Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Two favorite actors: Sometimes Always Never and The Audition

Right now, the virtual screening room at The Coolidge has a couple of features that could pretty easily get lost among some more high-profile offerings, though they each feature cast members I'm always glad to see turn up, though Nina Hoss is more likely to be at the center of a good film than Bill Nighy, who as I mention in the review of Sometimes Always Never is a good match for a certain sort of scene-stealing character, though that sort of character doesn't necessarily work quite so well stretched out to appearing in nearly every scene.

It's a double-feature that works better than I necessarily expected, too - both have contentious relationships between parents and children, bits of jealousy, scenes highlighting craftsmanship. Not exactly an obvious pairing, but the sort that feels good afterward because the ideas from both cross-pollinate rather nicely.

Sometimes Always Never

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 June 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Coolidge Corner Theatre Virtual Screening Room, internet)

I love Bill Nighy even when he's in an awful movie, in large part because his screen persona is one seemingly built to steal scenes. It leads him to the sort of part that a good actor can give nuance in those brief moments, but there sometimes seems to be a limit to how far those parts can be stretched when placed at a movie's center. Sometimes Always Never is the result of stretching that sort of appeal just far enough to not break; it could do more and hit harder, but it seldom makes a genuinely wrong step.

Nighy plays Alan Mellor, a tailor who, as the film opens, is making a road trip with son Peter (Sam Riley) to see if a body that has recently been recovered is Peter's long-missing brother Michael. It is not, but any relief Alan finds from this is short-lived, and when his evening walk lands him on Peter's doorstep, he winds up staying the night, and many more after, sharing a bunkbed with grandson Jack (Louis Healy) and obsessively playing Scrabble online, coming to believe that his regular opponent is Michael and hoping to arrange a meeting.

Nighy being who he is on-screen - lean, stylish, and on a much better coolness curve than many of his contemporaries - is baked into the part in a way that's often interesting: One looks at him and his retro-cool roadster and impeccable attire, while Peter is never nearly so fancy, and combines it with Peter's talk of how he often had to settle for off-brands growing up ("Scrobble" with cardboard tiles), and it seems to say something about their relationship and Alan's priorities, especially when tied in with stories of the Prodigal Son, or how another couple that has lost their son (Tim McInnerny & Jenny Agutter) also has something about presenting a face at odds with what's behind the scenes in their backstory. It's somewhat standard material about families or people that present a good front maybe having something else behind it, but it's interesting to pick at, especially once the filmmakers get to peel back Alan's wit and carefully nurtured self-composure and show how this is eating at him.

The trouble is that the filmmakers often seem to be doing the same thing. Director Carl Hunter and his crew often seem to be doing the same sort of thing as Alan, covering their film in a stylish veneer that has a tendency to draw attention to the surface rather than bringing out what's underneath. The film is slathered in bold primary colors, meticulous compositions, and widescreen shots where one can't exactly miss the distortions introduced by the lenses Hunter and cinematographer Richard Stoddard choose. It's striking and usually deployed to clear purpose - emphasizing the weak connection between father and son as they talk in the car by cutting between shots of them at the opposite ends of the mostly-empty screen, heightening the sense of unreality as they venture outside their home territory looking for answers, that sort of thing - but it often comes across as trying to tell the story with production design and cinematography rather than letting those things amplify what's happening.

Much of the time, the cast just doesn't have enough to do. Nighy is enjoyably cool and sells the torment behind that equanimity well when given the chance, although it's often kept too much in reserve. Sam Riley is a fine balance as the son more likely to wear the heart on his sleeve, with Alice Lowe and Louis Hely rounding the group out nicely. The trouble is that there's always a sense that they could be doing more than they are, whether it's actually following Alan down his Scrabble-related rabbit hole or focusing on how all of this has affected Peter's relationship with his son. Most of the more-comedic diversions seem wedged in and out of place.

It is, seemingly inevitably, something of a match for the stylish grandfather at the center through much of it, nice to look at and able to be amusing or affecting for a bit, but maybe not working quite so well when the scenes he steals have to all fit together. The film doesn't fall apart, but it does wind up stretched quite thin at points.

Also on EFilmCritic

Das Vorspiel (The Audition)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 June 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Coolidge Corner Theatre Virtual Screening Room, internet)

The makers of The Audition don't exactly hide what's really going on at any point, but it is nevertheless fascinating because it is not, by and large, the teacher/student story that it initially appears to be. That is there but it's just one facet of what's going on, and the one which often seems least important, giving the filmmakers a lot of room to explore the other things which tend to be going on around this type of story

The teacher is Anna Bronsky (Nina Hoss), who sees potential in a student who has applied to the conservatory where she's an instructor despite the others on the selection committee looking for someone more immediately polished. Perhaps she sees something in Alexander (Ilja Monti) and his awkwardness that reminds her of her own social anxiety; she has not played publicly or even rehearsed with others in years, despite her colleague and one-time lover Christian (Jens Albinus) trying to recruit her into a quintet. Husband Philippe (Simon Abkarian) is the one who sees her at her most uncertain, and probably the only one who clearly sees how Anna's efforts to get pre-teen son Jonas (Serafin Mishiev) to follow in her footsteps as a violinist despite his being much more interested in hockey and the like is putting a strain on their relationship.

From early on, it's clear that Anna, rather than Alexander, will be the focus of the film, and filmmaker Ina Weisse gives star Nina Hoss the sort of character who must be great fun for an actor to dig into. There are some big, chewy bits that seem built to announce that Hoss is playing someone who has some anxiety issues, but they come early and can be read as her on an unusually tricky day, instead giving the viewer the chance to see how those bits are hidden under all the moments when she is decisive and indeed sometimes brilliant. Hoss plays Anna as someone who has been aware of her issues and dealing with them for some time, and the combination of things sometimes getting away from her despite her clear agency makes Anna fascinating to watch, with both her missteps and her better moments easily relatable, even as the film invests in how particular her situation can be.

It's how Weisse and co-writer focus on those details that often makes The Audition demand one's attention more than other films might. The very first scene has a group of musicians critiquing Alexander's performance in specific ways, and while mastery of a musical instrument can often be a part of what moves things forward in a movie like this, Weisse and company put a lot of effort into making sure that the audience can tell what the difference between good and very good is, or will wince at Alexander making an error quickly enough that Anna's subsequent shift in attitude does not seem random. One feels how difficult sustained playing is even if the viewer has never played an instrument with any sort of skill whatsoever, or reads how the other members of the quintet seem to have music flowing through them while Anna pushes it out. It's specialized material that she makes accessible in impressive fashion, without appearing to also give the audience remedial lessons.

Weisse does a lot of other things that work as compact but telling storytelling as well - the way Anna always has her violin with her at all times even when she's not actually playing shows how central it is to her identity, and as the film goes on, more of Philippe's scenes take place in his workshop, a retreat one can feel even if it's not completely signaled. There's some very nice work done with the young actors, as well - Ilja Monti hits a very specific spot in terms of just how dedicated Alexander is and how his confidence and fear evolve over the course of the film, while Serafin Mishiev makes Jonas a kid who seems to be genuinely cracking under his mother's expectations and dedication to her new student.

There are times when Weisse et al go a bit further than is really good for the movie, opening a couple cans of worms in the homestretch that there isn't enough time to deal with, along with a moment or two odd enough to make one wonder where that particular detail came from. This doesn't leave the movie feeling unfinished or unbelievable, instead underscoring that these people are both complicated and, sometimes, dangerously straightforward. It's more than the familiar material it starts with, and interesting for that.

Also on EFilmCritic

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