Varda, Stiller and more return to the big screen

Illustration by Raya Deussen

By Brendan Nagle

Faces Places

Agnés Varda describes herself as “a little old lady, pleasantly plump”; she is all of those things, but she is also much, much more. The 88 year old started as a photographer, but later took up filmmaking. Her second feature film, “Cléo From 5 to 7,” a defining film of the French New Wave, catapulted her to international fame. Since then she worked on performance art and installation pieces, while still continuing to experiment with film. In recent years her filmmaking interests have turned to the documentary form. She made “The Gleaners and I” in 2000 and then “The Beaches of Agnes” in 2008. Her latest film, “Faces Places,” continues her work as a documentarian. In it she and prominent street artist JR travel the French countryside in a large truck that doubles as a printer for JR’s massive photographs. They stop in various villages, taking pictures of people they meet and plastering the photos onto buildings. Like Varda’s previous two films, it is a work of humanism. Varda and JR find profundity in unlikely places: goat farms, loading docks, factories. The film’s most poignant moments, though, are when we see Varda grappling with her loss of vision. It’s ironic and sad that a woman whose legacy is defined by her work with visuals is losing her ability to see. But for Varda there is only one appropriate response: to document the profound power of faces and places and to bask in the beauty of photography while she still can. It brings to mind the words of Werner Herzog, who said that if the world was ending tomorrow he would start filming a movie. “Faces Places” is a beautiful, celebratory work.


Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

The story of Dr. William Marston, creator of the Wonder Woman comic book series, is so improbable that one couldn’t make it up. Marston and his wife Elizabeth, prominent psychologists at Harvard in the 1920s, are famous for inventing the lie detector. They later entered into a polyamorous relationship with a young student, Olive Byrne, daughter of radical feminist Ethel Byrne. To many, this relationship is still seen as taboo, so you can only imagine the reaction nearly a century ago. Ostracized by the psychology community, William Marston, played with warmth by Luke Evans, is forced to take up a new career: comic book writing. Inspired in part by the traits of his two lovers – the fiery Elizabeth (stunningly acted by Rebecca Hall) and the pure-hearted Olive (Bella Heathcote) – he creates the amazonian queen Wonder Woman. The comics, though successful, are plagued by controversy surrounding its depictions of BDSM and homosexual allusions. Angela Robinson directs with an elegant touch, treating her characters and the radical (by Hollywood standards) material with tenderness. The film is erotic, but it doesn’t overindulge like “Fifty Shades of Grey” does. Its eroticism is more restrained, as the characters are the real focus. It is celebratory rather than exploitative. The weakest element of the film is its framing structure. The story is told via a series of flashbacks as William is being interrogated by the director of the Child Study Association. It’s an unnecessary and somewhat distracting device. As a biopic the film is largely predictable, hitting all of the dramatic turning points expected of it, but as a romance it’s radical, exploring a lifestyle that rarely sees the big screen. For anyone in need of a refreshingly different type of romance, “Professor Marston” is worth a trip to the theater.


Brad’s Status

This film continues to confound me. It’s hard not to feel like “Brad’s Status” is a film that simply doesn’t deserve to exist in 2017. Ben Stiller plays Brad, an arrogant and insecure father suffering a midlife crisis. As he and his genius son (Austin Abrams) travel to the East Coast to visit colleges, Brad is brought back to his days as a student at Tufts University. While all of his college friends are now impossibly successful, Brad has spent his time toiling away at non-profits and feels like a failure. Being back on a college campus makes him long desperately for the idealism of his youth. Many are likely to be turned off immediately. If the thought of a movie about an upper class white guy whining about his inadequacy because he doesn’t have a private jet sounds repulsive, I wouldn’t blame you. If you can get past all of that, however, “Brad’s Status” is actually a well-made film that at times flirts with real profundity. Stiller manages to make Brad, insufferable as he may be, into a sympathetic character. His insecurities, though undeniably privileged, are, in some ways, universal. “It’s stupid to compare lives,” he says in his opening monologue, “but when I do, I feel somehow I’ve failed.” Mike White’s direction (you may remember him as Ned Schneebly in “School Of Rock”) keeps the film afloat. Though “Brad’s Status” seems like the kind of work that progressive filmmakers are rebelling against, White’s ever-shaking camera explores the frailty of the white male ego, and the blindness of Gen X liberals. It won’t resonate with everyone, and it’s certainly not a must-see, but “Brad’s Status” may have more going on than its premise would suggest.

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