate agenda, is played with a perfect blend of intellect and nervous energy by Laura Linney. Wilkinson’s skillfully ambiguous portrayal of Dolly’s father, Chuck, unfolds with devastating subtlety while Charles Durning brings a pathetic menace to his role as a retired homicide detective haunted by memories of his own corruption. Frances McDormand and JK Simmons play a married pair of Nevada-based detectives who assist Archer. And on and on. There are many such performances; too many receive the attention they deserve here.
At the heart of “The Chill” is Matt Damon as Roy Bradshaw, dean of the local college. Again and again the trail of clues lead Archer back to the cantilevered house on the hill where Roy Bradshaw lives with his mother. This is Mr Damon’s most nuanced performance since “The Talented Mr Ripley.” Watching Bradshaw squirm as Archer steadily peels back the layers of his secret life is excruciating, especially when it begins to look like his lies have nothing to do with the case. Bradshaw’s elderly mother, a hobbled old woman who is simultaneously protective of her son and resentful of his deceptions, is Susan Sarandon’s meatiest part in years. Few major actresses over fifty are willing to play their age. Ms Sarandon is pushing sixty-five and in “The Chill” she plays older than her age and does so beautifully. Her performance is that rarest of gems in today’s pop culture malaise: pure acting without ego.
When a film has this much star-power it can easily become distracting. Somehow the Coen brothers have not only sidestepped this problem, they have made it a strength. There are no minor characters “The Chill.” Everyone matters. Each scene plays like a short film dedicated to a given character or relationship. Yet, miraculously, the entire film hangs together. What finally distinguishes “The Chill” from the Coen brother’s other noir efforts is that style takes a back seat to substance. If the Coen brothers have an Achilles’ heel it is their tendency to wink at the audience from behind the trappings of genre. “The Chill” is so natural, its surprises so genuine, that one can imagine this being what that first mystery, written so long ago, must have been like: not a contraption built to fulfill the requirements of a genre or the expectation of an audience but a story that captured our sense of wonder at the unveiling of the secrets we keep from one another and from ourselves. The result is a haunting film, a meditation on on the torments of those who hide in plain sight and the burden borne by victims, witnesses, and perpetrators alike when crimes are suppressed. There are no easy answers in the universe of “The Chill” and, when it comes time for the story’s final twist, its implications resonate backwards through the film with the pathos of a Greek tragedy.
Beginning its limited two-week run this Friday at the Film Forum, choreographer Nina Moncrieff’s documentary “Dancing About Architecture” (her first foray into film) takes its title from the variously attributed bon mot “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” (Recently, credit for this witticism was definitively given to comedian Martin Mull). What everyone else saw as a wry critique of music reviews Ms Moncrieff has taken as a personal challenge. Her response was last year’s dance program of the same name at the Joyce SoHo, a collection of seven works devoted to capturing the energy and spirit of architecture in dance. All seven pieces are included in the their entirety, framed only by a brief title card and a photograph of the architecture to be represented. Though the results are uneven—a tunic-infested contemporary dance interpretation of the Parthenon is especially tedious—at least two of the dance pieces are genuinely inspired. The imagining of the Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao as a contemporary paso doble by Fernando Cercas and Natalya Estrofsky is as evocative as its performers are flexible, their lithe bodies contorting into countless protruding, arcing shapes while maintaining a steady, emphatic rhythm. The film’s finale, a tribute to the architecture of New York City, may initially seem like something of a cheat. The curtain rises to reveal a backdrop of the famous skyline so detailed it seems to undermine the entire project. Only when the buildings spring to life and begin a riotous, orgiastic dance does the viewer realize that they have been looking not at a backdrop but at the cleverly painted bodies of seven dancers. While one might wish Ms Moncrieff had cut one or two of the pieces in favor of interviews or rehearsal footage, at its best “Dancing About Architecture” calls to mind another famous quotation about the sheltering Art, this time from Goethe: “architecture is frozen music.”